Category Archives: Global Warming

Cognitive Challenges of Global Warming: Paris or Pittsburgh; Creditors or Debtors

Donald Trump took advantage of his having Presidential podium to diss the Paris Accords by a torrent of alliteration as resting on a “cornucopia of dystopian, dishonest and discredited data.”  As if years of accumulated data of earth observation could be dismissed as deceptive out of hand by executive authority, independent of an accurate judgement of its measurement, Trump dismissed expert opinion with the air of a true populist.  His somewhat rambling comments in the Rose Garden press conference may have cemented the dangerous and yet not fully appreciated alliance of populism and a war on science in which his administration has positioned itself to be on the forefront.  It certainly culminated an outright dismissal of scientific conclusions based on a distorted America First picture of the world, where a stolid declaration that “the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords” made sense as a national defense.

Trump conspicuously faulted not only the “discredited” but distracting nature of data  in the speech he gave in the Rose Garden on June 1, 2017 that supposedly justified his announcement of withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords in 2015 to limit heat-trapping emissions of carbon fuels that have been tied to observed climate change.  Rather than foreground the international nature of the accords among agreed upon by almost 200 nations, trump advanced the need to heed local interests, perversely, but even more perversely argued that the Accords resulted from disinformation.  He spoke to the world to chastise their recognition of scientific observations, in so doing destabilizing not only global alliances but undermining a long-negotiated climate policy by pulling the rug out from long accepted consensus not only of climate scientists but a role of national leadership that sought to remedy the failure of the Kyoto Protocol of 1997.  Trump turned his back on the Climate Accords on how to curb greenhouse gas emissions  by proclaiming their unfairness to American interests, and attacking unwanted constraints on American industry, through his own deployment of data that was even more discredited as an excuse to walk away from the prospect of a greener world.


Exiting the Green.png  Al Drago/New York Times


If Trump steered the nation away from green energy and into darkness, Vladimir Putin seemed to mock Trump’s rationale for the withdrawal when he mused, jokingly but ever so darkly, that “maybe the current [U.S.] president thinks they are not fully thought-through,” making open fun of Donald Trump’s image of global leadership by wryly noting in ways that echoed the absurdity of Trump’s defense of the local in place of the global.  “We don’t feel here that the temperature is going hotter here, . . . I hear they are saying it snowed in Moscow today and its raining here, very cold,” Putin noted, as if relishing undermining long-established trends in climate data by invoking a populist championing of local knowledge as if it trumped the advantages of earth observation that satellite observation has long provided.   Populism trumped expertise and Putin laughed at the possibility that the Accords might soon fail as a result.

Given the longstanding desire of Moscow to be released from constraints on exploring the billions of tons of Arctic oil on which Russia has chosen to gamble, Trump’s almost purposive blindness to a changing environmental politics of the global economy astounds for its parochialism, and its championing of place to dismiss undeniable effects of climate change that seems closely tied to carbon emissions.  For with a false populism that championed the limited perspective of one place in the world–or one’s own personal experience–Trump dismissed the maps and projections of climate change, on the basis that the “deal” was simply “BAD.”  And as a man who views everything as yet another deal, while he pronounced readiness to “renegotiate” an accord he sought to cast as a failure of President Obama to represent America’s interests, the rebuke fell flatly as the accord was never designed to be renegotiable.

Putin’s remarks were met by scattered laughter of recognition, and some smirks at the decision of the American president to withdraw form a long-negotiated set of accords to the collective dismay of our military and environmental allies, and its implicit endorsement of deniers of climate change.  The potential “axis of mass destruction” France’s climate minister has cautioned against might indeed be one of mass distraction.  For in dismissing and indeed disdaining the historical accords to limit carbon emissions, Trump sought a soundbite sufficient to stoke suspicions the climate treaty.  He sought to cast it as yet another deeply rigged system of which he had taken to compulsively warning Americans.  Such a metaphor of bounty was jarring to reconcile with onerous economic burdens cited as the prime motivations for deciding to reject the Paris Accords on Climate Change.  The jarring cognitive coinage seemed to connote its negative by a disorienting litotes; but perhaps the most striking element of the entire news conference was that Trump offered no data that backed up his own pronouncements and appearance of steadfast or only obstinate personal resolve.

Before the coherence of the embodiment of climate change in maps, Trumps jarringly juxtaposed radically different sorts of statistic to snow the nation–and the world–by disorienting his audience, on which Trump turned to a litany of complaints and perceived offenses striking for providing no data of any sort, save several bits of false data.  As much as Trump betrayed uneven command over the data on climate change, as if embedding discrete numbers in unclear fashion that supported a self-evident argument, as if they addressed one of the most carefully documented changes in the atmosphere of the world.  By juxtaposing a threat that “could cost Americans as much as 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025“–a number described as extreme but decontextualized to exaggerate its effect, framed by the dismissive statement  “Believe me, this is not what we need!“– with a projected small temperature decrease of two tenths of a degree Celsius–“Think of that!  This much”–as if to indicate the minuscule return that the “deal” offered to the United States that would have made it worthy accepting its costs–




The gesture seemed designed to juxtapose the honesty of direct communication with the deceit of the experts.   Trump’s notion of direct communication concealed the surreal enjambment of disproportionate numbers more striking by the difference of their scale than their meaning.  Of a piece with his citation of partial statistics that exaggerate his points, from “95 Million not in the U.S. labor force” as if to imply they are all unsuccessfully looking for work, targeting some 8 million immigrants as “illegal aliens”ready for deportation, or how immigrants coast American taxpayers “billions of dollars a year.”   Such large figures deploy discredited data difficult to process to conjure fears by overwhelming audience, distracting from specific problems with large numbers that communicate an illusion of expertise, or even overwhelm their judgment by talking points disseminated in deeply questionable media sources.

If the power of this juxtaposition of unrelated numbers gained their effectiveness because of a lack of numeracy–Trump’s claim of 100 million social media followers lumps his followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, many of whom may be the same people, and other fake persona —the numbers seem to exist for their rhetorical effect alone, as if to awe by their size and dismiss by the miniscule benefits they might provide. The point of contrasting such large and small statistics was to suggest the poor priorities of the previous administration, and dilute form the consensus reached on the modeling of climate change.  To be sure, the Trump administration also barters in fake facts on Fox News Sunday. inflating the number of jobs in coal industries, that show a misleading sense of the government’s relation to the national economy, generating a range of falsehoods that disable fact-checking, obscuring the fact that the global marketplace increasingly gives preference to cleaner energy and clean energy jobs more quickly others sectors of our national economy beyond energy industries.  The ties of Trump’s administration to fossil fuels–from the Secretary of State to the Secretary of Energy to the Secretary of the Interior down–employ the obsfuscating tactics of fossil fuel industries to obscure benefits of low-carbon fuels.  Indeed, the inability to “renegotiate” a deal where each nation set its own levels of energy usage rendered Trump’s promise of the prospect of renegotiation meaningless and unclear, even if it was intended to create the appearance of him sounding reasonable and amiable enough on nightly television news.


Broad hands.pngCheriss May/Sipa via AP Images 


Another point of the citation of false data was to evoke a sense of false populism, by asking how the Accords could ever add up.  In isolating foregrounded statistics great and small, tightly juxtaposed for rhetorical effect, the intent seems consciously to bombard the audience to disorienting effect.  We know Trump has disdain for expertise, and indeed the intersection between a sense of populism with disdain or rejection of science may be endemic:  in formulating responses to a global question like climate change that he has had no familiarity with save in terms of margins of profits and regulations.  Rather than consulting experts, the President has prepared for public statements by consulting sympathetic media figures like Kimberly Guilfoyle who endorse climate conspiracy–and not experts–who use data as obscuring foils, suggesting an ecology of information originating from pro-fossil fuel industry groups.

But as much as adopt talking points from other media, Trump uses data to frame overstatements of unclear relation to actualities–as making the distorting and meaningless promise to drop power plant climate rules, clean water rules and other regulations to “help American workers, increasing wages by more than $30 billion over the next seven years”–a figure drawn from a fossil fuel industry nonprofit, which offered little grounds for such a claim, and was a cherry-picked large number offered without any contextualization–or consideration that $30 billion would not fill the pockets of 300 million.  The point of allowing workers to continue to fire coal without hoping to meet any guidelines for carbon emissions did secure the total of 50,000 jobs in coal mining in the US, bit seems out of synch with the decline of demand for coal world-wide.



The point of citing such numbers offer a scaffolding for many of Trump’s claims, but as talking points serve to disorient as much as instruct, and disorient from a global perspective and became the basis for pushing the groundless withdrawal from the Paris Accords.  Perhaps the orientation for the talking points that migrate from many right-wing news sites into Trump’s public speeches As many of the talking points culled from the unsourced ecosystem of the internet inform Trump’s public statements that may be drawn from a special dossier that arrives on his desk, as Shane Goldmacher suggested, many of which are circulated in the White House to feed Trump’s personal appetite for media consumption, many both dislodged from their original contexts and some neither substantiated or fact-checked, are printed and placed on his desk in the Oval Office, effectively introducing dissembling as much as dissenting information into Trump’s significantly reduced three-page Presidential Daily Briefing.

Such a new information economy that defines the Oval Office in the Age of Trump makes it less of a nexus of information-sharing from scientific communities.  It rather serves to introduce information designed to swamp existing facts–as the eight inch rise in sea levels since 1880, or the catastrophic floods on course to double by 2030, or economic disparities of the global footprints of different parts of the world, and only recently recognized ecological debts that patterns of consumption generate globally.


Eco deficits

creditors and debtors


It is almost difficult to tell whether the jarring incommensurability of great and small numbers that Trump cited in his Rose Garden press conference was intentional–a strategy designed to mystify,–as some have cautioned–or a sort of cognitive dissonance between the ingrained skepticism before data, and  belief in his own powers to resolve a problem of any size.   It may well be a combination of both:  but the history of long-term measurement of climate change suggest a perfect storm between his own doubting of data and persuasive skills with his outsized cognitive sense of his abilities to resolve an issue of such magnitude, and the inability he had of acknowledging that the United States had a need to recognize a debt it owed anyone.

The very overflow and abundance of data on global warming and climate change, in this context, cast a gauntlet and raised a challenge to be dismissed, and negotiated around in ways that did not depend on scientific observations, but would reflect his own ability to get a better deal for the United States alone, in a perverse impulse to isolationism in response to one of the greatest consequences and challenges of globalization–climate change–and the particular problems faced by the developing countries and for nations that were defined as biocapacity debtors.  Indeed, in separating the nation from a pact between developing and developed countries on energy use and fossil fuel emissions, the notion of any prospect of global compact is unsettled by the withdrawal of the largest developed nation form the Accords–under the pretense that their interests were not respected enough–with one other nations that sought to enforce stricter emissions guidelines.


Developed and Undeveloped Nations Signed onto Paris Climate Accords/Washington Post

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Filed under American Politics, Climate Change, climate policy, Donald Trump, Global Warming, globalization

Mapping Our Shrinking Shores

Coasts have provided the primary cartographical invention to understand the risks that erosion pose to property:  the coast-line is the boundary of the known land, and determines the outer bound of the real estate.  But the coastal fixation of the landlubber privileges the illusion of the fixity of the shore.  More than ever, assumptions about the fixity of shorelines must fall away.  Perhaps the most haunting take away from the Surging Seas web-based map of global shorelines forces us to take into account the inevitable mutability that must be accepted with the rising of ocean-level associated with climate change.

The web-map presents itself as a set of tools of analysis, as much as cartographical techniques, by which the rise of sea-level that has already risen globally some eight inches since 1880 stands to accelerate–emphasizing the alternate scenarios that the acceleration of sea-level rise stands to bring over the next hundred years, introducing a new concept of risk due to coastal flooding.  The availability of accurate GPS images of the elevations of homes have provided the possibility of sketching scenarios of sea-level rise to create readily zoomable maps of elevated ocean levels that confront us with at least the image of the options which we still theoretically have.  The contrasting futures created in this cartographical comparison shocks viewers with a salutary sort of operational paranoia only increased as one fiddles with a slider bar to grant greater specificity to the disastrous local consequences of rising sea-levels world-wide.


In ways quite unlike the wonderfully detailed old NOAA Topographic Surveys which map shorelines at regular transects, or T-Sheets, recording the high waterline of tides across 95,000 coastal miles and 3.4 million square miles of open sea, the coastline is less the subject of these web maps than levels of potential inundation.  In a negative-mapping of possibilities of human habitation, blue hues invade the landscape in a monitory metric emphasizing the regions at risk of being underwater in a century.  Whereas scanned T-Sheets can now be viewed by a historical time-bar slider, the fixity of space or time are less relevant to the web maps than the gradients of possible sea-level rise caused by carbon emissions might force us to confront.

Surging Seas forces us to confront the possibilities of the future underwater world.  The infiltration of a deep shade of blue commands the eye by its intensity, deeper shades signifying greater depth, in ways that eerily underscore the deep connection that all land has to the sea that we are apt to turn our backs upon in most land maps, showing the extent to which a changing world will have to familiarize itself to water-level rise in the not-distant future.  It’s almost paradoxical that the national frontiers we have inscribed on maps has until recently effectually made impossible such a global view, but the attraction of imagining the somewhat apocalyptic possibility of sea-level rise seems almost to map a forbidden future we are not usually allowed to see, and has a weirdly pleasurable (if also terrifying) aspect of viewing the extensive consequences of what might be with a stunning level of specific and zoomable local detail we would not otherwise be able to imagine, in what almost seems a fantasia of the possibilities of mapping an otherwise unforeseen loss, not to speak of the apparent lack of coherence of a post-modern world.

For the variety of potential consequences of disastrous scenarios of sea-level rise posed can be readily compared with surprisingly effective and accurate degrees of precision, in maps that illustrate the depths at which specific regions stand to be submerged underwater should sea-level rise continue or accelerate:  zooming into neighborhoods one knows, or cities with which one is familiar, the rapid alteration of two to seven feet in sea-level can be imagined–as can the fates of the some 5 million people worldwide who live less than four feet above sea-level.  For if the shores have long been among the most crowded and popular sites of human habitation–from New York to London to Hong Kong to Mumbai to Jakarta to Venice–the increasing rapidity of polar melting due to climate change stands to produce up to a seven feet rise in sea-level if current rates of carbon emissions, and a mere four degree centigrade rise in global temperature stands to put the homes of over 450 million underwater, which even the most aggressive cutting in carbon emissions might lower to only 130 million, if rates of warming are limited to but 2°C.   (If things continues as they stand, the homes of some 145 million who currently dwell on land in China alone are threatened with inundation.)

