This 2050 Earth map is an ominous glimpse of our future

A new interactive map shows the likely impact of climate change and industrial development on the Earth's surface, an ominous prediction of how vulnerable our planet will be as we head toward 2050. The new 2050 global land cover map is part of Esri's Living Atlas, tapping satellite imagery and more for a glimpse into the next three decades.

"Understanding how our world has changed can provide insight into building a more sustainable and prosperous future," Esri explains. "By analyzing historic global land cover data and observing change over time, we can make fundamental predictions and forecast growth patterns for the future."

The result is a new set of maps, the handiwork of collaboration between Clark Labs at Clark University and Esri. They used decades of satellite observation data from the European Space Agency's Climate Change Initiative to show how different sections of land are being used. By tracking changes from 2010 to 2018, they developed a vulnerability model they could bake into the Living Atlas.

The model tracks where development could convert areas of natural vegetation – or land cover – to agriculture and urban lands. Built into the algorithm are factors like distance to modified areas, infrastructure population counts, and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) data, along with bioclimate and geophysical data. The resulting maps have a 300 meter resolution.

What's particularly telling is that you can easily track the changes from how things were in 2018, to how things are predicted to be in 2050. Unsurprisingly, in many urban areas the forecast is greater sprawl, with what's currently cropland, grassland, scrub, or sparse vegetation being replaced by artificial surfacing or buildings.

Coastal areas are also particularly likely to see urban development and a greater density of artificial surfaces. That could have ominous repercussions, given recently-published studies by NASA researchers looking at the trends in coastal flooding. They found that, thanks to rising sea levels from climate change, combined with the natural "wobbly" cycle of the Moon as it orbits the Earth, seasonal flooding is far more likely in the 2030s.

Earlier, the US' NASA and the European Space Agency announced they were forming a strategic alliance on climate change. Part of that will be the free release of satellite and other data, showing some of the changes to the planet from the decades of observations by NASA and ESA projects. The hope is that, as with this new addition to the Living Atlas, improvements in access to trend data and more will help emphasize the urgency of climate change and global warming.