Red tide, a toxic algal bloom caused by excess nitrogen. Photo: Miriam Godfrey, NIWA

“We are the first generation that can predict the future of the world…We can also choose to shape the future.”—The Atlas of Global Conservation

Today, 40 years after the first Earth Day, the planet faces new challenges. The earth and the oceans are warming, leading to concerns about floods and droughts, extinction, and mosquito-borne diseases. Chemicals pollute land, water, and air, threatening health and habitats; invasive species wreak havoc on delicate ecosystems; and human population and consumption are straining the world’s resources.

“Many of us don’t have a lot of connection to nature in our day-to-day life, but…many resources we rely on—whether clean water or fish from the ocean—are being threatened at a scale we might not have realized”, said Atlas of Global Conservation editor Jennifer Molnar in a National Geographic interview.

But with new challenges come new opportunities for conservation. Reforestation of depleted areas can reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, customs regulations have had some success in preventing species invasions, and habitat restoration can help heal floundering ecosystems. Millions of square kilometers of once-threatened land is now protected, and individual and community conservation efforts add up to have a global impact.

Old-growth western cedar trees in Idaho. Photo:

Today we have the technology to view our entire planet with satellites, and to gather and synthesize masses of data that were once too much to grasp. Scientists at the Nature Conservancy used these tools to create The Atlas of Global Conservation, a complete guide to the state of our planet. Published today in honor of Earth Day, the Atlas gives a snapshot of the natural world—where habitats are most depleted and which species are on the edge of extinction, and where there are still vast grasslands and forests that need protection.

The Atlas also connects our everyday actions with the world’s ecosystems, showing how our choices at the grocery store or how we get to work affect the future of our planet. We know that our combined actions have the power to damage the earth, but we also have the power—and the responsibility—to find solutions.

Percent of the earth's habitats that have been converted by humans. If habitat loss continues, scientists say that half the earth's species could go extinct in this century—but it doesn't have to be this way.