New Mapping Tool Shows Impacts of Development Across the Globe

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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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