In an age it is disturbingly familiar for news maps to place us on tenterhooks by grabbing our attention, the existential urgency of the blanket of the continent with icy arctic air was no exception. But if the images of sudden entrance of frigid air shocked most states in the union and lower forty eight, the farther one collapsed the week of freezing cold, the more one could see a clarion call for the re-entrance into the Paris Accords. It was as if NOAA visualizers of meteorological disturbances, newly liberated, were free to show the dangerous consequences of the tippy polar vortex and uncertain weather in an era of extreme climate change. Bright color ramps foregrounded falling temps in rich magenta or icy blue were almost off the charts, from the uppermost end of the spectrum in their duration–below–or in the low temperatures that were advanced–in maps that push the boundaries of expectations with urgency.
As maps of the hours the nation was plunged into subzero trace a purple cold front advanced all the way into the deep south as it spread across the continent from up north, the continent shivered under the icy blues over the mid-February cold spell. As we re-enter global climate accords, and consider what global accords can come to terms with climate change, it seems opportune to consider the alerts that remotely sensed mappings of our changing global climate chart. The chromatic intensity jarred with the familiar spectrum of meteorological maps to shock the viewer: the map challenged any reader to try to place the arrival of cold air and hours below freezing in a frame of reference, to dismiss the incursion of icy air up to the US-Mexico border as an irregular occurrence, more than a harbinger of premonition of the cascading effects of extreme weather, let alone a warning of the limits of our national infrastructure to adjust to it.
If the focus of the NOAA maps of the National Weather Service fulfilled their mandate by focussing on the territoriality of the United States, these images and the news maps made of them communicated a sense of national violation, if not of the injustice of the incursion of such unexpected freezing temperatures and Arctic air, as if it were an unplanned invasion of the lifestyle, expectations, energy policy, and even of the electric grid of the United States, oddly affirming the American exceptionalism of the United States’ territory and climate, as if the meteorological maps that confounded predictions were not a global climactic change.
And in the maps of the fall in national temperatures, as in the header to this post, the news that the nation witnessed a frozen core spread south to the southwest, almost reaching the border, seemed to shift our eyes from a border that was mapped and remapped as permeable to migration, to a map of unpreparedness for climate change, almost echoing the systemic denial of climate change that has been a virtual pillar of the Trump Presidency on the eve when Donald Trump had permanently relocated to Mar a Lago, one of the last areas of the nation that was not hit by the subzero temperature anomalies that spread across north Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico and Iowa, plunging the many states we though of as “red” during the past election an icy deep blue interior in mid-February down to the Gulf Coast–as if the colors were a national crisis not of our own making for a nation that had obsequiously voted Republican, withdrawn from the Paris Accords, and allowed the warmer temperatures to be located only in the state where Donald Trump was now residing in Mar a Lago.
–that , as the week of arctic air’s arrival wore on, the newspaper of record glossed by a color ramp of low temperatures few residents southern states expected to be plunged into subzero surroundings. The color ramp they chose to chart how gelid air poured set off a cascade of events and disasters nicely demonstrated cascading effects of climate change on the nation, as the shock of low temperatures sucked the national attention away from the border, and begged one to come to terms with the challenge of climate emergencies in global terms. The frozen core of the nation was a wake-up call, re-re-rendering the familiar Red, White and Blue in faded out terms of the distorted levels of cold the nation currently confronts–the increased escalation of which we are projected to face.
The entrance of gelid air from a polar vortex poured across much of the midwest in unrelenting fashion. Plunging subzero temps hit the Texas coast that overloaded electric grids and shocked weather maps that seemed out of whack even for mid-February, as even the sunbelt of the southwest turned gelid cold as subzero temperatures arrived over a week, plunging the arctic neckline down into Texas, and almost across the southwestern border.
The shock of this map is its dissonance, of course, from the weather maps that we are used to seeing, the entire nation now, in mid-February, almost blanketed by subzero temperatures of deep blue cold, extending wispy breezes into Utah and Arizona, as well as across Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia, leaving only SoCal and Florida pleasantly warm. The national composite that forecast a deep freeze running right down the center of the United States and spreading to both coast at northern latitudes gave the nation a frozen core at the end of a hotly tempered election, that seemed a wake-up call to attend to long-term as well as immediate dangers of climate change, but made it difficult to disentangle the global issues from the existential question of millions in Texas and other states who were left without heating faced dangerously cold and unprecedented subzero temperatures, without clues about where to keep warm.
