New Mapping Tool Shows Impacts of Development Across the Globe

By John Roach
for National Geographic News
June 19, 2001
Step back and take in the big picture. Thousands of scientific studies
assess the environmental impacts of a single road, or oil well, or
mountain lodge, but the conclusions of these studies are generally
disconnected. That is beginning to change.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has developed a global mapping technique, called GLOBIO, that combines these myriad conclusions into a comprehensive picture of the cumulative toll that infrastructure development is having on the planet.

"It's visible. You can even see it from space," said Christian Nellemann, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Nature Research in Norway and the project manager of GLOBIO. "Follow the roads and you will also follow the deforestation, cities, dams, and all the other impacts that follow."

GLOBIO consolidates the findings of hundreds of scientific studies, most of them published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Scientists from a number of institutions jointly analyze the information and synthesize the broader results, which are then sent out for review.

By analyzing the effects of infrastructure development in the past, researchers can build scenarios of the likely impacts of future development. "UNEP plans to use such scenarios to help predict the consequences of development decisions made today," said Tim Foresman, the director of UNEP's Environmental Information, Assessment, and Early Warning Program.

"GLOBIO is not science fiction or doomsday predictions," Nellemann said. "It allows us to chronicle with far greater accuracy land and water degradation processes that have resulted from the human expansions of the last 50 years."

"We hope GLOBIO will open the eyes of the public and the state leaders around the world, alerting them to the consequences of the choices that we are making today," he said.

Arctic Assessment

UNEP released the first example of GLOBIO's power as a tool a week ago in a report on the Arctic presented at a meeting of environment ministers in Rovaniemi, Finland. They represented eight nations involved in an initiative called the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, which was launched a decade ago.

The GLOBIO-based report details the impact that infrastructure development has had on the Arctic. It also offers three scenarios that scientists project for the region in the years ahead at various rates of infrastructure growth.

Nellemann said the pilot study on the Arctic drew from more than 200 scientific studies representing the findings of more than 400 international scientists with detailed knowledge of the effects of infrastructure growth. Nearly a dozen institutions coordinated the results, and the report was sent out for review by scientists who included several of the world's most prominent biodiversity experts.

Infrastructure development in the Arctic emerges primarily from industrial growth, say the GLOBIO researchers. With that comes secondary—and generally uncontrolled—development in the form of increased human immigration and settlement.

The environmental impacts of this human expansion and infrastructure development include deforestation, overgrazing, water pollution, land degradation, and fragmented habitats.

According to the report, 15 percent to 20 percent of the Arctic's land area has been affected by tourism and oil, gas, and mineral extraction. But the GLOBIO data indicate that the impacts of human activity in the region will grow substantially in the next few decades.

"Our findings show that even with stable rates of industrial growth, mirroring those that have occurred in the latter part of the last century, an estimated 50 percent to 80 percent of the Arctic will reach critical levels of human-induced disturbance by 2050," said Svein Tveitdal of GRID-Arendal, UNEP's key Arctic centre, which compiled the report.

He noted that various plans are underway to extend the infrastructure and development into new regions such as the Yamal Peninsula of Russia, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, and the Barents Sea region. There is also considerable interest in opening a new seaway in the region, which could significantly reduce the sailing time from Europe, Scandinavia, and Russia to the Far East.

Other Ecosystems Targeted

In the coming years, UNEP plans to use GLOBIO to assess the consequences of infrastructure development in the Himalayas, the Amazon, and Central America. Preliminary studies have already been conducted in the Amazon and the Himalayas.

"We are concerned that continued oil, gas, and mineral development in the Amazon indirectly will accelerate the deforestation process by bringing in new roads," said Nellemann.

"For the Himalayas, about 1 billion people and numerous species depend on the well functioning of the Himalayan ecosystem and its forests for their water resources," he said, adding that continued development and deforestation have serious consequences for many people and animals.

Human-built infrastructure is only one of many factors that have an impact on the environment. This both limits and strengthens GLOBIO's effectiveness as a tool, said Walter Reid, director of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a separate U.N. initiative to assess the health of the world's ecosystems.

"What GLOBIO did is a simple and straightforward approach," he said. "One of the direct and obvious consequences on biodiversity stems from infrastructure. If you have roads through a forest, then this is what happens."

A problem, though, is that GLOBIO does not take into account the effectiveness of measures to mitigate the environmental impact of infrastructure, such as the establishment of a national park. "A well-placed protected area can actually make a difference in protecting a significant fraction of biodiveristy," Reid said.

Another drawback to GLOBIO, he pointed out, is that in many key decisions related to infrastructure development, money, not the environment, is the driving factor.

Nevertheless, he said, "It is a tool that is a first example of providing decision makers with a more forward-looking assessment of the consequences of today's actions on goods and services."

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