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Tomgram: Mike Davis, Has the Age of Chaos Begun?
The Other Hurricane
Has the Age of Chaos Begun?

The genesis of two category-five hurricanes (Katrina and Rita) in a row over the Gulf of Mexico is an unprecedented and troubling occurrence.   But for most tropical meteorologists the truly astonishing "storm of the decade" took place in March 2004.   Hurricane Catarina — so named because it made landfall in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina — was the first recorded south Atlantic hurricane in history.

Textbook orthodoxy had long excluded the possibility of such an event; sea temperatures, experts claimed, were too low and wind shear too powerful to allow tropical depressions to evolve into cyclones south of the Atlantic Equator.   Indeed, forecasters rubbed their eyes in disbelief as weather satellites down-linked the first images of a classical whirling disc with a well-formed eye in these forbidden latitudes.

In a series of recent meetings and publications, researchers have debated the origin and significance of Catarina.   A crucial question is this: Was Catarina simply a rare event at the outlying edge of the normal bell curve of South Atlantic weather — just as, for example, Joe DiMaggio's incredible 56-game hitting streak in 1941 represented an extreme probability in baseball (an analogy made famous by Stephen Jay Gould) — or was Catarina a "threshold" event, signaling some fundamental and abrupt change of state in the planet's climate system?

Scientific discussions of environmental change and global warming have long been haunted by the specter of nonlinearity.   Climate models, like econometric models, are easiest to build and understand when they are simple linear extrapolations of well-quantified past behavior; when causes maintain a consistent proportionality to their effects.

But all the major components of global climate — air, water, ice, and vegetation — are actually nonlinear: At certain thresholds they can switch from one state of organization to another, with catastrophic consequences for species too finely-tuned to the old norms.   Until the early 1990s, however, it was generally believed that these major climate transitions took centuries, if not millennia, to accomplish.   Now, thanks to the decoding of subtle signatures in ice cores and sea-bottom sediments, we know that global temperatures and ocean circulation can, under the right circumstances, change abruptly — in a decade or even less.

The paradigmatic example is the so-called "Younger Dryas" event, 12,800 years ago, when an ice dam collapsed, releasing an immense volume of meltwater from the shrinking Laurentian ice-sheet into the Atlantic Ocean via the instantly-created St. Lawrence River.   This "freshening" of the North Atlantic suppressed the northward conveyance of warm water by the Gulf Stream and plunged Europe back into a thousand-year ice age.

Abrupt switching mechanisms in the climate system – such as relatively small changes in ocean salinity — are augmented by causal loops that act as amplifiers.   Perhaps the most famous example is sea-ice albedo: The vast expanses of white, frozen Arctic Ocean ice reflect heat back into space, thus providing positive feedback for cooling trends; alternatively, shrinking sea-ice increases heat absorption, accelerating both its own further melting and planetary warming.

Thresholds, switches, amplifiers, chaos — contemporary geophysics assumes that earth history is inherently revolutionary.   This is why many prominent researchers — especially those who study topics like ice-sheet stability and North Atlantic circulation — have always had qualms about the consensus projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world authority on global warming.

In contrast to Bushite flat-Earthers and shills for the oil industry, their skepticism has been founded on fears that the IPCC models fail to adequately allow for catastrophic nonlinearities like the Younger Dryas.   Where other researchers model the late 21st-century climate that our children will live with upon the precedents of the Altithermal (the hottest phase of the current Holocene period, 8000 years ago) or the Eemian (the previous, even warmer interglacial episode, 120,000 years ago), growing numbers of geophysicists toy with the possibilities of runaway warming returning the earth to the torrid chaos of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM: 55 million years ago) when the extreme and rapid heating of the oceans led to massive extinctions.

Dramatic new evidence has emerged recently that we may be headed, if not back to the dread, almost inconceivable PETM, then to a much harder landing than envisioned by the IPCC.

As I flew toward Louisiana and the carnage of Katrina three weeks ago, I found myself reading the August 23rd issue of EOS, the newsletter of the American Geophysical Union.   I was pole-axed by an article entitled "Arctic System on Trajectory to New, Seasonally Ice-Free State," co-authored by 21 scientists from almost as many universities and research institutes.   Even two days later, walking among the ruins of the Lower Ninth Ward, I found myself worrying more about the EOS article than the disaster surrounding me.

