Climate Action

This is how much of the Earth's surface humans have modified

Solar panels are seen on the construction site of a large-scale photovoltaic system of Swiss energy provider Axpo at some 2500 metres above sea level on the dam of Lake Muttsee, Switzerland August 19, 2021. Picture taken with a drone, August 19, 2021

Human impact on the Earth’s surface can take a number of different forms. Image: REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

Nick Routley
Creative Director & Writer, Visual Capitalist
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  • 14.6% of the world's land area has been modified by humans, according to research.
  • This is equivalent to 18.5 million km², an area greater than Russia.
  • Human impact on the Earth’s surface can take a number of different forms, including cities and towns, to natural systems modification.
  • Egypt, Rotterdam and West Virginia show how different levels and types of modification have affected the land area.
a chart showing human impact on the eart's surfce
14.6% of the world's land area has been modified by humans. Image: Visual Capitalist

With human population on Earth approaching 8 billion (we’ll likely hit that milestone in 2023), our impact on the planet is becoming harder to ignore with each passing year.

Our cities, infrastructure, agriculture, and pollution are all forms of stress we place on the natural world. This map, by David M. Theobald et al., shows just how much of the planet we’ve now modified. The researchers estimate that 14.6% or 18.5 million km² of land area has been modified – an area greater than Russia.

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Defining human impact

Human impact on the Earth’s surface can take a number of different forms, and researchers took a nuanced approach to classifying the “modifications” we’ve made. In the end, 10 main stressors were used to create this map:

Built-Up Areas: All of our cities and towns

Agriculture: Areas devoted to crops and pastures

Energy and extractive resources: Primarily locations where oil and gas are extracted

Mines and quarries: Other ground-based natural resource extraction, excluding oil and gas

Power plants: Areas where energy is produced – both renewable and non-renewable

Transportation and service corridors: Primarily roads and railways

Logging: This measures commodity-based forest loss (excludes factors like wildfire and urbanization)

Human intrusion: Typically areas adjacent to population centers and roads that humans access

Natural systems modification: Primarily modifications to water flow, including reservoir creation

Pollution: Phenomenon such as acid rain and fog caused by air pollution

The classification descriptions above are simplified. See the methodology for full descriptions and calculations.

A closer look at human impact on the Earth’s surface

To help better understand the level of impact humans can have on the planet, we’ll take a closer look three regions, and see how the situation on the ground relates to these maps.

Land use contrasts: Egypt

Almost all of Egypt’s population lives along the Nile and its delta, making it an interesting place to examine land use and human impact.

a map showing the human impact on Egypt's landscape
Almost all of Egypt’s population lives along the Nile and its delta. Image: Visual Capitalist

The towns and high intensity agricultural land following the river stand out clearly on the human modification map, while the nearby desert shows much less impact.

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Intensive modification: Netherlands

The Netherlands has some of the heavily modified landscapes on Earth, so the way it looks on this map will come as no surprise.

a map showing the human development of Rotterdam
The Netherlands has some of the heavily modified landscapes on Earth. Image: Visual Capitalist

The area shown above, Rotterdam’s distinctive port and surround area, renders almost entirely in colors at the top of the human modification scale.

Resource extraction: West Virginia

It isn’t just cities and towns that show up clearly on this map, it’s also the areas we extract our raw materials from as well. This mountainous region of West Virginia, in the United States, offers a very clear visual example.

a chat showing the human impact of west virginia
This mountainous region of West Virginia, in the United States, offers a very clear visual example of how we extra metals. Image: Visual Capitalist

The mountaintop removal method of mining—which involves blasting mountains in order to retrieve seams of bituminous coal—is common in this region, and mine sites show up clearly in the map.

You can explore the interactive version of this map yourself to view any area on the globe. What surprises you about these patterns of human impact?

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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