Monthly Archives: October 2019

The New World in Practice: Placing Columbus in a New World

Christopher Columbus’ transatlantic voyages assume problematic status as part of a “discourse of discovery.” We must ritually contest that link as long as the observance of Columbus Day continues, to debate the value of commemorating the Genoese navigator.  Columbus has become a lens to refract as much as come to terms with contentious legacies of colonialism and colonization, rooted in deep problems of the recognition of the other–and the inhabitants of other lands and the longstanding glorification–if not sanitization–of European arrival in the Americas, and to claim that place on the famous Waldseemüller map–as questions of the migration of royal authority across the oceans created an enduring concern, planting the flag of authority overseas was a truly cartographic problem: the spatial migration of Portuguese royal authority reflected recent discovery of a Spice Route around by Vasco da Gama.  The Christian migration of royal authority over space, along rhumb lines and nautical travels and perched atop sea monsters as much as fish, was a repeated topos of cartographic tradition that not initiated by Martin Waldseemüller,–

Waldseemüller world map, 1515
https:/Tabula Nova partis Africae, in Lorenze Fries’ reduced woodcut of Waldseemuller, (1541)

–but in its origins deeply literary and even scriptural.

It was inherited, after all, from the refiguration of the new world Genoese sailor Christoforo Colombo–latinized as befits a discourse of discovery as Columbus–and celebration of his transatlantic journey on three caravels. And in New York City’s Columbus Circle, constructed shortly after the erection of the Liberty statue in New York harbor stood as a welcome sign to recent waves of immigrants, the monument to the Italian navigator’s discovery was erected; the encounter was monumentalized as an auspicious arrival of a man who seems to proclaim the New World’s settlement before a group of shrinking natives, who retreat behind foliage, in statuary made in Rome for the quadricentennial of 1892.

The Colombian arrival inspires something like an immediate obeisance, in this fantasy of encounter, that is legitimized by the banner of Spain, not Portugal, from which natives witness only from foliage, as if in awe of the arrival, while he is tranquil and equinanimous as Columbus strides on the New World. His robed presence, as if hardly worse for wear after transatlantic travel dominates the scene of arrival in the foundation to the seventy foot column on which he stands–in this monumental image funded by the Italian-American newspaper il Progresso as a monument that affirms assimilation and longstanding presence in American life–showing the navigator as an arriviste, setting foot on the shores without any wear for travel–

–in an iconic image of the arrival of civilization in an uncivilized land, even if his Catholic religious identity is suppressed.

The image of Columbus as an “indicator” of the path to colonization and the New World is drenched in blood, shown as he most often is removed from any geographical context, guarding a globe close to his body in a proprietorial manner. While the iconography of Columbus often–and insistently–depicts him as detached from the world, or as the incarnation of a cartographic imaginary of control over terrestrial space, if not of possession of the space of a terrestrial sphere, armillary sphere, and dividers, and the restoration of a new era of world history–the mastery conferred by the globe seems the division and distinction between self and other, as the tools of western civilization are aligned with the sailor.

And so, the celebration of Columbus Day offers a basis to revisit the contours and celebration of that world history, and examine the question of world making that carried so much weigh, and symbolic power, even though much of the world has been far removed from white, male hands.

1. We can imagine the difficulty of processing the extent of the Atlantic Ocean in earlier times, but the very idea of “discovery”–“a dude discovered America?  c’mon, like it didn’t already exist??!!?“–poses questions of privilege and race, in ways we are challenged to come to terms–or even perhaps fully admit. Questions of naming, mapping, and sovereignty, questions that are central to the debate about public statuary of Columbus–and the commemoration of Columbus Day, but already were addressed in the figuration of first contact with the New World, if in ways far more different and distinct than they were once celebrated as islands in the first accounts of the New World in De Insulis super in mari Indico repertis (1494).