The article begins with a recounting of trends familiar to any reader of the Tuesday science section of the New York Times: For almost 30 years, Arctic sea ice has been thinning and shrinking so dramatically that "a summer ice-free Arctic Ocean within a century is a real possibility."   The scientists, however, add a new observation — that this process is probably irreversible.   "Surprisingly, it is difficult to identify a single feedback mechanism within the Arctic that has the potency or speed to alter the system's present course."

An ice-free Arctic Ocean has not existed for at least one million years and the authors warn that the Earth is inexorably headed toward a "super-interglacial" state "outside the envelope of glacial-interglacial fluctuations that prevailed during recent Earth history."   They emphasize that within a century global warming will probably exceed the Eemian temperature maximum and thus obviate all the models that have made this their essential scenario.   They also suggest that the total or partial collapse of the Greenland Ice Sheet is a real possibility — an event that would definitely throw a Younger Dryas wrench into the Gulf Stream.

If they are right, then we are living on the climate equivalent of a runaway train that is picking up speed as it passes the stations marked "Altithermal" and "Eemian."   "Outside the envelope," moreover, means that we are not only leaving behind the serendipitous climatic parameters of the Holocene — the last 10,000 years of mild, warm weather that have favored the explosive growth of agriculture and urban civilization — but also those of the late Pleistocene that fostered the evolution of Homo sapiens in eastern Africa.

Other researchers undoubtedly will contest the extraordinary conclusions of the EOS article and — we must hope — suggest the existence of countervailing forces to this scenario of an Arctic albedo catastrophe.   But for the time being, at least, research on global change is pointing toward worst-case scenarios.

All of this, of course, is a perverse tribute to industrial capitalism and extractive imperialism as geological forces so formidable that they have succeeded in scarcely more than two centuries — indeed, mainly in the last fifty years — in knocking the earth off its climatic pedestal and propelling it toward the nonlinear unknown.

The demon in me wants to say: Party and make merry.   No need now to worry about Kyoto, recycling your aluminum cans, or using too much toilet paper, when, soon enough, we'll be debating how many hunter-gathers can survive in the scorching deserts of New England or the tropical forests of the Yukon.

The good parent in me, however, screams: How is it possible that we can now contemplate with scientific seriousness whether our children's children will themselves have children?   Let Exxon answer that in one of their sanctimonious ads.

Mike Davis is the author of many books including City of Quartz, Dead Cities and Other Tales, and the just published Monster at Our Door, The Global Threat of Avian Flu (The New Press) as well as the forthcoming Planet of Slums (Verso).


images above inserted by

Tropical Storm Stan brings havoc

Maria weeps near the river Coatan, that overflowed its banks due to heavy rains caused by Hurricane Stan in Tapachula, Mexico Wednesday, Oct 5, 2005.

Stan roared through the city destroying bridges, houses and leaving many homeless.

Survivors were left surveying the ruins of their communities in disbelief.

The damage done to lives and homes may take years to overcome.

Photo: AP Rodrigo Abd

Tropical Storm Stan brings havoc

Maria weeps near the river Coatan, that overflowed its banks due to heavy rains caused by Hurricane Stan in Tapachula, Mexico Wednesday, Oct 5, 2005.

Stan roared through the city destroying bridges, houses and leaving many homeless.

Survivors were left surveying the ruins of their communities in disbelief.

The damage done to lives and homes may take years to overcome.
Photo: AP Rodrigo Abd

Monday, 5 September 2005
Typhoon death toll rises in China
People try to flee through the flooded streets of Fuzhou
People try to flee through the flooded streets of Fuzhou
The storm sent flash floods surging through city streets
At least 72 people have died in eastern China because of flooding and landslides triggered by Typhoon Talim.

About 52 were killed in Anhui province, Xinhua news agency reported. It also said 15 died in the city of Wenzhou and five in Jiangxi province.

More than 20 people are missing. Hundreds of thousands have been affected by Talim, which has destroyed property estimated at $1bn (£540m).

The storm hit China on Thursday after killing two in Taiwan.

Roads, buildings, telephone exchanges, electricity and water supplies were badly damaged after Talim made landfall on Thursday.