The recent review of the disastrous consequences of a rise of two degrees Centigrade on the land-sea boundary of the United States led Climate Central to plot the effects of a-level rise of at least 20 feet on the country–and foreground those regions that were most at risk.   The webmap serves as something like a window into the possible futures of climate change, whose slider allows us to create elevations in sea-level that the ongoing melting of the polar ice-cap seems poised to create.  As much as offer compare and contrast catastrophes, the immediacy of recognizing the degree to which places of particular familiarity may soon stand to lie underwater performs a neat trick: for whereas a map might be said to bring closer the regions from which one is spatially removed or stands apart, making present the far-off by allowing one to navigate its spatial disposition in systematic fashion, the opacity of those light blue layers of rising seas obscures and subtracts potentially once-familiar site of settlement, effectively removing land from one’s ken as it is subtracted from the content of the map, and charting land losses as much as allowing its observation.

The result is dependably eery.  The encroachment of the oceans consequent to rising sea-level propose a future worthy of disaster films.  But the risks can be viewed in a more measured ways in the maps of sea-level on the shores of the United States calculated and mapped by Stamen design in the Surging Seas project that allows us to imagine different scenarios of sea-level rise on actual neighborhoods–the set of interactive maps, now aptly retitled Mapping Choices, will not only cause us to rethink different scenarios of shifting shorelines by revisiting our favorite low-lying regions, or allow us to create our own videos of Google Earth Flyovers of different areas of the world.  Mapping Choices provides a way to view the risks and vulnerabilities to climate change made particularly graphic in centers of population particularly low-lying, where they testify to the clarity with which web maps can create a vision of imagined experience as we imagine the actual losses that global warming is poised to create.  And although the recent expansion of the map to a global research report, allowing us to examine possible global futures that are otherwise difficult to comprehend or process the potential risks posed by the inundation of low-lying inhabited regions for a stretch of thirty meters, the potential risk of inundation is perhaps most metaphorically powerful for that region that one best knows, where the efficacy of a simple side-by-side juxtaposition of alternate potential realities has the unexpected effect of hitting one in one’s gut:  for debates about the possibilities of climate change suddenly gain a specificity that command a level of attention one can only wonder why one never before confronted as an actual reality.

Alternate Scenarios

Maps are rarely seen as surrogates for observation, and web maps often offer something like a set of directions, or way finding tools.  But the predicted scenarios of sea-levle rise allows one to grasp the local levels of inundation with a specificity that allow risk to be seen in terms of actual buildings–block by block–and wrestle with the risks that climate change portends.  The lack of defenses of populations in many regions are definitely also at great risk, but to envision the loss of property and known space seems oddly more affecting in such an iconic map of Manhattan–and somewhat more poetic as an illustration of the fungibility of its hypertrophied real estate and property values.

Of course, the data of Climate Change allows a terrifying view of the future of four degrees centigrade warming on low-lying Boston and the shores of the Charles, as the city is reduced to a rump of an archipelago–


or the disastrous scenarios for the populations in the lower lying areas of Jakarta–


or, indeed, in Mumbai–


Viewers are encouraged to imagine the risks of the possible alternate futures of just two degrees with an immediacy that worms into one’s mind.  The possibilities that GPS offers of instantaneous calculations of shoreline position and elevations allow one to view a potential reality where one can focus on individual streets with inspirational urgency.

But such scenarios seem somehow particularly graphic illustrations of risk for those regions where there has been a huge investment of human capital, as New York City, where it might seem credible enough to be mapped that they are poised to melt not into air but vanish beneath ocean waves.  For if Marx predicted with spirited apocalypticism at the very start of the Communist Manifesto that capitalism would destroy value to money as it expanded into future markets, as market forces abstracted all things into money–and “all that is solid melts into air”–the twentieth-century expansion of possibilities of environmental and human destruction have lent unprecedented urgency.  While for Marx the metaphor of melting of inherent value was the product of the capitalist system, the capitalist system bodes a strikingly similar image of sinking into the seas.  For huge expanses of the old industrial city–the piers and the old manufacturing zones, most all of the Jersey shore and area around Newark, Long Island City and the Gowanus canal seem sink apart from the shoreline in the future New York that Surging Seas creates, in ways that seem the consequence of industrial production and carbon surging far beyond 400 parts per million (ppm), with the addition of some 2 ppm per year, in ways that make it a challenge to return to the levels deemed healthy–let alone the levels of 275 ppm which the planet long held through the mid-eighteenth century.

That drought, hurricanes, disappearance of arctic ice (up to 80% in summertime) and rising sea levels are tied to the growth of greenhouse gasses hint how global capital might be closely linked to the sinking into the seas, and suggest the surpassing of a tipping point of climate change that is the counterpart to melting into air might be viewed, in New York City’s economic geography, as if to offer a poetic reflection of the migration of capital into the financial centers of the city downtown from its piers or areas of industry–


–although half-hearted joking references to Marxist maxims (or geographers) is hardly the topic of this post, and the island of high finance that would be created in downtown Manhattan would hardly have ever been planned as an island.

Lower Manhattan Island?

What one might someday see as the lopping off of much of lower Manhattan might be far better tied to the runaway markets of a free-trade economy, rather than rational planning, and has no clear correspondence to property values.

lopped off lower Manhattan

Indeed, the mapping of the prospective loss of those residential parts of the city “where poor people dwell” (as do minorities) is undeniable, if one looks at the 2010 American Community Survey, regarding either in the city’s distribution of ethnic groups or households earning below $30,000, who remain the most vulnerable to the danger of rising ocean levels.

ACS 2005?

Income under 30,000American Community Survey (2010)/New York Times

But the disappearance of the Eastern Parkway and the Jersey shore are a blunt reminder of the extreme vulnerability of the built environment that lies close to sea-level–

Eastern Parkway and Atlantic Avenue above the seas

–and an actually not-too-apocalyptic reminder, but the mapping of consequences of man-made change that goes under the rubric of anthropocene, and is most apparent in the increasing quotient of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the warming that this may bring.  For if it has been approximated that there has already been a rise of sea-levels by some eight inches since 1880, the unprecedented acceleration of that rate, which will increase the dangers of floods from storms and place many of the some three thousand coastal towns at risk, are likely to increase as the sea level may rise from two to over seven feet during the new century.


The distribution is by no means uniform, and more industrialized countries, like the United States, are producing far more particulate matter, although they have been recently overtaken by China from 2007, and have atmospheres above 380 ppm in the Spring, making them more responsible for rendering higher temperatures–although the lower-lying lands below the equator may be most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change.

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 8.20.11 PM

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 8.21.44 PMScreen Shot 2015-07-13 at 8.22.35 PMVox– A visual tour of the world’s CO2 emissions

The increasing levels of particulate matter are attempted to be more locally mapped in Surging Seas.

The changes extend, in a nice dramatic detail, into the Central Park Meer rejoining the East River with the predicted inundation of much of the posh residential area of Manhattan’s East Side, all the way to Fifth Avenue.

Truncated NJ and absent upper East side

It is difficult not to compare the scenarios sketched in Surging Seas maps to some of the maps of those future islands of New York that Map Box and others allowed Sarah Levine to create maps of the heights of buildings from open data after the pioneering maps of Bill Rankin’s 2006 “Building Heights.”   When Rankin remapped Manhattan by taking building height as an indirect index of land value, he saw the island as clustered in distinct islands of elevation above 600 feet:


Radical Cartography (2006)

Levine used similar data to chart the fruits of Mammon in buildings above sixty stories.  Maps of skyscrapers beside the gloom of Surging Seas suggest those towers able to withstand the rising seas brought by global temperatures jumping by just two degrees Centigrade.  If one moves from the map of the bulk of lowest sections of lower Manhattan–

Two Inches in Lower Manhattan

with reference to Levine’s brilliantly colored carmine mapping of the highest buildings in the Big Apple, above forty-seven or fifty-nine stories, which one imagines might provide the best vantage points that rise above the rising waves, especially when located on the island’s shores.

Mapping NYC by Sarah

Sarah Levine Maps Manhattan

There’s a mashup begging to be made, in which the tallest buildings of over fifty stories at the tip of the island peak up above the cresting waves, and the rump of buildings in lower Manhattan offer contrasting vistas of the city’s contracting shores.  The buildings that create the canyons of urban life, the buildings of elevation surpassing sixty stories might suggest the true islands of Manhattan’s future, as much as the points that punctuate its skyline.

Sarah's Lower Manhattan

The realization of this possible apocalypse of property made present in these maps offer the ability to visit impending disasters that await our shorelines and coasts, and imagine the consuming of property long considered the most valuable on the shore–as rising seas threaten to render a whispy shoreline of the past, lying under some six meters of rising seas.  The prospect of this curtailing of the ecumene, if it would bring an expansion of our nation’s estuaries, presents an image of the shrinking of the shores that suggests, with the authority of a map, just how far underwater we soon stand to be.

Eastern USASurging Seas: sea level rise after 2 degrees centigrade warming

All actual maps, including Levine’s, provide authoritative reporting of accurate measures with a promise of minimal distortions.  But visualizations such Surging Seas offer frightening windows into a future not yet arrived, using spatial modeling to predict the effects of a rise in sea-level of just five feet, and the potentially disastrous scale such a limited sea-level change would bring:  the coasts are accurate, but their inundation is a conservative guess, on the lower spectrum of possibilities.  For in a country in which 2.6 million homes are less than four feet above current sea-levels, the spectral outlines of chilly blue former coastlines peak at a future world are still terrifying and seem all too possible, as much as potential cautionary tale.  The concretization of likely scenarios of climate change remind us that however much we really don’t want to get there, how potentially destructive the possibility of a several degree rise in ocean temperatures would be.

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Filed under Climate Change, coastal flooding, data visualization, Global Warming


Will the hashtag #droughtshaming change the public water consumption levels in California?  or is it only a manifestation of an all too long-submerged consciousness of evident property differences across most of Southern California–a space where ever-conspicuous consumption has long been made manifest in keeping yard lawns perpetually green?   and what of the Wet Prince of Bel Air, who has used an incredible 11.8 million gallons yearly during the drought to maintain the green yards on their southern California estate?

Almost as powerful a portmanteau as “Mansplaining,” the compound currently trending on Twitter presents both a righteous form of indignation, improvising map via social media that suggests our changing sense of our environment may open new arenas of public speech. The creation of a set of zoomable interactive maps from the New York Times of projected water-cuts and current water-usage across the state’s water districts have been recently mapped an uneven balance between water districts statewide, in ways that not only call clear attention to sharp discrepancies of water-usage across the state, not only between how urban and agricultural regions might be affected by mandated reductions in public water usage–


central valley water cuts


but what might be called the selective yard-drenching in specific regions of the south-lands, according to the same interactive data visualization–


drenching years in 2014-15 in LA


and the notable persistent over-use of water in wealthier areas of LA’s per diem consumption of water this past winter–


LA Consumption habits per diem Winter 2015


The map above offers an approximate reflection of a topography of disposable income, described b UCLA’s California Center for Sustainable Communities.  The Center quite recently found not only that “wealthy used more than three times the rate of non-wealthy people,” but wealth was the most conspicuous correlation and predictor of water use–and watering lawns, as we have long known, an increasing sign of conspicuous consumption even in an age of drought.

Is this a decision to spend more on water, or is it, as seems more likely, the conspicuous expenditure of water on yards, perhaps fueled by the cost of letting all that greenspace go dry, or the actual dangers of fire hazards that letting lawns go dry might create?  The oft-cited datum that Beverly Hills residents daily “used” some 286 gallons of water during September 2014, at the same time northern and coastal San Diego County consumed some 584 gallons in the Santa Fe Irrigation District, contrast sharply to Compton residents served by the LA Department of Water and Power who restricted themselves to 93 gallons a day and Angelinos in East LA some 48 gallons.

But it bears repeating at a time when Governor Brown wants to mandate across the board 20% reductions in water use as a means of increasing efficiency, if only to ask what some of the best manners of mandating reductions are.  By dividing water-usage by census tract, clear patterns in LA County emerge, that make it something of an epicenter, to mix geographic metaphors, with the recent rash of tweets about excessively selfish individual water use at Beverly Hills mansions that include, in some cases, spas and vineyards as well as expansive still-green lawns:


Water:Income LA


But rather than only call attention to the sociological correlation between water-waste and wealth, this post wants to ask questions about the ethics of the spontaneous sorts of mapping of water-waste that have proliferated in Angelino social media, as if to sharpen critiques of the lack of social responsibility of the wealthy in a city of sharp social divides, in ways that remote sensing is promising new results in a far more detailed manner for select Los Angeles neighborhoods in order to drill more deeply into the extent of watering of lawns, flowers, and trees that underlies such datasets.  But human-scale photographs posted on social media via Twitter has been an initial means to assemble immediately available instances of water over-use.

The spontaneous mapping of such inequalities on social-media is a sort of crowd-sourced shaming to redress unspoken social inequities, with offending addresses lain out on twitterfeeds for the public to see, lest anyone be confused about who has the public interest at heart, and who is most concerned with keeping the brown grass at bay, even without looking at the bigger picture, in something approximating collective rage against the overwatered large yard as an exercise of collective shaming, which has gained a real edge given that the state is poised to levy hefty fines on identified water wasters since mid-2014.  It’s triggered a geographical awareness of the steep inequities of water use and comes close to socially sanctioned class-consciousness–




–and its effects on the lived landscape ofBeverly Hills lawns:




Such selective outing of levels of outrageously cartoonish disproportionate use of water utilities may run the ethical risk of crowd-sourced surveillance, where aerial photography approaches NSA-style snooping via overhead drones–the regional sustainability manager for Sacramento’s Utilities Department was said to be “pleasantly surprised” at such snitching last summer, when #drougthshaming took off on the Twittersphere.  But the current spate of tweeted outrage expressed on social media has also become a venue for expressing suppressed sentiments of a class struggle, very slightly veiling disgust at profligate over-watering lawns indulged by those running automatic sprinklers as if they were draining regional aquifers single-handedly, with little heed for state-wide water shortages, brought to the front in signs posted in public parks that remind users that “Brown is the New Green.”


Brown New GreenAaron Mendelson/KQED


Tweets are most famous for unleashing wrath against the privileged who are out of touch with the reality of water-needs–


green lawns



–at the fact that rhythms of daily consumption patterns are so drastically different across a single city by degrees of multipliers.  And is it even a surprise that the mansions of three and a half acres we’ve become used to viewing and vicariously living on Reality TV have been most notoriously cautioned by local Municipal Water Districts to cut the their water use drastically?  (Both Barbara Streisand and Kim Kardashian have publicly agreed to curtail their water use–“Kim takes this drought seriously;” said a representative; “she has no problem letting her grass go brown.”)

