Monthly Archives: January 2014

Mapping Water’s Presence and Absence Across Land: Maps of Aridity and Drought

Maps can potentially provide quite supple tools to draw the distribution of a variations among land and water, and to reflect on the local variations of the specific landscapes they represent.  Yet the conventional of land-mapping do not clearly lend themselves to describe the presence of water in the land–and all too often presume a clear boundary between land and sea, a fiction known as the coast, one of the clearest inventions of cartographers.  We struggle to describe the relation between land and water–whether in our imagery of drought, which has become particularly popular with increasing evidence of climate change and global warming, or in describing the levels of groundwater loss across the land.  Hence, even as we confront the potential collapse of aquifers, and a rapidly shrinking supply of underground water, we don’t have a clear iconography of how to render the very dilemma–even if the problem of groundwater depletion stands to only increase.

The recent findings of such deletion of groundwater sources in much of the United States since 1900 is big news, but the means to illustrate the rates of its increasing disappearance–or indeed the potential losses that such groundwater losses imply in much of the country–pose problems of cartographical rendering, as much as environmental catastrophe:  the two seem far more closely intertwined than has been argued.  Take, for example, a recent and particularly valuable USGS study of the levels of groundwater depletion that historically increasing removal of subsurface groundwater from the lower forty-eight states, in terms of a combination of levels of subsidence, drainage, and water-flow, that mirrors the central regions of agricultural production and farming in the United States since 1900, but which primarily depends on modeling aquifers’ depletion:

Groundwater Depletion, 1900-2008

Groundwater Depletion, cubic km

USGS:  Leonard Konikow, “Groundwater Depletion in the United States (1900–2008)” 

We are similarly deeply challenged, in representing the drama of increasing drought.

The syntax of terrestrial mapping does not lend itself easily to the mapping of drought, or indeed to mapping the presence and absence of water in our worlds, or the role that water plays in the landscape.  For the very mobility and fluidity of water across environments is, as the current drought has revealed, not easily able to be naturalized into the landscape, or fixed in a map, and the interaction of water with our agrarian and rural landscapes in face difficult to map.  Cartographers all too often rely only on ruled lines to organize land maps, and the syntax that was developed to draw divisions and preserve boundary lines, and indeed bound territories and nations have the disadvantage of instantiating divisions as if they were natural, and part of the landscape that we see.

Rather than bounding the regions of land and water by sharp lines as if to differentiate them, web-based maps that sense degrees of the relative presence of water provide a new and almost dynamic format to frame questions that depend on visualizing the presence of water on which even landlocked regions depend.

The map brings into being new entities to visible form that we could not otherwise see in a material form, and allow us to better contemplate and reflect upon the different sort of water-levels on which the fertility and richness, but even the usability, of land depends.  The two-fold qualities of how the map brings things into existence and offer tools to think exist as two sides of the same sheet of paper, both present in how we inscribe space in a map as a way to  view space in the definition of their contents.  Whereas informative content lies inscribed according to indices on the map’s surface, maps also project meanings lying beneath:  on their obverse lies their take-away value, or the picture of the world that they shape in our minds. The symbolic conventions of maps are to be judged both by the accuracy of their design and their communicative value.  But while lines are useful tools to define and bound territorial space for viewers, they are far more limited as tools to describe the presence of water in the land, much as notoriously neglect or efface the areas where land and water interact, or the fluctuation of the boundaries between land and sea, and even harder to map the absence of water in the land–either in terms of its severity or the gradations that can be drawn in conditions of drought.

Despite the compelling nature of our mapping of the California drought–and the prospect of regions sensitive to increasing water stressors and drought worldwide–maps of drought raises compelling questions the conventions of its mapping and the take-away of maps of drought and aridity.  And the picture that emerges of the recent three-year California drought in one’s mind seems of utmost important to its understanding:  one can think of the hugely valuable perspective that Michael Bostock has recently compiled, using data from the National Climatic Data Center, charting regional climactic variations in drought across the United States since 1880–in addition to a more qualitatively detailed set of visualizations of the drought’s local effect on specific crops–with truly dizzying results. How to best orient readers to the shifting boundaries and relatively recent advances of drought in the American West, without falling into dangers of historical relativism?  How to both appreciate the current drought’s significance and present it to readers?

We’ve perhaps only begun to consider drought as a mapped concept, but the complex interaction between aquifers, land-water, snowfall, rainfall, and ambient temperature due to global warming–all difficult enough to visualize on their own, let alone in relation to each other–are particularly difficult to map in a cogent but dynamic form.  Does the most recent map of the Drought Monitor, authored by Richard Tinker for the USDA, disarm viewers by a heat map to show basic gradations of drought across the entire state–where black designates exceptional drought (“D4”), and red extreme drought (“D3”), mapping the reach of parched land as terrestrial expanse.  But despite its impressive impact, is this image a communicator of the scope of drought or its effects, even as it charts relative aridity across California’s counties?  This both invites reflection on the economic future of the region’s farms , but threatens to naturalize the very subject that it also maps.

January 21, 2014

Although we demand to be able to use the syntax of the line in maps to define territories, a similar syntax is less able to be borrowed to map water or map drought. Indeed, the lines that are present in the above drought map to shade regions to acknowledge drought severity are hard to reconcile with the same lines that bound the  state, or that divide its counties, since they are of course less sharply indicated by a line, or approximated by the broad classifications used in a heat-map, whose lines are more porous and approximate as much as definitive–and overly suggestive of clear boundary lines.  This is more clear in some of the interactive drought maps that ostensibly image drought conditions in and around the Central Valley, a center of produce and agriculture, here oddly superimposed on a Google Earth satellite view:

SF and Central Valley by Satellite View

Drought can be mapped, at the same website of interactive drought conditions, as distinguishing drought severity superimposed as filters on a base map of the state of Google Earth provenance, to divide red “severe drought” in the north coast and the “extreme drought” in the northeast interior basin of the state:

California Interactive Drougth Conditions

Sure, the subjects of states and drought are apples and oranges:  mapping tools don’t lend themselves easily to such a data visualization, both by drawing false equivalents and distracting from the nature of drought and the mapping of its momentous effects–if not offering an instantiation the condition of drought as if a fait accompli and natural event–rather than one that emerged because of the uniquely opportune mechanisms of water redistribution in the state that have left it so open and vulnerable to the drought’s occurrence.

If paleoclimatologists doubt that a drought of comparable severity has not only not existed in the recorded history of rainfall in California of the past one hundred and sixty-three years, but past ‘megadroughts’ from 850 to 1090 AD and from 1140 AD to 1320, and has already been drier than any time in the past 434 years, due to the perfect storm of water diversion and agricultural intensification.  And the lack of a clear map of drought leave us without any clear sense how long the drought will last, and no sense of how urban demand for–and ability to pay for–water will be resolved with a limited supply.

We’re not used to or well-equipped mapping oceans or bodies of water that overlap with lands.  Even when we include oceans in land maps to define their edges or describe their coasts, the syntax of much mapping of territories ends at the water’s front.  And much as we need new modes to map the interface and exchange of habitats on estuaries or shores, the mapping gradations of moisture or aridity are difficult to inscribe in the surface of the map–even as we demand to map the limits of groundwater and the prospect of draught.  The exclusion of water from most land maps reflects our limited abilities to map and the limitations of liabilities are increasingly evident.

The two spheres needed to be mapped–under and above water–are seen as incommensurate with each other and we map them by lines in different and distinct ways:   we map limits and frontiers by rings or lines, or note fixed routes of travel or topographic elevations by fixed lines, the conventions of the line seems less suited to the blurring of gradations in groundwater, levels of drought, and the levels of water lying in the land–or of the diminution of both rivers and aquifers. And the presence of water in a region, or in the levels of soil and subsoil–and aquifers–that lie beneath the land’s surface, is particularly difficult to map by the syntax of a land map, because its conditions are multiple.