In Anhui province alone more than 100,000 people had to leave their homes.

Up to a million people were moved from low-lying coastal flood plains in Zhejiang and Fujian provinces, Xinhua said.

NASA satellite image shows Typhoon Talim approaching Taiwan

There have also been reports of extensive damage to crops.

In one mountainous rural area, mudslides buried two buildings with 11 people still inside.

One died before rescue teams arrived, while five others were hurt.

Almost 12,000 homes were damaged in the south-eastern coastal city of Wenzhou, in Zhejiang province, Xinhua said.

Serious flooding throughout southern and eastern China this year has killed more than 1,000 and left hundreds missing, presumed dead.

Tuesday, 4 October 2005
50 people found dead in Typhoon Longwang
Residents make their way along a flooded street in Fuzhou, China's Fujian province 03 October 2005.
Residents make their way along a flooded street in Fuzhou, China's Fujian province 03 October 2005.
Areas of Fujian province have been badly flooded

The bodies of 50 people have been found in south-eastern China, where a landslide triggered by Typhoon Longwang hit a police academy, state media say.

Cadets were washed away on Sunday when the academy's barracks in the city of Fuzhou collapsed under the pressure of mud crashing down a hill.

Another 36 people remain missing in the Fujian province as some 7,000 rescuers continue their search for survivors.

The confirmed death toll is now 65, and there are fears the figure will rise.

President Hu Jintao ordered that no effort be spared to search for survivors.

Typhoon Longwang, or Dragon King, made landfall near Jinjiang on Sunday, with winds of up to 120km/h (73 mph).

It destroyed 5,400 homes and 12,500 ha (31,000 acres) of crops in the province, Xinhua said.

Economic damage has been estimated by the China Daily newspaper as about $150m (£85m), with the tourism sector the worst affected.

This would normally have been one of the busiest times of the year for Fujian's tourist industry, because of the National Day holiday.

By Tuesday, the winds had mostly died down, although rain was continuing to fall in some parts of Fujian, reports said.

But the bad weather is not over yet.

The authorities in the central province of Hubei have evacuated about 24,000 people along the banks of a tributary of the Yangtze River, ahead of expected heavy rain, Xinhua news agency said.

"The flood is still under control though it seems still severe," Cai Qihua, deputy director of the Yangtze flood control headquarters, is quoted as saying.

The typhoon season has brought three powerful storms to the region in recent weeks, killing more than 150 people.

Thursday, 28 July 2005
Wading all night through Mumbai
Mumbai floods

Anjali Krishnan, a Mumbai-based advertising professional, describes her night-long trek home through neck-deep water in the flooded city.

I had driven out of home for a business meeting in Mumbai on an overcast rainy afternoon on Tuesday.

Mumbaites are used to torrid monsoon rains that routinely flood its roads and bring all public transport to a halt.

So it was no big deal that I was venturing out for work on a grey, rainy afternoon like most of the people in this go-go city.

I was on the way to Bandra when I joined a queue of cars, and instantly realised that the rain had thrown the traffic out of gear.

No big deal, I thought.   It happens every monsoon.

Then I got struck in the gridlock on SV Road near the Milind Subway.
Aradio jockey was even holding out the promise of rain-soaked stranded Mumbaites meeting potential partners during the long, rainy night

It was half past four in the afternoon.   I had already spent an hour and a half trying to negotiate through the traffic.

For the next 10 hours, till two in the morning on Wednesday, I was stranded in my car.

I had been a bit luckier than many of my fellow travellers — my driver had pulled the car into a lane and parked it there.

As the hours passed, I realised that I had gotten myself in a big mess — Mumbai had been inundated, everything had come to a halt, there were power outages.

Cheery radio
Nearly one-third of Mumbai is under water

The rain was slapping ferociously on the wind screen, the sky was inky black, there was darkness all around, and the city's cheery FM stations spewed romantic Bollywood rain songs on the car radio.

A radio jockey on one of the stations was even holding out the promise of rain-soaked stranded Mumbaites meeting potential partners during the long, rainy night.

I laughed and looked at my watch.   It was 2am.

I decided to begin walking home — the sheer tedium of sitting in a cramped car was taking its toll.