The targeted social criticism is by no means limited to the super-wealthy:

Sprinklers Running since <7AM

The steep social discrepancies in water-use have thrown into relief the divided economic structures of the city that we’ve long known about from the American Community Survey–Orange County and Palos Verde residents use respectively thee and two times the state-wide per capita daily consumption rates in February 2015–but now suggest that water wastage among the wealthy is actually undermining the public good in a clearly mappable manner.  We have long seen larger yards in specific neighborhoods, but watering practices seem to have grown out-of-hand in expropriating the public resource with obliviousness, even while we blame “nature” for a drought that is increasingly evident is indeed largely man-made, and even may as due to human nature as climate change.

LA in detail


During the summer, such deep discrepancies of daily water consumption are of course placed into even further relief in  data visualizations of local levels of consumption, reflecting an apparent rationalization of increased water usage as well as the readiness of covering rising water costs, as lower income families responded more rationally to higher water costs.


LA summer of 2014


To be sure, Northern California has done fairly well to reduce consumption from the Spring 2013–


usage change nocal


But it is also true that the aerial photographs of the ambient effects of income inequality that sent Google Earth images viral after being posted on persquaremile reveal the grey v. green dichotomy to be by no means limited to the southland–




Such a democratic appropriation of Google Earth may have paved the way for the tweeting of extravagant consumption of water that has become all too evident in some of the larger Beverly Hill yards, that can be linked to specific addresses.

The calls for greater restraint in water usage since March 2013 is far from clear in much of the greater Los Angeles area, as posters on social media have not only realized, but realized that they were able to publicly point out.


SoCal 2013-15

Both a more equitable distribution of water access and a rethinking of such deeply-lying assumptions of personal prerogative to wasting water deserve attention as Californians try to curb continued water use in a responsible manner.  We will have to tilt swords with some of the deeper espousers of a free market of deregulated water consumption, but at this point, for better or worse, deregulation has its back snugly against the wall.

And despite the reluctance of water utilities to identify wasters of boggling amounts of public water–as the Los Angeles homeowner known only as Wet Prince of Bel Air, a name won for pumping an incredible annual 11.8 million gallons during the recent drought to his estate.  The recent news that 100 residents of such wealthy Los Angeles neighborhoods as Westside have been pumping millions of gallons of water apiece has called for more effective means of recourse than twitter revenge, as such outing bears little fruit; in the light of recently passed laws against over-use of water, remote sensing technologies have been used by journalists at Reveal who are eager to even up the score:  taking advantage of   new fines assessed against excessive water use, the mapping through Digital Globe and others provides a deeper survey of water use than would be released by Los Angeles’ compliant Department of Water & Power.  Indeed, the Center for Investigate Reporting has begun to “out” high water-users by remote sensing–and publishing the maps!

Given the limits of Twitter photographs to document public instances of water overuse, the expansive indulgence of overwatering in such somewhat reclusive sites as Bel Air, perhaps inspired by droughtshaming, have used remote sensing provides a means to assess an accurate record of water-use to map the high use of water to estates to out individual culprits of over-watering, tracking the greening of their gardens by Google Earth and Digital Globe and an assessment of exactly how healthy those yards are.


Using remote sensing of the health of plants–by means of a form of remote sensing developed to detect plant health common in agricultural assessment– the Normalized Vegetation Index (NDVI) helps to pinpoint individual culprits of water over-use might be identified whose identity would be otherwise kept hidden by the county, by measuring the living vegetation that has continued its ability to absorb visible light wavelengths of light, the very ones used in photosynthesis, to create a unique dataset of those with the largest living yards in the municipality.

For the primary culprits are be identified by remote sensing of living green vegetation that remain on such sites as the heavily wooded estate that is maintained by move producer Peter Guber, part-owner of the Golden State Warriors, who indulges his wooded estate with over 2.8 million gallons of water each year, while pushing the Warriors to take up a home in San Francisco to boost their revenues.  The owner of the 42-room French-style chateau from TV’s “The Beverly Hillbillies,” former Univision CEO Jerrold Perenchio, who uses up to 6.1 million gallons each year to water his plants and gardens.  The owner of the 28,000-square-foot “Bellagio House” whose floral gardens suck up over 4.6 million gallons per year.  The technology used of combining infrared and near-infrared light by the Normalized Vegetation Index (NDVI).    The NDVI has become sufficiently refined from satellite or drone remote observation to parse and better describe water use and its impact in plants with a great precision, as is evident in the MODIS satellite maps of groundwater in the United States, and to present a highly sensitive reading of vegetation health at precise moments in time, and indeed within given parameters of health, by mapping the presence of water in plants–as one would map the presence of water in the ground.


By means of a similar remote sensing with NDVI, one can effectively map lots’ local water saturation at a scale to detect individually owned gardens such as those that Guber indulges on Lausanne Road in Bel Air–outlined below , with relative vegetative health shown in red colors, showing the highest range of the NDVI–as an accurate way to assess the extent of living vegetation, using infrared and near-infrared light to measure the local health of vegetation with amazing sensitivity, much as is familiar from global maps–but is only recently possible at such low scale thanks to Digital Globe–in ways that can not only identify individual culprits of water over-use, but presumably take them to task.

Guber's estat.png

–or the Casa Encantada owned by Garry Winnick–

Casa Encantada.png

For unlike the yellowed out areas of most of even the region of Bel Air, the bright red expanses suggest an odd over-nourishment of gardens even in a time of drought that indeed seems quite newsworthy, and is perhaps able to be viewed by Digital Globe alone.

Casa Encantada trees.png

–and can also be mapped, if with less clear-cut results, by soil moisture:

Soil Moisture.png

While such remote sensing from satellites had been confined to national regions at specific times of year,



–or used to map global differences in plant health–


–the local assessment of those who over-indulge in caring for their lawns and flowers is both something close to surveillance and perhaps a form of surveillance that recent laws about water use have sanctioned in California during our current drought.

The odd triangles and spots of green that remain in a drying out landscape in which most of the rest of us live (spot the non-arboreal light green track in the tan landscape shown below?) reveal the levels of water waste which demand to be curtailed, and are emblematic of the golf courses and overwatered farms that we’ve just begun to take stock.


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Filed under Bel Air, California drought, climate change, mapping drought, Remote Sensing

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 ClaimsEncyclopedia 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.


20141220_IRM937 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.


20120616_SRM980The 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.



pic324841 RISK (1968)  

1 living room, dining room, kitchen IMG_1319 Risk!, undated  

risk-1 Risk–current gameboard

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.



LOMOSONOV RIDGE.pngBill 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

rankin polar mapsrankin polar maps

Bill Rankin/Guerilla 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.

What exists on paper, once officially sanctioned, seems 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, arctic melting, climate change, Global Warming

Mapping a Century of Rising Heat

RISING Temperatur esNew York Times

The color-saturated mapping of regional changes in temperature across the contiguous United States provided a commanding visual for the front page of the New York Times of May 6 to capture changes in the US climate:  placed on  conspicuously above the fold and standing alone, just below the headlines, the graphic served multiple functions in a strikingly effective way.  The weather map that was first released by the Obama White House elegantly and effectively served–in ways that words could not–to combine several narratives of climate change that synthesized  the findings of a recent committee of scientists on the wide-ranging effects of global warming.  This is an unprecedented victory of the map, the most effective single tool to describe the complex process of a veritable cascade of environmental shifts, by selectively focussing on a known variable of local warmth.   The orange and bright reds of the map arrest the eye in ways an article or headline could not, and effectively provoke a cascading set of side-effects and reactions to occur in readers’ minds that served to grasp the finality of warming’s consequences.  As one mind quickly moves off the map of stark changes of temperature to the effects of future droughts and increased aridity of soil, consequent crop-shortages, and subsiding ground-levels, imagining the marked depletion of cool air, streams and rivers that would dry, and an increasing dependence on energy to create artificially cool environments. 

Although it is static, the historical map suggests a spectral future forecast for the nation that dramatically moved from back pages to headline news.  It mirrored a roll-out of the announcement as part of a dialogue with weathercasters on television news programs in a gambit to engage the public in the question of climate change.  Indeed, the graphic mimicked the presentation of weather maps on TV, images of the national forecast that the Weather Channel has made all too familiar.  Even if the map documents changes of the previous century, it shares the iconic status of the sort of severe weather forecast that The Weather Channel has accustomed us to interpret and to see.  We’re now trained so often to interpret and to read similarly colorized  climatological forecasts to trace regional emergencies that the Times‘ map seemed to recuperate these conventions to make a polemic point not so much about the past–“US Climate Has Already Changed”–but about the possible futures that the map forebode.  For weather maps offer the most acceptable medium of future predictions, where they have currency as credible tools for short-term forecasting.

Thuderstorm Forecast

The range of information in the map that summarized a century of rapidly shifting local climate temperatures How could such a gamut of consequences be convincingly understood or presented other than in a map?  The visual immediately triggered multiple questions of effects on species, forests, farmlands, new sorts of vegetation, and shifting insect populations described in the article, which a reader some decades ago would be challenged to link.   The effectiveness with which the map implicitly summarized the ramifications of these potential changes, or provoked its readers to react to its orange and read heat-distributions, presented an ominous vision of the future, as well as the historical past of a century of warming weather that the headline announced.  As if with the ominous fatality with which science fiction authors like Arthur C. Clarke described the future of a world battered by asteroids, the map opened up a view on the consequences of environmental change in a future world, even if its headline announced an event firmly rooted in the past century, synthesizing as it did the findings of two periods in the past hundred years.

The finality with which the map released by John P. Holdren documented a change that had already occurred across the nation’s regions, but made it to every weather bureau and station across the country, as if to maximize the newfound familiarity of audiences to engage meteorological maps as a way of making its own polemic (and of course partly political) point of how drastically rising temperatures stand to redraw the familiarity of the world.  Extending far beyond earlier warnings  voiced by the UN, or the pronouncements of an Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change whose  report documented the melting of the ice-caps and collapse of sea ice in the arctic, the migration of many fish out of their habitats, and impending dangers of rising seas.  Perhaps these global images were too remote, or difficult to visualize.  The powerful invocation of the weathercaster seemed to give greater reality to the scary prognostic in the contiguous United States, and concretized the multiple threats of climate change in an image that confirms the changing nature of the ground beneath our feet.  Some may criticize the focus on the United States alone in an interconnected world, as if the isolation of our country’s climate somehow removed it from a global problem and dilemma, or placed undue emphasis on the effects of emissions on the climate in the US.  But the image of actual experiences spurs a call for reaction and response, and, in an echo of the tactics of the Obama administration, reveals the increased “cartographical literacy” in the reading and interpreting forecasts in persuasive national weather maps.  

Forecast and Warming

The emulation of the televised weather forecast is no doubt what makes the map appear so immediately effective.

The map of the entire country was in ways a counterpart to the images of November 2012, around the time of Hurricane Sandy, simply titled “What Could Disappear,” which asked viewers to imaging the shifting coastlines of rising seas, and pictured the coasts that rising ocean waters could redefine, submerging beneath the sea low-lying areas of what we consider habitable land–as well as flooding all of Galveston, TX and some 45% of Long Beach.


What Could be Lost The New York Times

But rather than engage with complex claims of climatological futurology, the front-page graphic was both at the same time historical in perspective and even more apocalyptic.  In announcing or intoning “US Climate Has Already Changed,” it reminded us of the consequences of rising temperatures at a historical remove that was still part of our present and an uneasy glimpse to the future we have mad, using tense whose finality foreclosed debate in quite incontrovertible ways.  The map’s comparison of temperatures over a century effectively resolved debates, separating the actual consequences of climate change on a familiar environment from debate about its mechanism and reminding us of its man-made origin, and untangling the dangers of the changes that it wrought from the cascading (if terrifying) mechanism of ocean levels rising, habitats altering, fish migrating, the extinction of species, and deaths of coral reefs.  The map was able to link itself to a multiplicity of lived experiences and actual fact, and conjure a scarier–precisely since undefined–picture of what was to come–an era of increasing heat.  (Its associations might almost be as apocalyptic as the hallucinatory surreal  dream from a 1959 episode from Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, “The Midnight Sun,” in which the earth exits its elliptical orbit and moves toward the sun, warming the nation so much as to induce crazed radio weathercasters to stray incoherently off script and panicked Americans to flee abandoned cities en masse to Canada in search of cooler climes.)

The particularly powerful graphic of the map of regional variations in rising temperatures was quite devastating in its depiction of how–despite some regional differences–none save rare pockets of settled land experienced anything approaching a decline in reported weather temperatures.  For those that did, mostly concentrated in the lower Mississippi basin, they experienced quite slight declines:  it presented an image of a continent on fire, almost about to be consumed by flames, burning from its edges, if, the accompanying article noted, increasingly soaked by torrential rains.

RISING TemperaturesThe New York Times

The  growth of areas already warmer on an average of some two degrees suggested an encroaching of scarlet red blotches across the land from all sides, particularly in southern California and Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, the northern eastern seaboard, and the Great Lakes, with Bob Dylan’s native Hibbing seeing the greatest temperature change of over a massive three degrees.  The map powerfully synthesized the effects of human-induced climate change in ways that are not only impossible to rebut, using findings of a national  committee that has been in existence for over a decade–but was by far the most effective among the various interactive graphics it released.  The simple synthesis in a four-color map of the contiguous US immediately showed rising temperatures in some of the more inhabited areas of the nation, from New Mexico to Southern California, to the New York-Washington corridor.

In selecting a map to represent the consequences of climate change that were detailed in the report, the images suggested less of an infographic than a sort of disease map of a climate that has gone off the tracks.  Even if it might be faulted from its insistence on removing the US from the world, and focussing on one place within a complex web, as well as flattening its findings in cartographical form, the image is powerfully links the land to a set of abstract changes we cannot fully comprehend, but whose effects we can perceive.  This is the stunning victory of the static map.


Filed under "Midnight Sun", Global Warming, Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, John P. Holdren, Rod Serling, The Weather Channel, weather maps, weathercasting

A New Other Green World? Mapping Algae Populations and Tracking Harmful Algae Blooms

Access to pure freshwater seems an innate right, and freshwater lakes conjure pristine landscapes.  But the twinned threats of global warming and industrial farms threaten to alter the geography of watery world in an apparently definitive fashion, as rivers, ponds, and lakes across America–and the world–have been found to be teeming with toxic algae.   In what seems to be a brazen photoshopping of photographs of the Great Lakes, the apparent aquatic “greening” of formerly fresh waters in fact carries quite sinister associations.  The abundant algal blooms in the Great Lakes recall the modern miracle of the annual greening of the Chicago River each St. Patrick’s Day, but are of much more anthropogenic origin.  Appearing at regular times and places, they raise a corner on a changing relation to the worldly environment.

But they are also–in the manner of all “offshore” events–both particularly challenging to chart or to measure by fixed or clearly demarcated lines so often employed in terrestrial maps.  Rather than being photoshoppped, the satellite maps make points difficult to interpret or decode, even if they trigger immediate danger signs of the dawn of a different world, and a quite different national map of the extent of our potable water.  They prompts questions of how to map man’s impact on the shifting environment of the Great Lakes.




