22 Most Amazing Maps Changing How We See the World

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Photo via Andrew Turner via Flickr CC

Maps. They make everything a little bit better. They have the capacity to turn confusing, nebulous, and unimaginable information into visual masterpieces of understanding. And when we can see the information, we're more likely to do something useful with it. The year 2009 brought us some incredible maps, illustrating things like how the earth's carbon cycle works which then unveiled new understanding about how carbon emissions from one country affect other parts of the planet; or how wilderness is disappearing, which pointed out some surprising conclusions about how little space humans actually inhabit while still impacting massive amounts of the globe. Here, we've gathered up some of the most impressive maps we saw over the year, from interactive maps, to those that please the eye, to those that tried to make a difference in the world. Enjoy!

Interesting Interactive Maps

How Climate Change Impacts The World
Climate change can be a tough concept to grasp. Its impacts go well beyond, "Gee, is today a degree hotter than yesterday?" Rather, we have to contend with a domino-meets-spider-web scenario. Rising sea levels, melting glaciers, more droughts, more rainfall, more storms, and on and on. But, enter the interactive map and we can finally start to see - literally see - what climate change is doing across the globe.

Water Stressed Areas Over Next 60 Years
Ever want to know how population growth, industrialization and global warming are all impacting the growing water crisis? BBC News has created this fantastic map that shows you just how much less water will be available per person in the coming years across the planet, making the importance of conservation and changed habits very apparent.

Tour a Renewable Energy Site in Denmark
If you've ever wanted to tour a renewable energy site, here is your chance with the EnergyMap. It details projects in continental Europe (mostly Denmark), the UK, Turkey and China, showing renewable energy, energy efficiency, fossil fuel projects, climate adaptation projects, and a few other project areas are all covered. It's an excellent research tool.

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Interactive Power Grid Map
Maps are the best way to visualize what is happening, where, and at what levels, and being able to visualize power generation and power consumption is a key to improving our use. Google Earth Maps have been a big help in this, of course. NPR's interactive map showing who is using what energy supplies and where is a cool tool because it makes what often feels like distant information very easy to access and understand.

US Wind, Solar & Biomass Power Potential Map
The National Resources Defense Council and the Audubon Society released a Google Earth layer that mapped out what areas in the western United States are and should be off-limits to protect certain ecosystems and wildlife habitat. Here, the NRDC has a companion map (not for Google Earth) that shows wind farms, advanced biofuel facilities and biodigester projects either existing or planned, across the whole country, as well as color coding the energy potential for each technology.

Interactive Carbon Capture & Storage Maps
Undoubtedly you've heard all the talk about clean coal technologies, with the prime technology being capturing and storing the carbon emissions from that coal. All opinion about the oxymoron that is "clean coal" aside, here is a map that shows who is working on CCS technologies and where, thanks to Bellona.

City of Paris Maps Electric Vehicle Charging Stations
One of the main concerns that people have when you talk to them about electric cars and trucks is "where to charge your batteries when you're not at home?". The city of Paris, France, is helping answer that question by creating a website with a map of the EV charging stations. Since it's online, it's easily accessible, and it can be updated in real-time.

Interactive Map Shows How Climate Change Is Affecting Your Area
Climate change has already, and often very evidently, begun to affect ecosystems and weather patterns around the globe. Knowing exactly what sort of impact climate change is having on the region which you live is a good way to bring the concept home. This handy online map at Climate Hot Map, you can see for yourself what's going on right in your own town and surrounding ecosystem. You simply click on regions of the map, and the program will display exactly what ills are taking place there.

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Interactive Map of Facilities Guilty of Eco-Crimes
The EPA has released a new interactive map that lays out the locations of facilities across the US that have violated environmental laws, been caught by the EPA, and subjected to enforcement actions. As facilities are caught for polluting air, water and land, the information about the actions taken against them by the EPA, the monies gathered from them as law suits are settled, and other criminal enforcement actions are recorded and the information made available via plots on the map. We can hop on this map to check out what is going on nearby, and have access to information about the polluters in our local areas.

Interactive Map of Climate Emissions & Pledges
The Associated Press has put out an interesting interactive map of climate change data, including the emission trends from countries in the northern hemisphere, graphs of the various indicators of global warming such as glacier melts and global temperatures, and the pledges that different countries have made when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It's in this map that the United States really stands out...but not in a good way.

Environmental Maps That Astound the Eye

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Most Incredible Subway Maps As Alex Pasternack writes, "The most familiar type of city map also happens to be one of the most geographically inaccurate. Perhaps it is that delectable paradox that makes the common subway map so enjoyable to study. Or maybe it's the subway map's perplexing and sometimes dysfunctional marriage of form and function, its combination of color and shape to move us around our cities, or simply its sheer beauty as an icon of our urban environment." The London Underground map, or Tube Map, shown here is a prime example.