The syntax of the heat map may seem appropriate in its cognitive associations, but is far less supple or sensitive as a map of environmental impact, let alone as a tool to conceive of drought.  Indeed, any “ecotones“–a word coined to direct attention to those regions where bordering ecosystems meet and intersect–are  difficult to map both because they are so difficult to demarcate and because it is difficult to establish a single perspective on the intersection of worlds often assessed by different criteria.  The shoreline, such as, as the meeting place between land and sea, has long been notoriously difficult to map, and not only because of its fluidity.  We map a stable topography, mountains, rivers, and lakes, where the quotient between land and sea is fixed:  and mapping rarely extends out to the surrounding waters, or boundaries of blurred, shifting, or overlapping lines:  a problem of increasing notice in those endangered areas where habitats of land and water overlap and intersect, making clear boundaries less able to be defined.  This is especially true in drought, where we must consider relations between groundwater storage, aquifers, and surface water, and the different sources and flow of water through agrarian and to urban landscapes. This problem of cartographical representation is as pronounced in the mapping of drought.  The  mapping of the absence of water is indeed a particularly apt problem for cartographical design in a heating-up world, as revealed in the maps we use to track, analyze, and understand drought. Bay Area to Modesto and Monterrey Mapping the shifting dryness of the land–and the drying up of resources–presses the conventions of cartographical inscription.  And all too often, we have only mapped land–not water, or even dryness–save in the limits of the desert lands.  And the two sides of mapping the presence or absence of water offer complementary images, in ways that might often make it difficult to assess or chart the meanings and impact that the drying out of regions and habitats might have–or, indeed, to “embody” the meaning of or spread of drought and dryness in a legible manner.  What would it mean to make drought a part of mapping that would be readable?  How, in other words, to give legibility to what it means to subtract water from the environment? Indeed, we demand a dynamic form of mapping over time that charts the qualitative shifts in their presence in the land.

Whereas resources like water have been long assumed to be abundant and not in need of mapping in space, as they were taken to be part of the land, the increasing disappearance of water from regions like much of California–the first subject of this post–raise challenges both of conceiving drought as a condition by embodying the phenomenon, and by using graphic conventions to trace levels of water in the ground.  In the case of the recent California drought, the compounded effects of an absence of winter rains, which would normally provide the groundwater for many plants throughout the year, feeding rivers and more importantly serving to replenish  groundwater basins, but has decreased for the past three years at the same time that the snowfalls over the Sierra Nevada, whose melting provides much of the state with running water–and on which the Owens Valley and Southern California depend–have also dried up, leading to a decrease in the snowpack of a shockingly huge 80%.  At the same time as both these sources of water have declined, the drying up of the Colorado River, on whose water much of the western US depend, have curtailed the availability of another source of water on which it has long depended.   How to map the effects and ramifications of historical drought levels or impending dryness over time that synthesize data in the most meaningful ways?

These are questions both of cartographical design, and of transferring data about the relative presence of water in the land to a dynamically legible form, at the same time as retaining its shock content.  The pressing need to map the current and impending lack of water in the world raise these questions about how to map the growing threat of an expanding drought and the implications that drought has on our land-use.  The question with deep ramifications about its inhabitation and inhabitability, but not a question whose multiple variables lead themselves to be easily mapped in a static graphic form.  And yet, the impact of drought on a region–as Thomas Friedman has got around to observing in the case of Syria, both in regard to the failure of the government to respond to drought that devastated the agricultural sector and that swelled cities in a veritable ecological disaster zone–offers a subject that threatens to shake the local economy.   And what will animals–both grazing animals and local wildlife alike, including salmon–make of the lack of river water, much coming from the Sierra Nevada, or the residents of the multiple regional delta across the state? Friedman’s analysis may seek to translate the political divisions in Syria into the scissors of the Annales school–he advocates the importance that dedicating funds to disaster relief have already been proven to be central in foreign relations as well as in a region’s political instability, as if to table the question of the content of a political struggle.  But the impact of rising aridity on agricultural societies is perhaps not so much lesser than its impact on agricultural industry.

Rather than offer metrics to indicate social unrest–although political consequences will surely ensue–the rise of water maps show shifting patterns that will probably be reflected most in a tremendous growth of legal questions about the nature of “water-use rights,” however, and the possible restriction or curtailing of a commodity often viewed as ever-plentiful and entirely available for personal use, as well as a potential shift in food prices, eating habits, and a dramatic decrease–at least potentially–in access to freshly grown food across much of the United States, if not the sort of massive out-migration from rural areas that occurred in Syria. Michael Bostock’s current mapping of drought’s local effect on specific crops provides a compelling record of the complex questions that mapping the data about the presence of water in the land might be able to resolve.  For the main source of much produce in the US, with the California drought, seem drying up, if we consider dry America’s considerable heavily subsidized acreage of agricultural production.

CaliforniaCommodity Agriculture urban design lab

But we are in the very early stages of making clear the legibility of a map of dryness and draught, or of doing so to communicate the consequences of its effects. The interest in mapping our planet’s dryness is a compelling problem of environmental policy, but of cartographical practice.  Maps of drought and dryness are often econometric projections, related as they are to interlaced systems of agricultural production, resources, and prices of food costs, and based on estimates or climactic measures. But they are powerful tools to bring dryness into our consciousness in new ways–ways that have not often been mapped–or integrated within maps of drought’s local effect on specific national crops.  Perhaps the familiarity with understanding our climate through weather maps has created or diffused a new understanding of climactic changes, forming, as they do, visual surrogates by which to understand complex and potentially irresolvable topics into inevitable complex public debates, and indeed understand our shifting place in the world’s changing environment.

The recent severity of the current California drought–the greatest in measured history, and actually extending far into much of the West– and the parallel drought in the central United States creates a unique mapping of drought severity across a broad swathe of the country that raises problems not only in our agricultural prices, but in much of the almonds, lettuce, and strawberries that derive from California.  The drought is not limited to the confines of the state, although the intense reliance of California farmers on irrigation–some 65% of state crop lands are irrigated, mostly in the Central Valley, where they depend on the viaducts to carry water from the Sierra’s snowfall to farmlands–makes it stand out in a map of the drought’s severity.  (One might return here to Bostock’s powerful visualization of drought’s local effect on specific crops.)

The map of the absence of water in these regions is, however, difficult to get one’s mind around as if it were a property or an accurate map of a territory:  the measurement of its severity is indeed difficult to understand only as a status quo of current meteorological events, for it poses the potential triggers for never before seen changes in agricultural markets and lifestyle.  How can one map the effects of what seems to be the driest in perhaps 434 years, as UC Berkeley paleoclimatologist Lynn Ingram has argued? Both raise the specter of global warming more concretely than we have seen, but are oddly difficult to place into public discussion outside the purely local terms in which they are long conceived:  the drought is not only the problem of Governor Jerry Brown, perhaps personally haunted by the drought of 1977, but the news stories on the issue–as one from which this map was reproduced used in the New York Times to illustrate the drought’s scope, and to hint at the severity of its consequences as much as the expanse of the drought itself, that combines all three aforementioned sites of drought–the Sierra Nevada snowfall; winter rains; Colorado river–in one powerful graphic that reveals the effects of drought on the entire western United States, as if it was a fixed or invading miasma, the vectors of whose spread are less known: ‘ Drought Severity--California

Max Whittaker’s quite eery photograph captures the resurfacing of an abandoned ghost town in Folsom Lake, now suddenly able to be seen with declining water levels of a marina now at a mere 17% capacity, is a striking image of water’s absence in one specific region of the state:

DROUGHT-master675Max Whittaker/NY Times

Other lakes on which much of the southern half of the state depends, like Owens Lake, have shrunk to a visible extent:

la-ol-nudity-and-other-watersaving-tips-in-an--001

How can we adequately map this shift in liquid resources?  To make the graphic palpable, an animated stop-action map of dryness–both historical and projected–could express a useful and compelling record of the mechanics of draught and global drying out might illuminate a perspective on the shifting relation to water we are condemned to live with.

The global shifts in water, from regional water-tables to rainfall to ocean levels, and the mixtures of saline and freshwater they will create, suggests a broader calculus of hydrographic mapping and potable water, the likes of which were never conceived just forty years ago–or, perhaps, just twenty years past.  As a start, such a map might begin from the shifts in a resource like snow, whose absence has caused not only many Californians to cancel trips to Tahoe or to ruin their skis on the slopes, but to face an economic crisis in water’s availability, evident by a comparison of aerial photographs showing the ecosystems of levels snowfall in the Sierra on successive January 13’s just one year apart which reveal dramatically different appearances of identical terrain:

January 13, a year apart

Far more shocking than a map, in many ways, the two images effectively register and embody a shift in how the landscape exists, even if it only implicitly suggests the ecological impact that the absence of that huge snowfall has on its nearby regions:  the absence of green in the adjoining basin, now a dust bowl, suggests a radical transformation in landscape and ecosystem. How can one show the shifting water-table, rainfall level, against the rivers that provide water to the land and its several delta?