Populations of algae move with the currents of local waters, as the blooms of pools enter rivers and rush down streams, as a weirdly alien presence in water supplies that have impacted fish in many ways, and stand to impact humans as well.  As we start to chart our relation to their presence, their emergence in select spots of the US and other countries demands to be connected to one another, or placed in a causative web geographic as much as environmental.  The nature of this greening suggests a new presence of the bacteria in the world.  For Northrop Frye, the “green world” in Shakespeare’s plays connoted a pivot scene of action–an extra-urban environment not only conducive to personal insight or reflection but the perfect forest to overcome natural challenges that stood for inner obstacles; the green algae in waters across midwestern America suggest not only an environmental challenge, which in 2011 cloaked one-sixth of Lake Erie’s surface, but something of a site prompting reflection on both a local and a global struggle with environmental change–linked not only to rising temperatures, but to the increasing over-saturation of nitrate-rich fertilizer in agricultural run-off.

Algae populations are not usually mapped as the populations, but the recent spread of algae in what was once called American freshwater lakes and rivers has not only generated significant media attention and concern.  For it posed problems of locally mapping of algal growth in compelling ways–not only for fishing or swimmers, but for communities and regarding the potability of water piped into public circulation.  While algal blooms are the concern of environmental studies or marine biologists, more than geographers, their inescapability as part of the impact of humans on the environment force us to include them within our spatial experience and  geographic horizons:  it is as if the very bucolic settings we had known are being reconfigured as nature, and dramatically scenographically redesigned, and their origins remain ineffectively mapped, even if they are often bounded by vague warning signs.  Where did these blooms arise, and can we relate their inland flourishing to the mapping of their marine migration?  Can they be placed, more importantly, not only in a given set of waters that are polluted, but within a web of land-use that unintentionally geographically redistributes nitrates and phosphorous so that they tip the crucial quotient of algal populations and bacteria in the waters that lie in rural areas, near to farmlands?  The abundant greening caused by rural pollutants pose a major ecological imbalance still neither comprehensively acknowledged nor assessed.

Ages before online memes circulated about dating of the anthropocene in the guise of critical thought, George Perkins Marsh declaimed the widespread environmental changes effected by human actions as anthropogenic in scope.  Back in 1860, Marsh bemoaned dangers posed to mountaintops and  deforestation and evoked the losses that were the result of dried water channels, reducing meadows to parched infertile stretches and creating sand- or silt-obstructed streams where irrigation occurred, poetically lamenting the shifting ecology which “converted thousands of leagues of shallow sea and fertile lowland into unproductive and miasmatic morasses”:  Marsh’s 1874  The Earth as Modified by Human Action was written in the hope “to suggest the possibility and the importance of the restoration of disturbed harmonies and the material improvement of waste and exhausted regions.”   It set the template for Paul Crutzen’s later dating the “anthropocene” and its diffusion as a critical concept and a form of global introspection about our environment:  and as that impact becomes ever more apparent, the recent appearance of toxic algal blooms.  Algae blooms offer one measure for mapping the advent of anthropocene.  Can one map the dawn of the anthropogenic in cartographical terms?  Actively mapping such population in freshwater and marine bodies of water are as visually striking an index as any of the impact of poorly agricultural planning and practices on living geography.  In a sort of stunning irony or counterpoint to the nosedive of the worldwide algal mass by 40% over the past sixty-five years, a huge reduction of biodiversity of marine ecosystems altering the marine food web, the appearance of algal blooms is less linked to human impact on the environment.  Could expansion of the ozone hole, and global warming, be easier to render compellingly in a graphic map, and toxic algae harder to register in compelling cartographical forms?  Or is the appearance of blooms just too overwhelmingly entangled in multiple circumstantial factors that already assume inevitability–from global warming to chemical fertilizer–that the map seems a fait accompli?

Marsh was also an active champion, of course, of a more custodial relation to the water, forest, and the land.  The problem of mapping algal blooms in a coherent or compelling manner is problematic, even though the data is there, and the visualizations in snapshots of lakeside scenes arresting.  The recent rise of “toxic algae” are, while apparently visible to Google Earth, difficult to decipher on maps, or even in satellite images, which carry ominous signs of a changing global geography with immense impacts to human and animal life alike–the effects of whose shifting bacterial populations radiate out from local ecosystems to human disease, but are rooted in a deep uncertainty that something in our bodies of water is either just out of kilter or deeply wrong.  But the hardest question is how to compel attention to these maps, which provide a basic charge for understanding and communicating how the blooms spread, as well as the networks of causation that contribute to such strikingly hued waterborne algal populations.




This 1999 image of algal blooms off the southern coast of Devon provides a visualization of the spread of harmful blooms of toxic algae that have hurt the whales and dolphins who have ingested them, as other fish.  Dissecting data visualizations of the prominence of such toxic algae or “harmful algal blooms” in oceans or inland raises pressing questions about their nature and causation, and about the salient mechanics that might be revealed in how such blooms might be better or more clearly mapped in web-based platforms.  In an age of the omnipresence of Google Earth, or satellite views of significantly high resolution, as well as MODIS, as well as the imaging spectrometer MODIS aqua of high resolution launched in 2002, the measurement of water populations should not be difficult to define:  but the presence of algal blooms requires increasing introduction of data layers based on local detection, in ways that the surface appearance of all aquatic environments just cannot register alone.  Algae provides a case for looking at the unmapped, and mapping the sort of rapidly reproducing migrant bacterial populations in aquatic environments that are otherwise particularly difficult to detect by superficial observation–until they have already rapidly progressed or bloomed.

Algae’s presence in lakes was rarely a mapped population or identified as a species until the spread of toxic “harmful algae blooms” (HAB’s) and alarms over cyanobacteria:   algal populations have recently gone off the charts, and the explosion of their accumulated biomass has created huge alterations both in food web dynamics–and sucking off most of the oxygen in waters on which fish depend–as well as increasing the growth of bacteria that themselves pose dangers to human life, best known in the bacterial spread of the so-called “Red Tide” of Karenia brevis that flourished in ocean waters off the coast of Florida during the late 1970s–but more terrifying, and considerably more difficult to track, across the freshwater lakes, ponds, and rivers that are often sources of drinking water.  Mapping and charting the presence of bacteria in waters is notoriously difficult, born as they are by currents, weather, water-depth and amount of refuse that locally enters waters, and the alarming visuals of chromatic variations caused by algal presences in aquatic environments poses practical challenges to visually represent in maps that combine dispassionate distance and analytic engagement.




These maps are less fun or enjoyable to read, if only because they so often bear bad news.  The adverse effects of algal blooms on local animal populations and food webs are even more difficult to track along clear analytics, although a varied range of metrics and maps–from MODIS satellite views of remote sensing to GIS plotting of specific readings to Google Earth views and aerial photographs.  Even as folks are downing Spirulina and eating Kelp, the pernicious cyanobacteria of green-blue algae blooms, The effectiveness of the beauty of mapping algae is difficult to effectively use as compelling narratives, however, whether about that danger, or in ways that overcome the difficult distaste of the un-kelp-like sludge of algal blooms, about the alarming spread of Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB’s) either off the shores of the United States or as effectively clogging food webs in its lakes.  As of 2013, health authorities issued advisories and warnings on algal blooms at 147 different sites and untold cost and environmental impact due to such harmful blooms, of which no systematic collation seems to exist.

Mapping the presence of such HAB’s is not only a question of reporting locations of efflorescence, but of mapping both the causative webs by which they seem to emerge with the deposits of phosphorous-rich fertilizer and waste in rivers and runoff, as well as mapping the impact of blooms within food webs and food-cycles, although it is often discussed primarily or solely in regard to its potential dangers to humans–given the neurotoxins that it has produced in rivers, lakes, and even waterfalls in Minnesota, as well as Michigan, Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Ontario, Ohio, and even the Sacramento River delta, in addition, most famously, to Lake Erie–whose shallow waters encourage algae blooms, and where locals of recently sought a joint US-Canadian agency called for the immediate imposition of fixed limits on local fertilizer use.   If over 140 sites of algal blooms are present in the bays, ponds, and lakes of New York State alone, and in many lakes across the world, the widespread occurrence of such blooms have been tied to fertilizer runoff, but their endemic presence in so many freshwater lakes have only relatively recently been systematically tied to outbreaks of disease.

Hand of HAB


Only now is the huge efflorescence of algae blooms being linked both to the production and broadcast dispersion of industrial fertilizers.  One back story that demands to be mapped is the effect of the longstanding encouragement that farmers in the United States have received to  minimize plowing of their lands, less the huge carbon mass that regularly tilled lands release not only erodes the atmosphere but degrades the soil itself; tilling costs more to pursue in a systematic way, and, especially in large farms, has been discarded as farms have shifted their equipment for tilling to a program of “no-till planting” that uses machinery to drill seeds into undisturbed soil, and scatter fertilizer atop in prepared pellet form that needn’t be entered into the soil by tilling machines–even though such pellets depend on rains to enter the soil, and up to 1.1 pounds of fertilizer per farmed acre enter rivers directly in rainwater, as a result, rather than serving to fertilize the soil, working to effectively unbalance ecosystems far beyond the bounds of farmed lands.

Harmful algae blooms’ explosive off the charts growth responds to a confluence both of high usage of fertilizer in crops and lawns, intensified by rapidly rising temperatures that foment their spread in freshwater and seawater alike:  the expansive growth of algae seems something of a by-product of our current global warming trends, as the increased summer heat provides an optimum occasion for spurts of algal growth, nourished by streamed-in phosphorous and other animal wastes, in ways that change the microbial populations of freshwater lakes.  And the world of rapidly growing algae has deep consequences for public health.  For rather than the edible sorts of seaweed, the toxicity of algae in freshwater systems is all too likely to foster bacteria-levels in human drinking water and fish that are not usually seen, making the mapping of stagnant water algae of increasing concern in much of the midwest and northeast–especially nearby sites of large-scale or industrial agriculture.  What are the best ways that algae can be mapped, or that the mapping of algae can be a proactive safeguard on the responsible stewardship of the toxicity of agricultural and lawn run-off?

The blaming of substandard practices of fertilizing soil and huge expansion of chemical fertilizers with phosphorous, combined with the increased problems of storing waste, create a new geography of pollution that renders human impact salient by the spread of an algae bloom crisis around the Great Lakes, which since 1995 have emerged in the Maumee River that feeds the Great Lakes and runs through many factory farms in these inland lakes:  increasingly, Kansas is reporting widespread algae blooms in lakes, as well as Pennsylvania and Kentucky, according to the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection blog and which the Courier Journal describe as the first cases beyond the lower Midwest.



Even when not toxic in nature, the problem of uncontrolled algae blooms lies in their absorption of all oxygen from the body of water in question.  The predictive maps of expansive algal blooms specifically in Lake Erie, where aerial photographic visualizations recorded the  record levels of 2011, warn of the spread of toxic blue-green algae–a harmful algal bloom (HAB), focussed on the lake’s western basin, based on the careful reading of the nutrients that flow into the lake.  The new levels of algae that have steadily increased in recent years, hark back to the algal blooms of the 1960s and 1970s in the same region of the lake.  But the blooms have recurred with a new intensity, spurred by hot weather and an increased amount of phosphorous, sewage, and manure into Ohio lakes and streams, boosting the blue-green cyanobacteria to new levels last summer that more than doubled previous years–increased by the accepted practices of broadcasting fertilizer on fields without tilling, and the reluctance of the Environmental Protection Agency to issue any warning on cyanobacteria in these waters–even after the algal blooms broke previous records in the summer of 2011–although we know that colorless odorless carcinogens like microcystins can linger long after the blooms have left.   Mapping the blooms proses a problem of going beyond geo-visualizations or aerial photography as a way of mapping the flow of bacteria and subsequent algae blooms that deoxygenate waters in an easily legible form, or linking the toxicity of blooms to set intensities.

Are we even close to cultivating the ability to read the levels of toxic agents like microcystins in algae blooms, or able to find reliable ways of transcribing their potential harmful side-effects? The specific case of Lake Erie, specific both since it is one of the densest sites of such blooms and on account of its low water-level, may itself be predictive of the danger of algal blooms in future years.



The 2011 bloom was rapid and sudden, as is apparent in two aerial photographs of the lake snapped just five months apart, between June 1 2011 and October 5, which illustrates the blossoming of the algae under the summer’s sweltering sun:


0315-nat-ERIE_webNew York Times; source: NOAA Centers for Coastal Ocean Science; data from NASA MODIS sensor

If not a map, the green coloration of the algae highlighted the frontiers of its expansion so effectively as if to isolate that one feature within the aerial photograph.  Such local photographic “mapping” of the density of toxic algae blooms is perhaps the most compelling chart of their impact.  But the expansion of algal blooms, if similar to that covering 300 square miles in 2003,  now threatens to spread across the entire southern shore, has been closely tied to new levels of toxicity, producing liver and nerve toxins, and creating a dead-zone of oxygen-depleted fish.  If not as severe as it was in 2011, when remotely imaged by MODIS satellite revealed a particularly disturbing concentration of cyanobacteria close to Detroit and along several spots of the lake’s shore, before extending from Toledo to Cleveland in 2011.

erie-forecast-art-gmqnkink-10703gfx-erie-forecast-compare-eps MODIS Cyanobacterial


The existence of sediment in the Great Lakes revealed a distribution of particularly thick portions of algal spread, no doubt particularly notorious due to its low average depth of just 62 feet.  At the same time as Western Lake Erie continues to experience a fairly unprecedented resurgence of toxic algal blooms,  health advisories and “do not drink” orders have been issued by the state of Ohio, although Michigan, which lacks a formal monitoring program to monitor waters’ purity, has not issued any:  the current debate on the Farm Bill has led to a jeopardized program of Conservation Stewardship and fails to include controls to encourage farmer’s to monitor their effects on water quality–or even to set uniform standards for the toxicity of HAB’s to drinking water, local ecosystems, or lake life.


Algal Blooms 2012 true

Modis Green Erie

The spread of their population in the lake was visible on Google Earth:

Algea on Google Earth


The intense concentrations of algal blooms can be likewise revealed due to remote sensing of the absorption of light in the lake’s water, to image the toxicity of the most polluted of the Great Lakes. based on data from the International Space Station.