The impact of climate change has rarely been so directly placed on the front burner of national security–climate change deniers have preferred to naturalize polar melting by removing it from human agency so far to attribute shifting temperature to sunspot activity, or invoke longue durée theories of geological time enough to make noted paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould turn over in his grave. Doing so has stoked a devious confusion between local and global, and immediate and long-term, are bound to be increasingly with us in an era of extreme climate change. The sudden entrance into our borders of such gelid air is an effect of global warming. We are loosing our beaches, and cities like Galveston, TX, Atlantic City NJ, Miami Beach FL, Key West, and Hilton Head SC are not alone in falling into the sea to lie mostly underwater in 100 years. As Ron Johnson assured us that “Greenland” derived its name from the green leafy bucolic forests of the continent–“There’s a reason Greenland was called‘ Greenland’–it was actually green at one time [even if] it’s a whole lot whiter now”–as if the truth about deep time was concealed by those overly alarmed ice shelves falling into the Atlantic, shifting ocean salinity with a sudden injection of freshwater that may alter the Gulf Stream, we were invited to contmplate the fierce urgency of now.
Perhaps the whole question of a span of time, as much as the theoretical proposition of global warming, was a concern. For we are as a country already looking forward with apprehension at maps of economic costs of flood damage to residences, amidst the anxiety charged year of COVID-19 pandemic, with multiple variants now on the loose, to prepare for escalating costs of climate change across the country, and not only on the coasts.
If Louisiana and California coastal cities will seem destined to stand the greatest risk of damage or residences, both due to the high valuation of California’s coastal properties, and the danger of hurricane damages across the Gulf Coast, the increased risk that residences alone face bodes serious economic losses across the United States. Yet as risk rises and brings with it escalated insurance rates, we stand to see the cascade of economic losses, of the sort we have not come to terms in imagining the fanciful image of a time when Greenland enjoyed lush forests in the past–a scenario that never happened, inventive etymologies aside–although it may soon host plant life as it looses its permafrost.
For the next thirty years bode an unleashed set of climate change catastrophes, altering the landscape and national economy in ways we have been preferring to ignore, putting not only Mar a Lago underwater, but multiplying actual risks of flooding escalate past 100% in coastal areas of cobalt blue. These states would not only leave many coastal populations vulnerable to flooding, but as risk rises five-fold, to rising risk-based rate changes, slated toy continue to increase due to climate change. While these coastal communities will be hit with real and assessed immediacy, the deep blue edges of the entire eastern seaboard stands to shake up a spatial imaginary we have long presumed to be clear edges to the nation. Many coastal lands stand to fall into the sea in ways on which we would do well to meditate with greater focus–placing state counties in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South and North Carolina seriously underwater.
These areas of substantial risk face risks far greater than current insurers, who are effectively acting as ostriches before climate change extremes as polar melting brings further surging seas, and suggests that actual risks far outpace the estimated in premiums on coastal and other property insurance–who have deflated the risks they have effectively denied, First Street found, with help from MapBox and , as estimates of economic losses in coastal areas stand to rise by almost $6,000 per property, a rise in risk of two thirds, projecting a net loss of $34 billion dollars in the contiguous United States, not including Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa or Puerto Rico–each of which will stand to be be hit hard. The divergence between computed and actual risk suggest a grim future for some of the most vulnerable and poorer areas of the nation, but a broad underestimation often of 500% in Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode island, Delaware, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, and California–real costs that are being passed on to homeowners, which the government has allowed to be concealed diverge by an average of 4.2 times from expected risks of environmental damages due to climate.
1. Texas offered a four-day preview of climactic chaos wreaked by the Texas cold spell reminded us of the inevitable systemic cascade of consequences and human costs that arise as our infrastructure intersects with extreme temperatures. We saw the cascade telescoped into quite immediate terms, in a preview of emergency situations to come, as a deep freeze felled transmission towers and power lines in substations to disrupt energy networks across much of the south that were unprepared to provide customers with power over an interconnected network across space, at the same time as a surge in demand for home heating suddenly subtracted 34,000 megawatts from the network, as plummeting temperatures that had already fallen below freezing in October plunged deeper, plunging the power network into a chaos that preprogrammed priorities in allocating power on the grid had no contingency plan to fall back on, having pooh poohed the notion of a serious winter arriving in the Lone Star State–
those things just don’t happen in Texas, as it were. And despite the long prided autonomy of a grid deriving from pride in the vast oil and gas reserves of the Republic of Texas, the dominoes began to fall as gas pipes froze and demand surged, and the energy grid that was imagined to be confined to one state lit up for power managers who were tasked to observing the flows of power across the state, as demand for residential heating grew so quickly to freeze the grid that distributed electricity to consumers.