For if the image of Columbus as surveying space from an empiric remove with complete equanimity was recapitulated in the quadricentennary by Italian Americans who elevated Christofoo atop a seventy foot pedestal, in New York City’s Columbus Circle, in a piece of Roman statuary created with funds raised by the Italian-American newspaper Il Progresso as an emblem of Italian American mmigrant achievement, in a statue thirteen feet tall in stature \sculpted in Rome by Gaetano Russo, as if to respond to the recently erecged Statue of Liberty; standing on terra firma, and not in the Harbor, atop a granite column adorned by bronze prows and sterns of  the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, the three caravels by which he sailed to a New World, Columbus seems to inscribe the new land for Europeans in statuary that recapitulated Eurocentric maps,an aerial view in facing south to survey New York harbor that anticipated the mapping of the New World.

But is is in fact surveying not an ocean, but the increasingly commercially congested area of Columbus Circle in ways that once may have been majestic, but is now almost overwhelmed by surrounding steel and glass monumentalism, from Trump International to the Time Warner Center, modern monuments beside with the statue seems quaint, and a relic removed in time.

Yet the monumental detachment of the figure of Columbus from the world–and from his surroundings–a point that the Italian Americans sponsoring the monument seem intent to foreground, by elevating the figure of Columbus as a complement to the 1886 arrival of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, whose height of just over a hundred yards set a new standard for civic monuments, seems at the maximum potential height to be still visible from the ground, supported by the bronze anchors and ships’ prows that provided the evidence of the voyage that elevated his global status.

Yet does this remove Columbus from the drama of articulating the new map of colonial possessions in the new globe?

The problem of viewing the New World from afar was one that maps provided tools to address, but abilities of reading space on a map–let alone reading the networks of space that we readily digest from airplane route maps or Google Maps–were so foreign to being internalized that we must look beyond questions of cartographic literacy or the power of maps.  The ability to frame–and indeed unite–the Atlantic in what might be called the “first” spherical age of global mapping, although the globes only circulated among quite elite audiences, was based on a new epistemology of proximity, as the frame of the map–of a scale and expanse that was previously communicated only in the nautical map,–a fairly arcane document of professional use and expert reading, not legible to most, and drafted on sheepskin or vellum, and rarely exhibited to large audiences, or able to be read by then–suddenly migrated to a new audience of readers and a new reading public who rarely read maps or used maps as tools to process terrestrial (or territorial) expanse, but credibly stake sovereign claims to possession.  

2. We might do well to ask, in looking at them, what sort of work is done by images like maps, and the claims to sovereignty encoded in the islands that bore the names of sovereign but floated disembodied in a global sea in the Hunt-Lenox Globe–a small globe whose careful worksmanship suggested the power of contemplating the newly “discovered” lands.

New Islands Lenox Globe

Hunt-Lenox Globe, ca. 1510/courtesy New York Public Library

For the mapping of the New World posed the almost existential questions of situating those individual mariners who sailed the highly maneuverable crafts of caravels across the Atlantic ocean, even before the “naming” of America.

Detail of engraved Hunt-Lenox Globe, ca. 1510/ from the 3D model
produced by Digital Scholarship Lab of University of Rochester

All of which should force more attention to the informational value of maps as transitional records, as much as the contents that they bear. Consuming, digesting, and materializing trans-Atlantic expanse was not only deeply challenging; it encouraged or taught abilities to mediate royal authority across vast oceanic waters, reframing relations of sovereign to land in ways that frontispiece to the first editions of his Letter rehearsed and sought to recapitulate by its iconography of a monarch observing from his throne indigenous peoples overseas where the three caravels arrived.  The rule over these islands was, perhaps, more easy to understand or perpetuate than sovereign rule over a new continent.

But rule over a continent is rich in the modern imagination, and perhaps offers a new optic for Columbus Day. When Donald Trump, as sitting U.S. President, outright celebrated national commemoration of “the legendary achievements of an intrepid Italian explorer,” defending the federal holiday against the proposed renaming of the holiday as Indigenous People’s Day, he seemed to relish the prospect of uniting the nation around its celebration. But in citing the “daring spirit that built our great civilization” as a foundational myth celebrated from Columbus Circle in Manhattan to Columbus, Ohio, he exploited a fault line running through the nation, in fact quite divided, and was promoting the further division of the nation. The divisions are sharp among the eleven states where Indigenous People’s Day is recognized, and the “defense” of observing, as if to defend native land: by no small coincidence, the celebration of Columbus Day mirrors the “heartland” Trump professes such ties–if it is also contested in the very red states in the map that Trump may be addressing, and seems pretty clear to be lying prominently in his head.