Waddling out to through knee deep water, I ran into some friendly firemen who forbade me to walk further.

"It could be risky madam," said one of them.

Then I saw three girls stranded in the water.   They said they had been walking for hours to get home, and were exhausted.
Stranded passengers slept the night in the buses they were travelling

I took them back with me into my car.


Suddenly a few men emerged out of the darkness and knocked on the car window.

They had seen us in the car and were offering some snacks.

We were famished and took up the offer.   They took us to half-constructed building nearby and fed us.

There was a school bus packed with children nearby — the men had dropped some snacks for the trapped students.

Around three in the morning, we decided to finally begin our long march home through the swirling, near neck-deep water.

It was still pouring, and we couldn't hold our umbrellas in the gale.
People took out boats to negotiate water logged streets

There was not a soul on the road when we held hands in the water and began walking.

One of the girls was shorter than us, so we asked her to walk along the road divider holding our hands.

The water was deep — I mean if you were 5ft tall, you would easily drown.

As we waddled into the eerie, rain-whipped night, we felt like we were floating.

Water walk

As we walked on more and more people joined the trek, holding hands.

The water was black and greasy right up to our necks and swirled fast around our waists.

There were broken bottles floating all around.   I saw two Mercedes Benz cars and a Toyota Lexus floating in the water.

We crossed dark homes, and shops and police stations.   We met a lot of friendly firemen trying to keep order, but not a single policeman on the way.
The unprecedented rains completely paralysed the city infrastructure
Ashwini Bhandary, Mumbai, India

Soon, it became a long, happy, wet trek as can only happen in Mumbai.

Our fellow-travellers, boys and girls, men and women, young and old, chanted hymns, sang songs, cracked jokes.

Some heartily sang "Just chill out, chill out" — a Bollywood ditty rocking the nation these days.

Others cracked the night's best silly jokes — whenever they would come across a car floating in the middle of the road, they would shout: "No parking! No parking please! This is a traffic offence!"

"Don't feel ashamed, madam.   Hold my hand.   Bindaas pakro (Hold me coolly)," said a young man in the queue lending a helping hand to a girl.

I saw a man sitting in a fancy car scooping out water with a small tiffin box — at this rate, he would never get out of the place.

Cars were stuck in the water

I saw another man walking with a 70-year-old father perched on his shoulders.

My rain girls sorority had now expanded to a few hundred people wading through the street.

In the middle, one of them actually met her husband wading through the night, and joined him happily.

Spirited city

I had forgotten the tiredness, the grime, the potential dangers that such flooding held.

It was a fantastic feeling, the sheer spirit of it all.

When I reached my home in Juhu around five in the morning on Wednesday, my four-year-old girl was happy to see me back.

My husband had stayed over at an office, and had been fed well.

The trek was an eye-opener, a testimony to the indomitable spirit of the city's people.

Mumbaites have stopped expecting anything from the politicians who have never cared for them.

So when the city turned into a dangerous waterworld, they turned to each other and helped them out of the crisis.

It was business as usual, in a way.

Friday, 29 July 2005,
Disease fears after India monsoon
A grieving woman in Mumbai
A grieving woman in Mumbai

Authorities in India are racing against time to prevent epidemics as the death toll from a monsoon reaches 700 in Mumbai (Bombay) and surrounding areas.

There are concerns that large amounts of debris and animal carcasses might lead to outbreaks of disease.

Late on Thursday 18 people, including several children, died in a stampede in a Mumbai suburb when rumours spread that a tsunami was about to occur.

Mumbai is slowly limping back to life after heavy rains on Tuesday.

It was reportedly the heaviest recorded in a single day in India: more than 65cm (26 inches).

'Tsunami rumour'

The stampede on Thursday night occurred in a shantytown in Nehru Nagar, in north-west Mumbai.

"People died due to false rumours," RR Patil, the deputy chief minister of Maharashtra state told the Associated Press news agency.
Mumbai flooding
This monsoon only proved that there is absolutely no drainage system in the city. What about a disaster management plan?

Seventeen people have been arrested by the police for allegedly spreading rumour, the Press Trust of India reports.

Officials say they are struggling to restore calm among the population.