The sudden entry of arctic air dipping south for four days was rendered in a chilling snapshot of the arrival cooler air, no longer containing arctic temperatures in true north. If we had been spending a lot of time parsing the nation by the chromatic essence of counties, the cobalt of the northern states in weather maps–“cerulean blue”–has long been a surrogate for purity, since it was used by Henry David Thoreau to describe Walden Pond’s pristine waters. Thoreau, trained in the classics at Harvsrd if the son of a pencil maker, loved the descriptive word for its resonance with the Latin caeruleum–“sky” or “heavens”–and indeed “caelulum,” or heavenly, of theologic associations Thoreau appreciated, and readily applied to Walden Pond to linking the color of the lake whose geological origins he tied to prehistory to a confirmation of its water’s serenity–his word choice could be not attributed to revisions borne only from a desire for verbal ostentation. Cerulean was indeed Thoreau’s word, a Thoreauvian word if there ever was one, as the naturalist who chose words quite carefully and thoughtully invested intense significance in a color that was increasingly associated with a remove from the developed landscape, and an access to a shrinking nature or natural world. For Thoreau, the cerulean site of Walden Pond was a point of access to the “wild” as a state of mind, if not a portal to antiquity and an indigenous relation to the landscape that he feared had all but disappeared.
Having recommended expressing oneself in writing first in Latin and then translating it to English, to improve one’s written style,Thoreau embraced Latinate words together with the imitation of periodic sentence structure. He appreciated both the etymologic theologic resonance of the term from Renaissance poets. But it was also the name an ancient pigment, as well, using copper and cobaltous oxides–and a term for the newly synthesized chemical cobalt compounds first made by a Swiss chemist, Albrecht Höpfner in 1805, long before it was a color–“cerulean” blue ultramarine”–included in the sets of Windsor & Newton pencils. The shade was marketed s in the 1860s as “coeruleum,” in deference to the Latin origins, but the poetic term was probably piggy-backing off English Renaissance poets in its promise. For Thoreau, “cerulean” conveyed the mystery of the indescribable purity of Walden Pond’s reflective surface, where the heavens met the earth, in “a matchless and indescribable light blue . . . more cerulean than the sky itself,” so unlike dark green waters of other parts of the lake were indeed but “muddy by comparison.”
The distinction of Walden Pond as cerulean was imprinted in the American naturalist’s imaginary. The adjective suggested not only an ecological poetics, but a mystical translation of the celestial blue of the heavens in a secular age. Thoreau bequeathed an almost magical descriptor of purity to the landscape not actually limited to waters, but perfect for the pristine ineffability of blue skies. The descriptor designated a sort of ecstasy of aesthetic transcendence in American writing. For J.B. Jackson, the great geographer of landscape, paused while motorcycle in the southwest to exclaim, looking east to the Great Plains, “Damn! Can you get that? That blue? Isn’t that shadow and light here at the edge of the Plains majestic, lustrous, and rich! Is it Cerulean blue?”
The hue is almost unable to be captured by mechanical drafting processes or paint, but may be informed by the new chemical composition of blue in certain pencils and watercolor. Thoreau, who knew much about plumbago and the manufacturing of pencil lead from his family factory, as much as shadow and light. European pencils were the competitor Henry David strove to improve, might have known the “cerulean” blue of ultramarine from the Windsor & Newton catalogues, before Prussian blues popular in Japan before 1830s re-emerged on the European palette of pigments in the 1880s, as Cobalt blue, French Ultramarine and Cerulean was a celebrated pencil pigments of the Industrial Revolution, as much as nature: the ancient Roman term for heavens whose lightfast green and blue was widely available after 1860 in watercolors was the keyword of transcendence, without the opacity of cobalt, recalling the blue glazes of Iranian ceramics’ transcendent blue and cobalt glazes if created in the industrial revolution that approximated a vivid contact with the most vibrant preindustrial arts of antiquity, if not of the Edo period, where it appealed as a similar sense, to Europeans, of a lost or compromised contact to nature, that the Great Wave at Kanagawa embodied, and was the very color that was revealed in ancient pottery of Iran and in the new plates and pottery designed with Prussian Blue to such great success.
