Breathing life into Half-Earth maps.

How do we transform data into understanding and empathy? This is the challenge we’ve been thinking about as we work with the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation’s Half-Earth Project to map the diversity of life on Earth and answer E.O Wilson’s call-to-action to commit half of the planet’s surface to nature.

As Wilson wrote in his book Half-Earth, if we protect 50% of the Earth’s surface, we can protect 85% of species from extinction. The question is, which half? To answer this question we need to identify the places where conservation action will protect the most species. The Half-Earth Project has the goal of mapping all terrestrial, marine and freshwater species at 1 km resolution. Half-Earth Project partner, Map of Life, has assembled, integrated, and analyzed data on nearly 100,000 species from hundreds of data sources. Vizzuality is now bringing this data to life as part of the Half-Earth Project.

Spin the globe and see where the rarest amphibian species live in northern America.

The Half-Earth Map begins with the entire planet. A big beautiful 3D globe for you to explore and layer with all the information we know about our world’s biodiversity. As we select species distribution maps, the globe explodes into colour, with bright yellow spots showing us where the rarest of species can be found, or where species richness is highest. It’s from this view above the stratosphere where we begin our journey.

Zooming in, we begin to see mountain ranges, rivers, and the markers of human life. Everything comes into view — from the distribution of the most important species, to the areas where life is under the greatest amount of pressure from human activities. These details are critical. With all this knowledge we can develop conservation plans that will really work.

Half-Earth maps human encroachment in high-resolution detail.

We used React and a cartographic library called Cesium to create these maps, and although it took time to perfect them, it’s the sight of familiar landscape features that help us connect with the data we’re viewing. From the tallest mountain, to local lakes, and even individual houses, you’ll see it all here. Featured maps, including the best places in the biosphere, are designed to inspire us further and remind us of what we have — and what we stand to lose.

The best places in the biosphere are a selection of our planet’s most special areas.

For example, in South America we can explore the distribution of hummingbirds at a 1 km resolution, diving into the valleys where the rarest, or greatest number of species live.

Global hummingbird distribution data has been mapped to a resolution of 1 km.

Over on the southern tip of South Africa, amphibians, birds, dragonflies, mammals, protea plants, reptiles and restio plants are also mapped at 1 km resolution. Here we have an opportunity to do a fine-scale analysis of the region to inform where we have the best opportunity to protect the most species. Traditionally, global datasets of species distribution haven’t been available at a high enough resolution to use in conservation planning. These maps make this possible.

Imagine for a moment that these maps were being used to decide where to build a dam, pull down a rainforest, or dig up a grassland. Do you think we’d make different choices if we could see the landscape of those places and learn about the life that lives there? We believe that people will.

With these Half-Earth maps it’s possible to map in precise detail where the rarest species are found, or where the greatest number of species live in one place.

Tools like the Half-Earth Map help people access the information that empowers them. No matter who they are — from the kid who dreams of seeing a wild elephant one day, to the climber who conquers El Capitan, to the Mum who wants to feed her children palm oil-free chocolate spread — every one of them can use the Half-Earth Map to explore and understand the world.

Right now, we’re at the very beginning of our journey towards E.O. Wilson’s grand vision for Half-Earth. In the next few years, more species will be mapped in fine detail, identifying the best places to manage for conservation, and tracking our progress towards the goal of Half-Earth. Helping people connect emotionally to these places is an important part of the journey, and Vizzuality will be gathering, testing and refining the latest research on how people respond to data visualisations.

Everyone has a role in deciding what happens to our land and oceans. Together with the Half-Earth Project, we intend to bring Half-Earth to life.


Explore the Half-Earth Map today at half-earth-project.org/maps and share your discoveries with us on Twitter.