The foundational image of observing the holiday is not only restricted to the interior–and where the pedestal of Columbus in Columbus Circle was recently declared a national monument.

The image of an “attack” on Columbus Day Commemorations has become a bit of red meat for the white electorate, fearful of a changing national map–and the growing cities and schools opting to pass or consider resolutions to question its observance, questioning bearing witness to the seizure of lands and their violent conquest. as cities across thirty-four states observe Indigenous People’s Day, a concept introduced in Berkeley, CA, on the quadricentennary of 1992.

If the commemoration of Columbus Day is described as “under attack figuratively, and increasingly, literally,” in way that reverse the figure of the invasion of the New World and new world peoples, in response to the national project in re-remembering the navigator’s first of four expeditions of enslavement, land seizure, and unleashing smallpox, measles, and influenza to a continent they had not earlier existed, killing up to 95% of indigenous populations in the Americas. If the questioning of Columbus Day is leading to its abolition in many cities–

–the geography of division has never been more pronounced than in Trump’s America, as we almost forget what was being mapped in the discovery of the New World, so fearful are many of recasting the navigator as “a rapacious pillager and a genocidal maniac,” as if this were an attack on rationality, insulting the allegedly pious motivations of conversion that had long enobled Columbus’ oceanic voyages as a mission of vandalization. At the very moment that the legality of Trump’s acts as ahead of state are questioned, insisting on the vision of Columbus as a historical figure who must be removed from ethical examination was classic Trump.

Fot the figure of Columbus as an intermediary of royal authority over a global context was the first image to preface Columbus’ legendary epistolary accounts of the New World. The tension between a throned man in the lower left hand of the frame–the Spanish monarch Ferdinand–and the naked natives in thatched grooves is linked by the intermediaries of the four sailors in one of three caravels at the shore of these islands with palms.  If the woodcut suggests a division between its left and right registers, they overlap in a vision of a domesticated nature, at the base of the woodcut, extending at the foot of the enthroned monarch who dispatched the caravels, and the exoticized nature of the New World, far removed but imagined as if continuous with it, in a pictorial rendition of the continuity of the mapped globe. The most striking apsect of the frontispiece to Columbus’ letters remains the bridging of the ocean by a gesture, a representation of transatlantic communication, as if in the royal gesture could bridge the seas.

3. The discussion by Waldseemuller and Ringman in the first printed maps of the discoveries described the newly discovered region, America, as “an island, inasmuch as it is found to be surrounded on all sides by the seas,” the discovery of America by Columbus was quickly heralded as fulfilling a prophecy of empire, and indeed the mapping of discovery was taken as having evidentiary support in literary predictions of imperial expansion, as a “land beyond the stars, beyond the paths of the years and the sun,” and the concretizing of claims of discovery were figured in artistic terms, before cartographic ones, so difficult was it to assimilate the New World that lay at the imposition of a flag representing the state at such an actually unimaginable considerable spatial remove–as well as the process of naming this new land as an extension of the influence of the Portuguese crown across a previously unmeasurable space.

A cartouche off the coast of this new continent describes how the land appeared suddenly, “at this very spot to the fourteen ships that the King had sent from Portugal to Calicut,” still of “unknown size,” but whose naked inhabitants provide, implicitly, targets of conversion in a spatially separated but not necessarily removed continent, where the tools of mapping offered tools of domination, a counterpart to the routes to the Spice Islands that the Portuguese monarch had already claimed, and the spatially removed networks of trade in pepper that had enriched German merchants, and the preparation of the map has been recently understood as a reflection of the interests that German merchants had in promoting Portuguese trading interests by diminishing Spanish hopes to discover an alternate route to the Spice Islands, rather than a new continent, as much as a disinterested declaration of cartographic abilities: such formulations did not exist, in the sixteenth century, as America was already a focus of political and economic interests in a global web of commerce. But the insularity of this new “America” was well established in literary terms, and derives from De Insulis super in mari Indico repertis (1494), the first collection of Colombian letters, a powerful literary precedent.

