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The natural wealth of Africa has been plundered over the past 35 years, as illustrated by a new atlas of satellite imagery from the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). Roads now lace the untamed tracts of the rainforest in Congo—second only to the Amazon in size—bringing bushmeat hunting and logging wherever they lead. In fact, the continent now loses 9.9 million acres (four million hectares) of forest a year, nearly one fourth of the world's total deforestation.
Vast mines for copper, phosphate, gold and diamonds dig into the landscape throughout the continent, and the quest for oil eats up land in Chad, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea. Farming has taken a toll as well: 65 percent of the continent's farmlands suffer some form of damage, including erosion, which contributes to the loss of 50 metric tons of soil per hectare per year.
But it's not just the exploitation of natural resources driving environmental changes: Cities like Addis Ababa, Cairo and Dakar sprawl into the surrounding countryside—a reflection of the growing shift from rural to urban living that has exploded the latter from a city of a few hundred thousand to a major metropolitan area of 2.5 million people.
And climate change—a global disaster for which Africa bears little blame—shrinks glaciers and lakes, changes rainfall patterns and wreaks havoc on subsistence farmers. More than 300 million people in Africa already do not have access to enough water, a number that is expected to grow as the globe continues to warm.
The following images are just a few of the thousands sent back to Earth from the U.S. Landsat satellites since they were launched starting in 1972 as well as those from more recently lofted orbital cameras. UNEP's "Africa: Atlas of Our Changing Environment" contains more than 300 such satellite pictures detailing human-induced changes in all 53 African countries, including those for the better such as holding back the encroaching desert with a green belt of trees in Niger.
But it is images like the shrinking of Lake Chad, which is only 5 percent of its 1973 size, and the melting glacier atop Kilimanjaro that are seemingly the most enduring legacy of change.