UNEP’s Atlas of our Changing Environment

Ashbindu Singh, Chief Early Warning Branch, Division of Early Warning & Assessment, UNEP and Michelle L. Anthony, Software Engineer, SGT
United National Environmental Programme (UNEP)
Tools Used
Google Earth, Google Earth Pro, Google Maps

The principal mandate of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is to monitor the world environmental situation to ensure that emerging environmental problems of wide international significance receive appropriate and adequate consideration by governments.

A UNEP publication One Planet, Many People; Atlas of Our Changing Environment was released at the World Environment Day ceremonies in June, 2005 and has been updated regularly since that time with satellite images of environmental hot spots around the world. Subsequently, UNEP made the Atlas photos and text available on the Internet at www.uneplive.org.

The Atlas was highly successful in helping people identify, understand, and act on global environmental issues. Because of the slow development of such issues as water shortages, forest loss, ecosystem degradation, biodiversity loss, invasive species, and climate change, it is often very difficult for policy makers and the public to visualize and appreciate both positive and negative changes to the environment and natural resource base. By using time-sequenced photos of approximately 30 years of key hotspots on the planet (satellite imagery taken from NASA spacecraft and distributed by the US Geological Survey), visual evidence of these changes is now clear and readily available. The Atlas was an immediate success, and it has become UNEP's best selling and most profitable publication ever. It has received unprecedented worldwide coverage and has won many distinguished publication awards, indicating that visual images are able to successfully convey critical global environmental information.

Thanks to UNEP's pioneering partnership with Google, this valuable library is now available to a global audience of over 500 million people. The Google Earth website opened on September 13, 2006 on the company's 3D virtual world browser and enables users to zoom in on any location of a satellite-based, color, 3D depiction of the planet. By overlaying UNEP's Atlas photos, it enables a vast number of users to view the images illustrating some of the world's most extremely challenged areas over the 30 year time spans. And it helps them to see and appreciate the environmental and natural resource changes in a way that makes them comprehensible and meaningful, thus allowing policy makers and the public to decide on taking constructive action on the causative factors.

How they did it

Our KML layers include 120 sites around the world where we have researched and studied environmental changes. For each site (geographic point), the KML includes the story associated with the environmental change, thumbnail images of the imagery, and links to our web site. The KML also includes links to the actual imagery that can be overlaid and compared in Google Earth.

We used a combination of KML files to develop a system that allows our users to visualize the 120 sites in our Atlas and research general information about each site. We then provide a secondary level of KML files that allows the users to overlay the imagery on top of the Google Earth base layer to visualize the environmental change that we have described.

Each of the sites in the KML points to our web site, which is dynamically generated from a database. On our web site, the user can view more information about each site, view photos, and download the imagery in low- or high-resolution formats.

We developed a PHP script that interacts with a MySQL database to generate our master KML script for the main layer. We have developed an Intranet-based system that allows our scientists to develop and save our Atlas content through a web browser system into the MySQL database. We also use the Google Earth Pro software to generate the individual KML files that are associated with each site to overlay the imagery on the Google Earth base imagery.

Our initial design of the UNEP Atlas utilized Google Maps along with Google Earth and was based on our database of environmental hot spots. Our Google Maps web site is generated dynamically from our MySQL database. In the early days, we used JavaScript to generate the Google Maps system but have recently upgraded it to use KML from the database. Our PHP-MySQL system now can feed KML data directly to the Google Earth and Google Maps clients for an improved and integrated system.

There were four people directly involved but not exclusively working on the initial release for approximately five months. Since the launch, one person works part-time on the actual Google Earth work, and several others produce content for Google Earth, as well as book publication and our web site.

“The Aral Sea in 1973 (left) and 2004 (right). By 2004, the Aral Sea had dropped to one-quarter of its former size due to diversion of water for cotton cultivation.”
“These satellite pictures are a wake-up call to all of us to look at the sometimes devastating changes we are wreaking on our planet. Through spectacular imagery, Google Earth and UNEP offer a new way of visualizing the dangers facing our planet today. By tapping into the global Google community, we are able to reach out to millions of people who can mobilize and make a difference.”

– Achim Steiner, Executive Director, UNEP


Google Earth released UNEP Atlas of Our Changing Environment on September 13, 2006 as part of their "Featured Content", and the Atlas has already become one of the most popular Google Earth features. On April 10, 2007 Google Earth released the new UNEP materials for 120 environmental hotspots, creating a new layer group called "Global Awareness" to help draw world attention to the environmental issues.

UNEP did a global press release, which was publicized on the Google Earth blog. Then, we won the International Digital Earth 3D Visualization Grand Challenge, and our project was recognized at the Fifth International Symposium on Digital Earth on June 5-9, 2007 in San Francisco.

We have presented the Atlas at many conferences, including the UNEP Governing Council meeting held in February, 2007, which generated a lot excitement among senior environmental officials from all over the world. Since then a number of Atlases namely, Africa: Atlas of our changing environment, Africa Water Atlas, Latin America and the Caribbean Atlas, Kenya Atlas and Uganda have been produced.

In 2011, UNEP started the design and planning phases for a new system named UNEP Live. This system will provide access to all reports, data, maps and imagery and support dynamic State of Environment reporting. All of the digital Atlas information are being planned to by migrated and implemented fully into the UNEP Live system during 2012.

The Atlas has highlighted the environmental issues of the world and has reached millions of Internet users around the globe. It has promoted public awareness and helped policy makers in their environmental decision-making process. As a pioneering effort, it has generated substantial media curiosity and has helped raise UNEP's profile in the international arena. The Atlas has also contributed to an increase in our web site traffic and has inspired other international organizations to explore a similar type of partnership.

Our partnership with Google has been mutually beneficial experience. In the process of developing the material, UNEP team members went through a rigorous trial-and-error process that has helped us sharpen the technical skills of all of our team members. The success of this partnership has inspired many other web-based projects such as Multimedia Interactive CD.

This Google Earth tour video uses historical imagery to show how the Aral sea is now a quarter of the size it was 50 years ago.