Decades of urban growth and development on the Asian megadeltas

Small, Christopher; Sousa, Daniel John; Yetman, Gregory G.; Elvidge, Christopher D.; MacManus, Kytt

The current and ongoing expansion of urban areas worldwide represents the largest mass migration in human history. It is well known that the world's coastal zones are associated with large and growing concentrations of population, urban development and economic activity. Among coastal environments, deltas have long been recognized for both benefits and hazards. This is particularly true on the Asian megadeltas, where the majority of the world's deltaic populations reside. Current trends in urban migration, combined with demographic momentum suggest that the already large populations on the Asian megadeltas will continue to grow. In this study, we combine recently released gridded population density (circa 2010) with a newly developed night light change product (1992 to 2012) and a digital elevation model to quantify the spatial distribution of population and development on the nine Asian megadeltas. Bivariate distributions of population as functions of elevation and coastal proximity quantify potential exposure of deltaic populations to flood and coastal hazards. Comparison of these distributions for the Asian megadeltas show very different patterns of habitation with peak population elevations ranging from 2 to 11 m above sea level over a wide range of coastal proximities. Over all nine megadeltas, over 174 million people reside below a peak population elevation of 7 m. Changes in the spatial extent of anthropogenic night light from 1992 to 2012 show widely varying extents and changes of lighted urban development. All of the deltas except the Indus show the greatest increases in night light brightness occurring at elevations < 10 m. At global and continental scales, growth of settlements of all sizes takes the form of evolving spatial networks of development. Spatial networks of lighted urban development in Asia show power law scaling properties consistent with other continents, but much higher rates of growth. The three largest networks of development in China all occur on deltas and adjacent lowlands, and are growing faster than the rest of the urban network in China. Since 2000, the Huanghe Delta + North China Plain urban network has surpassed the Japanese urban network in size and may soon connect with the Changjiang Delta + Yangtze River urban network to form the largest conurbation in Asia.

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Global and Planetary Change