Saturated Shores in Southeastern Texas

There is almost no trace of the human, or of the extreme overurbanization of the Texas coast, in most of the maps that were created of the extreme flooding and intense winter rains that hit Galveston and Houston TX with the windfall of Hurricane Harvey.  While maps serve to orient humans to the world–and orient us to human processes and events in a “human world,” as J.B. Harley and David Woodward put it, the confused nature of relations between the human and natural world, is increasingly in danger of being mipmapped.  Data visualizations of extreme weather that erase the modification of coastal environments provide a particularly challenging means of orientation, as news maps are suspended between registering the shock of actual events–and trying to contain the natural emergencies that events of extreme weather create–and the demand for graphics that register natural calamities and the ethics of showing such calamities as “natural”–or even what the category of the natural is in coastal regions that so heavily modified to modify actual weather events.

The ethics of orienting viewers to the rainfall levels that fell in Houston after the landfall Hurricane Harvey Part of the huge difficulties lies in adequately orienting viewers in ways that register a changing natural world–how we are mapping rainfall, for example, or the approach of hurricanes, or are rather mapping the new relation of rain to built surfaces and landcover change that lack permeability for water, facilitating flooding by storms whose potency is changed by the greater atmospheric content of a warming Gulf of Mexico, which the ground cover of Houston, Galveston, and the Texas shore are less able to absorb and return to the Gulf.

The problem is partly evident in the choice of new color ramps that transcend the rainbow spectrum of measuring the intensity of rainfall in the recent arrival or ground fall of Hurricane Harvey, which condenses the great difficulty of using old cartographical categories and conventions in order to capture or communicate increasingly extreme weather conditions. in an era of climate change.  But the cartographic problem goes farther:  for it lies in the difficulty of registering the changes in relations f how rain dropped meets the ground, mapping relations between complex processes of warming and atmospheric warmth that lead to greater humidity across the gulf region to ground cover permeability that leaves regions increasingly exposed to flooding.

The relentless logic of data visualizations based on and deriving primarily from remote sensing are striking for rendering less of a human world than the threat of allegedly “natural” processes to that world.  Perhaps because of the recent season of extreme weather we have experienced, weather maps may be among the most widely consulted visualizations in our over-mediated world, if they were already widely viewed as the essential forms of orientation.  But the pointillist logic of weather maps may fail to orient us well to extreme events as the hurricane that dumped a huge amount of water on overbuilt areas to include the human–or the human world–seem a tacit denial of the role of humans in the complex phenemona of global warming that have, with the warming waters of the Gulf of Mexico and ever-increasing ozone over much of the overbuilt southeastern Texas shore, created a perfect storm for their arrival.

This failure to include this role haunts the limited content of the weather map; including the role of humans in maps of extreme weather events indeed remains among the most important challenges of weather maps and data visualization, with the human experience of the disasters we still call natural.  And although the subject is daunting, in the spirit of this blog, we will both look at the communicative dilemmas and difficulties of eye-catching color ramps and their deceptiveness, and poetic difficulties of orienting oneself to shores.  For as the disaster of Harvey is depressing, it compels raising questions of the orientation to the shifting shore, around the national epicenter of Galveston, where the landfall of Hurricane Harvey focussed our attention on August 27, 2017–







–and the meaning of place in an saturated shoreline, where the sea is somehow part of the land, and the land-sea divide blurs with a specificity that seems as if it may well be increasingly true in an approaching era of climate change.  And as we depend on the ready generation of maps based on remote sensing whose relentless logic is based on points, we risk looking sight of the role of place in determining the relations of rainfall to shoreline in maps of coastal flooding that remove remote observations from the built environment that flooding so drastically changes, challenges and affects, in ways that may elide specificities of place.