Lake Erie satellite image



Looking at lake Erie provides something of a well-mapped test case of algal blooms.  Most of the blooms are typical of the over 200 toxic blooms in the United States, due to run-off of fertilizer and manure in rivers and lakes, often carried by heavy rains, often confined to the northwest, but spreading throughout the high farming regions of the midwest, where phosphorous no doubt increasingly leaches to water supplies–leading to public health warnings and closures of lakes or beaches.  Rainfall has increased the flow of agricultural run-off and nutrient-rich storm water into rivers and lakes, providing food for algae to grow to toxic levels.  Indeed, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has developed an early detection and forecasting system for the Gulf of Mexico by using remotely sensed data to monitor harmful algal blooms beyond the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay–some of the largest repositories of freshwater in the United States–and in over one hundred and forty sites as of the summer of 2013.  And the clean-up of many Minnesota lakes has led to a call for reducing the use of nitrogen-rich and phosphorous-based fertilizers by some 45%, although no realistic ways for achieving the goal–which might not even be as high needed to reduce algal blooms–has been defined. The difficulty that occurred when a satellite photograph of Lake Ontario suggested a similar efflorescence of blue green algae blooms of cyanobacteria in that large body of water led an overwrought panic-attack to be voiced on Twitter, as the photograph that ostensibly boded the local arrival of an onslaught of heptatoxins, already problematic in Hamilton Bay, to have metastasized to the lake as a whole.




But the “bloom” was a boom of plankton–mostly plankton like diatoms, and chrysophytes, dinoflagellates, in other words, which are often mistaken for blue green algae in remote sensing, although blue green algae blooms just a small amount of it, and little cyanobacteria–was an optical illusion.  The apparent errors in the imaging of algal blooms suggest a greater difficulty in its accurate mapping, and makes us rely on self-observations by water-sampling for certitude.

This is not to minimize the danger.  But only to warn of the limitations of tracing by superficial observation.  The actual potential for the sudden spread of HAB’s in the continental United States is in fact quite serious, however, as is the need for ensuring water-quality standards in many rural regions–from questions of potability to the eventuality of die-offs of fish.


blooms across USA


The interest of this very broad-scale map is the proximity of blooms to large-scale farms raising cows and pigs:  such  concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) generate unduly concentrated amounts of livestock waste in precise locations–termed “liquid lagoons”–thee liners of whose storage tanks regularly leak in heavier rainstorms, creating a manure run-off from poorly regulated sites into lakes.  The EPA estimates that over half do not have Clean Water Act permits, creating deep problems of local stewardship that becomes evident in the efflorescence of toxic algae blooms–but only long after the fact–in ways that reveal the ingrown nature of poor standards of agrarian stewardship.  Living in the right town, we might see such headlines as Citizens of the Town of Lincoln, Kewaunee County are concerned that the Kinnard Farms Inc. plan to manage 70 million gallons of untreated animal waste doesn’t protect groundwater from contamination, or How Big Meat is taking over the Midwest, describing the widespread multiplication of permits for such “poo lagoons” in the landscape to hold the refuse of the 19.7 million pigs raised annually in that state alone, and the return of a booming industry in 2011.


Factory Farms Focus on Iowa?


Lying down water of such overflowing containers of animal feces creates a possibility of toxic contamination that is particularly difficult to contain–especially when fueled by an unnatural abundance of phosphorous and nitrates that has all too often been insufficiently or ineffectively tilled into agrarian lands.  The contamination of so many of Minnesota’s lakes offers a sad case in point.  The striking case of green waterfalls in Minnesota suggests something like a direct inversion of the rural picturesque–and a compelling need for new standards of river pollution or run-off, as well as intensive attention to the tilling of fertilizer so that it remains buried as much as possible underground.




Somewhat more ecologically conscientious states, like Vermont, removed from the landscape of the factory farms, have begun to provide interactive local maps to measure and track the intensity of algal blooms, of “blue green algae tracking,” as this map recording the blossoming of green by the shores of Lake Champlain–a tourist destination–that are considerably interactive and detailed, as well as allow a considerable fine-grained detail of local reporting that are incorporated into visual overlays for ready consultation each day.


Algae by Burlington


Others, like Florida’s inland waters, have seen massive toxic algae outbreaks that have killed manatees, fish, and birds, as well as dolphins in the Indian River Lagoon, where fluorescent green slime filled the river this past summer, leading to widespread health warnings.  Of course, such a menace is not only localized:  the actual specter that is haunting the mapping of algae comes from China–where, coincidentally, few controls exist on fertilizer or greenhouse gasses, and algal blooms fill large, slow-moving rivers like the Sichuan.




In the course of preparation for the 2008 Olympics that the Chinese government pulled some 1,000,000 tons of green algae from the Yellow River, famously, relying on some 10,000 soldiers in the project to remove the waste, leading folks to just negotiate with algal blooms as they appear, and their relative toxicity not to be tested.




The disquiet conveyed by the images of raking algic scums off the Yellow River, or of swimmers happily standing waste-deep in the light green blankets of what looks less like fresh parsley than artificial coloring can only be viewed with the alarm that Bartholomew Cubbins witnessed the arrival of Oobleck in the Kingdom of Didd.  (We might reconsider the assumption that the last printed work in the Dr. Seuss corpus, The Lorax, was the one most directly about the physical environmental.)  Indeed, the comparisons of Oobleck to HAB’s seem unavoidable given their sudden ubiquity across so many of the changing climates of the United States and world.



Mapping something as imaginary as Oobleck might be an apt association, if intentionally slightly ridiculous if evocative comparison, but the odd appearance of green toxic slime in freshwater deposits evokes the sudden omnipresence Oobleck quickly acquired in all Didd.


oobleck in act


The fear of self-generated Oobleck seems implicit in much literature.  Indeed, Qingdao’s 2013 summer scourge of “surf like turf” meant the arrival of what locals called “sea lettuce.”   Perhaps from the farms of Nori on Japan’s Jiangsu coast, or from irresponsible farming in China itself, the consequence of a massive failure of marine stewardship created currents of harmless-to-humans algae running toward the center of the Yellow Sea.   The blooms, given the run-off of nitrate-rich fertilizers from farms and industry, didn’t seem to threaten beaches often used as centers of tourism, but created an odd sight of bathers luxuriating in the aquatic lettuce they were told had not toxicity.  The algae are often regarded as harmless to humans.  But harmless to fish they are not:  the algae serves as a ravaging of the aquatic ecosystem:  bright green beds of algae were deemed a “large-scale algae disaster” by the Shandong province, and 19,800 tons of it cleared as it started to decompose, releasing noxious fumes of toxic hydrogen sulfide gas, at a cost of over $30 million.  The relation between harmful algae and the local ecosystem or food chain has not been fully explored to map, despite the wide ramifications of its impact on the greater food chain.




The explosion of algae blooms has been linked to the rise of the so-called red tides in the Gulf of Mexico, has already hit our coasts as well:  southern California coast and Florida have both placed a new premium on mapping the density of algae that flourish in these warm ocean waters, which have long been worried to disrupt local ecosystems and food chains, before the toxicity of fertilizer-fueled algal blooms started to appear inland.  These tides have largely been treated as dangers to marine life, and specifically to the shellfish regularly harvested there, however, and were consequently charted and mapped in relation to water currents, salinity, and winds, to get a picture on their sources of origins of these concentrations of  dinoflagellates of reddish hue that so rapidly accumulated along the Florida coasts from purple to pink, and which seem–despite their name–to be entirely independent of tidal flows, but were toxic to birds, fish, and mammals, and potentially harmful to human beings when consumed in shellfish.  The awareness of this vector of transmission has led to the monitoring of these early HAB’s, which have disrupted fisheries along the Atlantic as far north as Maine, and, according to some were witnessed in Canada as early as 1793 in British Columbia:  but far more recent measurement of red tides in northern California, where they created a massive die-off of shellfish, the Gulf of Mexico, the Southwest Florida coast, Malaysia, Maine, and Massachusetts, killing fish, manatees, and shellfish like abalone, has led to increased NOAA alerts and concerns of respiratory irritations at beach shores.

Is such efflorescence due not only to lower rainwater that flushes the system of oceans, and increased warming, but also to the nitrate-rich outflow of fertilizer from Florida plains, and indeed the Mississippi?  The lack of tilling in larger farms, driven by the needs to produce more crops in their growing seasons, has encouraged the dispersion of high-grade fertilizer across the Midwest, most of whose runoff enters the same waters. Indeed, the inland growth of HAB’s echoes historical documentation of the approach of “red tides” that endangered shellfish and fish living along Florida’s western coast in recent decades.

The ability to survey the massive growth of Karenia brevis organisms in the warm shallow waters of Florida’s western coast, and the dangers that they posed to local fish and marine life, benefit from the extension of data and record-keeping along the Florida waters since 1954 by multiple agencies.  The data creates a context for data visualizations of the expansion of the “red tide” of HAB’s in ocean waters near to an exceptionally rich and endangered ecosystem, but also one huge stretches of whose coast falls under environmental protections for endangered species, and whose waterfront economy enjoys far greater protection than most inland lakes.  By exploiting the largest continuously recorded database of Harmful Algal Blooms in the United States–and world–we can examine the spread of sites of the Red Tide of 1979 in relation to ocean currents, which appear, based on data from Florida Marine, clearly clustered in shallower waters by the ocean coast:  maps track the abundance, intensity, and duration of growth of Karenia brevis by color, switching to rectangles for the largest, and the extent of their presence by shape-size, based on data collected on November 1979, Christmas 1979, December 20, and January 20, 1980.  They reveal the algal spreads as moving quite rapidly from being concentrated around Tampa Bay along the coast to Naples in dense brightly colored blooms that flourished for the longest time near bays, often in the shallower waters sometimes within the red line marking a distance of 18 kilometers off the coast, where they have most contact with shellfish.  The evolution of these animated static maps provides a temporary solution, based on intensive compilation of water data by the Florida Coastal Commission, but provides an exception of the degree of successful visualizations of algal presences in aquatic environments.


Nov 2 1979--Florida Marine

FLorida Marine 1979 Red Tide

Florida marine Dec 30 1979

Red Tide Expands 1979 Florida Marine


The “tide” returned in 1985 to the shallow waters off the beaches and coastal inlets of western Florida, pictured with a key of the local density of blooms which is also applicable to reading the above images, and the increased presence of blooms on New Year’s Day 1986:


Florida Marine carina 1995

Florida Marine Key

new year's day 1986


More recently, Florida’s Fish & Wildlife Research Institute charted the same coastal waters of its coasts.  By using readings that were based data for the NOAA Ocean Service and Satellite Information Service, who registered high levels of marine chlorophyll by MODIS Aqua imagery, bacteria clearly hovered especially, when present, around the Floridan shores and coves in which they multiply.  Does this suggest that they are specific to shallower, warmer waters, or more likely densest at the very point when they enter the seawater in such high concentration from the land?  Commonly known as “red tides,” these off-coastal aggregations of algae, again Karenia brevisseem largely in decline on Florida’s southwest coastal waters for the present, but had long flourished on its relative shallow ocean shelves.


Florida Fish and Wildlife HAB

Or, in October 2013,

October 2013 Florida Fish and Wildlife RI


But the bacteria and algae are focussed not so much offshore–notwithstanding the so-called Red Tides–but rather in the very estuaries and inlets where freshwater leaches out into the surrounding seas, evident in this self-reported data of algae via Google Maps, where sightings were crowded upstream the inlet of the St. Lucie St. Park Preserve, with a congestion that travelled up the course of its river.


Google Maps St. Lucie River, 2013


Indeed, the particular porousness of these offshore waters in the below engraved map, which shows a region characterized and distinguished by circulation of rivers in wetlands and estuaries, so long characteristic of Florida and much of the American south, struck early cartographers as so distinct by its density of estuaries.  The map, in the context of this blog, provides a striking contrast as Ooblek-free, even if its territory was far more submerged and coasts follow far more irregular lines.  This early eighteenth-century map–possibly 1720-30–this version courtesy of the expanding on-line collections of David Rumsey, offers the start of something like a cartographical archeology of the region, whose coves and inlets evoke a pristine Gulf of Mexico, fed by multiple rivers from the southern plains still inhabited by Native American Peoples:

Florida--part of America

Florida at that time was described by the cartographer as a “Neck of Lakes and Broken Land, surrounded by man-eating Indians, whose Straits were nourished by streams, before being included in Herman Moll’s Atlas, with its rendering of glorious irregular shorelines, inlets, and islands that suggest a Florida before the expansion of landfill and filling in of much of the southern state.   There is something akin to a raining of Oobleck in Florida, the sudden and widespread appearance of HAB’s in modern maps of different states offers a point of entry into how the map can be taken as a rendering and record of man’s impact on and relation to the land, or of how our maps of human knowledge provoke questions of how to map man’s own relation to the remaking of the environment, less by setting the benchmark of a given date, but by how  it slowly started to be filled up with lots of sorts of shit, all of human origin or introduction.  To look at the elegant bird’s eye map that John Bachmann designed of Florida, among his many images of the southern states of America of 1861, printed as a collective “Theater of War,” the mapping of the water surrounding the peninsula shows a much more clearly integrated web of land and water.  In the panorama the peninsula is colored a light green oddly reminiscent of the algal blooms, but the green land, fertile with rivers crisscrossed with estuaries and permeated by lakes where brackish waters surrounded archipelagoes of islands, each its own flourishing ecosystem, and shipping docks, suggest an interpenetration of green land and water in a settled land.

Panorama of Florida

Northrop Frye coined he notion of travel in and to the Green World as a dramatic device evoking a crucial passage, which the protagonists must survive in order to restore balance to the actual world and to the plot.  One could argue that travel to old maps, rather than being only a form of antiquarian indulgence, provides and affords something of a parallel site of reflection on our environment.  The Green World that they present is an “other world,” and a world that seems increasingly distant as our own bodies of water are polluted, and we might look back to maps to see the lived environments we are in danger of loosing–and loosing sight of.  Viewing old maps like that in Moll’s Atlas after reviewing the above data visualizations and overlays is chastening and ethical, in ways, something like returning to a site of meditation on a relation to a world we have lost, and perhaps a way to turn back the tide of inevitability that informs our relation to the mapping of algal blooms.  Whether we can restore balance to our world may seem another story, assembling a coherent map of toxic blooms of algae that recur around the world, we can map its distance to the world we knew, and ask what sort of balance lies in our own.

Straits of Florida 1720


But it is the “other world” of blooms of green algae that the run-off of industrial agriculture appears to have bequeathed that is the world that seems, for the moment, far more likely to be left with us.  Without mapping the growth of such recurrent aglal blooms, and tracking their mechanisms of causation and varying intensity–feared only to increase in an age of global warming–the other world will become our own.

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Filed under algae blooms, Global Warming, Great Lakes, remotely sensed maps

Green Urbanism? Blue Urbanism?

Since maps invite their viewers to enter an image of the natural world, as well as to relate places to the broader geographic context in which it lies, they offer increasingly useful perspectives to relate the ocean to the land.  The perspective they offer on all regions has long been rooted on the land,  however.  And the coasts–and indeed the dangers–for adhering to such a “landlubberly perspective” on our rising oceans are increasingly apparent.  A perspective that privileges mapping inhabited lands –and orienting viewers to a set notion of place–places us at a particularly disastrous disadvantage when assessing questions of climate change, or reacting to the increasingly lethal storms, tsunami, and typhoons encountered as the inevitable consequences of climate change, and that coastal cities–from New Orleans to New York to the devastated Philippine coastal cities of Tacloban, Ormac or Baybay–seem condemned to repeat.