Panel of Universalis Cosmographia, Martin Waldseemüller wall map dated 1507

The woodcut map was itself richly literate, and adorned by text. It could be that the map served offered an argument of spatial navigation and nautical travel. But the 1507 map was articulated a notion of sovereign authority , as much as spatial measurability or of nautical measurement. Only by the end of the century would Edward Wright, in a treatise on the errors of sailors, explain the mathematical transformation of global space in the Mercator projection that set longitude and latitude at right angles, and advocating sailors to make their own charts; the image of sailing along curved lines of longitude and latitude–intersecting at right angles on a curved surface–rather explained how a Catholic monarch in Lisbon could send ships across the ocean and transport and impose faith in the New World: Vespucci, whose education and trade Waldseemüller celebrated in his map cartouche, and whose travels on a Portuguese mission go acknowledged in the use of his name for the new continent, but whom Waldseemüller didn’t know, offered tools able to be shared in Europe that moved across networks of learning to translate Colombus’ first descriptions of a “tierra firme, grandissima, de que hasta oy no se a sabido,” into a marvel of terrestrial extent.

Marvels offered a discourse to grasp new worlds, and their possession. When the Genoese sailor Colombo passed the Orinoco, he marveled at the extent of outflow of the “great” river’s waters into the Atlantic ocean, and led him to marvel at discovering an “other world” to the Spanish Catholic monarch who was his patron, announcing fulsomely that the lands that might be possessed by the monarch outside his realms’ sovereign boundaries, marveling that the waters of “tan grande rio” might well have flowed from Paradise–as was confirmed to him by the considerable beauty of trees and animals at its delta; the marvel of the inhabitants of the land led the Venetian ambassador to Spain, Domenico Pisani, to marvel at its beautiful, naked inhabitants in 1501.

Vespucci marveled at the lands from which he had returned in 1502 as “deserving to be called a new world as knowledge of them was unknown to previous generations and about which is entirely new to those who hear about them [novum mundum appellare licet, quando apud maiores nostros nulla de ipsis fuerit habita cognitio et audientibus omnibus sit novissima res],” as a true continent more densely populated than Europe or Africa, he made a proposition of the value to colonize it.

2. The exact but simple instruments Vespucci used offered an ability to contract the considerable the spatial remove of this land, which earlier accounts seem to have left open as a question and a challenge. If the simple perspective bridged an oceanic remove, in the woodcut that prefaced Columbus’ letters, it had also invented the notion of transatlantic sovereignty, across space and sovereign borders, in the very first image that introduced Columbus’ letters from the marvels of the New World and its inhabitants, adopting a new relation to a New World.

Ferd II of Spain observes New World

As the set of letters bridge the New World and the Old, extending across the globe, in what we must take as a first image of globalism, they prepare the notion of the legibility of the map, able to bridge huge global distances, and the virtual continuity it frames between the Atlantic as a navigable space and a unified sovereign domain: the image of sovereignty that the frontispiece seems to celebrate, and declare, present the medium of letters as a basis to bridge space, and to perform a geographic transit across a network of sovereign rule, enacting the very claims of sovereignty that the naming of the islands perpetuates, and that the broad objections to the discourse of discovery, and the “discovery” of the Americas, presents.

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Loopy Maps to Rationalize Random Shut-Offs?

The adoption of random power shut-offs to stop fires spread of fires in California reveals a level of poor management and lack of any coherent strategy for climate change. Unannounced shut-offs for “public safety” reflects deep insecurity of climate change and an unpreparedness to deal with a climate crisis we have not even been able to acknowledge or even fully recognize–and a lack of imagination, creativity, and foresight, as well as an abandonment of the long-term view.

The lack of imagination in preparing Californians for this year’s fire season stands in contrast to the many things learned about confronting fires’ spread, fire risk, and spark-driven fires, the long-term planning that distinguish not only many Californians but the state government. Both run sharply against the tenacity of PG&E to retain a coherent monopoly on providing power across the state–and that its control remains in “the long-run interests of all customers in the communities we serve.” The flexibility demanded to examine the changing settlement patterns of Northern California, and the protection of wildlands that have defined the state, are far more complex than the expansive maps of potential electric outages across extra-urban areas PG&E provided users as the gustiness of the first winds that marked the start of the 2019 Fire Season.