Mr Patil said police vans with loudspeakers had been sent out to prevent similar incidents from taking place.

Meanwhile, a senior relief official, Krishna Vats, said the number of casualties might rise again as bodies buried by landslides are still being recovered.

"We need to restore the water supply and electricity supply and telecommunications and we need to disinfect water — so the hygiene and sanitation are some of the important considerations right now in terms of restoring the situation," he said.

Rescue operations are under way to search for survivors in the rubble of the suburbs.

In northern Mumbai, a whole shantytown was crushed by a hill that collapsed on top of it.

"It was terrible to pull out little babies from under boulders and mud," a firefighter told Associated Press.

"The very young and the old just didn't make it."

Rescuers flagged down private cars to get dozens of injured to hospital, and bodies were loaded onto trucks.


Some villages in the region surrounding Mumbai are still cut off from the rest of the country, and food parcels and water bottles are being airdropped in the affected areas.

Half of the victims so far died in Mumbai.

Those killed in the city were crushed by falling walls, trapped in cars or electrocuted — many of them on their way to work, despite a government warning not to set out the morning after the rainfall.

Many had to spend nights in offices as floodwaters raged through the streets.

The BBC's Zubair Ahmed in Mumbai says that schools and offices have reopened after being shut down for two days.

Mumbai's airports are also again open to traffic.


Record rains in Mumbai, death toll is 87

[ WEDNESDAY, JULY 27, 2005 ]
MUMBAI: The strongest rain ever recorded in India shut down the financial hub Mumbai, snapped communication lines, closed airports and marooned thousands of people, officials said on Wednesday.   At least 87 people were killed in two days of crippling rains and another 130 were feared buried in landslides, according to authorities and news reports.

Troops were deployed after the sudden rains measuring up to 94.4 centimeters in one day in suburban Bombay, the capital of Maharashtra state stranded tens of thousands of people.   ``Most places in India don't receive this kind of rainfall in a year.

This is the highest ever recorded in India's history,'' RV Sharma, director of the meteorological department in Mumbai told AP reporters.   India's previous heaviest rainfall, recorded at Cherrapunji in the northeastern Meghalaya state one of the rainiest places on Earth was 33 inches on July 12, 1910, Sharma said.

India's Home Minister Shivraj Patil, meanwhile, told Parliament on Wednesday that 633 people had died in monsoon-related incidents over the past two months.

Patil said about 5.6 million people in 16,000 villages had been hit by the heavy seasonal rains that had washed away tens of thousands of homes, along with roads, railway tracks and bridges.   More than 76,000 farm animals have perished and over 1.72 million acres of crops had been destroyed by the swirling flood waters, Patil said.

At least 78 people died in Maharashtra, the state where Bombay is the capital, in weather-related incidents amid two days of heavy downpours.   At least 25 people drowned after being trapped in cars or crushed by falling walls, Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, said on Wednesday.   It was unclear whether those 25 were included in the total for the entire state.   Early Wednesday, he ordered a two-day holiday and called the army, navy and home guards to help with relief.   All India Radio reported about 150,000 people were stranded in railway stations across Bombay.

Later on Wednesday, some train services in suburban and downtown Bombay resumed after the rain eased and floodwaters subsided.   Roads were choked all night as tens of thousands of people were stranded, and the two main highways were inundated.   "We were stuck in a bus all through the night with nothing to eat or drink.

It was impossible to get out because there was water all around,'' said government employee Yamini Patil.   The domestic and international airports in Bombay, among the busiest in the country, have been shut down since Tuesday evening, and all incoming flights were being diverted to New Delhi and other airports.

``Never before in Bombay's history has this happened,'' said Bombay's Police Commissioner AN Roy.   ``Our first priority is to rescue people stranded in floods.''   Hundreds of children spent the night in suburban schools.   Jayant Shah walked through the night from his downtown office to reach his daughter.   ``It was safer that my daughter was in school because I was stuck in my office.   I'm trying to reach her school now after walking and hopping in and out of buses,'' Shah said.

State police reported new landslides in Maharashtra's Raigad, Ratnagiri, Sindhudurg, and Kolhapur areas.   Details weren't immediately available.   Rescuers started arriving Tuesday night in Kondivali village, 150 kilometers south of Bombay, hoping to extricate nearly 100 people trapped there, said police officer S. Jadav.