Google Earth Layer Maps US Carbon Emissions
Google Earth can do some amazing thing with layers. This layer is from Purdue University and it maps the US's carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. The data is from 2002, so its very slightly behind the latest data you can pull from other sources. yet the visualization of the data is the key point here, since this map shows either absolute carbon emissions or per capita, at a state or county level, isolate sources such as from airlines or electricity production and so on, and show a pie chart of how the sources contribute to the total emissions footprint.

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Google Maps Earth's Carbon Cycle
Google Earth has a new application that shows carbon dioxide in different layers of the earth's atmosphere. Tyler Erickson, a geospatial researcher at the Michigan Tech Research Institute in Ann Arbor, responded to a competition call from Google asking scientists to present research results using KML, a data format used by Google Earth. This is what he came up with - an app that illustrates for us the carbon cycle, a deeper understanding of which can impact everything from mainstream understanding of carbon emissions to environmental policy.

Google Maps the World's Green House Gases
The United Nations Climate Change Secretariat (UNFCCC) has teamed up with several Googlers to make greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions something more than just numbers on a page. Taking information about emissions enerated by a number of industrialized countries, they've made emissions visual, giving scientists, decision-makers, media and the general public a new way to access and understand GHG emissions data collected since 1990.

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Map Illustrates How Wilderness Is Disappearing
This incredible map created for the World Bank World Development Report 2009 explores the question of accessibility of markets, hospitals, schools or water to populations across the world. But what it also does is show two surprising conclusions: Only 10% of the earth's land is "remote": defined as more than 48 hours travel from a large city. Conversely, over 95% of the world's population lives on only 10% of the land. Now that is the power of mapping.

300 Years of Global Climate Data on One Map
Curious about climate data world wide for as far back as records go? Thanks to an Open Data initiative launched by the UK Government this year, Geo.me Solutions has created a set of excellent tools that pool together loads of weather data and allow users to navigate through maps and see how climate has changed across the globe, with data stretching as far back as 300 years for some areas. Released this month, the demo tools utilize data from over 1,500 land stations used for climate monitoring.

Environmental Maps That Aim to Help The Planet

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Map Tries to Slow San Francisco Bay Wastewater Spills San Francisco's Bay is the site of too many sewage spills, making the public and city leaders look carefully at how wastewater is managed. QUEST has done a bit of investigating and shows us not only why wastewater spills are something to take seriously, but also what is being done to fix the situation.

High Resolution Wind Power Resource Map for the Entire Planet
3TIER, the same people who about two months ago released a really cool interactive map detailing the solar power potential of the entire Western Hemisphere, have also created this fantastic 5 kilometer resolution map of the entire planet for wind power resources. Having this information all in one easily accessed, easily navigated map is important for those hoping to harness the power of wind as a renewable energy source.

Map Helps People Follow, Understand H1N1 Swine Flu
This year, H1N1 Swine Flu made a big impact on our lives. This map was created to track the flu as it spread so that people could have a notion of how it was making its way across the planet and what impact it was having. Known and suspected cases in different colors: purple for confirmed or probable, pink for suspected. A yellow marker indicates a case that has been proven not to be the H1N1 strain of swine flu. Dots are survivors, while the lack of a dot indicates the loss of a loved one.

World Malaria Risk Map Updated and Shows Surprising Conclusion
This new World malaria map shows revisions that constitute the first update in over 40 years to malaria cases' locations and results. By looking at this map, researchers are able to draw better conclusions about what can be done to slow its spread and where help is needed most. For example, the map's preparers conclude that simple control measures such as bed nets are likely to suffice over broad areas where high exposure to malaria had been previously been assumed to call for eradication.

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California's Climate Future Illustrated in Innovative Google Map Tour
What does California's future look like when it comes to climate change, and what's being done to prevent damage? A Google Map tour lead by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger shows the risks like water shortages and wild fires, and highlights what the state is doing legislatively to focus on preventing climate change, and managing the problems we're already bound to experience due to committed warming. The video is stellar (click through to view it) but it does more than just explain what California has going on. It sets an example for providing relevant information to citizens and politicians so they can make informed choices and decisions to keep moving forward with sustainability measures. The map tour accomplishes this in an engaging way.

Open Green Map Solves Eco-Travel Issues
Knowing where the green restaurants, shops, parks and so forth are in a city is a big part of enjoying the area without making a big footprint. Open Green Map is on the game with this, launching their mapping tool that shows all the green hotspots in a city or town, and allows users to generate the content and make recommendations. By making this information so easily available, it helps to move more people towards sustainable living.