Columnists have little helped by offering more disorienting click bait pronouncing on a questionable future for California as a state–the “end of California as we know it!”–as if the poor preparation for the fires area a rewriting of geography–rather than the other way around. For they cast local intransigence as if this distinguishes a state known for its innovation and accommodation to climate extremes. A sense of emergency cast “California’s problems” as a local tension of intransigence and idealism–can climate emergencies ever be local?as argued by Farhad Manjoo, a technology and media columnist turned opinionator for the New York Times, living in northern California, with almost Lutheran predestination, stemming from illusions of “endless water” and “endless space,” as if this mistaken mindset lay at the root of the fires. The argument as obscuring of the actual landscape as the now notorious outage maps, whose aqueous lines snakes up extra-urban areas as if to indicate a seas of liability for an already underwater utilities company, obscuring deep environmental changes intersecting with global warming.

Manjoo harps on twin misconceptions long embedded in the state’s cultural history for his readers–echoing Kevin Starr and others before Mike Davis indicted the poor management of natural resources. Manjoo’s recent apocalyptic recitation of “the end of California” blamed poor local planning for challenges of a new landscape of a drying state that faces deep that obscures the creativity to climate, and environment, that are occurring in the state. And it seems oblivious of deep–and increasingly steep!–challenges of a lack of precipitation mirroring the very contours of the state–

California Studies Blog/Weather Underground

–that are being confronted in the current firescape, and must be confronted rather than writing columns that wring one’s hands at a mindset that led to the current levels of poor fire management policies or tax cuts, or an image of the boundless “wild” that has been associated with the state long seen as one of America’s wild edges.

If “wildness” as we know it has become less clearly bound in California that it once was, or was by those who celebrated the state as a new seat of wildness that would have been celebrated by Thoreau, but was accessible to all, the very notion of the “wild” has been challenged by the persistent lack of rain that has so curtailed subsurface water supplies so dramatically to starve trees, brush, and grasslands to be rendered increasingly vulnerable to fire. For the true emergence of how the parched landscapes of California have increasingly intersected with power lines that carry increasingly high energy loads to extra-urban areas has enabled the new pyrogeography of the state,–

–more than the mindset of legislators dragging their legs due to reluctance to raise property taxes, or even the evil deceptive realtors who have jiggered fire insurance rates to artificial lows that invited home buyers quite deceptively into suddenly fire-prone areas which they are only forced to evacuate regularly before the rapidly changing topography of extra-urban firestorms as the division between wildlands and cities is increasingly blurred–both in California, where the regions of what environmental biologists decided to treat as a new habitat and ecosystem of “Wildland-Urban Interface” has revealed itself as a new fire system in the twenty years from 1990 to 2010–

Wildland-Urban Interface in California, 1990-2010

–as it has grown extensively during the same period across much of the United States in our current age of extra-urban property development.

There is almost a gleefulness in attributing blame on local mindsets as not “currently designed [to] survive the coming climate,” such heavy handed criticisms conceal the fact that, more than elsewhere in America, in California, the climate crisis is a crisis in which much of the state is in fact already engaged–or how the densely forested geography of the state alligned with the driest years on record across a significant span of six years. For the outlines of the state of California have bizarrely become something of an experimental model for climate extremes, creating extreme levels of drought across the state 2012-16–a period that must be understood not as 2012-17 “drought” but as a massive change across the state in groundwater storage with statewide consequences.

Can one understand the difficulty of reacting to the current fires, and indeed the expansion of fire seasons, without this geography of water depletion? The new pyrogeography redefined the state’s threshold of fire readiness in response to the increased intensity, spread, and duration of fires, and its ability to spread over huge swaths of combustible terrain that coincided presicely with the administrative boundaries of the state.

California Studies Blog/Weather Underground
 U.S. Drought Monitor/

Ever since Mike Davis attacked California for suffering a deep crisis of identity that left them unprepared for sustained drought, at the end of the 1987-92 drought, when he famously cautioned the danger of a return to extreme drought, the site of California as a site of purely “natural” disaster is as easily called into question–as the problem of the relation between extra-urban expansion and a drying out wildland becomes increasingly in evidence, not only in Southern California–the focus of Davis’ polemic on ecological management, The Ecology of Fear (1998), but the growth of fires in the very woodland-urban interface Davis described that has expanded in Northern California to generate increased risk of fire across such large swaths of the state–far outside of Malibu, whose strategies of fire-suppression he savaged in ways that won much push-back, but raised alarm.