In continuing to rely on maps whose perspective denies that of the future expansion of oceanic seas, we threaten to lose perspective on our changing relation to the sea.  We have long found threats of the invasion of ocean waters difficult to integrate in an inherited image of the city as a bounded entity, and continue to draw clear lines around the cities in which we dwell:  our maps draw clear lines between land and water.  Perhaps this is because waters seem so difficult to circumscribe or bound, and the fluid relation between land and water difficult to render accurately or draw.  When an influential movement of urban architecture and planning calls for a greater integration of the natural world–so often bound outside of cities or city walls–within urban entities, they retain the notion of the bounded city.  Recuperating the term the entomologist and biologist E.O. Wilson coined, “biophilia,” to express the “innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms” in human nature that demanded attention, they argue that cities need to promote contact with nature, since, Wilson argued, such contact provides a spur to creativity, productivity, and well-being.  The planning of “biophilic cities” is dedicated as a movement of urban design to “contain abundant nature” in their structure.  The championing of “model cities”–such as Perth or Singapore–are promoted as examples of the “biophilic” age of urban architecture.

Yet are these models (often located in semi-tropical climates) not limit cases where we can most easily integrate oceanic waters into a built environment?  For by isolating the city as a unit in which to restore nature, there seems more than a bit of bio-fetishism in singling out new spaces where blue waters can enter an urban environment:  the optimism of its evangelical tenor as a movement of urban planners, dedicated to reframing the reintegration of cities with the watery surroundings has gained a broad charge and dedicated following, including partner cities that border on water such as San Francisco, Portland, Milwaukee, Vitoria Gastiez (Spain), Birmingham (England), and Wellington (New Zealand).  While the benefits of such urban architecture appear considerable, the challenges for expanding the role of the ocean in the horizons of city-dwellers seem only the start of restoring the historical isolation of the city from watery life, or integrating the oceans within our future urban planning.

The movement of blue urbanism is an illustration of courageous dedication to a project of reintegrating aquatic and urban environments–at least, presumably, before the shores of cities will be redrawn by ocean waters.  The considerable cognitive benefits claimed for these more enriched urban networks build on movements for integrating networks of urban “green-spaces”–including not only parks but green-belts and even forests is a reasoned reaction to urban sprawl and overbuilding and way to take charge of the built environments we create.  “Blue urbanism” would comprehend a watery frontier, offering opportunities for immersing children in rivers, urban parks, watery excursions, and underwater ambients which surround cities.   Blue urbanists espouses an improved integration among the fauna and flora lying near aand around cities within something like a green belt–and espouse the value of an analogous “blue belt” as a way to foster a new attachment to the waters and their shores, rather than seeing them as limits of built city.

Yet does emphasis on the human benefits of such contact carry a all too narrowly restricted notion of what a watery surrounding might be?  The watery oceanic borders of cities are in themselves rarely mapped, though the shifting waters of the Gulf Stream and other currents determine the shoreline inhabitants of North America, but might a map provide a fuller perspective on the interchanges and ecosystems lost by drawing firm barriers between urban and ocean life?

1.  The “blue urbanism” that Timothy Beatley advocates wields the rhetoric and best practices of green architecture’s “integrated network of urban space” to invite us to re-imagine cities’ relation to the shores on which they border.  Yet there is concern that such projects of rebuilding turn away from the depth of our historical remove from the waters that surround our cities–an increasingly pragmatic concern after the very fragility of this divide has been so traumatically revealed in recent decades, from damages inflicted on US cities by Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy or, afield, the Indian Ocean Tsunami and super-typhoon Haiyan.  The ecology of biophilic design, for all its benefits, could benefit from a broader global ecology, basing itself less on the benefits of human friendship with the biosphere, and being more oriented to global contexts of the cost of climactic shifts by looking back to the geography of the past–lest the affections of biophilia border on the bio-fetishism of the philistine.  The precepts of adaptation and resilience to mitigate bad policy decisions are of intense importance; historic maps offer base-lines to qualify the alienation of cities from their shores that compliment the need to build green and blue belts.  The maps we have drawn about urban areas may provide a basis to recuperate the integration of life along the shorelines we have lost, in short, and the nature and settlement of life along the city’s shore–as well as the ways that oceans serve less as a barrier to than interface with the shore.

While we map the trespass of waves over the finely drawn boundary lines of territories, measuring incursions across demarcated shorelines and property lines, and mourning the scope of damages and loss, we seem to remediate via maps–much as how OSM-mappers have begun to chart buildings and routes in the Philippines for delivering humanitarian supplies, as a way of rebuilding, if at first in virtual form–to restore urban infrastructures in digital form.

Mapping Tacloban via OSM

Yet these maps do not comprehend, for lack of a better word, the sea.  The terrible human costs of each of these events serve as something of an intimation of the threats global warming poses to urban environments, and invite rethinking notions of ‘planning’ replacing the imagined stability of  a built frontier of urban society with a more permeable line of inter-relations, even as we come to appreciate how little conscious “planning” went into the drawing of earlier boundary lines.  Both the human and material costs of these events compel an appreciation of the role of the shoreline, as well as intimations of the threats global warming poses to urban environments and indeed the world we have built.

Homes in Samar provinceReuters

Naturalists have recently begun to realize the power of maps to invite reexamination of our relations to place, however–often by using historical maps to excavate the shifting historical relation to the natural world that have led us to draw such finely parsed lines between planned urban environments and their surrounding waters to assess the costs of these sorts of fantasies of spatial distinction:  if we don’t build on the water, we cannot ignore it but at our collective peril.

Map offer a particularly precise if plastic means to situate place that are able to register deeper, less easily visualized, chronological changes and global contexts, or shifts within a regional ecosystem that would be otherwise difficult to conceive.  In age of rising oceans and global warming, maps draw relations between local settings and global changes to help assess the extent to which global warming threatens to obliterate or erode the stability of our concepts of place.  Maps of the circulation of waters around specific cities compel us to rethink an inherited oceanic boundary.

2.   Can a “blue architecture” invite us to re-imagine bifurcated schema of ordering of space to which we have reduced the relation between land and sea to a simply drawn line?  Or have we lost a relation to the land that a new building project cannot recover without clearer lenses to view the relation between water and planned environment, and to be invited to appreciate a clearer register of the relations between coastal cities and the surrounding sea, and, indeed, of the delicate interdependencies that are the basis for our sense of place, and underwrite how we imagine “place” as a category?  A historicized art of mapping stands to call attention to the ecosystem that might lurk beneath the threat of climactic change, and understand the changes they pose to local ecosystems.  The art of mapping provides unique tools to invite viewers to consider local settlements, and develop tools to re-imagine a relation to the sea new building projects alone cannot foster.

Sanderson's Base Map

We can appreciate the huge changes wrought in a relation to the shore by how a cartographical reconstruction of Manhattan island revealed in this stunning 1782 British Headquarters map drawn at the painstaking scale of 6 1/2 inches per mile reveals the island’s coastline as it was experienced by Lenape tribespeople.  Using the watercolor map as the base-map for his digital reconstruction of the local environment, landscape ecologist Eric W. Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society worked over five years to create GIS database, geo-referencing landmarks and sites to reconstruct the forgotten landscape based on 200 control points.

Sanderson’s completed map has a beauty that invites viewers to explore a computer generated landscape’s verdant arboreal landscape and rich wildlife, moving with amazing apparent precision over a web of lost streams, rivers, and hills that agricultural and urban development erased over time–most all of the more than 570 that distinguished the island Lenape members to give the name “Mannahatta,” the ‘island of many hills,’ and to map over 627 varieties of plants in the island, and the 233 types of birds and 24 different mammals who lived in its delicate interstices of interlaced ecosystems, in its swamps, ponds and the estuaries of its shores.

The older shoreline strikingly engages one’s mental map of Manhattan’s shore.   It jar one’s notion of place, and shift the stability of shorelines, streets, and riverine banks within one’s head.  Superimposing data from a Google map visualization of the verdant forests, ponds, streams, and marshes before four centuries of landfill shrunk its coastal geography, the map reveals a huge change in place in a powerfully persuasive graphic form.

Indeed, the superimposition of the shifted maps–the street grid and coastal drives laid above the earlier contours of the island’s expanse– is compelling by the complex cognitive dissonance it creates, placing multi-lane expressways and drives on the expanded edges of the island, so that they run across the marshland estuaries of the Lower East Side or cut into the blue waters around the island, suggesting the actual de-naturing of the landscape even more than the de-naturing of place that all Google Mapping templates seem to afford–and far more eerily reminding us of the extent to which we’ve effectively distanced ourselves from the expanse that the island once occupied as well as the ecosystems that it held.

Welikia 1609 Map of Mannahatta

3.  The remove of the world of this island situated on merging saltwater and freshwater, and with a dynamic verdant ecology is apparent from Markley Boyer’s stupendous digitization, which recreates the island seen by Henry Hudson in 1609, and which, if not a map per se, compels us to both explore its content by mapping them against our own experiences and spatial imaginaries.  The almost palpable landscape invites us to explore its content, as if as it invited Henry Hudson and his men in:

Mannahatta's verdant paradise 1609
These now absent beaches, marshlands, and estuaries in the landscape offer a striking contrast to the current shore.

The integration of its coasts to the river echo the shorelines that John Randel, Jr. famously mapped in delicate watercolors in a detailed rendering of its many hills between 1818-20, even as the grid of streets was lightly traced and projected above a far less level urban topography, where the city descended in differently manners to the rivers and estuaries on its shorelines, most of which have been erased by time:
Randall Farm Maps

Boyer’s glorious digital reconstruction recreates the shimmering presence island of hills, rivers, and trees that Lenape knew in its speciated glory, mapping the messiness of that shore in ways that inspire a vision of or compelling case for the optimistic dream of restoration of these shores:
Mannahatta:Manhattan from south
4.   Maps offer persuasive forms to re-think cities’ relations to oceanic shores, perhaps more compellingly altering deeply set attitudes than new practices of planning to integrate more fluidly and esthetically water and land.  Although Beatley calls, at, for new attitudes to the surrounding world, and fostering a new culture of lifestyle, curiosity, and an integration of the tactile presence of the seas in “blue urbanism,” we  might better appreciate the nature of the frontier created between city and water not only in the benefits of immersive aquatic environments in cities, but respond to the absence even of registering seas in urban planning by examining how we came to map a disconnect between cities and ocean– and the cultural divide that has emerged between shore and urban space that was elaborated from the mid-nineteenth century, and is now deeply established by zoning, districting, EPA standards and urban planning texts.

In asking to extend our concepts of cities to the oceans that surround them, we might work not only to make new maps, but use old maps to be mindful of the need to extend our sense of place through the refiguration of urban spaces–noting how maps mark and register the depths of the cultural divide between urban and oceanic space, and examining maps to chart the losses of a shifting historical relation between the city and ocean.  Such a remapping of the city’s relation to the land is echoed in the recent interactive mapping project of Stamen Design, Surging Seas, which tracks rising sea-levels caused by storms or flash-floods, mapping sea levels in relation to the inhabited land–and visualizing a nine foot rise in sea-level of nine feet, here in lower Manhattan, based on data from Climate Central.


Stamen-TriState Submerging Seas
And the interactive site allows one to track what changes would happen if the sea-level were to rise it to a ten full ten:

Surging Seas--NYC, 10 Feet

5.  At a recent discussion in San Francisco’s Exploratorium about relations between land and sea promoting such a “Blue Urbanism,” the relations between place and global change rightfully gained considerable attention.   Most presentations focussed on specific examples of cities, but the problem was pressingly (and depressingly) relevant given the recent typhoon.  Occurring in a room exhibiting such splendid shifting nine-panel global color video projections, courtesy NASA’s LandSat satellite photographs or the Goddard Flight Center, of Global Precipitation Levels, Sea Surface Currents and Temperatures, Ocean Currents, or, below, Global Aerosols, they seemed to provide a unique context for rethinking the presence of the local in relation to the sea.  For only in rethinking built relations between land and sea, and the compartmentalization that led to the diffusion of aerosols, the shifting of water temperatures, and  changes in the level and salinity of oceans over the past one hundred years, can we measure the human footprints already left on environment.

Global Aerosols Exploratorium

One such remapping of such relations and attitudes might begin from maps, it began to appear–and from the inspiration maps might provide to remap relation around San Francisco, not only by seeing how space was filled by the city–or the urban conquest of space–but rather how the negotiation of the boundary with the sea was based on spatial practices of such longstanding nature, entailing and perhaps rooted in the representational practices of defining space as an area of settlement and urban planning–and a practice of planning that sees space as filled up by housing projects that cut off the marine space of the sea.

The projected maps on plasma screens raised questions of how to rethink the sedimentation of such deeply set cultural practices, if only by providing a context for the dramatic remapping of urban environments at a remove from the ocean’s ebb and flow–or relate place to a far broader context of environmental change.   When Rebecca Solnit recently offered a haunting analogy between global warming to the processes of gentrification that threaten the fabrics of urban neighborhoods–both occurring with blinders to the overall structure and coherence ecosystems, whether the social ecosystem of urban space or global ecologies, and of removing oneself from our role in creating a scenario of global warming or urban change.

6.  The history of spatiality and of spatial practices that define the city may suffer, one soon realized, from the separation of such “spatial practices” from an appreciation of urban environments.  The circumscription of the spatial is partly inherited from the conceptually pioneering–if idealizing– strain of thought in the work of the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre, whose notion of in The Production of Space was rooted in an Aristotelian or Kantian categorization of space as a human creation.  For when Lefebvre distinguished forms of apprehension among social practices, representations of space, and symbolic models of spatial representation, he refined how Aristotle cast position as a category of human apprehension and Kant affirmed space as an attribute of human judgement–rather than an ecological space of multiple species’ interaction, or indeed of biological overlap.  Instead of commodifying space from a human point of view, we fail to register either local specificity or the density of coexistence around place:  maps can return attention to all too often forgotten margins of settlements, and effectively reconstitute place in a greater environment.  A similarly broad sense of the sea-shore as a “primeval meeting place of the elements of earth and water, a place of compromise and conflict and eternal change,” as much as opposition, was suggested by Rachel Carson, who suggested the basis for understanding the shorelines by “the long rhythms of earth and sea that sculptured its land forms and produced the rock and sand of which it is composed”–and the biological communities specific to each.  She chose a map of the Gulf Stream as a sort of emblem for the situated knowledge of the shore, using a version of the 1769 chart of Benjamin Franklin based on the working knowledge of a Nantucket sailor, Timothy Folger, that is the end-paper for her 1950 The Sea Around Us; Carson praised the map for transmitting understanding of ocean currents–and for the first time locating the course of the equatorial Gulf Stream, or “Gulph Stream,” on a map, in ways that embodied a tacit familiarity with the flow that many sailors well knew, but which Franklin, as Postmaster General, was frustrated to find absent from any chart.