A ‘better’ map would help get one’s mind around the dramatically different notion of the usage and circulation of water in and across space–as much as the regions of dryness or low water-levels in the state.  Both NOAA and NASA determined that last year was tied for the fourth place as the warmest year globally since record-keeping began in 1880 with the year 2003:  probably due to increased use of coal, raising the temperature 1.78 degrees Farenheit above the average for the twentieth century, but also creating specific problems in the form of an off-coast high-pressure ridge that has created a barrier that has blocked winter storms, perhaps due to the increased cold in Antarctica on top of the decline in water that descends, melted, from the Sierra’s icepack–leading to an increased reliance on groundwater that will continue for the foreseeable future. The current USGS map of the drought today–January 21, 2014–notes severe conditions of drought in dark brown, and moderate drought conditions in orange, placed above a base-map of dryness across a visible network of riverine paths each and every day: Today's Drougth

Yet the variations of coloration can’t fully communicate the consequences desiccation of the land.  The “moderate” drought in the central valley–surrounded by conditions of severe drought–reflects the limited amount of water brought by aqueducts to the region, rather than a reprieve from national conditions, and roughly correspond to the paths of the California Aqueduct and San Joaquin river:

CALAQU

Perhaps a better model for mapping drought exists, but questions of how best to unify empirical measurements with the availability of water–and the consequences of its absence–are questions for data visualization that have not been fully met.  The ways that USGS maps real-time stream flow in comparison to historical conditions for that day provides a pointillist snapshot of dryness–but using the red to suggest “low” and crimson “much below normal,” as measured in percentile–and yellow “below normal”–the scientificity of the map gives it limited rhetorical power, and limited conceptual power as a basis to assess the expansive effects of drought or extrapolate the critical readings of water across that network in ways easy to visualize.

Streamflow Conditions in CA--Jan 21

The USGS Waterwatch offers an even better metric–if with minimal visual shock–in mapping the areas of severe hydrologic drought in crimson and a new low of drought levels in bright red, in its map of stream flows over a 7-day period, which suggests the range of lows throughout the region’s hydrographic water-stations and across the clear majority of its extensive riverine web, and indeed the relative parching of the land in sensitive regions as the northern coast, Sierra, and parts of the central valley, as well as the rivers around San Francisco and Los Angeles:

New Lows in Riverine Flow

These maps seem to omit or elide human agency on the rapidly changing landscape.  Despite the frequent vaunting of the purity of the water carried from the snows of the Sierra, deep problems with the California water supply–problems caused by its inhabitation and industrial agriculture– become more apparent when one considers the impurity of the groundwater table.  This map, based on domestic wells of water withdrawal, offers a sobering image of what sort of water remains;  although the most southern sector of the state is clearly most dependent on groundwater withdrawals of some 30-80 millions of gallons/day, significant sites of the withdrawn groundwater from within the Central Valley Aquifer, extending just inland from and south of San Francisco, and at select sites on the coast, contain surprisingly high nitrate contamination due to fertilizer runoff or septic tanks–measured against a threshold for having a negative effect on individuals’ health.

Groundwater in State

The closer one looks at the maps of how the state has begun to dry up over time, the further peculiarities seem to emerge of California’s geography and its relation to water–and indeed the sort of water-exchanges of three-card monte that seem to characterize the state–that are to an extend compacted by the dependence of much of coastal California on the extended winter rains that provide enough water for most plants to store.  (The absence of water in much of Northern and Central California now means that the leaves of maples and many other trees are turning bright red, due to their dryness and the bright winter sun, in ways rarely seen.) We might do well to compare some of the other means of tracking drought.  The US Drought Monitor suggests that conditions in current California dry spell differ dramatically from just two years ago–at a time, just two year ago, when Texas seemed a far more likely candidate for ongoing drought.

hnsvxl

While the image is not able to be easily accessed in animated form, a contrast to a recent reading of drought from this year reveals the striking expanse of extreme and exceptional drought in California’s Central Valley and much of the entire state, to compare the above to two more recent drought maps:

US Drought Monitor Jan 21

Drought Monitor Jan 28 2014

Yet the concentration on broad scale changes in the regions that it maps offers somewhat limited sensitivity to the variations of water-depth.  The map moreover suggests a somewhat superficial appreciation of the drought’s expanse and the nature of its boundaries.  But the greater sensitivity of satellite readings offers a more multi-leveled–and indeed both a thicker and a deeper reading of underlying factors of the local or regional drought in the American West.  The upgrading of drought–or the degradation of local conditions–in only one week is striking, and effects precisely those regions most sensitive to river irrigation that were effected by the failure of arrival of a melted snowpack, the effects of which seem destined to intensify.

One Week Shift

The twin satellites that measure the distribution of groundwater offer an other point of view of the local variations of drought.  The record of hydrological health, known as the  Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, whose paired satellites use two sensors spaced some 220 km apart as a means to detect a shift in the ongoing redistribution of water on the earth’s surface, offering a comprehensive indexing of their remotely-sensed measurements by longitude and latitude.

Satellite NASA

The extracted data is combined with an existing meteorological dataset, in order to create a record sensitive to variations of but one-centimeter in groundwater level.  Although not registering the depletion of aquifers, and primarily climactic in nature, the portrait that emerges from specific shifts in gravity suggested by water’s lower mass effectively track water’s presence with considerable precision on exact coordinates, creating a composite image of national drought that suggest the different variations in the presence of groundwater, by integrating groundwater and soil moisture from surface moisture of their remotely sensed data with actual meteorological changes observed from land and space to create a comprehensive picture of water storage at different levels in the earth.

GRACE mechanics

GRACE has aimed to map the shifts in groundwater levels over time:  the result suggests in surprising ways some relative stability between 1948 and 2009, to generate “a continuous record of soil moisture and groundwater that stretches back to as a way of indexing moisture levels in the soil at different strata.  The striking change in such levels in relation to data of 1948 is an especially striking record of the contrast between just 2012 and 2014.  By creating a map based on the composition of underground water storage as remotely sensed via two satellites orbiting earth, the measurement of ground water retained in the land is a crucially informative record of gradations of aridity, and levels of drought, allowing us to discriminate between ground water and soil moisture–and indeed to understand their relationships in an easily viewable manner, translating satellite measurements into a format easy to compare as a mosaic of local levels of aridity and regional differences that demand to be cross-referenced with agricultural production and across time.

Groundwater Storage 19489-2014

The map of ground-water storage suggests strong contrasts of the relative surplus of waters within the irrigated Central Valley and the relative aridity or dryness of land in much of the Lost Coast in California and deep south.  The “change in perspective” resulting in two years shifts attention to shifts in the amount of groundwater measured, processing data of water stored in the earth that has the potential to analyze the relative irrigation of expanse in easily viewed fashion.

Within just two years, or course, this picture of ground water storage had dramatically and radically changed whose impact we are only beginning to assess, and done so in ways that show no signs of ending.

Ground-Water Storage 1948-20089

To be sure, the wetness percentile of areas near the land of lakes and central United States seems a striking contrast in this image of ground water storage, in this image deriving from the University of Nebraska, which reveals itself to be a particularly rich area of soil storage of groundwater, in, significantly, an area without much surface soil moisture based on Soil Moisture Study.  But the deep pockets of wetness decline by far–both in storage and in soil moisture, based on the draining of aquifers and increased aridity or desertification–present a bleak picture in some strong crop-producing regions of the south and southwest, as much as California–and an even more terrifying story when the moisture of its soil suffer dryness–the excessive aridity specific to California relative to the nation is far more starkly revealed.

Soil Moisture on Surface

The registration of surface soil moisture and groundwater suggests a dynamic tiling of national space that we can use to map wetness over time, and extrapolate the effects of increased aridity on farm-lands and regions that will no doubt shift the prices of water, as well as the costs of agricultural production and livestock.  The mapping of specific water available for root systems across the nation, based on satellite data coded to specific longitudes and latitudes, provides a third level of analysis based on the levels of water available to root systems across the nation–and reveals the even more concentrated effects of drought within the region that depend on water from the California Sierra that will no longer arrive in the Central Valley this year:  more concentrated than the earlier image of ground water storage, that reveals the amount of water available to the root systems presents a picture even more closely related to agricultural constraints created by three years of drought.