The lack of attention to the very geography Mike Davis rightly bemoaned decades ago as having been poorly understood by preservationist environmentalists or by wildfire experts has in turned provoke shutting off above-ground transmission lines as “preventive” measures. The map, while fairly opaque, and indeed so opaque to lead to tail-spins of searches for more accurate maps, used tiers of fire threats, as much as climate science or accurate weather predictions, ranked by the California Public Utilities Commission that PG&E was allegedly accountable. But they raise far deeper questions of whether such ignition be managed by power shut-offs–and the poor quality of outage maps as a metric of wildfire risk, and how questions of liability obscure the incommensurate goals of the for-profit company with the public interests of the state and its residents.

While these are not measures of risk, of course, so much as based on them, it seems important to observe that such maps reveal and create a further alienation from the landscape of fire danger, that seem themselves a clear betrayal of public trust and custodianship of fire danger, independently from the terrifying question of how many of the actual fires began from failures in weakened, damaged, or aging transmission lines that were part of the infrastructure of power PG&E maintains.

What seems to be the logic that led PG&E opted to create alarmist maps–indicative of a true emergency in their scribbling of bright turquoise layers to suggest areas that are at fire risk on social media for its users–at the arrival of high winds that threatened to start the 2019 Fire Season? PG&E had already feared that as the owners of private utility equipment they might face charges of beyond $30B in liabilities for the 2017 fires, leading to the creation of laws to shield the company from liabilities for as long as possible, even as NPR sponsored public warnings from the utility company instructing the public to report any downed wires, as if in hopes to diminish its liabilities for future damages, more in an attempt to keep its shareholders happy encouraged than respond to losses of the uninsured; fears of fleeing insurers leaving the state as it burns rose with rumored cancelations of policies of property insurance as increased risk of more frequent fires spread like wildfire in the state, after the Carr fire damages grew beyond $1.5 billion, leading Property Casualty Insurers’ Association of America to insist “California continues to have a competitive and healthy homeowner’s market,” even as homeowners in Santa Rosa, CA reported cancelled insurance policies as 25% of regional residences found to lie in “high or very high risk” area,–as many other home-owners found themselves to be underinsured for fire losses.  

Introduction of new bills in state assembly bills mandate insurers provide information about fire policies, from 2017, although assistance to help victims recover past losses seems effectively derailed, but rising liabilities loom heavily over PG&E’s fate as a private corporation.PG&E, which has not invested funds in better safety practices, despite the faultiness of PG&E’s equipment and situation of electric lines. Despite limitations on liability for poorly secured electrical wiring and transmission lines, the inadequate mitigation of dangers of infrastructure expansion in the state. Even as PG&E was blamed for the recent rapid spread of the North Bay Fires, largely located in areas where electricity lines and wires had fallen during high winds and released sparks that unleashed several of the rash of fires, and promoted public warnings to notify the agency about felled power lines in different communities, questions of attribution, blame, responsibility or cause of the spread of fires belies the fact that their spread across a vulnerable landscape outstrips human agency and poses new questions of scale and continuity on a map. At the same time, the mapping of many fires over several years in the Wildlands-Urban Interface–at times incorrectly termed “wildfire-urban interface”!–have led insurance companies to withdraw from specific areas, or not renew policies, placing increased numbers of homeowners in a precarious position, and raising the specter of insurance loss in the absence of any stable rate structure. In this setting, risk is increasingly removed from human agency such as fire mitigation practices.

Yet the very fragility that seems increasingly pronounced in the very site of intense biomass of forested lands in northern California, still among the most wooded area of the nation, and the most delicate ecoregions of the nation, elevate the increased need of investment in practices of fire mitigation far, far beyond the imposition of temporary interruption of electricity in what were billed as “public safety power shutoffs” that were always only publicly described “as a last resort during extreme weather conditions to reduce risks of wildfire”–and, implicitly, reduce liability.