The recovery of the rare original Franklin-Folger map showed a pointedly less centrally defined Gulf Stream than the composite map reprinted above, but illuminated a new need for mapping oceanic expanse–in this case, for the postmaster general to elucidate the greater time needed to traverse the Atlantic from England, which world maps or charts had long excluded, in failing–or, more accurately, not knowing how–to map the seas.

Franklin- Map

7.  The question then becomes how to adequately map the seas, as much as urban space.  The ability to register and communicate familiarity with place–and with a watery space–is particularly lacking in most urban maps.  The absence is a considerable difficulty for adequately registering knowledge of the sea on its own terms, or the shoreline and its inhabitants.

Or can we use maps to register a shifting knowledge of the ocean’s shore?  One charge for spatial history would be to excavate the construction of space in different environmental contexts.  If it is to extend beyond the recapitulation of space as a human construction, “space” might be more adequately placed in a global–and less of a human–context by recognizing and affirming space as an ecological category.  One place to start would include the negotiation of deeply set cultural categories of division and differentiation that are framed in maps, taking the map as a human artifact–rather than a representation or a practice, a model of interaction that conditioned and provides evidence of lived experienced.  For the tendency to idealize space at an Apollonian remove–an image perpetuated, to be sure, in maps which subject the cognition of space to human understanding–abstracts space as a category of apprehension, rather than registering the density of interaction through a suitably “thick mapping” across boundaries, borders, and regional change that recuperate buffer zones, watersheds, and shorelines we have lost–in ways the art of mapping is uniquely suited to portray.

The challenge of recuperating the network of estuaries and streams that once surrounded the low-lying areas around the San Francisco Bay, for example, might negotiate with how we constitute the terrain for urban life by drawing a clear divide from the surrounding waters–or the perpetuation of the fantasy of drawing a clearly demarcated line dividing water and land.  Rising seas once flooded a river valley to create San Francisco Bay, whose many inhabitants  long existed in relation to a less clearly defined shore.  Maps can reveal how humans have interacted with the Bay over time that created deep mental barriers to interaction.   One can trace the shoreline moving in hundreds of feet inland, and slowing in past centuries to but a millimeter a year, or a city block over the last century, as a  shape-shifting feature with which bay residents have negotiated in different ways since a time when people lived near the bay, and negotiated with its salty marshlands, as a map of native American Shell Heaps that ring the bay eloquently reveals by noting the clear buffer zones that inhabitants created on beaches to meet rising tides.

BayShellmounds 001

The maps registers crucial details of the negotiation with marshlands and wetlands now lost or recently restored, outlining an image of interaction with the sea that is not immediately recognizable, and difficult to negotiate with our own changed landscape.

The particular coastal region near El Cerrito indicates the building up of these mounds to create a permeable barrier from the resident crustaceans along the marshlands running from north of Albany Hill to behind Point Isabel–now landfill, then a remote rock in the Bay.


The salt marshes, and the five creeks that fed them, are evident in this detail of the 1856 US Coastal Survey:

Salt Marshes

Yet as people moved inland from an 1850 shoreline was reduced by almost a third all of a sudden in last fifty years in a quite rapid and decisive manner, to create a new sense of the stability of the shoreline that segregated land and sea which will be particularly challenging now with the rise of sea levels projected global warming.  The illusory stability of the shoreline is however inevitable . . .  and the bay on track to expand again by 2100, to return to its size of 1850, in ways that pose disastrous consequences for such overbuilt regions of low elevations.  All low-lying areas are threatened by this projected expansion of the ocean, from Foster City to the treatment plants near to the Bay, to Oakland and San Francisco’s low-lying airports . . . and Oakland’s port.  In cities with waste facilities, oil tanks, refineries, ports and airports lie close to the water, as in Richmond, Oakland, the Carquinez Strait and Albany, ocean waters pose very real environmental threats illustrated by the tsunami’s breaching of the Fukushima Daini power plant.

8.  Can we redesign the shoreline differently?  Observing these low-lying areas that stand in close relation to the water in this map of 1850, we might consider the importance of beaches that can constitute a natural buffer to the shore, and the need for restoring their role as transitional zones and regions that has been so precipitously eroded in our environment.  For the erosion of such transitional spaces–and the overbuilding of the shores–has rendered more vulnerable low-lying areas such as Albany, Emeryville, Oakland or El Cerrito, encouraging blinders about the potential possibilities of future risk.

Sandy beaches that once circled San Francisco similarly served as barriers to the encroachment of the sea.  The loss of beachfront corresponded to a huge expansion of reclamation by landfill, and a resulting loss of estuaries, widely known around the Marina, and evident in the expansion of the city’s shores from an 1895 USGS topographic survey:

Lost Land SF-Historical Creeks and Shore marina detail

The loss of estuaries, creeks, and rivers in the entire peninsula of San Francisco since 1895 is less well-known, but even more dramatic:

SF Built Out:Loss from 1895 Topo

Will the process of getting to know the shoreline again provide a way to make them stable barriers once again?  Will we be able to provide natural resources by fluvial deltas, and support the growth of these buffer zones to do better on a second chance, by expanding an estuary system linking to the ocean that was so drastically mis-designed in the 1950s, when it was even proposed–if the proposal was reversed–to pour more landfill into the Bay, and re-zone the estuary, in order to fill an expanding housing market?

Bay or Rivewr

While it was not so prominent as the urban planners had proposed, the dramatic loss of such crucial buffer zones as tidal wetlands is evident in a comparison of first coastal survey of 1850  in this overlay of coastal maps, courtesy the San Francisco Estuary Institute, detailing the configuration of the coastline as it was and as we have made it,  over the century and a half of urban growth throughout the Bay Area–and the dangers that this poses:


The map cannot begin to conjure the shifting dynamic within the landscape and ecosystem we have lost–although the system of dykes and landfill suggests the beginning of the possible excavations of a lost shoreline.

This image of the expansion of the city’s urban claims to housing derives from a cultural and deeply anti-ecological view of the city as a site of stability–and ocean was seen as a site of antagonism on which, in the domesticated image of the bay, the city could rightfully expand–and the estuary be recast as a river to accommodate housing needs.   In starting to change our attitudes to our shorelines, and to view them as sites for other residents and as permeable barriers, we might start from changing our attitudes to the sea:  and remember, with Rachel Carson, that it is through our expansion of the “artificial” nature of cities that we have forgotten and somewhat brazenly rewritten our relation to the shoreline and the sea.


Maps, of course, forge bridges between nature and culture in provocatively engaging ways–and engage viewers by mapping these relationships.  If we are starting to remap place in provocatively interactive ways, the challenge is to best map the shifting relation between place and the global changes that call for an extensive remapping of place within the world.

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November 14, 2013 · 10:19 am

Mapping Holes over Poles: Disappearing Stratospheric Ozone

Maps can make wonderful arguments to orient us to a variety of global processes whose scale could not otherwise by visualized or even adequately comprehended.  Maps of the relative size of the depletion of ozone over Antarctica over time, looking at the earth’s atmosphere from the South pole and mapping the threat of a monumental environmental shift to allow us to consider changes in the loss of stratospheric ozone that have recently occurred, in ways that are only adequately understood by few:  diachronic maps provide the best means to chart the emergence at the poles, due to the similar pocket of cold air, of the disappearance of the thin layer of ozone that encloses the earth’s atmosphere, and blocks 90% of UV rays of solar radiation:

Sept 2006-Sept 2012 ozone

These two maps centered on Antarctica highlight where weather conditions helped expand the largest ozone “hole” in the stratosphere–a region where ozone has been reduced from 300 to 100 Dobson units, or by two-thirds, and an unprecedented entrance way for UV radiation unveiled.  With the continent of Antarctica reduced to an exposed island in the bright green iris of a protective level of stratospheric ozone, they map provides both a visualization of the permanent gap through which UV radiation enters our atmosphere, and the stubborness with which a problem that first registered at the British Antarctic Research station in 1985, literally wasn’t accepted as genuine, so sudden and unthinkable was its appearance:  deep blue registers the diminution of high-level ozone to 220 Dobson Units, the lowest ever recorded up to 1979.

There’s a tension in using bright iridescent hues to represent a tenuous layer that, if not so widely dispersed, would be only just three cm. in width.  The fragility of this protective if thinly distributed layer may be impossible to visualize as a unit, and as difficult to map as the mechanics of its depletion is to grasp or predict.  The depletion of ozone in the “hole” –more of a relative absence of ozone that usually checks UV rays–lacks the sort of boundaries or objective parameters maps chart, and its gradations hard to ascertain from the ground:  the tenuousness of the dispersed level of ozone in other words challenges cartographical denotation; exactly how much radiation enters the earth’s atmosphere is harder to calculate or represent, so we are left with registering the diminution as an effective ‘hole,’ given the lack of objective criteria to map the diminution in spatial terms that narrate the scope of its effects.  Such obstacles or constraints in mapping has no doubt lead to well-warranted criticism of inadequate appreciation of its seriousness or persistence in media stories that champion its reduced relative size, as we try to grasp  a process we can’t control.  This seems tied to the difficulty of presenting an argument in recognizable graphic conventions, and the appropriation of the map above as an argument that the hole’s expansion reduced and is under control or no longer subject to further expansion.

The inability to map a relationship between the hole and the land in anything like a one-to-one fashion of meteorological maps creates a challenge in registering satellite readings of a thin layer spread across the upper reaches of the stratosphere as if it were an object or place.  The iridescent hues that render depletion of ozone map are both misleadingly and deceptively presented, Bruce Melton argues, as evidence of a “record low” ozone hole–since the reduction in size conceal the fragility of the tenuous ozone layer when increased stratospheric cooling will further deplete the failure of ozone, as Melton argues, and create an uphill struggle to ever block the entrance into our atmosphere of radioactive UV rays.  The map is in this case not the territory:  the territory is being irradiated, and is going to be irradiated for some time.  Climatologists predicted many narratives of the hole’s eventual shrinking in the early 1980s, or in 2006, when it was noted that “in Antarctica, we can say that the patient is not getting any sicker, either,” and 2006 led to the prediction tha reducing fluorocarbons would bring clear evidence of unambiguous improvement by 2016.

Yet the persistence of the hole is striking:  2011-12 saw the re-emergence of a similar ‘hole’ above the north pole, far closer to inhabited areas.

The evidence is difficult to interpret, and harder as a result to represent in maps.  Most maps effectively materialize or embody land and a relation to space, but the hole or gap records the depletion of a gas whose effects are far greater than its relative size, and not necessarily proportional to its size.  To be sure, after being warned of the eventual depletion of ozone, it does not seem so inevitable. Although naming a “hole” seems concrete–something is leaking or escaping from a delimited zone–the entrance of UV rays through this “hole” can’t be adequately mapped to reveal or represent what is happening climatically, and the scope of the dramatic increase of the ozone hole’s radius is difficult to imagine, for  it’s difficult to know what the size of the hole means.

The perspective above Antarctica shows an area about as large as the Antarctic continent itself to be entirely depleted of ozone.  This map of absence challenge us to chart something that resists most of the usual categories of maps.  Perhaps the process is better communicated by mapping the distribution of real-time ozone loss at an altitude of twenty kilometers, as the below visualization of the World Data Center for  Remote Sensing of the Atmosphere, using a vertically resolved distribution to  map variations in loss and depletion of ozone, showing a significant reduction above the north pole that becomes more urgent below the equator:




A similarly striking map of local variations from the normal density of 300 Dobson units, tells the difficult to grasp story of wide-ranging atmospheric shift over the southern hemisphere at a time of greatest ozone depletion, of which the hole over in the ozone layer over Antarctica is only a section:



Mapping the absence of ozone in the atmosphere is a difficult proposition as well as graphic, especially since most maps are static in nature. The first two visualizations of NASA’s Ozone Watch centered on the continent of Antarctica portray the region’s exposure to UV rays, as if one is somehow looking up the world’s skirts, in ways that work because they tweak or shake up the notion of a global map to show a vital or exposed place in the world’s atmosphere: the perspective from  from that of solar radiation entering our atmosphere suggests looking into something that one shouldn’t be able to see.

It’s a bit comforting that there was some contraction from the massively gaping hole of 2006,  but the slight apparent contraction doesn’t really offer any reassurances.  If purple and blue is where ozone is least present, and yellow toward the red end of the spectrum where it is most present, the hole is still gaping pretty large in April, 2013:  the ozone (O3) in the upper atmosphere is present in such trace amounts, that its absence from the stratospheric atmosphere allows ultraviolet radiation to seep in; while it can absorb the most dangerous and intense radiation before it reaches the earth’s surface, ozone depletion allows it to enter freely.

We can far more easily, of course, map the extent to which more and more ozone is itself trapped, as a greenhouse gas, in our atmosphere, but that is not where we want it–its benefits are nil and even adverse since it is a health hazard.  Its concentration as measured in our country roughly matches concentrations of smog:

National US Ozone Map

The above map registers ozone created from car and other industrial emissions lying below the stratosphere, and the rise of parts of ozone/billion from 10-15 in pre-industrial society to upwards of 80–a rise that has largely contributed to local smog or “ozone days,” and the “spare the air” days of the East Bay when folks are asked to take public transit.

The geographic centers of pollution documented from satellite photographs from 2006 to travel surprisingly wide distances, in ways that suggest we try to understand the local heights of ozone as a truly global crisis if it is also one of local creation:


This concentration of atmospheric ozone is a form of smog, that serves no protective function as a trapped greenhouse gas; the ozone layer in the stratosphere itself has little relation to global warming.  But we can perhaps develop a perspective of more global character to map or visualize the absence of ozone at stratospheric levels.