Root Zone Moisture

The remote sensing of such levels of moisture and groundwater affords a model of mapping that can be keyed directly to the questions of specific crops in ways that can be eventually used to make prognostics of the impact of drought on the local economy.  If California’s conditions seem to be due to meteorological particularities of low snowfall and few winter rains, held off the shore due to a high pressure ridge of air related to dramatic cooling in Antarctica, the problems that underpin the mapping of the local of integrating layers of data from different sources are repeated.  They reveal magnified risks in ways comparable to the more speculative tools of forecasting used to  assess the multiple water stresses that shape the environmental pressures on population in different areas of the world.

The following sequence of global projections of aridity are often rooted in the possibility–or near-eventuality–of rising temperature worldwide, and the pressures that these stand to place on water usage. The projection of what these water stressors will be seem to synthesize the data of rainwater levels, water tables, and ocean levels to depict the collective constraints facing agricultural communities across the world–and raising questions of what effect they might have–that will no doubt endanger rising political instability and economic hardships world-wide, in ways difficult to conceive.  The problems that underpin the mapping of the local are repeated, if with magnified risks, when trying to synthesize the data of rainwater levels, water tables, and ocean levels as a collective set of water stresses that are facing agricultural communities across the world. If California’s conditions seem due to low snowfall and few winter rains, held off the shore due to a high pressure ridge of air that seem related to the dramatic cooling of Antarctica, projections of aridity are often rooted in the possibility–or near-eventuality–of rising temperature worldwide.

The remarkably and relatively suddenly increased stresses on water-supplies world-wide are now better mapped as futures–which they indeed offer, by the World Resources Institute, a sort of barometer on the shifting dynamics of water availability in the world.  In the below charging of water stressors prospectively through 2025, based on the prospect of a world warmer by three degrees centigrade, we are pointed to the particular hot-spots in the globe.  These include the central US, which extend in arcs of desiccation poses particularly pernicious threats through much of Anatolia, Central (equatorial) Africa, and South Asia.  Specific water stressors that are projected in the map are due to the combined pressures of growing use of a limited supply of waters that higher temperatures will bring; the global map of the impact of rising temperatures poses particular problems for populations in India and China, two centers of pronounced population growth where markets where food distribution will clearly feel stresses in increasingly pronounced ways.

Crop Yield with Climate Change World Map

The pronounced pressures on fertility rates are expected to stay strong in Asia, as well as the United States, according to the below bar graph, developed by the World Resources Institute.

Fertility Rates Mapped

The areas in which the World Resources Institute predicts the most negative effects on crop production reflects the relative impact of water stresses due to projected climate change alone–revealing a far more broad impact throughout South America, northern Africa, Arabia, and Pakistan, as well as much of Australia.  (Similarly, a certain pronounced growth occurs across much of Canada–aside from Ontario–Scandinavia, and Russia, and parts of Asia, but one hardly considers these as large producers in a world that has warmed by some three degrees centigrade.)  But the highly inefficient nature of water-use–both in response to population growth and to a lack of re-use or recycling of water as a commodity and in agriculture–creates a unique heat-map, for the World Resource Institute, that will be bound to increase water stressors where much of the most highly populated and driest areas intersect.

 Water Stress Map

The rise of the temperatures is prospective, but also difficult to map in its full consequences for how it threatens the experience of the lived–or inhabited–world to the degree that it surely does.  (Indeed, how the habitable world–the ancient notion of a habitable “ecumene,” to rehabilitate the classical concept of the inhabited world and its climactic bounds by torrid zones–would change seems a scenario more clearly imagined by screenwriters of the Twilight Zone or of science fiction novels than cartographers or data visualizations.)  If we focus on the band of the hardest-hit regions alone, one can start to appreciate the magnitude of the change of restricted access to water and its restricted availability in centers of population:  the map suggests not only a decline by half of crop yields around equatorial regions, but stressors on local economies and rural areas. It staggers the mind to imagine the resulting limitations on world agriculture in this prospective map, which offers something of an admonitory function for future food and agricultural policy, and indeed international relations:

Band of hardest Hit

The shifting pressures on resources that we have too long taken for granted is sharply starting to grow.  The stressors on water will direct attention to the importance of new patterns and habits of land use, and of the potential usability or reconversion of dry lands, to compensate for these declines.  Indeed, the mapping of available water provides a crucial constraint on understanding of the inhabited–and inhabitable–world, or how we might be able to understand its habitability, bringing the resources that we have for visualizing data in ways that we might bring to bear on the world in which we want to live, or how we can best describe and envision the effects of drought as an actor in the world. Such huge qualitative shifts are difficult to capture when reduced to variations that are charted in a simple heat-map.

In a way, the constraint of water was more clearly and palpably envisioned within the earliest maps of California from the middle of seventeenth century than it is in our vision of a land that is always green, and nourished by mountain waters all along its Pacific rim.  Indeed, this image of an imagined green island of California, surrounded by waters and beside a green mainland nourished by rivers and lakes, seems extremely powerful as a mental image of the region that is increasingly remote as the water resources of the region begin to evaporate.

California Island

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Filed under aquifers, Climate Change, drought, ecotones, mapping climate change, Mapping Surface Soil Moisture, mapping water stresses

The Loosely-Sketched World

We’re familiar with considering “art” as a way to further or accentuate the representational qualities of cartography, and treating the map as if it were a system of perception–rather than viewing each as separate but analogous representational systems.  This shifts, however, when we use art to naturalize mis-perceptions of global relations.  We are accustomed to describe the relations between cartography and art as if they were separate disciplines, rather than congruent tools, barely touching, inventing a new sort of landscape to be inhabited and seen.  The addition via photoshop of satellite photographs of the earth’s surface to the hand-drawn world projections that Michigan high school student Zack Ziebell solicited from folks he encountered on the University of Michigan’s campus create a striking global distribution:   although the data sample from which he collected is ridiculously small by statistical samples–and wouldn’t be something that any respectable sort of crowd-sourced map would consider credible or worthy of attention–Ziebell’s creative map has attracted significant world wide attention because of the compelling image that he was able to craft from it.  Indeed, our recognition of the eerily photoshopped composite reveals our familiarity with the manipulation of cartographical tools and media, as much as a restricted sense of geographic knowledge.

The artifice of a cartographical flattening the world’s surface seems totally removed from a sense of accurate representation in the on-the-fly images resulting from requests Zeibell made of a group of folks on the U of M campus to map the world’s continents as best they could, without the aid of rulers or model, and without looking at an actual printed map.  The below image of the world revealed the blurred forms of their collective conceptions of mapped space, and is oddly emptied of content and place-names.  The ghostly outlines of these imagined continents resemble a Rorschach test more than a map, although the smoky apparent ink-blots, rather than invite interpretation, record the multiple prejudices and omissions of the limited geographic horizons of participants who responded to Zeibell’s particular request.  The resulting synthesis reveals the divergences and variations between how a randomized group of individuals in Michigan mapped the contours of the inhabited world as best they could, without the benefit of consulting any sources, reveal a loose attitude to the map as a repository of data to say the least:

Collective  Sketch Map

If world maps have long been refined as composites of knowledge, whose permutations might be described as “trading zones” of knowledge from different orders of expertise, the outlines of these uncannily nebulous continents offer a record of cartographical authority in crisis.

The ghostly outlines of continents that are a composite synthesized 30 hand-drawn maps that subjects constructed from memory and on the fly–twenty-nine, to be exact, with one by its creator, the high-school student Ziebell, who created it as an art project.  The folks he stopped and invited to draw maps on a blank sheet of paper weren’t perhaps focussing on summoning their geographic knowledge, but also didn’t seem to think that the task was that relevant, evidently, to their own competencies, and are easy to take as evidence of a familiarity with the fact that maps are, in our society, more apt to be downloaded than drawn, and directions for travel given by phones, rather than described with reference to a printed maps.  For as much as leading us to blame Google Maps or geographic literacy, we can also recognize how much rarer it is to draw maps–or indeed to read them–as something other than as purely symbolic forms.