Biomass of Forested Lands in United States, 1999-2002/NASA

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Filed under California, climate emergency, Fire Risk, Global Warming, PG&E

Freezing Time, Seaweed, and the Biologic Imaginary

We can lose sight of the central role that seaweed plays in the coastal habitat of Northern California. For while often present before our eyes, the problems of mapping often submerge seaweed forests with any fixity is mirrored by the threatened disappearance of offshore kelp beds in an amazingly rapid timeframe, as creating an actual image capture able to register the extent of kelp forests poses challenges to the diminishing kelp beds off the California coast. The rise of “sea urchin barrens,” where the near coastal waters are cleared of seaweeds and kelp, is a global problem, from Norway to Japan to but the decline of natural predators of urchins in California has made their sudden rise along the coast While the decline of kelp forests seems as radical as the clear-cutting of redwoods, it is both far more rapid and far more environmentally disruptive, if far less visible to the human eye.

For in recent decades, increasingly warming waters and out of whack ecosystems have led to a massive decline of seaweed, decimated by a rise in the sea urchin population to by 10,000 percent off the California coast over only last five years, shrinking kelp forests that stand to catapult us to a future for which we have no map. The long-term decline in sea otters and sea stars, natural predators of the urchins, have removed constraints on urchin growth, which warming waters has encouraged, reducing a historical abundance of kelp in the near coastal waters across California.

This has perhaps been difficult to register due to the problems of mapping seaweed, and indeed registering kelp forests’ decline. The advance of sea urchin populations that have created barrens in coastal waters stands to disrupt and overturn some of the most abundant ecological niches in the global oceans. How has this happened under our eyes, so close tho shore and lying just undersea? We have few real maps of seaweed or kelp, lurking underwater, rather than above land, and leave out kelp from most of our maps, which largely privilege land. But the abundance of kelp that produce most of the global oxygen supply live in underwater ecotones–sensitive places between land and sea, in-between areas of shallow water, abundant sunlight, and blending of land and sea–an intersection, properly understood, between biomes, on which different biological communities depend.

Looking at the offshore seaweed near Santa Cruz, CA, I wondered if the predominantly passive registration of location–onshore registration of sites remotely by satellites, familiar from the harrowing images of the spread of fires, provided a basis to register our states of emergencies that was spectacularly unsuited to the contraction of coastal kelp, despite the huge advances of mapping techniques, and left us without a map to their contraction, or to register the subtle if radical consequences of kelp loss, and the almost as devastatingly rapid progress of their advance as populations of urchins have mowed down underseas kelp beds. For even as we strike alarms for the the decline of global kelp populations and seaweed forests as a result of the warming of offshore temperatures that place the near offshore regions at special risk of atmospheric warming–

PaulHorn, Inside Climate News/Source Wernberg and Staub,
Explaining Ocean Warming (IUCN Report, 2016)

–we lack maps of the place of seaweed and kelp beds in their ecotone, and indeed have no adequate maps of seaweed populations under threat that is comparable, say, to the devastation of forests by fire, whose growth we can witness, terrifyingly, with each overhead passing of a satellite in the recent forest fires, and whose decimation by loggers in earlier generations we can also map. The tree-loss reduced habitats, but I worry we can barely chart save metaphorically the reduction of kelp beds.

We cannot help, however, but to be reminded by maps showing the loss of seaweed with great rapidity of the rapid advance of the burn perimeters of Yosemite wildfires of 2013, North Bay Fires, or the disastrous Camp Fire of 2018. The rapid pace of the loss of these forested lands seems eerily echoed in the shrinking of coastal beds of kelp along Northern California, and correlates to the advance of warming climes.

If we have developed tools to map the continuity, intensity, and growth of forest fires by satellite and drones, the problem of passively registering the loss of kelp forests, and its relation to the advance of urchin beds, removes a part of coastal environments we are in need of mapping. The scale of maps of the destruction of seaweed beds on the California coast are less rooted in real time, but have advanced in striking fashion over ten years, although the ravages of destruction for now seem to remain undersea. But we are less skilled to communicate their crucial place in offshore environments.

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