This was, after all, the primary effect when NASA compellingly created a map of the relative depletion of ozone concentration–and the potential disappearance of stratospheric ozone–from 1994 to 2060, should  further production of CFC’s not be banned.  This image of ecological disaster was not fleshed out, but is apparent in the deep blue hues that uniformly enveloped the familiar form of North America, as if to tell our future gone astray as a consequence of the increasing industrial production of fluorocarbons worldwide:



The mapping of more recent depletion of ozone over the pole is the consequence of its unique climate, mapped a sort of topography of ozone loss, in which blue and violet mark significant deviations in local ozone concentrations that were sensed in 2003, but were first detected as early as 1985:

And the resulting spottiness of the ‘ozone column’ prominent in this global map of 2006 suggest a broad depletion of ozone layers around the equatorial region, where the sunlight is also more unremitting and intense, outside of the polar regions:

Ozone Column 2006


What does this massive decline of a shield against radiation mean?  As of yesterday, the map was considerably expanded and not much more comforting, looking at online near real-time ozone maps:



NASA also continues to provide daily visualizations of the established gap in ozone over the Antarctic, based on satellite measurements, to register a daily changing picture of the hole that is not much more comforting:




Such snapshots tell half the story; stop-action photographic frames chart the hole’s growth form 1979 to 1991 shows the difficulty in pinpointing its size or shape, providing something of a narrative, as registered by satellite spectrometers:

The jerky seasonal variations seem to be always up for grabs! But a compilation of monthly averages in a suggestive sequence of time-lapse stills, also from Cambridge’s Centre for Atmospheric Science, reveals the expansion of the violet blotch almost appear from nowhere in about 1983, when it was first detected, in ways linked to how gasses emitted from CFC’s had dramatically depleted atmospheric ozone:


Cambridge Ozone Maps


These Cambridge Ozone Maps–a wonderful name–show an odd shifting of form, shifting due to polar meteorology, of how the gasses spewing out of factories, homes, and airplanes attach to stratospheric clouds that, in the polar vortex, introduce atomic chlorine over the pole which at such low temperatures, destroy ozone.

To map the loss of the layer over time, in animated form, is perhaps far more compelling than a static map is able to offer its viewer:

For the lack of better conventions to visualize the opening of ozone over the earth, its hard to remember the difficulty of turning back or reversing this depletion at all.  The challenges of mapping ozone are multiple, both because of the stories we impose on the maps and an inability to comprehend the costs of the opening hole hovering over the pole.  Is it that the map embodies a process that can be visually grasped, transforming a topic of debate into an entity that cannot be denied?  Indeed, there seems a relative poverty of words–what is a hole, actually?–that seems resolved when one looks at the maps of stratospheric ozone depletion over the poles, and sees where the ever-widening gap lies.

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Filed under Antarctica, Global Warming, Ozone Hole, Solar radiation, UV Radiation


In late January, my daughter Clara wrote with conviction that “Great adventures in eating must include the all-important meal known as the dessert,” and confessed “I could not live with out dessert.”  We could all live without desertification, or the expanse of areas of the world on the that threaten to become enlargements of existing uncultivable land, which the United Nations in 2007 declared “the greatest environmental challenge” and a particular emergency in sub-Saharan Africa that could provoke an impending displacement of some 50 million people within the decade.  Several countries have tried to contain the expanding regions of deserts by planting trees, restore grasslands or introduce plants to stem eroding soils, the huge expense of using water and of using water that evaporates as often as it feeds  plants, is far less effective or practical than it might seem as an ecological bulwark.

Scientists have debated and struggled to understand the causes and origins of the growth of deserts across the world, asking whether the underlying causes lie with declining rainfall, a severe drought that began in a period leading to the 1980s, and how to place local measurements of vegetation that revealed flourishing vegetation near barren landscapes of desertification.  The British ecologist Stephen Prince expressed his frustration at assembling a larger picture of desertification based on data that he described as “pinpricks in a map” which failed to assemble a larger picture by studying vegetation from space by using time-lapse photos of the area of the African Sahel caused famines across sub-Saharan Africa to assemble an image that better revealed relations between local conditions across a huge expanse, of which this photograph by Andrew Heavens created a synthetic document that reveals the broad proportions by which the desert encroached on arable land:




The phenomenon is not limited to Sub-Saharan Africa, moreover, as an image of the variety of microclimates in which the threats of sensitivity to desertification has been mapped in the fertile region of the Mediterranean basin:


Desertification Sensitivity in EU

The challenge lies in understanding the global proportions of desertification–revealed in the below map that notes expanding deserts by tan bands–in a coherent understanding of the huge variations of local contexts from Asia to Anatolia to Patagonia to Australia to the western United States:



The global risks of desertification–most prominently on five continents–have been dramtically heightened in recent years not only by global warming, but our own practices of land use, the Zimbabwe-born environmentalist and ecologist Allan Savory notes, describing it as a “cancer” of the world’s drylands, a “perfect storm” resulting from huge increases in population and land turning to desert at a time of climate change.  The areas of land turning to desert are not only occurring in dry lands, but in the lack of any use of the land that leaves it bare and removes it from land-use.  Savory has argued in a persuasive and recent TED talk that the global dangers of desertification has multiple consequences, of which climage change is only one. 

The growth of areas of desertification are apparent in this satellite view, which reveals the extent of a global process of desertification not confined to Africa’s Sahara, but already progressed across quite large regions of both North and South America as well, on account of rapidly accelerating changes in micro-climates world-wide:

world deserts satellite view


The expanses of desertification are even more apparent in a global projection of our newfound vulnerability to desertification, that illustrates the massive degree of changes in the world’s land, in part effected by the bunching and moving of animals, largely encouraged by federal governments who reduced the lands open to cattle grazing in the belief that good land-management practices meant protecting plants from grazing animals:




The above map made by the United States Department of Agriculture-NRCS, Soil Science Division, reveals the dangers of expanding desertification at an extremely fine grain. We can view this map by highlighting the expanses threatened by increased desertification in this world-wide satellite view, whose regions ringed in red highlight the areas of a dramatic increase of desertification and an apparently unstoppable cascade of deep environmental change and release of carbon gasses:


Deserts RInged in Red



The difficulty of understanding the causes of desertification arose from a deeply unholistic ecological view of the nature of microclimates begun 10,000 years ago but rapidly increasing now.  Savory asks us to relate this to the hugely artificial contraction in the number of herds grazing land seen in recent years, creating a resulting very high vulnerability to desertification–noted in bright red–that would result in carbon-releasing bare soil, threatening to increase climate change, much as does the burning of one million hectares of grass-lands in the continent of Africa alone.  Savory argues that the only alternative open to mankind is to use bunched herds of animals, in order to mimic nature, whose waste could act as mulch help to both store carbon and break down the methane gases that would be released by bare or unfertilized–and bare–soil.

Such mimicry of nature would effectively repatriate grasslands by introducing the planned pasturing animals and livestock like goats to regions bare of grass or already badly eroding–and has lead to the return of grasses, shrubs, and even trees and rivers in regions of Africa, Patagonia and Mexico, with beneficial consequences to farmers and food supplies.  By the planning the movements of herds alone, replicating the effects of nature can turn back the threat of desertification by movable herds of sheep and cows, already increased in some areas by 400% to dramatic effects of returning grasslands to denuded regions of crumbly soil and straggling grasses.  Even in areas of the accelerating decay of grasslands and growth of bare soil, Savory argues, we can both provide more available food and combat hunger through planned pasturing, and reducing a large threats of climate change that would remain even if we eliminated the worldwide use of fossil fuels.  He argues that we can both take carbon out of the air and restore it to grasslands’ soils that would return us to pre-industrial levels, based on a deeper appreciation of the ecological causation of desertification and by replacing rejected notions of land-management, actively reducing the frontiers of desertification.  Although Savory does not note or perhaps need to call attention to the risks of the huge displacement of populations and consequent struggles over arable lands, planning the repatriation of land by animals would provide mulch and fertilizers to rapidly effect a return of grasslands in only a manner of several years.

The prognostication of the expansion of the desert is not often as mapped as the rising of ocean waters in the media.  But it may offer a more accurate map of the alternative over the next fifty years, and hint at the huge attendant consequences:


Human IMpact on Deserts

(I’m including a post by Susan Macmillan on Allan Savory’s March TED talk here.)


Filed under Climate Change, Desertification, Global Drought, Global Warming, mapping arable land, Mapping Desertification

Smelling the Coffee

Coffee beans lying on a burlap sack map the entire world, but belie the fact that the area suitable for growing coffee beans stands to be reduced by as much as half by 2050, if climate change continues, and the Arabica beans grown in tropical highlands stop receiving the year-round rains that not only enable but nourish their growth.  If that isn’t a wake-up call, what is?  Some 25 million farmers rely on their production of the beans–most of whom are small farmers–but rising temperatures predicted could radically reduce and effectively circumscribe what those in the know call the “coffee map.”

The sorts of disruption in growing beans that localized drought in those tropical highlands seems almost destined to bring–as the worst dry spell in decades that hit Brazil’s coffee belt, destroying a third of the crop or a decline by a half in coffee bean yields in Tanzania since the 1960s, as temperatures warm and the ground becomes more wet, stand to grow not only the price of the two and a quarter billion cups of coffee we humans consume daily, in what seems like a private experience, meaning that the beans will no longer be so abundant in those burlap bags.  In Columbia alone, coffee leaf rust that is the consequence of weather that is both warmer and wetter stand to damage some 60% of the country’s agricultural land by 2050, making for a decreased abundance of beans and ever more removed cup of joe.  Indeed, coffee beans are particular enough about growing conditions that to remain optimal conditions of production, the temperature should remain between 18–21°C, and once rising above 23°C, bean quality declines and the plant grows far too fast, noticeably changing its taste, flavor bouquet, and aroma . . . with a detectable shift occurs with only a rise of only half of a degree at the wrong time in the growing season, in ways that could change coffee harvests far sooner that one might expect.

Coffee beans map


More than any other sector of life, the tremendous growth of coffee consumption over the past decades invites a daily morning exercise of geographic literacy. In hubs of metropolitan coffee drinking, the local origins of beans are invested with a provenance that is supplemented by detailed descriptions of their practices of cultivation.  The geographic here primarily signifies or maps to the gastronomic; provenance of coffee has a deeper resonance than the locations of their roasting, and erases the huge distances traversed in their transportation or the local climates in which they were produced. The importation of coffees and costs of coffee farming are naturalized within local coffee bars as a geographic palate, as we’re accustomed to having Sulawesi, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania among the rotating coffees of the week, and in our cups; their names, instead of the once-dominantColumbian or Brazil beans, are part of our routines that are often stripped of geographic signification as place-names–even though they might be better understood as a geographic lesson with climate warming as its subject.  Can maps help?

The lopsided distribution of this conversion of toponymy into gastronomy is evident in a map of where this huge rise of coffee consumption and importation has occurred.  If coffee beans were introduced to the future United States in the eighteenth century, coffee has become among the leading importers of beans worldwide.  Americans now consume some 23 gallons each day (or 22.1 according to Wikipedia)–but declined far below the 48 gallons Americans were said to consume annually in 1946–0r the 62 gallons downed annually in far chillier Finland.  Yet it has become part of bloodstream–literally–and an unprecedented (although we lacked earlier metrics) 161,000 folks listed coffee making or serving as a “skill” in 2013.



Screen shot 2013-02-11 at 9.26.23 AM


We might call this the browning of North America, ignoring that the distribution of local blends, pioneered by Peets and popularized by Starbucks, before being refined by Blue Bottle or Four Barrel, masks variations in a topography of coffee drinking in the United States far more variegated than the homogeneous brown of the United States.  (The fact that Canada is yellow may seem comforting, but conceals the very urban nature of this social ritual:  notice how those brown dots congregate around Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa . . . )   The absurdity of nationally ranking habits of daily caffeination aside (although there’s an academic press title in here somewhere), the most striking aspect of this map is the huge area of the world left in white, shown here only from the equator since no countries below the equator import coffee beans in such quantity.


Coffee IMporting Countries- Top Ten



Indeed, the ten largest coffee importers, mapped in yellow, not brown, suggests an imbalance of equatorial countries whose products tend to wake up folks in northern climes.


mapMNational Geographic


The more detailed mapping of the production of coffee by bags of beans, mapped by Oxfam for 2001, showed a nicely skewed data distribution, with those non-growing regions left suitably blank, as if they thirsted for the brown stimulant that came pouring (or steaming) in from equatorial climes:


Oxfam 2001Oxfam


There is a clear “coffee belt” whose discovery and demarcation the Coffee Grower Association of Hamburg claims responsibility for:


coffee_beltGerman Coffee Association


And a lot of imported coffee is needed–creating what has indeed long been a pretty big business interest in the US, even before the boutiques of metropolitan areas from the 1990s.  Even if, once this huge amount of unroasted beans is divided per capita, rendering regions like Canada and Scandinavia distinctly darker, and measured by consumption of cups/day alone, the geographic distribution looks a bit different in 2011 when mapping coffee consumption per capita in this clickable map of circa 2008:


2011 coffee map





Which returns us to the interests that all maps conceal.  By the alchemy of toponymy, the regions from which the beans themselves derive, of course, come from the very equatorial regions that are the sites of forestry.

This is evident in this far more anodyne map, prepared by someone trained in the school of neo-corporate graphic design:
Coffee and Forests map--50 def:37 cps


I appreciate the hand-drawn oval projection, crafted with care in the midwest city of big shoulders, which suggests that if all roads led to Rome, all beans flow to Chicago:


Global sources of coffee on ms map


A more informed map might link the cultivation not only to forested regions, but to the very “hot spots” whose local biodiversity is most threatened by global warming, and where the inefficient use of water widespread in coffee cultivation least practical and most pernicious.  For it is not only equatorial areas, but from the driest areas on earth:



Conservation International


The overlap of ‘hot spots’ map onto coffee-growing regions alarms; coffee cultivation is widespread in 16 of the 34 most threatened ecosystems.  And this is the tip of the iceberg, to use a somewhat mixed metaphor unless one considers iced coffee, of the paradox: privileging the locality of cultivation in maps of caffeine consumption reinforces the fragility of local ecosystems.  This is a very different map, speaking map now, from the manner that an  earlier cartographical image set the details of consumption as an inevitable but conscious choice, concentrated in one icon, as opposed to the naturalization of growing in isolated pockets of uniform unattractive gray:


Coffee Map of the World


Indeed, the conscious coffee drinkers at the Water Footprint in the Netherlands have mapped the severely disproportionate gross virtual water import that results worldwide:


Coffee's Water
The “flows” of coffee beans might be mapped, if somewhat less legibly, in comparison to those of chocolate, whose parallel commerce from the New World matches it as a popular stimulant from the New World, as Mary Norton reminds us, that in fact was similar in its function to coffee:


Coffee and Chocolate


In part, this is a local story, with much of the jumping value of java able to be registered in the Port of Oakland, as shown in this bar graph which groups all beans as a whole, independent of locality, but reflects Oakland’s significance as a global hub of the importation of coffee beans.




Let’s recall the lopsided nature of a current map of coffee indulgence that this demand reflects:
Coffee IMporting Countries


and consider the possibility of a re-mapping our daily habits or affectation for caffeination, through this map of the network of coffee distribution and consumption, removed from most familiar geographic categories.  The schematic map is courtesy San Jose-trained Roxanne Pasibe:




In the initial graphic, the beans naturally drop to the ground, and into our bags. Let’s try to map how they come to get there, and into our cups.


Coffee Heart.pngClimate Institute


Filed under climate change, Coffee, Coffee Maps, Fair Trade/Shade Grown, water footprints