John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
What if people were mapped like mountains?
Picture Himalayan-class mountain ranges, composed not of rock but towering precipices of stacked human bodies—that’s the weird geology summoned up in this visualization of earth’s population as geologic masses.
Marnix Hamelberg, a freelance GIS specialist in Amsterdam who does spatial analysis and map design, created "Earth According to Population Density" to convey the humongous amount of flesh, blood, and bone plodding about on the planet. Flat, grassy-looking “valleys” represent areas of relatively low population densities, while white-capped “mountains” show urbanized regions with teeming, tightly packed populations.
“I always found it hard to grasp the sheer quantity of people on earth, which has grown drastically over the past decades,” Hamelberg tells CityLab via email. “Conventional population density maps unfortunately don’t convey this information convincingly, as they often use abstract symbology such as heat maps or tiny dots. This gave me the idea to reshape the existing spatial data of the world’s population density into something we are more familiar with—recognizable ‘mountains’ (elevation), with snowy peaks and an earthy color gradient.”
The resulting alternative geography of Population Earth is rather queer compared to our real world. Cloud-ripping peaks line the coasts of Southeast Asia, most noticeably in the crowded Philippines and Indonesia. (One clear takeaway: Humans like to live near water.) Greater Tokyo and its almost 40 million residents tower over Japan. The Himalayas still appear to exist, albeit in a shifted form; in reality these ranges are the densely settled areas of northern India and Bangladesh.
“After closer inspection, it is clear that people conquered almost all available arable land, avoiding mountainous regions,” says Hamelberg. “This leads to an inverted elevation in my map, where all mountain regions become flat planes and arable regions suddenly are rich with snowy peaks. On the other side of the world in the Americas, the Rocky Mountains shift completely to the east; however, the Amazon rainforest seems flat as ever.”
Hamelberg says he might draw up the Western Hemisphere in a future iteration. For now, he wanted to focus on countries with concrete-dense populations, which give his map’s unnatural features greater definition. In North America, which has a handful of big cities amid low-density sprawl, “large, lonely mountains are more common.”
He also wanted to emphasize that, when it comes to people, the Eastern Hemisphere is where it’s at. “More people live in a relatively small section of this part of the hemisphere than in the rest of the world combined,” he says.
Here’s an enlarged look at the viz, which Hamelberg made using ArcGIS and Blender and 2010 population data from NASA: