Category Archives: climate monitoring

Air Quality

The tracking of local air quality is a contemporaneous way to track the effects of the fire seige that initiated clusters of fires across the western seaboard to be ignited at the end of a long, dry summer from August 25. We were not really struck unawares by the dry lightning, but had left forests languishing, not beneath electricity lines–as last year, around this time–but under a hot sun, and high temperatures that we hardly registered as changing the ecosystem and forest floor. This year, the sun turning red like a traffic light in the middle of the afternoon, we were forced to assess the air quality as the blue sky was filled with black carbon plumes from nearby fires that at times left a grittiness in our eyes.

Scott Soriano, September 27 2020
October 1, 2020

Confronted with a red sun through pyrocumulus haze, we followed real-time surveys of air quality with renewed attentiveness as an orange pyrocumulus clouds blanketed usually blue skies of the Bay Area, obscuring the sun’s light, suffusing the atmosphere with a weirdly apocalyptic muted light, that were hardly only incidental casualties of the raging fires that destroyed houses, property, and natural habitat–for they revealed the lack of sustainability of our warming global environment.

EPA/World Air Quality Index/New York Times September 15, 2020

The soot and fog that permeated “clean cities” like Portland and San Francisco came as a sudden spike in relation to the black carbon loads that rose in plumes from the fires, as if the payload of the first bombs set by climate change. The shifting demand for information that evolved as we sought better bearings in the new maps of fires that had become a clearly undeniably part of our landscape was reflected in the skill with which the sites of incidence of dry lighting strikes that hit dried out brush and forest floors, the growing perimiters of fires and evacuation zones across the west coast, and the plumes of atmospheric smoke of black carbon that would leave a permanent trace upon the land, liked to the after-effects of holocausts created by atom bombs by Mike Davis. The measurement of wind carrying airborne smoke emerged as a layer of meaning we were beginning to grasp, a ghostly after-effects of the fields of flams that began from sites of lightning hitting the earth in a Mapbox wildfire map of fields of fire across the states, radiating resonant waves akin to earthquake aftershocks, a lamination on hex bins of the fires that seemed a new aspect indicating their presence in the anthropocene.

The suitably charcoal grey base-map of the state integrates approximate origins of fires, fire spread and greatest intensity of hotspots from satellite imagery courtesy Descartes Labs and NOAA, and air pollution data integrates the fires’ spread across our picture of the state. While human reviewed and sourced, the satellite data embodies the ravages of fire across the state in ways echoed by its black charcoal base map, and reflects the need to develop new visual tools to process their devastation.

Mapbox Wildfire Maps/CalFire Data/OpenStreetMap/Los Angeles Times Sept 28, 2020

While we began to measure air quality to meet new needs to track ground-level ozone, acid rain, air toxins, and ozone depletion at an atmospheric level, the increased tracking of more common air pollutants since 1990 included airborne particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), carbon monoxide (CO), and ozone (O3), we track the effects of wildfire smoke by hourly levels of each at local points, parlaying sensors into newsfeeds as wildfires rage. If stocked with labels of each chromatic layer, are these real-time updates lacking not only legends–but the temporal graph that would clarify the shifting data feeds that lead us to give them the illusion of purchase on the lay of the land we are trying to acknowledge this fire season?

Berekeley, CA October 1, 2020/Clara Brownstein

Watching slightly more long-term shifts in quality of air that we breath in the Bay Area, we can see striking spikes of a maximum just after the lighting siege began on August 19, 2020 across much of the state, as air quality decisively entered into a hazardous zone, tracking PPM2.5 concentrations, but entering the worst fifteen air days since registration four times since 1999, when Bay Area Air Quality Management District began reporting the levels of fire smoke in inhabited areas.

Particulate Matter (PM 2.5) Concentrations in Bay Area, August 15-Septmeber 13, 2020/
Bay Area Air Quality Management District

We measure fires by acreage, but the sudden spikes of air quality, while not exceeding the smoke that funneled into the Bay Area during the North Bay Fires in 2017, when the Tubbs and Atlas Fires devastated much of the Wine Country, created a run of high-smoke days, were followed by a set of sudden spikes of the atmospheric presence of particulate matter that we tried to track by isochomes, based on real-time sensor reading, but that emerge in better clarity only in retrospect.

It is true that while the AQI maps that offer snapshots of crisp clarity of unhealthy air might serve as an alarm to close windows, remain indoors, and call off school–

AirNow AQI map in Bay Area after Lightning Fires, August 22, 2020

–as particulate matter spread across the region’s atmosphere. We are used to weather maps and microclimates in the Bay Area, but the real-time map of particulate matter, we immediately feared, did not only describe a condition that would quickly change but marked the start of a fire season.

Not only in recent days did the sustained levels of bad air suggest an apocalyptic layer that blanketed out the sun and sky, that made one feel like one was indeed living on another planet where the sun was masked–a sense heightened by the red suns, piercing through grey smoke-cover that had seamlessly combined with fog. Although the new landscapes of these AQI maps generate immediate existential panic, we should be more panicked that while we call these fires wild, they release unprecedented levels of toxins once imagined to be detected as industrial pollutants. The seemingly sudden ways that black carbon soot blanketed the Bay Area, resting on our car hoods, porches, windowsills and garbage bins were not only an instant record of climate emergency, but the recoil of overly dry woods, parched forests and lands as overdue payback for a far drier than normal winter, months and a contracted rainy season that had long ago pushed the entire state into record territory. The lack of soil moisture has brought a huge increase of wildfire risk, not easily following the maps of previous fire history, and persistence of “abnormally dry” conditions across a third of California, focussed in the Sierra and Central Valley–the areas whose forests’ fuel loads arrive carbonized in particulate form.

Local monitors of air quality suggest the uneven nature of these actual isochromes as maps–they are reconstructions of what can only be sensed locally, and does not exist in any tangible way we can perceive–but presented what we needed to see in a tiler that made differences popped, highlighting what mattered, in ways that left cities fall into the bottom of the new colors that blanketed the state, in which local sensors somehow revealed what really mattered on August 20: if the “map” is only a snapshot of one moment, it showed the state awash in ozone and PPM.

AirNow/August 20, 2020
Air Quality Index

We were in a sort of existential unfolding in relation to these maps, even if we could also read them as reminders of what might be called “deep history”: deep history was introduced by Annalistes to trace climatic shifts, the deep “undersea” shifts of time, on which events lie as flotsam, moved by their deep currents that ripple across the economy in agrarian societies, suggesting changes from which modern society is in some sense free. “Deep History” has to some extent been reborn via neurosciences, as a history of the evolution of the mind, and of cognition, in a sort of master-narrative of the changes of human cognition and perception that makes much else seem epiphenomenal. If the below real-time map was time-stamped, it suggested a deep history of climate of a more specific variety: it was a map of one moment, but was perched atop a year of parched forests, lack of groundwater, and increased surface temperatures across the west: Sacramento had not received rain since February in an extremely dry winter; its inter was 46% drier than normal, and the winder in Fresno was 45% dryer in February. They are, in other words, both real-time and deep maps, and demand that we toggle between these maps as the true “layers” of ecological map on which we might gain purchase.

The levels of dessication of course didn’t follow clear boundaries we trace on maps. But at some existential level, these flows of particulate matter were not only snapshots but presented the culmination and confirmation of deep trends. We have to grasp these trends, to position ourselves in an adequate relation to their content. For the deep picture was grim: most of California had enjoyed barely half of usual precipitation levels after a very dry winter: Sacramento has had barely half of usual rainfall as of August 20 (51%); the Bay Area. 51%; parts of the Sierra, just 24%. And wen we measure smoke, we see the consequences of persistent aridity.

August 28, 2020/AirNow
Air Quality Index

These are the layers, however, that the maps should make visible, And while these shifts of particulate matter that arrived in the Bay Area were invisible to most, they were not imperceivable; however, the waves of smoke that arrived with a local visibility that almost blanketed out the sun. Perhaps there was greater tolerance earlier, tantamount to an ecclipse. Perhaps that seemed almost a breaking point.

For almost a month after the first fires broke, following a sequence of bad air days and spare-the-air alerts marked our collective entrance to a new era of climate and fire seasons, fine soot blanketed the state at hazardous levels, leaving the sense there was nowhere left to go to escape.

September 13, 2020
Air Quality Index

We had of course entered the “Very Unhealthy” zone. If real-time maps condense an immense amount of information, the snapshot like fashion in which they synthesized local readings are somewhat hard to process, unless one reads them with something like a circumscribed objective historical perspective that the levels of PPM5 provides. In maps that are data maps, and not land maps, we need a new legend, as it were, an explanation of the data that is being tracked, lest it be overwhelmed in colors, and muddy the issues, and also a table that will put information on the table, lest the map layers be reduced to eye candy of shock value, and we are left to struggle with the inability to process the new scale of fires, so unprecedented and so different from the past, as we try to gain bearings on our relation to them.

Of course, the real-time manner that we consume the “news” today

militates against that, with feeds dominating over context, and fire maps resembling increasingly weather maps, as if to suggest we all have the skills to read them and they present the most pressing reality of the moment. But while weather maps suggest a record of the present, these are not only of the current moment that they register. Looking at them with regularity, one feels the loss of a lack of incorporating the data trends they depict, and that are really the basis of the point-based maps that we are processed for us to meet the demand for information at the moment, we are stunned at the images’ commanding power of attention to make us look at their fluid bounds, but leave us at sea in regards to our relation to what is traced by the contour lines of those isochrones.

Bay Area Air Quality Management, PM2.5 Concentrations, August 15-September 13, 2020

We can, in the Bay Area, finally breathe. But the larger point re: data visualizations is, perhaps, a symptom of our inflow of newsfeeds, and lies in those very tracking maps–and apps–that focus on foregrounding trends, and does so to the exclusion of deeper trends that underly them, and that–despite all our knowledge otherwise–threatens to take our eyes off of them. When the FOX newscaster Tucker Carlson cunningly elided the spread of wild fires ties to macro-process of climate change, calling them “liberal talking points,” separate from climate change, resonating with recent calls for social justice movements to end systematic racism in the country: although “you can’t see it, but rest assured, its everywhere, it’s deadly. . . . and it’s your fault,” in which climate change morphed to but a “partisan talking point” as akin to “systematic racism in the sky.”

While the deep nature of the underlying mechanics by which climate change has prepared for a drier and more combustable terrain in California is hard to map onto to the spread of fires on satellite maps, When climate denialism is twinned with calls for reparations of social injustice or gun control as self-serving narratives to pursue agendas of greater governmental controls to circumscribe liberties, befitting a rant of nationalist rage: the explanations on “our” lifestyles and increased carbon emissions, only pretenses to restrict choices we are entitled to make, Carlson was right about the depths at which both climate change and systematic racism offer liberal “lies”–especially if we squint at tracking maps at a remove from deep histories, and cast them as concealing sinister political interests and agendas, the truly dark forces of the sinister aims of governmental over-reach in local affairs.

“Structural racism” is indeed akin to the deep structure of climate change if the cunning analogy Tucker Carlson powerfully crafted for viewers did not capture the extent of their similarities. For if both manifest deep casualties created by our society, both depart from normalcy and both stand to hurt the very whites who see them as most offensive. The extent of inequalities of systematic racism as present in our day-to-day life as is the drying out landscape. And the scope of climate change is able to be most clearly registered by the evident in trends of diminished precipitation, groundwater reserves or temperature change that create environmental inequalities, too often obscured by the events of local air quality or maps of social protests that respond to deep lying trends.

To be sure, the tracking of environmental pollutants underlay the national Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, and led to a number of executive orders that were aimed to set standards for environmental justice among minority communities who long bore the brunt of industrial pollutants, from lead paint to polluted waters to hazardous waste incinerators. And, as we are surrounded by racial inequalities that are visible in systematic inequalities before the law, and have lowered life expectancies of non-whites in America by 3.5 years, increasing rates of hypertension, cancer, and systematic disenfranchisement of blacks–these extensive inequalities hurt whites, and hurt society. As Ibrahim X. Kendi perceptively noted, White Supremacists affirm the very policies that benefit racist policies even when they undercut interests of White people; they “claim to be pro-White but refuse to acknowledge that climate change is having a disastrous impact on the earth White people inhabit.” Is there a degree of self-hatred that among Carlson’s viewers that informs Carlson’s frontal attack on climate change and structural racism as myths, more content to blame non-Whites for structural inequalities.

But these inequalities are evident in the differences in air quality that climate change creates. For if the AQI maps tell us anything, it is the absence of any preparedness for the interconnections of fire, smoke, and large dry stretches of a long story of low precipitation that have created abnormally dry conditions–indeed, drought–across the state.

California Drought Monitor, Sept. 17, 2020/Brad Rippey, U.S. Department of Agriculture

The intensity of severe drought across the conifer-dense range Sierras raises pressing questions of federal management of lands: the moderate to severe drought of forested lands intersect with the USDA Forest Service manage and the over 15 million acres of public lands managed by the federal government manages or serves as a steward.

–that crosses many of the dried out wildland and rangeland forested with conifers and dense brush, a majority of which are managed by federal agencies–19 million acres, or 57%– but with climate change are increasingly drier and drier, which only 9 million are privately owned.

Ownerships of California Forests and Rangeland
USDA Forest Service Management (Purple), National Parks (Lavender), Bureau of Land Management (Orange)

Yet the reduction of Wildland Fire management by 43.98% from FY2020 to FY2021 in President Trump’s budget continued the systematic erosion of funding for the United States Forest Services. As California weathered longer and longer fire seasons under Donald Trump’s watch, Trump made budget cuts $948 million to the Forest Service for fiscal year 2020, after defunding of US Forest Services by reducing mitigating fire risk by $300 million from FY 2017 to FY2019, cutting $20.7 minion from wildlife habitat management, and $18 million from vegetation management–a rampage beginning with cutting USFS research funding by 10% and Wildland Fire Management by 12% in FY 2018! While blaming states for not clearing brush in forests, sustained hampering of managing federal lands rendered the West far less prepared for climate change. As the costs of containing wildfires rise, the reduction of the Forest Service budget has provoked panic by zeroing out funding for Land and Water conservation–alleged goals of the Trump Presidency–and cuts grants to state wildfire plans by a sixth as fire suppression looms ever larger.

By defunding of forest management, rangeland research, and habitat management, such budgetary measures pose pressing questions of our preparedness for the growing fire seasons of future years; stars that denote public land management might be targets for future dry lightning.

Ecosystems of California (2016)

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Filed under Climate Change, climate monitoring, climate sciences, data visualization, fires

Arctic Circles

On our annual northward migration to Ottawa this December, we gathered around the unused fireplace in an unheated living room during the warmest Canadian Christmas in personal experience–as well as in the public record for Atlantic Canada, where local records for rainfall have surpassed all earlier recorded years.  Perhaps because of this, discussion turned to ownership of the North Pole for the first time for some time, as what was formerly a featureless area of arctic ice has become, as a receding polar ice-sheet exposes possible sites of petroleum mining, to become an area of renewed land grabs and claims of territoriality, as their value for nations is primarily understood in a global market of energy prospecting.  The story of the new mapping of territorial claims around the arctic ice cap goes back decades, to the exploration of offshore polar drilling, but the exposure of land raises new questions for mapping because boundaries of polar sovereignty are contested, even as oil companies have speculated by modeling sites of future exploration for petroleum deposits.

Although one assumption circulated that the place was Canadian by birthright—birthright to the Arctic?–since it is so central to national mythistory.  But there’s as much validity for its claims as the more strident claim the explorer Artur Chilingarov made to justify his planting of a Russian tricolor in the murky ocean bed 2.5 miles below the North Pole, during the 2007 polar expedition of the Mir submarine, with the blunt declaration that “The Arctic has always been Russian.”  Canadian PM Steven Harper did not hesitate a bit before decrying these claims to territoriality, warning his nation of the danger of Russian plans for incursions into the arctic in his tour of Canada’s North, thumping his chest and professing ongoing vigilance against Russia’s “imperial” arctic “imperial” as a national affront in addressing troops participating in military maneuvers off Baffin island as recently as in 2014.

Harper’s speech might have recalled the first proposal to carve pie-shaped regions in a sectorization of the North Pole first made by the early twentieth-century Canadian senator, the honorable Pascal Poirier, when he full-throatedly proposed to stake Canada’s sovereign claims to land “right up to the pole” and transform what had been a terra nullius into an image of objective territory seemed once again at stake.  Poirier claimed jurisdictional contiguity in declaring “possession of all lands and islands situated in the north of the Dominion.”  Poirier’s project of sectorizing the frozen arctic sea and its islands, first launched shortly after Peary’s polar expedition, has regained its relevance in an age of global warming, arctic melting and climate change.  But the reaction to the expanding Arctic Ocean in a language of access to a market of commodities has inflected and infected his discussion of the rights of territoriality, in ways that have obscured the deeper collective problems and dilemmas that the eventuality of global warming–and arctic melting–broadly pose.

Arctic Teritorial Claims

Encyclopedia Brittanica

The question of exactly where the arctic lies, and how it can be bounded within a territory, or, one supposes, how such an economically beneficial “good” that was part of how parts of the north pole might get away from Canada, has its roots in global warming–rather than in conquest.  The dramatically rapid shrinkage of ice in the Arctic Sea has raised newly pressing issues of sovereignty; the widespread melting of arctic ice has made questions of the exploitation of its natural resources and potential routes of trade has made questions of the ownership of the Arctic ocean–the mapping of the territorial rights to the seas–increasingly pressing, as some 14 million square kilometers of Arctic Ocean have emerged not only as open for exploration, but as covering what has been estimated as 13% or more of total reserves of oil remaining to be discovered world wide.


 The Economist

While it seemed unrelated to the ice melting from nearby roofs, or large puddles on the streets of Ottawa, conflicting and contested territorial claims that have recolored most maps of the Arctic so that its sectors recall the geopolitical boardgame RISK, that wonderful material artifact of the late Cold War.  Rather than map the icy topography of the region as a suitably frosty blue, as Rand McNally would long have it, we now see contested sectors of the polar regions whose borderlands lie along the Lomonosov Ridge (which runs across the true pole itself).  The division of the pole so that it looks like post-war Berlin is an inevitable outcome of the fact that the arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, resulting in the opening of an area that was for so long rarely mapped, and almost always colored white with shades of picturesque light blue to suggest its iciness.

The lands newly revealed in the northern climes have however led territorial claims of sovereignty to be staked by a four-color scheme of mapping.  The uncovering of arctic lands–in addition to new technologies for underwater oil extraction and sensing–have complicated the existing maps of ocean waters premised upon expanding existing territorial waters an additional 278 kilometers beyond what can be proven to be an extension of a landmasses’ continental shelf–expanding since 1984 the rights to Arctic waters of the United States, Denmark, and Canada, according to consent to the United Nation’s Law of the Sea Convention (UNICLOS) which sought to stabilize on scientific grounds competing claims to arctic sovereignty.

Arctic Boudnary Disputes

The issues have grown in complex ways as the melting of Arctic ice has so dramatically expanded in recent years, exposing new lands to territorial claims that can be newly staked on a map that unfortunately seems more and more to resemble the surface of a board games.  Even more than revealing areas that were historically not clearly mapped for centuries, the melting of the polar cap’s ice in the early twenty-first century has precipitated access to the untapped oil and gas reserves—one eight of global supplies—and the attendant promise of economic gains.  Due to the extreme rapidity with which polar temperatures have recently risen in particular, the promises of economic extraction have given new urgency to mapping the poles and the ownership of what holes will be drilled there for oil exploration:  instead of being open to definition by the allegedly benevolent forces of the free market, the carving up of the arctic territories and disputes over who “owns” the North Pole are the nature follow-through of a calculus of national interests.  The recent opening up of new possibilities of cross-arctic trade that didn’t involve harnessed Alaskan Huskies drawing dog sleds.  But the decline in the ice-cover of the arctic, as it was measured several years ago, already by 2011 had opened trade routes like the Northwest Passage that were long figures of explorers’ spatial imaginaries, but are all of a sudden being redrawn on maps that raise prospects of new commercial routes.   New regions assume names long considered but the figments of the overly active imaginations of early modern European arctic explorers and navigators in search of the discovery of sea routes to reach the Far East.


The Melting North,” Economist

On the one hand, these maps are the end-product of the merchant-marine wish-fulfillment of the eighteenth-century wishful mapping of the French Admiral Bartholomew de Fonte, whose maps promised that he had personally discovered several possible courses of overcoming a trade-deficit caused by British domination of the Atlantic waters, allowing easy access to the South Seas.  The imagination of such routes proliferated in a set of hopeful geographies of trade which weren’t there in the late eighteenth century, of which de Fonte’s General Map of the Discoveries is an elegant mixture of fact and fiction, and imagined polar nautical expeditions of a fairly creative sort, presenting illusory open pathways as new discoveries to an audience easily persuaded by mapping pathways ocean travel, even if impassable, and eager to expand opportunities for trade by staking early areas of nautical sovereignty to promise the potential navigational itineraries from Hudson Bay or across the Tartarian nation of the polar pygmies:


Open-ended geographies of land-masses were given greater credibility by the dotted lines of nautical itineraries from a West Sea above California to Kamchatka, a peninsula now best-known to practiced players of the board-game RISK:


As well as imagine the increase potential shipping routes that can speed existing pathways of globalization, in fact, the meteorological phenomenon of global warming has also brought a global swarming to annex parts of the pole in confrontational strategies reminiscent of the Cold War that tear a page out of the maps, which give a similar prominence to Kamchatka, of the board game ‘RISK!’  Will their growth lead to the naming of regions that we might be tempted to codify in a similarly creatively improvised manner–even though the polar cap was not itself ever included in the imaginative maps made for successive iterations of the popular game of global domination made for generations of American boys–and indeed provided a basis for a subconscious naturalization of the Cold War–even while rooting it in the age of discoveries and large, long antiquated sailing ships, for the benefit of boys.


RISK (1968)  

Following versions took a less clearly vectorized approach, imagining a new constellation of states, but also, for the first time, including animals, and updating those schooners to one sleeker ship!

1 living room, dining room, kitchen IMG_1319

Risk!, undated  

The more updated current gameboard is curiously more attentive to the globe’s shorelines, as if foregrounding their new sense of threatened in-between areas, on some subconscious areas, that are increasingly prone to flooding, and less inviolable, but also suggesting an increasingly sectorized world of geopolitics, less rooted in individual. nation-states..


Risk–current board

Will future editions expand to include the poles as well, before they melt in entirety, as the ways that they become contested among countries percolate in the popular imagination?

We must await to see what future shorelines codified in the special ‘Global Warming Edition’ of RISK–in addition to those many already in existence in the gaming marketplace.

If the game boards suggest Christmas activities of time past, the ongoing present-day game of polar domination seems to be leading to an interesting combination of piece-moving and remapping with less coordinated actions on the parts of its players.  We saw it first with Russia’s sending the Mir up to the North, which precipitated how Norway claimed territoriality of a sizable chunk of Arctic waters around the island of Svalbard; then Denmark on December 15 restocked its own claims, no doubt with a bit of jealousy for Norwegian and Swedish oil drilling, to controlling some 900,000 square kilometers of arctic ocean north of Greenland, arguing that they in fact belong to its sovereign territories, and that geology reveals the roots of the so-called Lomonosov Ridge itself as an appendage of Greenland–itself a semi-autonomous region of Denmark, upping up the ante its claims to the pole.

While the Russians were happy to know that their flag was strategically but not so prominently placed deep, deep underwater in the seabed below the poles, the problem of defining the territorial waters of the fast-melting poles upped the ante for increasing cartographical creativity.   Recognized limits of 200 nautical miles defines the territorial waters where economic claims can be made, but the melting of much of the Arctic Ocean lays outside the claims of Canada (although it, too, hopes to stake sovereignty to a considerable part of the polar continental shelf), by extending sovereign claims northward from current jurisdictional limits to divide the mineral wealth.  Were the Lomosonov Ridge–which isn’t moving, and lies above Greenland–to become a new frontier of the Russian state, Russian territory would come to include the pole itself.


Bill Rankin/National Geographic

The actual lines of territorial division aside, the diversity of names of the single region indicate the competing claims of sovereignty that exist, as if a historical palimpsest, within an actual map of the polar region:  from the Amundsen Basin lies beside the Makarov Basin, the Yermak Plateau beside the Lena Trough and Barents Plain, suggesting the multiple claims of naming and possession as one approached the North Pole, without even mentioning Franz Josef Land.

amundsen basin dotted lines of contestation?.png
Contestation of the Pole

While the free market isn’t able to create an exactly equanimous or impartial division of land-claims, the new levels of Denmark’s irrational exuberance over mineral wealth led the country to advance new claims for owning the north pole, and oil-rich Norway eager to assert its rights to at least a sixth of the polar cap, given its continued hold on the definition of the northern lands.  The increasing claims on proprietary rights of polar ownership among nations has lead international bodies such as the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Seas (UNICLOS) to hope to codify the area peaceably by shared legal accords–presumably before the ice-cover all melts.

The maps of speculation of the “Arctic Land Grab” is economically driven and suggests an extension of offshore speculation for oil and gas that has long roots, but which never imagined that these claims would be able to be so readily concretized in terms of a territorial map as the melting of the ice cap now suggests.  But as technical maps of prospecting are converted into maps with explicit territorial claims, planned or lain lines of pipe are erased, and the regions newly incorporated as sites of territoriality in ways that earlier cartographers would never have ventured.

rankin polar maps
Bill Rankin/Radical Cartography

The existence of laid or planned pipeline by which to pump and stream oil across much of Upper Canada from the Chukchi Sea, North Slope, and MacKenzie Delta have long been planned by Canadians.  Similarly, the Russian government, echoing earlier claims of Russian stars to straddle the European and Asian continents, have claimed the underwater Lomosonov Ridge as part of the country’s continental shelf, even if it lies outside the offshore Exclusive Economic Zone, as is permitted by UNICLOS–so long as the edge of the shelf is defined.

Canada has taken the liberty to remap its own territory this April, in ways that seem to up the ante in claims to arctic sovereignty.  In updating the existing map of 2006 to make it appear more ice exists in the Arctic than it had in the past,  the Atlas of Canada Reference Map seems to augment its own sovereign claims to a region in ways clothed in objectivity:  even as arctic ice-cover undeniably rapidly melts in a decades-long trend, the ice-cover in the region is greatly expanded in this map, in comparison to that of 2006, and the northern parts of Canada are given a polemic prominence in subtle ways by the use of a Lambert conformal conic projection and a greatly expanded use of aboriginal toponymy to identify lands that even belong to different sovereignty–as Greenland, here Kalaalit Nunaat–in terms that link them to indigenous Canadians, and by extension to the nation.  Both tools of mapping appear to naturalize Canadian claims to the Arctic in a not so subtle fashion.  Moreover, the map stakes out exclusive economic zones around Arctic regions:  even as the Arctic rapidly melts, for example, disputed islands near Greenland, like Hans Island, are shown clearly as lying in Canadian waters.

Canada with Polar Claims, Parks

Perhaps what exists on paper trumps reality, creating an authoritative image of an expanded Arctic–a white plume that expands the amount of Arctic ice beyond the rendering of the Arctic Sea in its earlier if now outdated predecessor.

It is instructive to look backwards, to grasp the earlier strategic sense invested in the Kamchatka Sea, before it migrated into Risk! The earlier pre-fifty-states rendering of this Russian area as an independent sea, fed by the Kamchatka River, was seen as an area apart from the Pacific, bound by the archipelagos of a future Alaska that were imagined to bound the region, as if to create an oceanic theater of entirely Russian dominance, above the “eastern ocean” of the Pacific, and almost entirely ringed by what must have seemed to have been essentially Russian lands.

The above map has, of course, nary a reference to a pole, but an expanded sea remaining fully open to navigation with charts.

What exists on paper, once officially sanctioned, seems to stand as if it will continue to trump the rapidly shrinking extent of arctic ice.  The map trumps reality by blinding the viewer, ostrich-like fashion, or keeping their head deeply buried in the proverbial sand.  The decision to show the thirty-year median of sea-ice extent in September in the years between 1981 to 2010 brings the map into line with the way that Environment Canada computes sea-ice extent.  And the augmentation of Inuit toponymy for regions near the Arctic recognizes the indigenous role in shaping Canada’s toponym.  But it would be hard to say that either would be advanced if they did not have the effect of expanding Canadian sovereignty to the arctic.  The reality it maps clearly mirrors the shifting interests of the state at a time of the shrinking of Arctic ice due to climate change, more closely than it shows the effects of global warming on the ice-cover of the northern regions, let alone in the Arctic itself.  With more maps that diminish the effects of global warming, the orienting functions of the map seem to be called into question in themselves.

Merry Christmas indeed!


Filed under arctic, Climate Change, climate change, climate monitoring, Global Warming