Population Zoom

By Kevin Friedl

Project Population Change [Image] 

By 2025, the UN expects global population to jump from around 6.5 billion to somewhere between 7.5 and 8.3 billion people, and thanks to a new, highly-detailed mapping effort by The Earth Institute, Hunter College, and Population Action International, we now have a much clearer picture of where these new arrivals will live.

According to the new map, densely-populated areas like China, India, Bangladesh, and Nigerian coast are in for an even tighter squeeze: they’ll be home to the lion’s share of the expected population surge. In the US, an overall trend is harder to spot, but it looks like people will continue moving out of rural areas to the cities. And while the team’s findings echoed previous predictions of population decline in Russia, Japan, and Eastern Europe, its higher resolution revealed some surprising pockets of depopulation in otherwise growing regions like Equatorial Africa and Southeast Asia.

Another surprising result of the research was that predictions of a population explosion along the world’s coastlines seem to be largely overblown. While coastal populations are expected to increase along with those in the interior, putting 2.75 billion people within 60 miles of the water, the research team doesn’t expect any particular boom on the beach.

“There’s a perception that people are flocking to the coasts faster than the growth rate of continents as a whole,” said Stuart Gaffin, a researcher at the Earth Institute who was involved with the project. “We didn’t see any evidence of that. The growth rates seem to be about the same.”

Until recently, UN projections for each country were the only tool available for predicting how population distributions would shift over time. By breaking down the UN data into smaller pieces, researchers were able to calculate more precisely where people around the world will live in twenty years, offering the most detailed forecast of global population to date. Even better, they used their results to make a pretty cool looking map, which sure beats an Excel spreadsheet.

Besides offering a treat for cartophiles, the team’s predictions should be a big asset for scientists and organizations working to protect the environment. By focusing in on smaller areas of population change—they used nearly 9 million regions of about 8.3 square miles each—the map could help conservationists to follow the old maxim of think globally, act locally.

“What we’re doing is a lot of reactive work, reacting to government policies or someone cutting down a forest,” said Colby Loucks, a conservation scientist at the WWF.  “If you use this information to project where ecological hotspots are going to be, it allows you to use a more proactive approach.”

While the new map captures a far greater level of detail then we had before, it still doesn’t catch everyone. Indigenous populations, for example, may remain invisible, leaving them vulnerable to land seizure and exploitation.

“Many of the most vulnerable peoples, who represent a large part of human diversity, will not even register on the map because their populations are so small,” said a spokesperson for Survival International, a group dedicated to protecting the world’s indigenous populations.

Gaffin acknowledges that more work is needed to refine and test the model, which he hopes will soon offer an even more accurate glimpse of our future. As we begin to consider the impact of a billion more humans on the planet, a little preparation will go a long way.

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