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Archive for February, 2011

We all know Maine is not like the rest of the world. Elsewhere there are scorching deserts, boot-sucking swamps, frozen tundras, and wild grasslands. Yet it’s difficult to have any perspective on how unique or similar this part of the world is to the rest. It’s even more difficult to have an understanding of the range of habitats, wildlife, and threats facing different regions around the globe.

Where is there abundant freshwater? Are there salt marshes on every coastline? How many different types of birds live in the Middle East? Is deforestation most rapid in the Amazon? Do all the world’s blue-eared gobies live in a bathtub in Newark? (OK, skip that last one.)

The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization working worldwide to conserve ecologically important habitats, recently published a book of maps called The Atlas of Global Conservation. These maps pull together the data of hundreds of scientists and institutions to create utterly compelling images of life on earth. (You can explore them on-line at www.nature.org.)

Maps in the Atlas divide the planet into “ecoregions,” or areas in which the underlying habitat and ecology is, or was, relatively similar throughout. These are curious maps because they remind us of what used to exist in places where such habitat has long been crusted over with concrete.

It’s hard to think of Boston or New York City, for example, as being part of eco-anythings, but they are in the great sweep of the Northeastern Coastal Forest ecoregion, which stretches from the mouth of the Penobscot River, across midcoast Maine, and south to New Jersey.

This region has a higher abundance of rivers and wetlands, as well a greater area of lakes and reservoirs than most of the rest of the country, and indeed, more than a good chunk of the rest of the world. In fact, we’ve got about the same amount as the Amazon jungle. It’s no wonder we don’t worry about water, while many other places worry about running out.

The ecoregion of which Northern Maine is a part, the New England-Acadian Forest, is one of the most densely forested areas in the United States, with about three quarters of its land carpeted in trees. Tree-clearing in this region is a modest half a percent per year.

On the Atlas’s maps, places with the highest rates of tree-clearing are shown in dark red while low rates are pale yellow. I expected that deforestation would be occurring most rapidly in the Amazon rain forests.

The Amazon Basin is, surprisingly, yellow as a canary, while by far the largest swath of dark red on the globe cuts across central Canada like a forest fire. Southwest of Hudson Bay and down to the Great Lakes, from the tip of Nova Scotia west to the Rocky Mountains, trees are being chopped on a scale unsurpassed by activity anywhere else on the planet. Although some of this forest may be replanted, the new plantings will differ dramatically in species mix and habitat value from the original forest.

The next largest splotch of code red tree-clearing is, planetarily speaking, in our backyard: the land around the Appalachian Mountains, from Pennsylvania to eastern North Carolina. Interesting.

Downgrade slightly from red to dark orange, and you’ll see most of Russia, which is mostly Boreal forest, engulfed in massive tree cutting. About 20% of the world’s forests are in Russia.

Combining information from several different maps tells other interesting stories. Although the maps show that deforestation in the Amazon is not nearly as rapid as here in the north, they also show that the Amazon rainforest possesses a staggering diversity of species.

While Maine has somewhere between 50 and 120 freshwater fish species; the Amazon has more than eight times as many. Maine has about 200 terrestrial, or land-based bird species, the Amazon, nearly 800. Amazon forests are clearly critical to protecting the diversity of life on earth.

One especially intriguing map shows the world’s most remote places. It depicts, in darkest green, the places it is hardest for people to get into, both in terms of nearby infrastructure such as roads and airports, but also in terms of the sheer difficulty of setting one foot in front of the other through the densest vegetation, most terrible mountains and muddiest swamps.

If you looked to Africa for this heart of the wild, you’d be mistaken. The biggest area is the inland portion of northern South America – including, again, the Amazon Basin.

Most of the island of New Guinea in the South Pacific, a stone’s throw from some of the most populated islands in the world, is largely, mysteriously, dark green. Every time scientists set foot on this island they discover new species by the bucketful. Who would have known?

Another bit of murkiest green sits perched on the edge of the world in far northern Russia, up near the Gulf of Ob and the glaciated, mountainous frozen chunks of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago.

Much of northern Canada is gray, the map color which indicates not enough data has been collected: perhaps a sign of true wilderness?

These maps are powerful tools for conservationists. By looking at a combination of features, such as where certain habitats are located, which are the most threatened, which are the least disturbed, and where there are hotspots of diversity, organizations and governments can far more easily identify how and where to focus conservation efforts. And, the rest of us can get some much-needed perspective and a relaxing armchair vacation.

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