New Tool Shows Exactly How Drastically Humans Have Affected the Planet

These maps combine information from some of the world's largest geographic surveys with historical and sociopolitical data to give context for the massive changes humanity has made to Earth.
Shelby Rogers

Humans continue to have a massive, profound impact on the surface of this planet and on the lives of creatures who live alongside them. From global warming to deforestation to urbanization to coral bleaching -- humans can cause substantial changes to an area over time. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have recently created a tool that shows users exactly how much change humans have brought on in powerful images. 

The tool is called, and it went live online on April 22 -- a celebration and a discussion piece for Earth Day. EarthTime allows users to focus on a particular area of the globe and then see how humans have affected certain elements of the area. For example, users can discover just how much pollution concentrations have changed in the New York City area over the last few decades. They can also see just how much coastline rising sea levels have covered in coastal areas throughout the world. 

The timelapses even go forward given current trends and give users a peak into the future. Those futures, unfortunately, are often bleaker than humans would care to admit. However, the EarthTime team said the visuals help play an important role in telling a story with the data researchers have gathered for decades. 

"EarthTime is a means to tell stories," said Illah Nourbakhsh, a CMU professor of robotics whose lab has spent more than a decade developing EarthTime's technology. "The impact of humanity can be seen globally and in individual communities — and at every scale in between.

Nourbakhsh developed the EarthTime platform alongside other researchers from the CMU CREATE Lab, including commercialization specialist Randy Sargent. The CREATE Lab team then collaborated with the World Economic Forum. Thanks to that collaboration, EarthTime has an extensive database that includes experts and research from more than 300 free open-source geospatial data sets. 

This much information about the global state of the world has yet to be consolidated into one location and on one project, the CMU team noted. The EarthTime project has been around since 2015. However, it's finally avaliable to the public after recent contributions. 


EarthTime goes beyond the physical alterations to the Earth's facade. It also includes the sociopolitical and economic changes that either spurred or accompanied the natural changes. For example, it could connect deforestation trends with an increased need for farm land in an area or expanding populations. It gives users a more substantial context for what the map shows, and the CMU researchers hope that context can put the changes into even more perspective for EarthTime users. 

"You really can't understand climate change, migration or major social and political trends without examining their connections across time, across space and between each other," added Nourbakhsh, who serves as a World Economic Forum Global Steward. "EarthTime enables you to do that."

The EarthTime project is currently sponsored by several companies and organizations also looking to improve the state of the world. These companies include JP Morgan Chase, S&P Global, and The Heinz Endowments, among others.

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