Few are accurate freehand cartographers, to be sure, and few of the respondents could claim to be skilled cartographers.  But they adopted a strikingly lax attitude to the notion of mapped space.  Although the statistical sample was not at all randomized or representative, and shows little close to a scientifically significant result, one can’t help but wonder if it reflects on an age of downloadable maps, and a time in which the drawn line has become less of a unit of geographic meaning than pixellated screen, resulting in a distinctly different period eye.  The images are pretty shocking for how they suggest blinders on the geographic horizons of map-users:  in most, Japan oddly melds to the Asiatic blur; the gulf of Mexico is bridged; Anatolia is absent; much of the Middle East is melded with Africa; the insularity of England fades; and, indeed, the South Asian sub-continent either disappears or is melded with Asia.  As each tries their hand at flattening the world’s surface to a plan, the result caricatures Americans’ knowledge about the greater world illiterate and the limits of Americans’ geographic literacy, provoking incredulous reactions of disdain from around the world, from Turkish newspapers–who lamented the absence of their country, “Bu haritada Türkiye yok!” [There is no Turkey!]–to the sanguine observation of Mexican television stations, who noted with some disdain how “India was glued to Africa and Saudi Arabia” in the final composite, while remaining silent on whether it was a plus or minus that their own country was expanded and melded into a radially reduced South American continent.

Analyzing the map is beside the point, perhaps.  But the individual items, as much as the composites, suggest a devaluation of the drawn line as a unit of meaning in maps, perhaps tied to limited familiarity with reading mapped space or low expectations for cartographical detail or clear boundary lines.  And since being placed by Ziebell on Reddit, despite the small sample on which it was based, the composite made rounds world-wide as an illustration of geographic disinformation of a country that still prides itself on being a global superpower.  For the composite almost seems, in fact, about as accurate and as formalized and symbolic as “T-in-O” mappaemondi that depicted the inhabited world in the first printed maps before the discovery of America:  whatever sense of referentiality that the world map may have enjoyed, it seems to vanish if one looks at the mapping abilities of the folks Ziebell invited to map the earth’s surface among those he encounger on the U of M campus for his personal project for a pre-college program in fine arts.  In ways that suggest a neat cartographic collaboration, Zeibell scanned and combined he twenty-nine images drawn by pen with an image of his own creation, which he took as the basis to remold a NASA LandSat image of the world’s surface, by using Photoshop to fill the contours of received wisdom to see what sort of landmass would result within “the new forms of the continents” that resulted from his questionnaire.  In contrast the the blurry Rorschachs, the redistribution of satellite photography wierdly seems to invite us to inhabit what can only be described as a newly invented and radically reconfigured land, which, for viewers now familiar with futuristic maps of global warming, suddenly gains a sense of potential plausibility–until we realize its photoshopped nature:

Collective Sketch Maps

Thankfully, this image is inventing a landscape that we can only be inhabited for a short time; once posted on Reddit, the flattened projection is not of the earth’s continents or surface, but more is compelling as a projection suddenly talismanic of the deformed geographical sensibilities of folks in the United States.  But its photoshopped topographic realism offers  a perverse echo of how the Renaissance artist Stradanus’ fantasia of Amerigo Vespucci, pendant astrolabe in hand, inviting viewers to survey the luscious woods of a new continent and its bestiary, having debarked from his wind-pushed galleon to awaken an imaginary sleeping Amerindian, as he invited readers to enter the lush landscape of a newly discovered continent.

Vespucci Views American Landscape

As an art project, the resulting map suggests the wide availability of cartographical media at our disposal as well as it also illustrates an odd flattening of cartographical significance.  While these maps were surely not drawn by world travelers, or for the end of travel, they seem to empty the map of data in striking ways:  despite the somewhat detailed coherence of the continent of Australia, elision of the Persian Gulf or disappearance of South Asia is jarring, if perhaps less striking than the disappearance of Florida and apparent reappearance of the island of California.  The new land that viewers are asked to consider in the final composite eerily redraws the shorelines of the familiar world to a futuristic landscape of receding waters, contracted continents, and inflated landmasses, all betraying a striking lack of surety–as if divorcing data from the format of a map.

The off-the-cuff nature of world-mapping as a practice indeed suggests something of an anti-Ortelian populism in Ziebell’s synthesis of what seem numerous cartographical proposals of folks, to be sure, approached without any interest in their relative reliability–indeed Zeibell’s seems the one map that rooted his collection of map-images in something approaching a sense of cartographical accuracy–especially when it is comparison to the slap-dash doodles that many invited offered when asked to execute an image of the world map as best they were able by freehand, before leaving the High School student with a pretty sketchy world map in hand:

freehand map #3

Most striking might be the limited sense of points of interest on which to tether or ground the map, or any clear sense of the map as a bearer of any information:  if there is an obligatory notation of Atlantic islands above, the map seems a formalized image free of variables, and seems without informative content of its own.  (One can almost see the expressions on the faces of the multiple cartographers, wondering why in the world Zack would be asking them to draw such a thing of limited utility or meaning.)  The almost entire absence of few indices or bearings suggests a virtual absence of data in the map as a record and little authority for the map as a document.

“It is easier to have a map that is spelt right than one that has information in it,” Mark Twain wrote in his account of his world travels in the aptly-titled Following the Equator, when he sought to explain the arrival of the Maori in New Zealand from the region of modern Polynesia.  In describing how the first Maori might have reported news of their arrival in New Zealand, he pondered the route by which he communicated the route of discovery to his people so that they might successfully return to the new land of New Zealand:  “He told where he came from, but he couldn’t spell well, so one can’t find the place on the map, because people who cold spell better than he could, spelt the resemblance all out of it when they made them map.”  There is no equatorial line in the maps that Ziebel collected, or in the map he photoshopped from satellite photographs.  In a world where mapping one’s origins in space are of less clear value, is it possible that we have begun to map the resemblance of regions from the maps we make up?

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Filed under crowd-sourced maps?, Following the Equator, geographic literacy, hand-drawn maps, NASA Landsat Images, on-the-spot cartography, photoshopped maps

Landscape/Image/Map: Map-Making in Neolithic Çatalhöyük

“All maps have edges,” writes Margaret Atwood, noting that even slime-molds, bereft of a central nervous system, readily map adjacency. And although the notion of metric accuracy or or accurate indices are lacking–as is a frame–there is a distinct sense of mapping adjacency in the cave-painting or mural that has survived since circa 7000 BCE (6960±640 BCE) in the Konya region of Anatolia, in a valley that has  provided a site of intense archeological investigation of one of the earliest dense areas of human inhabitation.  Although we usually consider the map as both a reproduced and reproducible format–allowing it to be readily consulted and read by many–and have identified the rise of map making with the rise of the state–and might be warranted in seeing the recognizable role of mapping as foreign to the ancient world, the sense of mapping adjacency to the imposing Hasan Dağı range of mountains seems an extremely compelling case of the early mapping of adjacency, and of the boundaries of the known inhabited world.  Although embellished and given greater chromatic definition in this reconstruction now in Ankara’s Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, where it is regarded as a precious artifact of the Neolithic settlement, may be, according to new evidence, a paradigmatic record of how “place” becomes constituted by lived experience, and defined by the confluence of external events.

catalhuyuk-map1

This restoration and recreation of a Anatolian cave-painting found in one of the more densely inhabited sites of the Neolithic world has been presented by several generations of archeologists as the earliest map–probably because of its symbolic affinities with the transcription of dwelling homes or areas of residence.  The subject-matter of the Neolithic wall-painting is unclear, although it recalls a majestic panorama that befits its length of some three meters, and does suggest a considerable conscious attention and investment of energy in the division of its surface that seem to encrypt information in ways that address its viewer.

But what does it show?  Is the representation of an apparent mountain range a topographical representation of the mountains at the base of which extended a Neolithic settlement?  What the subject of has been contested since it was discovered in Abauntz cave in Central Anatolia.  The three-meter long cave painting reproduced above was first identified as a map with considerable excitement by the archeologist James Mellaart when he discovered it in 1964, and its scope is stunning.  But subsequent debates have contested his identification of the image.  Subsequent scholarly debates have contested Mellart’s identification of the image as inconclusive–as it must be–and have  alternately argued the mural was a symbolic abstraction or just an animal skin shorn of extremities, similar to nearby neolithic mural images, shown above a rectangular grid of no recognizable geospatial significance at all, rather than a specific landscape.  Yet the fascination of this image as a map has gained new supporters, even if many early attempts to find proof for classical objects that reveal a distinctly cartographical sensibility of symbolizing space–such as this rock, once taken as a representation of ancient Gaul by Otto Dilke, with drilled holes noting human settlements, mostly likely seem retrospective projections from a time when we have grown more habituated to map-use, or the relative leisurely learned activity of mapping.

Gaulish Rock?

Unlike this fairly undefined and unsigned artifact, the location of the Aubuntz mural on the side of cave where it seems to have been viewed–and in relation to a range of images in nearby cave-dwellings–the image appears to address the viewer in interesting ways, and to define its subject less in abstractly formal terms than propositionally, and even perhaps in relation to a natural event.  Drawing a map of space would have had little apparent analogous similarity to our own use or habits of viewing maps, which are so familiar to us we must be careful not to naturalize them.

