Urbanization's Aftermath

Part three of a three part series.
  Part 1: Bright Lights, Big City
  Part 2: Reaping What We Sow

  Page 2


Don’t let that tree outside your kitchen window fool you. Though it may not look like it’s doing much more than adding a little shade to your yard, it is, in fact, working to curb global warming. Through the process of photosynthesis, green plants use the energy from the sun to draw down carbon dioxide and combine it with water to create the carbohydrates plants need to grow and animals need to live. While a single tree does not have much effect on the atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, en masse plants draw down millions of tons of this potent greenhouse gas and effectively help keep the Earth cool.


City Lights and Vegetation Index


Given their positive effect on the climate, one would think that we’d want to keep the world’s plants, especially those in our backyards, intact. But each year humans destroy untold amounts of plants and fertile soil through the process of urbanization. Every time a subdivision is built, a strip mall is erected, or a road is laid, the local vegetation is uprooted and the soil is turned. Though new grass and trees may sprout afterwards, this newly grown canopy of vegetation is usually much less dense.

  Urbanization tends to the reduce vegetation density. These two images show city lights and Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) for the eastern United States. Bright areas of the lights image are more urbanized. Dark green regions of the vegetation image represent dense vegetation, while brown indicates sparse vegetation. Between the two images, urban areas correspond to regions with sparse vegetation. (Lights image data courtesy Marc Imhoff of NASA GSFC and Christopher Elvidge of NOAA NGDC. NDVI data courtesy Compton Tucker and Bob Mahoney of NASA GSFC.)

Tracking the precise impact of urbanization on vegetation, however, is no simple task. Urbanization moves relatively fast and its outlines are often hard to discern. It’s also difficult to gauge what the urbanized areas were like before the cities were erected. Recently, a group of researchers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center led by biologist and remote sensing specialist Marc Imhoff found a way to overcome these obstacles. Using satellite images of city lights at night, they constructed a map of the urbanized areas of the United States. They then retrieved vegetation density readings of present day American cities as well as simulated readings of the landscapes that pre-dated these cities. By combining the vegetation data with the urbanization maps, Imhoff was able to calculate the effects of urbanization on many types of ecosystems across the country.

next Our Changing Landscape


New Orleans at Night
The bright lights of cities make them visible from space on moonless nights. Scientists use data gathered from sensitive satellite instruments to map urban areas worldwide. (Photograph copyright Philip Greenspun)