World’s First Atlas of Surface Waters combines satellite data over 35 years

The Joint Research Center of the European Commission (JRC) has created an Atlas of Global Surface Water Dynamics. It graphically illustrates the changes in the Earth’s lakes, rivers, and wetlands over time. The Atlas provides a better understanding of the impacts of climate change and human actions on the planet’s surface water resources.

The importance of water in our daily life cannot be overemphasized. Surface water bodies, including lakes, ponds and rivers, are especially important as sources of water for domestic, industrial and agricultural needs.

Because Earth’s surface waters are so dynamic, human knowledge of where to find bodies of water has not always been accurate. The fact is that they are moving and constantly changing – whole lakes dry up, new rivers and lakes are formed. All this makes it difficult to map moving objects.

Building on a project that has combined thousands of years of computer time with millions of satellite imagery, JRC’s Atlas of Global Surface Water Dynamics highlights the important role that surface water plays in balancing our planet’s climate and biodiversity. And in almost all aspects of our daily life.

The Atlas documents the science behind a set of truly unique maps – they illustrate changes in surface water resources over the past 35 years.

Scientists believe the atlas could improve our understanding of the impacts of climate change and human actions on surface water resources. In turn, a clearer understanding of water resources will help formulate more effective policies to manage and protect them.

How was the atlas created?

In 2013, a small team of JRC scientists embarked on an ambitious project to map the history of the presence of surface water on Earth. Working in collaboration with the Google Earth Engine, the JRC team processed approximately 4 million satellite images from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the EU’s Copernicus program.

In 2016, JRC and Google Earth Engine unveiled a partnership product, the Global Surface Water Explorer (GSWE).

Global Surface Water Explorer is an interactive online platform that displays the location, distribution and changes of the world’s surface water over the past decades. The platform is updated annually.

The Atlas of Global Surface Water Dynamics, created on the basis of an online platform, presents the wealth of knowledge collected by the scientific team in an easily accessible format that anyone can read.

Through a series of maps, case studies, and beautiful images, this atlas introduces the reader to some of the world’s most exciting examples of surface water changes that highlight the beauty and fragility of the environment and the need to conserve this precious resource.

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