Although interpretations contest the notion of its apparent division into plots or houses served as a map, they cannot deny it specific power as an image–and seek to explain its apparent cultic significance.  Expressing considerable visual tension, the image–even when shown below in a reconstruction from Ankara’s Museum of Anatolian Civilizations to better reveal its definition of a distinct visual field for observers, as if in a framed space–makes us think about what what sort of function the image would have and what readers it would address–although the Abauntz mural seems to have a scope and symbolic significance that parallel the early use of maps in Neolithic society that expanded from small villages–especially in such a populated a proto-city, one of the largest known to date, which includes many wall-paintings, some 8,000-10,000 year old.  The pictorial culture of the region suggests a deep visual concern with geometric designs.

The recent proposal that this mural indeed constitutes the world’s oldest surviving map made it likely that the image was created from the vantage of a town, probably on the northern side of the mountain, that would have been more threatened by the eruption than Çatalhöyük itself:  it seems to document the settlement at the very moment of the volcano’s eruption, or to commemorate the event in ways that would befit its presence in a cave that was associated with some sort of shrine or celebration.  It is unclear that there would have been a similar interest in commemoration, the most human of activities, but the event must have been terrifying.  The apparent naturalism of this distinctively painted image sharply contrasts to the apparently man-made line engravings on stone fragments in ways that make us ask about its performative function as a pictorial description that served to describe a region of early human settlement.

Çatalhöyük

This reconstruction clearly foregrounds the regular repetition of what seem serial reproduced rectangular land-plots or houses of fixed territorial bounds to suggest a system of measurement or mensuration in the Neolithic community.  But the contrast of the ostensible landscape and the background and the area of settlement, defined by demarcation, seems more striking than the suggestion that this painting is evidence of a systematic measurement of land-plots.  Mellaart’s original thesis that the mural constitutes the earliest cartographical construction–or map–of a specific geographical site has recently gained potentially critical and compelling new evidentiary support from an unlikely source–reopening these debates once more.  Findings that the mural was contemporary to the eruption of Hasan Dağı mountains which indeed appear represented in it pin the image to a geographically specific landscape and location.  The Hasan Dağı (or Mount Hasan) stratovolcano is distinguished by two peaks of similar elevation (3253 and 3069 m), forming Big and Small Mount Hasan, and might make this image a strikingly early example of a landscape-map we might associate with the engraved “bird’s-eye” views of cities most familiar from Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg’s compendious and copiously illustrated Civitates orbis terrarum that appeared in print in 1574.  Such a composed scene of an early area of inhabitation would, indeed, seem foreign to the views Braun and Hogenberg collected as artistic forms, but suggests an attempt to comprehend the relations, I would suggest, between the events of the explosion and the bounded settlement lying at the mountain range’s feet.

The skyline does not reflect  the situation of Hasan Dağı from the vantage of the modern or prehistoric Çatalhöyük, but the pairing of these two peaks in the mural as a horizon, revealing one mountain clearly erupting, seems an attempt to document a specific moment in time as a way to chart the place of human settlement nearby to the mountain range, in ways that define the specificity of its place in the manner of a map; the reconstructed geochronology places its eruption age at 6960±640 BCE, coeval with the settlement and occupation of Çatalhöyük as a region suggest the image was an early first-hand record of the observation of volcanic eruption.

Hasan1Hasan Dağı, photograph by Janet C. Harvey

 

Although the Neolithic wall-painting is a contender for the earliest map ever–predating Babylonian clay tablets.  Its depiction of the built settlements of some size at the base of two peaks also suggests a distinct consciousness of the prehistoric inhabitation as lying in precarious relation to the natural world.  What sort of vantage point in represents in relation to the twin peaks of Hasan Dağı is unclear; but  evidence and magma remains indicate a widespread eruption that would have been visible near its base when the area was populated, although the broader historical impact of explosions on the region in the Holocene demand further investigation.  The discovery that the magma from the Hasan Dağı mountains erupted at about the very time that the mural was painted also raises interesting questions about what status the mural might have had as a map, a personal testimony, a cultic image or very early landscape, and how the maker of the ostensible map might have regarded their mapping of an inhabited or settled space.

The mural has been hypothetically identified as an early form of scientific observation of the eruption of a volcano based on the comparison of geochronological dating with the archeological dating of the mural.  Realism is rarely associated with Neolithic art.  But the mural would, if it has been correctly identified, be something closer to an example of early landscape painting than a map–its field  densely packed and intricately detailed pattern, resembling a honeycomb, more than either an abstract pattern or animal skin.  The prospect is fascination that the image in fact reflected the historical settlement of Çatalhöyük before specific mountain ranges:  identification of the painting with a datable eruption in the Hasan Dağı mountain by carbon dating of the ash to the time of its last eruption, thought to have been inactive since circa 75000 BCE.  Can it be understood, one wants to ask,  as a first-person observation of Çatalhöyük, or a sort of site-specific reportage, and the dramatic and fearsome commemoration of a natural disaster?

Although Mellaart identified it with the eruption of a volcano of two peaks, the map has long been argued to be a substitution for and representation of a specific landscape–approaching an image, unlike the topographical renderings of mountains with the accuracy and indices of elevation that surveying tools might later allow.  Based on new evidence of hardened magma at the crater near the settlements, given that volcanic rocks can be usually expected to cool uniformly after eruptions, at the last eruption of the volcano–as if the mural might be more accurately described as a shock to the trauma of eruption, and the atmospheric and environmental turmoil that resulted, in ways that suggest that the “map” was a way of both processing and in a way compensating for the shock of the human disaster, and, if removed as a survey, of suggesting the destruction that the eruption was in danger of bringing to the repetition of sites of settlement to which humans had divided the land lying below the mountain range:  rather than a “bird’s-eye” view, the juxtaposition ostensibly offered a potentially disastrous meeting of natural disaster and human settlement.

 

catalhuyuk-map1

 

The crude geometric regularity of the odd lattice-form of the “map”-mural seems to recall a clear sense of a planned town or settlement of a surveyed form, perhaps echoing early plans of built environments.  But even if this were correct, as much as offering a map of settlement. But rather than simply function to map its situation, the mural would offer a historical record of the threat of that community’s cancellation, of the impending threat posed by volcanic ash and magma erupting from the volcanic peak at that single terrifying moment–when the built houses of human construction were threatened to be buried under the volcano’s sudden eruption and the arcs of ash and fire whose threatening and terrifying trajectories seem traced in the image.

Is this an impending catastrophe?  The evocation of loss works through the evocation of specific details, just as the image seems to evoke the potential loss of the human division of settled lands.  Much as Pliny the Younger in Letter 6.16 to Tacitus described an account of his uncle’s terrifying death “to posterity . . . in a devastation of the loveliest of lands, in a memorable disaster shared by peoples and cities” by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius after he rose from reclining for dinner with his books, having taken a sun bath and a cold bath, so as to get a better view of a white cloud rising with patches of ash and dirt that “rose into the sky on a very long ‘trunk’ from which spread some ‘branches.'”   Struck by the majestic sight of the explosion of Mt. Vesuvius he decided to save Tacitus’ wife from her a villa at Vesuvius’ foot, tempted both by the need to save his friend’s wife, and also by the possibility of taking advantage “continuous observation of the various movements and shapes of that evil cloud.”  Much as Pliny the Younger had paused, “dictating what he saw,” the mural seems to record the spewing of “broad sheets of flame” from the Hasan Dağı mountains, as if recording less of a landscape or topography than the precise historical moment when erupting volcanic ash threatened to bury the built settlement in the Çatalhöyük valley together with its many inhabitants.  Pliny wrote his account subsequently, at the request of Tacitus, but the image would probably have been drawn, also, considerably after the catastrophic event had occurred.

Indeed, it is tempting to read the mural that details the eruption of the volcano as having a very analogous dramatic content to how Pliny the Younger, in his famous letter, set the stage for his uncle’s process of decision-making at the very moment that he confronted the “danger from the rocks that were coming down, light and fire-consumed as these bits of pumice were.”   For Pliny described how his uncle, “weighing the relative dangers they chose the outdoors; in my uncle’s case it was a rational decision, others just chose the alternative that frightened them the least.” The Çatalhöyük mural seems particularly powerful when seen as a similar moment that forced its maker to preserve a moment of potentially catastrophic change–and its observer to decide whether to stand or to flee the erupting scene.  The image could be best described as a sort of “living landscape,” as well as simply as a map.

