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Watch in awe as thousands of cargo ships traverse the world’s oceans

Each tiny dot on this captivating interactive map represents a single cargo ship plying the waters of the world.

The mesmerizing digital rendition of global shipping routes is the result of a collaboration between data visualization firm Kiln and University College London’s Energy Institute.

It shows the movement of thousands of commercial vessels across the world’s oceans throughout 2012 based on hundreds of millions of individually recorded positions.

As its creators note, the map (below), which was published online in recent days and spotted by Motherboard, shows how ships can move with relative freedom through the open ocean, while routes closer to land require careful management – take a look at the clearly defined lanes through the English Channel to see what they mean.

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Famous man-made shipping channels such as the Panama Canal and Suez Canal stand out, though zoom in close and the true busyness – and economic importance – of these relatively small waterways is clearly demonstrated.

Options at the top right of the map let you view by routes or individual ships. You can also see ship types by clicking the “color” button: red dots represent oil tankers; blue shows dry bulk ships carrying, for example, iron ore, steel, and coal; while yellow represents container ships transporting manufactured products.

Ships that appear to be crossing land are merely navigating rivers or canals that aren’t visible on the map, while fewer vessels show on the map in the first few months of the year because of incomplete data for that period.

Environmental impact

Behind the map’s pretty facade, however, lies a serious message about the pressures of commercial shipping on the environment. “While all of this shipping makes modern life as we know it possible, there is a downside,” says the narrator on the map’s incorporated video. “Moving billions of tons of ships and cargo relies on burning massive quantities of bunker fuel, and the result is a huge amount of carbon dioxide, the main driver of global warming.”

“Commercial ships produce more than a million tons of carbon dioxide every day – more than the whole of the UK, or Canada, or Brazil.”

The team hopes its map will help raise awareness about the environmental impact of global shipping, and the importance of exploring more efficient ways of movings goods and materials around the world.