8 maps showing how American lands are changing

Maps are great tool for locating wildlands and wilderness areas we might want to visit, but they can also tell us much more. Maps can shed light on much larger stories about our changing country and our disappearing wilderness.

In the past century, American has undergone rapid change - from technology to population growth to energy development- and these changes of modernity are also transforming American lands. Some of these changes become quite visible when a map is the storytelling device. We've worked to bring some of those to light in this collection of maps that demonstrate how truly fragile our wildlands are:

1. Proliferating pavement

It's hard to imagine America without its gorgeous mountains and graceful rivers but that's exactly what is shown in this map of only roads created by Boston-based design firm Fathom. The four million miles of roads (shown in black) that cover the U.S. have a powerful impact on us, from pollution runoff to floods to heat islands. When near wildlands, they also create barriers for migrating wildlife and interrupt other ecological processes. That's why we support conserving roadless areas.

credit: Fathom

2. Increased light pollution

Of course at night these roads have to be lit, along with all of our buildings and homes. This generates light pollution that keeps us from being able to see dark skies. Thankfully, wildlands also protect diminishing dark skies. Often far from bright cities, these are places where we can see gorgeous stars and even galaxiesThis image of the United States at night was created from satellite data, providing a real picture of how bright these city lights are. Get our tips for taking your own photos of night skies here.

credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data provided courtesy of Chris Elvidge (NOAA National Geophysical Data Center). 

3. Increased noise pollution

Cities are not only places of bright lights, but of loud noises too. This recently-created map shows levels of noise in decibels, with most cities shown in yellow as the loudest. Wild places also offer opportunities for peace and quiet - Yellowstone and Great Sand Dunes National Parks are considered among the quietest places in the country, echoing the silence that may have been present before European colonization. The NPS will use the new data used to create this map to study where noise is affecting wildlife as well.

credit: NPS


4. Changing housing density near protected lands

As populations grow, cities are expanding and rural areas are becoming more developed. This map shows that, unfortunately, this means protected lands (pictured yellow below) will likely be more affected by developing areas nearby. The other colored areas are where housing density is expected to increase by 2030, with the red ones experiencing this change across 20-40% of the area.

credit: USDA


5. Increased threat to at-risk species on unprotected lands due to housing

Naturally, as more houses are built, wildlife that also consider these places home are at increased risk. This map shows the threat posed to at-risk species habitat, with red highlighting areas in which increased housing density is likely to affect 90% of the at-risk species living there. Especially because the natural areas that are attractive to people for housing are also the places most favored by native wildlife, housing development has already contributed to the decline of about 35% of threatened, endangered, and proposed species in the U.S. The increased predation and mortality, spread of invasive species, loss of pollinators or prey, as well as decreased ability to move and disperse, find food, and reproduce affects native plants and animals living on public lands nearby as well.

credit: USDA


6. Increased threat to at-risk species on unprotected lands due to wildfire

Another major threat posed to at-risk species living on unprotected lands is wildfire. Areas in which wildfires on unprotected lands are most likely to affect at-risk species habitats are shown in red below. Not only is the impact of wildfires often worsened by the addition of houses to the landscape, but an increase in frequency and severity of wildfires in recent years has been attributed to rising temperatures that lead to drier conditions - one of the worst ways climate change is harming wildlands.

credit: USDA


7. Drier lands due to climate change

Higher temperatures are also leading to increased droughts. The maps below of drought intensity in December 2004 and December 2014 show that drought is not only becoming more widespread across the U.S. but in the West where it is more typical it is becoming far more severe - California is entering its fourth year of drought with 98% of the state impacted. A scientific study released earlier this month showed that climate change has increased its likelihood, leaving little hope that these conditions will subside anytime soon.











credit: USDA


8. Rising sea levels due to climate change

Climate change is also leading to arctic melting and a subsequent rise in sea levels. This map designed by Jeffrey Linn is based upon the U.S. Geological Survey's sea rise estimates in the event that all of the world's glaciers melt, which thankfully is not predicted to happen for at least 1,000 years. Because of its recent designation, San Gabriel Mountains National Monument will hopefully still be wild in 1,000 years but if this event comes to pass this map shows that it may also be more of a beachfront destination.

credit: Jeffrey Linn


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