It is interesting to consider this earliest of scientific observations as being prefigured by the painter of the Çatalhöyük murals–and the image less as a landscape-map than a living image.  What the painter of the mural imagined must remain unclear, but the recent re-dating of the mural to the time of the eruption of the volcano in PLoS ONE used Carbon 14 dating–using (U-Th)/He zircon geochronology–radiometrically link the mural’s composition to the witnessing of the volcano’s historical explosion in ways that offer grounds to link this landscape image to an actual event in time–and not assume its formal intricacy recapitulated an abstract form or iconic rendering, linking it once more to a clearly specified community at the exploding volcano’s feet.

The dating of the mural may indeed recapitulate a map that might be understood as commemorating and directing attention to the drama of a moment of volcanic eruption, and the image of threatened reconfiguration of the landscape itself, rather than a static map.  Can the image be better understood as mapping a fixed historical moment, which the viewer is forced to process and remember?  For if its composition was a monumental way of coming to terms with the destructive events that the volcano’s last explosion wrought, this earliest of maps was a living image, recording of a moment of shock and readjustment of expectations, commemorating a sudden shift in the environment less than a record of a fixed spatial configuration, and confronting viewers with a single moment of impending environmental change.

Map Image-Keith ClarkeImage: Keith Clarke

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Filed under Çatalhöyük, Braun and Hogenberg's Civitates, Hasan Dağı mountains, mapping early human settlement, mapping human settlement, Mount Vesuvius, Neolithic Maps, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus

The Curtailed Circulation of Paper Charts

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Coast Survey has long issued authoritative charts of the nation’s coastal waters.  But from this coming Spring, that office of the Dept. of Commerce will cease to print the lithographic charts it has long reproduced on paper in such glorious precise detail.  What is billed as a major move of cost cutting no doubt reflects the dominance of electronic maps consulted on laptops or hand-held devices.  But it also will place a new emphasis on reading charts on the screen media and by comparisons to GPS, using computer screens exclusively rather than in consultation with paper charts.  Is the cost of charting the shifting form of coastlines worth the cost of ceasing production of revised maps?

As a response to the difficulties in reprinting up-to-date paper charts for sailors who often fail to purchase them, the Coat Survey has decided to shift only to distributing charts via on-demand printing, PDFs or electronic charts as of April 13, 2014, both to allow access to updated nautical charts, and allow access to digitized versions of the full range of coastal charts on NOAA servers.  Increased use of digital and electronic charts has dramatically diminished the profitability of commissioning individual lithographic maps, marking an end of an era of American cartography in print.  Yet does the close of a tradition of lithographic reproduction of maps effectively distance us from the delineation of coastal waters?  How crucial was the role of lithography as a medium to translate coastal measurement and tabulation into a recognized graphic format?  Or is the content of the chart so easily separable from the medium?

An online kerfuffle resulted from the announcement of curtailing the longstanding precedent of government-sponsored map printing in a cost-cutting move, and offering of maps only in downloadable form.   The suspension of the paper lithographic charts over which NOAA long exercised a sort of monopoly–and set a standard of the accuracy of nautical cartography–is difficult to take.  It seems, for one, perhaps the final extension of the dominance of online maps and mapping, and to reflect the dominance of laptops or tablets as navigational tools–something that few outside the world of practiced sailing would have imagined as a use for those media.  Although there will be a guaranteed possibility of print-on-demand charts (POD’s), ceasing to print those beautifully detailed lithographs appears a victory for the digitized map-use, most often associated with the digitized format of servers like Google Maps.  While not subtracting the paper map from circulation, it leaves most folks dependent on the two-inch screens of Palms, tablets, or laptops, with built-in Garmin chartplotters or other GPS systems in a sort of snazzy interface.  Indeed, the shift in the circulation of maps has potential reverberations for map literacy and readership, by removing chart-reading from the sort of intense engagement such as pencil marks, course lines, erasures, or time marks that were so long the norm on paper charts.

Are the knee-jerk reservations about ending the printing of lithographic charts based, we might ask, on a romantic the fetishization of the coastal chart–those truly beautiful creations?  It might as well merely register a changing threshold of map literacy.  The most compelling reason is the dominance of a new sense of interface that downloaded maps allow, as well as to keep pace with the expanding number of on board on-line devices from laptops to smart phones.  When GPS allows one to plot one’s global position at sea with an accuracy of within some 16 feet, the nautical chart seems to lose its accuracy.  Although the reactions to NOAA’s s Office of Coast Survey has been quick and often lamented the end of the nautical lithograph, the decision to stop the production of nautical charts is not only regretted.  Indeed, DuckWorks magazine has called paper charts the most dangerous thing for navigators–both in preserving a sense of incorrect measurements and obstructing access to the most up-to-date accurate cartographical information with a direct GIS interface, as another ghost of information worlds past.

Yet if downloadable charts promise an end to the problem of the inaccuracy of outdated maps, the medium also suggests a distinctly different notion of encoding data in nautical charts, now often restricted to the parameters of the medium of consultation–Tablet, handheld GPS device, or even iPhone–that seems the inevitable consequence of the shift in attitudes toward the disappearing the materiality of the nautical chart.  Even if Jeff Siegle of DuckWorks powerfully centers the debate around the “chart-image” rather than the medium, in an era when it’s a truism that “the medium is the message,” doesn’t the shift to downloading digitized versions of coastal charts onto slippy screens suggest a shift in the “period eye” by which we plot expanse on maps?

As screens of laptops are increasingly the primary forms for plotting navigational routes, and the use of chartplotter products or other apps remove the physical map from its centrality as a tool of noting changes in coastline, wreckage, or debris.  The consultation of paper maps is a rarity in an age of the coastal navigation by GPS, and the increasing role of on-line computers on board most ships.  In contrast to the security of the information on monitors, and use of apps as much as instruments, create a new sense of how we interact with nautical space; the frequent revision of paper charts create a sense that the map may often be outdated or incorrect.  Indeed the very iterability of the map–and the monthly updates that NOAA has come to release monthly probably made the choice to go online incumbent–is of a piece with the downloading of updated versions from their server.  Over time, paper charts have been less often consulted in relation to screens, and offer unwieldy forms of interface.  Even if the ability of reprinting of future charts from PDF’s of comparable durability is not that clear,  NOAA will certify print-on-demand chart sellers; the market for paper maps has dramatically shrunk as the authority of the printed chart has eroded over time in comparison to the electronic charting tools.

The announcement to cease printing paper charts seems another page in the “end of maps”–or at least of the lithographic staples that provided a basis to note different observations, routes of travel, or changing plumb-line depths of waters.  The announcement is perhaps not surprising, but suggests a conspiring of reduced funding after federal budget crises, decreased commercial demand, and the victory of the touchscreen viewer as a medium for plotting course have led to the end of unfolding a chart to read expanse, despite the huge distances regularly needed to be covered in nautical travel.  Could one ever depend on a touchscreen format or the individual tiles of a slippery screen’s surface, however, as a medium that allowed one to contemplate or project a course of nautical travel with similar expansiveness?  Practiced sailors lament that the map, while perhaps not a primary guide, augmented skills of orientation with “added redundancy” not only as a check, on which sailors were able to fall back, even as captains relied upon more easily updated electronic charts NOAA released on their servers.  When GPS crashes or goes out, doesn’t one have the same ability of control over one’s course–and a broader framework for judging course–on a paper chart?  But the medium of the printed maps faces an uphill battle in an age of GPS, when the use of dividers to plot bearings seems as rare as astronomical bearings.

Bill Griffin, general manager of Fawcett Boat Supply in Annapolis, Maryland, doubts that “any prudent mariner is going to have paper charts,” and refused to see his own line of sales of paper charts as declining:  “I don’t see paper going away anytime soon.”  Yet others are ready to celebrate the paper chart’s decline and say goodbye to an antiquated medium.  Maine captain Jeff Siegle, who sails regularly on a coastline “strewn with the remnants of sunken vessels that went aground on the rocks, believes that the second most dangerous thing to have aboard a ship is a paper map.  When advanced chartplotter software such as Coastal Explorer reliably record nautical position automatically, the electronic form of mapping allows a degree of interactive reading of the map that contains all the abilities for leaving notations that paper maps possessed, and an active interface with other digital media.  The electronical mapper from a radar pilot, moreover, allows one to visualize position on a screen that one can readily mark:

Electronic Mapper from Radar

Yet is one not sacrificing a degree of map literacy, including the depths taken by plumb lines from boats, that defined earlier NOAA maps, combined with local visible topography?  In maps such as this section of the existing chart of the Valdez Bligh Reef, one finds a path without latitude or longitude in electronic maps, and a far more static rendering of space.  Are we too accommodated to reading a Google Earth interface to negotiate the business of specific details included in the paper chart, or of how a sailor might process his relation to nautical expanse, or are things like the sounding of ocean depths simply TMI once one has registered one’s path?