At least 30 more people were feared buried in another mudslide in the nearby village of Jui.   "We have no information from them, all lines are dead,'' said another officer P Ranade.   The Press Trust of India news agency reported at least 34 people were killed in landslides in Kondivali, and another 20 elsewhere in Maharashtra.

PTI quoted Kerala state administrator Sunil Jadhav as saying eight people were killed in landslides there.   India's monsoon rains, which usually last from June through September, claim hundreds of lives every year.

Monsoon fury, stampede, claim 900 in Maharashtra

[ FRIDAY, JULY 29, 2005]
MUMBAI: Deaths from monsoon fury in Maharshtra climbed to near 900 on Friday as rescuers unearthed more bodies from landslides and residents of a Mumbai shantytown stampeded on rumours of storm-created tsunamis, police said.

"We are now confirming that the number of dead in Mumbai is 370," said AN Roy, police chief of the western commercial hub.   The figure included 18 killed in the overnight stampede, 74 bodies dug out by rescuers from a landslide that engulfed houses in Mumbai's Sakinaka area and five other flood-linked deaths, Roy said, updating earlier tolls.

At least 513 people have been killed elsewhere in Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital, according to B M Kulkarni, of the state police, taking the total number of confirmed deaths to 883.

Deputy Commissioner of Police Amitabh Gupta said more than 50 people were injured in the stampede, which followed false reports that a wall of water was about to swamp the area — variously from a burst dam or a tsunami.

"It was just a rumour and people believed it and they started running out of their homes through the narrow alleys," Gupta said.

"It was pitch dark as there was no electricity and a stampede followed.   "Police present at the scene made repeated appeals, which were ignored by the residents.   The sea is just a kilometer away and some heard there was a tsunami," he said.

Police chief Roy said 17 people were detained "for spreading tsunami rumours."   Hospital officials said 11 of the 18 dead in the stampede were women and one was a three-year-old girl.

Susheela Ayre, a resident of the suburb of Thane said there had been no drinking water since Wednesday.   In downtown regions municipality workers, Friday cleared clogged drains with the help of cranes and heavy machinery.   But low-lying suburban areas were still flooded.

The workers, fearing outbreak of an epidemic, sprayed insecticides and removed animal carcasses.   "We will soon start a cleanliness drive in the city," said Srikant Singh, additional municipal commissioner.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who Thursday toured the rain-ravaged areas in a helicopter, said he was "deeply pained by this human tragedy" and announced emergency aid totalling seven billion rupees (162 million US dollars) for the Maharashtra state government.

Transport officials said suburban trains — the lifeline of the city — were limping back to normal and inter-city lines were slowly being restored.

The city's weather bureau said Mumbai received 944.2 millimeters of rainfall in a 24-hour period ending mid-morning Wednesday, the most rainfall ever recorded in a single day in India.

Copyright © 2005 Times Internet Limited.   All rights reserved.

Katrina coverage see bottom of page


Eye on Earth: Satellite atlas shows changes

U.N. World Environment Day project focuses on cities

These satellite images in the new U.N. atlas "One Planet Many People" show how Las Vegas, Nev., has mushroomed from 1973, left, to 2000, right.

A photo atlas released by the United Nations Environment Program shows mankind's impact on the planet, from major deforestation to urban sprawl.

Mexico City mushrooms from a modest urban center in 1973 to a massive blot on the landscape in 2000, while Beijing shows a similar surge between 1978 and 2000 in satellite pictures.

Delhi sprawls explosively between 1977 and 1999, while from 1973 to 2000 the tiny desert town of Las Vegas turns into a monster conurbation of 1 million people — placing massive strain on scarce water supplies.

"The battle for sustainable development, for delivering a more environmentally stable, just and healthier world, is going to be largely won and lost in our cities", Klaus Toepfer, director of the U.N. Environment Program, said in a statement announcing the "One Planet Many People" atlas.

‘We are all part of this’

U.N. expert Kaveh Zahedi, at a news conference Friday on the eve of World Environment Day, added that "if there is one message from this atlas it is that we are all part of this. We can all make a difference.”

