Atlas of a Changing Environment

Allison Palser is PAI’s 2008 summer communications/website intern.

This afternoon, I stopped by the Wilson Center to attend the launch of UNEP’s Africa: Atlas of a Changing
. Due to a lengthy wait for the metro train, I arrived a few
minutes late, and was immediately disappointed that I had missed lunch and had
to sit in the overflow room. Crud. I knew I would have a lot of important
questions, and I just love the humiliation of standing up in a crowded,
climate-controlled room with a microphone. Consider it my fifteen seconds of
fame. Little did I know that my spot in overflow would provide me with an
interesting opportunity later on.

UNEP’s Atlas is the first in an
expanding project that measures visual changes in the environment as related
to climate change, land degradation, deforestation, and water scarcity. The
atlas used satellite imagery from the USGS
LandSAT as well as from the Group on Earth Observations (GEO)
group to place before and after shots of environmental changes in the hands of
policymakers. For the first time, agents of government in Africa and around
the world can see the process of environmental change, and, with that
information, do something about it.

In addition to the creation of the atlas, which is available in print as well
as online (for
free!), UNEP has created capacity-building
training workshops for policymakers, analysts, and government personnel in
Africa. These workshops will allow laymen to interpret the graphics of the
atlas, rather than relying on extraneous sources for advice.

The atlas, as a tool for policy-making, financing, and advocacy of
environmental issues could have a major impact on the interdependent
issues of Population, Health, and Environment.
environmental policies change for the better, so too may policies
change on reproductive health, as well as education for women and
children. This new map
of current change may be the catalyst for future change.

I mentioned that it was great coming in late. Why? Well, if you’re familiar
with the Wilson Center, you’ll know that at a major event, it’s difficult to
get a word in edgewise. However, the overflow room was asked to write their
questions down on a piece of paper and submit them. My questions were asked
first, handed to the panel’s executive director before anyone else was asked.

Question 1: Will atlases be created for other regions (South America, East Asia, etc)?
Answer: Yes. There are actually atlases already in the works for individual African countries (Kenya’s atlas will begin production in four months), and there will be more regional atlases or continental atlases in the future.

Question 2: Is there potential for transcontinental atlases that track the implications of environmental changes that begin in one region and affect other regions, such as the Saharan dust storms that drift out to sea from the
coast of West Africa?
Answer: The current atlas (Africa) hands information on trans-boundary environmental changes. There is, based on what has already been done, a definite potential for the creation of transcontinental atlases that will track changes like the movement of greenhouse gases through wind currents
or the movement of dust from the Sahara to the west.

I didn’t have to stand in a cold room, my voice trembling over a microphone,
and I was still answered. Perhaps I should come late more often.

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