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Earth Day 2012: A new look at the human footprint on Mother Earth

April 22, 2012|By Rene Lynch
  • Aerial images of the Mato Grosso state in southwest Brazil taken 14 years apart illustrate the rapid rate of deforestation taking place in the Brazilian Amazon.
Aerial images of the Mato Grosso state in southwest Brazil taken 14 years… (Credit: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS…)

You might expect Earth Day to be trumpeted with pictures of melting ice packs, disappearing glaciers and sad-looking polar bears. But that's so 47 seconds ago.

Instead, we bring you a stunning photo gallery documenting the ways in which the world's explosive population growth has aggressively changed the landscape.

The aerial photos above are just one example. They illustrate deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon between 1992 and 2006; the clearing in the Mato Grosso state in southwest Brazil is occurring at a rate of about 22,000 square kilometers per year.

The images are part of a popular photo gallery that has been retooled and enhanced at NASA's Global Climate Change website.

The gallery, headlined "State of Flux," features images mostly taken from space. To be sure, there are the expected shots of glacier retreat and climate change. But the more arresting images underscore the ways in which Earth's surface is being cleared out and carved up to accommodate a population of 7 billion people. We reached that milestone in October, and we're on track to hit 8 billion by 2025.

Among the examples of change: deforestation in Bolivia, urban growth in Saudi Arabia, and the creeping sprawl of Las Vegas.

The overhaul of the gallery ushers in several nifty new features, including sharing functions for Facebook and other social media. Photos can now be organized and sorted into a variety of categories, including extreme events such as tsunamis and wildfires. A new "map view" feature also allows viewers to put the images into geographical context.

"We tried to make it much more user-friendly," Michael Greene, the site's manager for public engagement formulation, told the Los Angeles Times.

One of the most challenging aspects of the gallery was making sure the parallel images were taken from roughly the same vantage point, and during the same time of the year. The gallery is one of the most popular features on the Webby Award-winning site.

Climate change remains controversial in some corners, but Greene said the site aims to sidestep the debate by focusing on facts and science -- and leaving the argument to others.

He encouraged people to not just view the pictures, but also to delve into the information-rich captions. "Each one tells its own little story," he said.

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