Valdez Bligh Reef Chart

The sense of scale that a paper chart might afford of the surrounding waters intuitively seems more accessible than the more restrictive reading of an electronic map, as the unfolding of a larger map of the region seems to afford a degree of spatial legibility that stands to be increasingly sacrificed with the diffusion of small-screen tablets, whose ability for zooming in and zooming back seem less easy to map against the area where one is traveling.  Even when one has full access to all the PDF’s of NOAA on one’s own two-inch handheld palm pilot, tablet or iPhone the circumscribed screens of display threaten to remove their readers from a greater context, or a familiarity with shorelines, removed as it is from the encyclopedic detail of the synthesis of measurements that are encoded on the paper chart.  If paper charts were rarely utilized on many ships, eclipsed as they were by electronic charts, retiring the chart seems a sacrifice that responds to the dominance of our habituation to track, zoom in, pan, and zoom out that the static image on the paper chart does not allow.

Even if “We know that changing chart formats and availability will be a difficult change for some mariners who love their traditional paper charts, but we’re still going to offer other forms of our official charts,” Capt. Shep Smith, responsible for the US Coastal Survey’s division of Marine Charts, put the best face on the circumscription of his services to the provision of PDF’s. Given that “advancements in computing and mobile technologies give us many more options than was possible years ago,” the ability to make maps available for anyone to download created a sense of accessibility and widespread distribution of charts always able to be updated–what is more dangerous on a boat than an out of date chart?–and allowed the world of nautical charting to migrate into the most popular interface of our age.  It’s great to download an accurate PDF of the entrance to San Francisco Bay, NOAA Chart 18649–“Entrance to San Francisco Bay.”  On it,  one can find the content of earlier charts, or zoom into details at different scales, as much as its relative pixellation will allow, maneuvering in virtual form across the multicolored screen as a surrogate for moving through space.  What is lost by a lack of the broader context of the chart or its interface with compass seems as odd as the sextant–or the cavalry and bayonets which Barack Obama cleverly invoked in response to Mitt Romney’s unwarranted concerns for our navy’s size.

The use of tablet computers and GPS chartplotters on both larger, commercial vessels and pleasure boats suggests a different approach to the encoding of information in nautical charts, and indeed in using the map as a basis to plot routes of travel, which are frequently confined to repeated pathways.  But the frequent compression of the huge amount of graphic detail on one’s bearings to the form of a small screen–and the need to invest in a large enough screen to view the PDF in a visible form, or to find outlets where downloads can be printed on durable paper.

Golden Gate Chart

To be sure, the general differentials of depth are easily observed, lying as they do around Treasure Island, the pivot point of the Bay Bridge, but lines are less easily traced, measurements be noted for future sailors, or just for oneself, to be stored in a drawer, cabin shelf, or brought ashore for future examination.  As we store fewer hard copies of maps, how does this change our relation to the map as an object, or change the storage and circulation of cartographical records that one can consult?  Does the rise of digital mapping, as feared, decrease the sort of exchange, augmentation, and criticism of the cartographical sources or to the base-map?

The age of celestial navigation that first encouraged the rise of paper charts might be traced to the rise of a mathematics of charting nautical position whose need no longer exists with GPS services and the availability of electronic maps.  If the eulogy of the Salem Marine Society for Nathaniel Bowditch, author of the American Practical Navigator (1802) that featured expanded tables for navigation proclaimed that “the name of Dr. Bowditch shall be revered as one who has helped his fellowmen in time of need, who was and is a guide to them over the pathless oceans” and needed “no monument” to be kept alive “as long as ships shall sail, the needle point to the north, the stars go through their wonted courses in the heavens,” the expansive coastline that Bowditch traced from the Caribbean islands in his “Epitome of Navigation,” the pathless oceans now seem to have paths and positions without bearings.

Bowditch-1st-edition

The broader canvas of Bowditch’s actual chart covered the entire Atlantic, over which he sought to provide tables of reckoning to tabulate navigational position within a frame of longitude and latitude that could be readily consulted, charting an oceanic expanse from coast to coast, linking the ports on its facing shorelines, framing a totality not easily processed or comprehended on even a wide screen:

Bowditch Atlantic

What are we saying farewell to, if not an idea of reading an expansive map in paper form that can be readily preserved in the observatory of a boat, and displayed to its passengers, and to a shift in how one stores one’s own nautical maps of a course one often knows relatively well, and navigates over time?  The new basis for map-use (and map legibility) suggests both a far more limited field and a less personalized basis for translating personal tacit familiarity in plotting course to the map’s format, and a far diminished intersection of map with travel lines, once limited to parameters of backlit screens that offer limited opportunities for convenient collective consultation, or for unfolding to gain a broader sense of nautical course or compass lines.  Even if we are easily able to plan courses and trace routes on electronic screens by grease pencils directly on the surface of a screen in ways that can be easily erased, and download new updates of paper charts onto a handheld, and measure distances with nautical tools atop screens, if not rely on apps, does zooming in and out on screens of electronic form offer the broader contextual that a paper chart provided?  While I doubt  that as a landlubber, I can truly say,one worries that the end of the translation of nautical measurements to the sort of graphic syntax that lithographic maps long offered are truly as easily preserved in pixellated form.

New NOAA mapping format

While the interface of an electronic map with GPS may be a read herring to the downloading of charts as PDF’s , the display of data in electronic maps that is centered around the position of a ship or vessel on ocean waters seems to abstract the vessel from its surroundings:  the display of data in electronic maps is constructed about geospatial position in ways that antiquates the role of reading a chart in order to determine nautical trajectory or course, by centering the screen around ship’s location rather than immersing the reader in a system or abilities of measurement. The victory of the medium of display seems a victory of the ready-made–if not a lazy model of map making.  Like the self-driving Google Car, indeed, the courses of travel on coastal waters are not only almost mechanized on most ferries, or among commercial pilots, whose routes of travel are increasingly computerized, or driven in ways plotted and tracked on digitized maps.

The trimming down of NOAA would no doubt shock its founder, Thomas Jefferson, or William Maury, whose intensive coastal surveys synthesized new nautical knowledge in important ways.  Moreover, in an age of global warming–when we need clear precedents of water-levels and coast detail as something like a benchmark for future decades, the production of paper maps hardly seems an appropriate bureaucratic penny-pinching.  The decreased production of paper maps suggests not only a new use of the map as a basis for record keeping, but a decline in the literacy of reading the detail of our formerly exacting coastal surveys from the days of 1862.

But the very shifting of our coast-lines also suggest the need to provide readily available updates of the configuration of coastlines (who would have thought it?) in the wake of meteorological events like Hurricane Sandy or super-typhoon Haiyan, which call for the immediate remapping of a coastal bearings. And the digitized versions of these maps would offer a clearer interface with newly emerging weather patterns, not to mention the scattering on coastlines of debris from nuclear reactors.  At stake is, essentially, whether electronic charts or downloadable PDF’s offer a format removed from the tactile knowledge that is considered the basis of nautical navigation.  If the basis, it is not the sine qua non, but it does provide an  eery bit of evidence of the colonization of GSI of the world of the ocean seas, as the ocean approaches a form of ready scanning and tiling that stands at a far remove from the tactile sense of unknown otherness once associated with them.

With the dominance of the practice of mapping actual position, we may sacrifice the notion of the structuring of voyages exploration along routes of known islands plotted on a global, rather than a local, surface, one senses, together with specific ways of mapping travel in oceanic space or the ocean as a distinctly different medium of travel.

800px-1544_Battista_Agnese_Worldmap

But the question of how we will continue to navigate our coasts with safety of necessity depends more on understandings of precision and efficiency than it is to the range of options of nautical travel.

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Filed under chartplotters, Downloadable maps, Google Car, Google Maps, GPS, Joseph Nigg, Nathaniel Bowditch, Office of Coast Survey, San Francisco Bay