Page after page of the 300-page book illustrates in before-and-after pictures from space the disfigurement of the face of the planet wrought by human activities. They include rapid oil and gas development in Wyoming, forest fires across sub-Saharan Africa and the retreat of glaciers and ice in polar and mountain areas.

Mexico City from above in 1973, left, and 2000, right.

Toepfer, who chose efforts to make cities greener as this year’s theme for World Environment Day, said that “cities pull in huge amounts of resources including water, food, timber, metals and people. They export large amounts of wastes including household and industrial wastes, wastewater and the gases linked with global warming.”

“Thus their impacts stretch beyond their physical borders affecting countries, regions and the planet as a whole," he added.

Shrimp farms example

The destruction of swaths of mangroves in the Gulf of Fonseca off Honduras to make way for extensive shrimp farms shows up clearly in the pictures.

The atlas makes the point that not only has the destruction left the estuary bereft of the natural coastal defense provided by the mangroves, but the shrimp themselves have been linked to pollution and widespread damage to the area’s ecosystem.

And images of the wholesale destruction of vital rainforest around Iguazu Falls — one of South America’s most spectacular waterfalls on the borders between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay evoke comparisons with a bulldozer on a rampage.

“These illustrate some of the changes we have made to our environment,” Zahedi said. “This is a visual tool to capture people’s imaginations showing what is really happening.”

“It serves as an early warning,” he added.


The population of Nairobi, Kenya, at independence in 1963 was 350,000. Since 1979, it has seen explosive growth, and the population is now well over 3 million, making it the largest African city between Johannesburg and Cairo.

Satellite images from 1979 and the present show how the city sprawled to new suburbs and slums north, east and west. The growth of development along the edge of Nairobi National Park and out to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is also visible.


Beijing, China’s capital, has undergone tremendous growth since the start of economic reforms in 1979, and its population now numbers some 13 million.

Satellite images show Beijing mushrooming from a small central area to one that has turned towns such as Ginghe and Fengtai into suburbs. The expansion is seen to have also gobbled up the forests to the west and the rice, winter wheat and vegetable plots that once surrounded the city.

A similar, huge expansion is seen for Delhi, India’s capital. In 1975, the city had a population of 4.4 million. By 2000, it had well over 12 million inhabitants. By 2010, it is set to rise to nearly 21 million. The latest satellite images show Delhi’s growth concentrated in the suburbs of Faridabad, Ghaziabad and Gurgaon.

Sydney is Australia’s largest city with over 4 million inhabitants. Its growth is seen spreading west toward the Blue Mountains. The urbanization is leading to more and more homes being built in the bush, making them vulnerable to summer fires.

Middle East

Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, has grown from 500,000 people in 1972 to more than 2 million as a result of migration from urban areas, a decrease in death rates and high birth rates.

The growth has been made possible by Saudi Arabia’s big investments in desalination plants that extract drinking water from seawater. Seen as a small dark and red patch in 1972, the city now shows up on satellite images as a grid-like network of blue lines that are roads, with a more than tripling of the urban area.


Turkey's Ataturk Dam, built on the Euphrates River in 1990, has had a dramatic impact on the landscape. Flooded areas appear as a large, jagged mass of black. South of the dam, around the town of Harran, the area has become green as a result of irrigation schemes made possible by the dam.

Bucharest, Romania, was a compact, well-defined city in the late 1970s. During the 1980s, villages on the outskirts were dismantled to make way for expansion and centrally planned projects. Today, partly as a result of the privatization of land, people are moving out of the center into new suburbs.

Latin America

Mexico City's population grew from 9 million in 1973 to 14 million in 1986 and is now more than 20 million. Satellite images show the city sprawling in all directions, causing significant deforestation in the mountains west and south.

Similar images reflect the doubling of the population to 5 million in Santiago, Chile.

North America

In the 1950s, Las Vegas was home to just over 24,000 people. Today, it tops 1 million, not including tourists, and may double by 2015.

Satellite images reveal how the city has spread in all directions, displacing the few vegetated lands and replacing natural desert with housing and irrigated golf courses.

The Fort Lauderdale-Miami area in Florida shows the conversion of farmland into cityscapes and the spread of Miami south and west toward the Everglades National Park.

Reuters contributed to this report.

© 2005 MSNBC