If, for Thoreau, “time is but the stream I go a-fishing in,” the wood-cased pencils Boston pencil makers like John Thoreau sold were of black hardened graphite paste; the ceramic graphite introduced by Staedtler in 1834 or the Conté process, introduced a range of colors that Hokusai used to color waves of the 1830s, using chemically synthesized Prussian Blues to considerably impressive effect. And if they were not known outside Japan’s borders before 1850, his block prints were first seen by westerners–too early for Thoreau to adopt the term from the Prussian blues the Japanese water colorist Hokusai adopted for his awing wave–the global circulation of cerulean blues parallels the global transit of the evaporation of Walden Pond’s sacred waters that, Thoreau imagined, might evaporate to migrate atmospherically to merge with the sacred Ganges.
The migration of those newly synthesized electrical cerulean blue from Switzerland to Germany and to Japan anticipate the increasingly global circulation of materials of aesthetically transcendent power, echoing the global circulation Thoreau traces of Walden’s sacred waters by evaporation merging with the Ganges after floating above the the coast of Africa and Bosphorus Strait, a global transcendence Thoreau traced while resting on the shores of Walden Pond.
The transcendence of the cerulean sites of the Pond of “vitreous greenish blue” provided a mirror not only of the sky, but of the soul, and served as a needed wake-up call to front nature as a state of mind, in the safe harbor he found and located at a remove from urban life of bustling Boston, New York, or Paris–or even Concord, just outside whose limits it lay. Thoreau, who insisted on the need to “learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn,” adopted a new regimen of the lake on which he both boated and bathed daily in the as a spiritual exercise, rousing the life of birds as he slapped the pond itself with his oar. The pond, the only neighbor he needed, helped to waken the first great nature writer by its “lower heaven,” the serenity of its waters, outlasting any state, heightening his senses in a new “religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did” of daily swimming that offered a reflective surface of the depth of his soul as much as a mirror of the heavens.
If Walden Pond’s center was the space closest between heaven and earth, the data vis seems a second wake up call. For the cerulean incursion into the continent seems the needed or necessary unsettling of our quiescence in front of climate change, a sort of wake-up call, for all its chemically fabricated origins. Ceruleans streaming across the nation seemed designed to shock as a wake-up call: if the haute couture assistant was chastised in Devil Wears Prada for missing the impact arrival of Oscar de la Renta’s 2002 cerulean collection, soon copied by Yves St. Laurent, cerulean frostiness spilled onto national weather maps as if in a plea for collective resolution of the global climate. Perhaps we have lost the needed sense or cognition of a global picture, parsing the nation by the chromatic essence of counties, looking for purple America–and the need for a wake-up call on the eve of reentering the Paris Accords was keen.
What may well be the first synthetic pigment in ancient Egypt and China, if it only widely available as a chemical synthetic cobalt during the nineteenth century, seemed the right color to use to depict these streams of cold air that were the result of rising carbon levels in the atmosphere–to be sure of anthropogenic creation–but also might be a sort of communing with a deeper sense of Nature herself Thoreau found daily at Walden at what he called the most memorable season of the day,–“the awakening hour.”
Ceruleans that echoed such early synthetic compounds were the best graphic tools on hand to register the shock of the entrance of cold arctic air as if it were an invading army attacking our weather system from the north on weather maps of television screens, as an advancing cold front had disrupted electric systems in a surprise attack. Local Austin news had already registered, with considerable alarm, chevrons indicated the incursion of icy air advancing into Texas of two cold fronts bringing freezing temperatures to Texas for the first time the previous October, surrounding the mega-city with what was apparent iciness, while urging folks to stay warm as a warm October shifted temperatures from the upper forties to low thirties, weeks before Election Day.
But the sudden arrival in February brought a winter weather alert across seven states–Oklahoma, Kansas, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas, as well as Oregon, as a polar vortex knocked temperatures far below that horizon, creating weather warnings in pink regions that stretched the lower forty eight from border to border that should sound an alarm across the United States, raising eyebrows of the national media, as weather storm advisories in areas of purple suggested abnormalties of import had hit the national waters, with light blue wind chill advisories spreading across the north. The colors were not that intuitive, but suggested something irregular.
But the subzero temperatures that spread down to Texas, led emergency management officers to have to warn the public that the safest place to stay was at home–even if electricity had been shut down–as storm warnings spread across Texas, in subzero temperatures endured for seven days, power was cut to many homes, in a sort of plague of biblical proportions and unclear causation as the actual plague of COVID-19 was still out of control, with temperatures far below normal stressing a power system whose managers hadn’t predicted the eventuality.