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Washington, DC. Image courtesy of the NASA Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC) – Hosted by CIESIN at Columbia University. See also the NASA image of the Washington/Baltimore area.

According to a United Nations (UN) report, the world's population will reach 9 billion people by 2050. This increase will require a doubling of food production when land is already in short supply. The UN report even suggests a greater use of insects as part of human diets to meet growing food demand. All of this comes at a time when urban areas are expanding and in many cases, occupying fertile agriculture areas.

The growth of Phoenix, Arizona brings into focus the urban sprawl of major population areas and the conversion of land to homes, shopping centers and other evidences of population growth. During the 2000s, Maricopa County Arizona grew to nearly four million people. While many may think that the development took place in open desert areas, a great deal of the expansion ocurred in areas previously devoted to agriculture and farming, for example, cotton, citrus and livestock. We can imagine the impact of this growth on the air quality, water use, weather, and infrastructure of the area.The Phoenix story is just one example of what the country has seen as the national population has doubled in the past six decades to over 300 million people.

With this increase, the continental U.S. saw conversion of forest, farm and other lands for housing, transportation and commercial purposes. This occurs as the economy shifts from an agrarian (farm) economy to an urban economy with industry and services. One report states that the nation has lost 41 million acres of rural land to development between 1982 and 2007.

One might ask, at what cost? Can the country afford to lose this much land to urbanization? Can it do so safely? This module provides you with the tools to analyze the Earth from space to get a feel for changes, such as urban sprawl, over time.

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