At a time when we are having and will be destined to have increased problems in orienting ourselves to our shores through digital maps of rainfall, the unclear shorelines of Galveston sent me to the bearings that a poet of an earlier age took her bearings on the mapped shorelines of the place where she had been born, and how she was struck by a bathymetric map to gauge her personal relation to place, and saw place in how the changing shoreline of the northern Atlantic were mapped in the maritimes, in a retrograde form of print mapping in a time of war.  For the way the mapped shore became a means by which Elizabeth Bishop gained bearings on shores through a printed map of coastal bathymetry to access the spatiality of the shore–how “land lies in water” and the blurred relation of land and water that the bathymetric map charts–in an age when the materiality of the map was changing, with the introduction of aerial composite maps from the early 1930s, as the rise of aerial composite maps removed the hand of the mapmaker from the map in an early instance of remote sensing–


5852167Cartography Associates/David Ramsey: Historical Map Collection: Composite of 164 Aerial Views of San Francisco by Harrison Ryker/Oakland, 1938, 1:2000


–in a medium of aerial photography that focussed on land to the exclusion of water, and that all but erased the relation between water and shore just a few years after Bishop quickly wrote her poem in Christmas 1935 about coastal “edges” of land and sea.  Ryker, who developed techniques of aerial photography used in the mapping of the shores of Puerto Rico for the Fairchild Aerial Camera Company, as well as photographs of the devastating Berkeley Fire of 1923, went into business in 1938–the year of his map–as a map publisher, with a patent for the stereoscope used to interpret aerial imagery,  and must have performed the massively detailed mapping of San Francisco in one hundred and sixty for images taken from airplanes from 1937-38 as a sort of calling card, soon after Bishop wrote her poem, before manufacturing a range of stereoscopes of pocket and desktop versions for military ends that were widely used in World War II by the US Army.

Before war broke out, but in ways that anticipated the coming war, the printed bathymetric map must have resonated as a new reflection on the impersonality of the aerial view; Bishop was suddenly struck when she encountered the materiality of a print map on Christmas 1938 as the art of cartography was already changing, responding to the drawn map under glass of the Atlantic as a way to recuperate the personal impact of place.  Her poem powerfully examined the logic of drawn maps utterly absent from the digitized space of rainfall maps of a flood plain, deriving from data at the cost of human inhabitation of place–and in envisioning data to come to terms with the catastrophic event of flooding distancing or removing the craft of mapmaking from the observer in dangerously deceptive ways.  And so after wrestling with the problems of cartographic representation using remote sensing, while recognizing the value of these readily produced maps of rainfall and the disasters they create,


1.  For weather maps are also among the most misleading points to orient oneself to global warming and climate change, as they privilege the individual moment, removed from a broader context of long-term change or the human alteration of landscape.  They provide endless fascination by synthesizing an encapsulated view of weather conditions, but also  suggest a confounding form of media to orient audiences to long-term change or to the cascading relations of the complex phenomenon of climate change and our relation to the environment, as they privilege a moment in isolation from any broader context, and a sense of nature removed from either landscape modification or human intervention in the environment, in an area were atmospheric warming has shifted sea-surface temperatures.  The effects on the coast is presented in data visualizations that trace the hurricane’s “impact” as if its arrival were quite isolated from external events, and from the effects of human habitations on the coast.  The image of extreme flooding is recorded as a layer atop a map, removing the catastrophic effects of the flooding from the overpaved land of the megacities of southeastern Texas, and the rapid paving over of local landcover of its shores.




Such visualizations preserve a clear line between land and sea, but treat the arrival of the rains on land as isolated from the Consuming such events of global warming in color-spectrum maps.  The data of rainfall translate data into somewhat goofy designs represents a deep alienation from the environment, distancing viewers in dangerous ways from the very complexity of global warming that Gulf coast states encountered.

Such data visualizations seem dangerously removed notion of how we have changed our own environment, by describing a notion of “nature” that is immediately legible, as if it were removed from any human trace or of the impact of modification of the land, and by imaging events in isolation from one another–often showing a background in terrain view as if it has no relation to the events that the map describes.  Although weather maps and AccuWeather forecasts are sources of continual fascination, and indeed orientation, they are are also among the most confounding media to orient viewers to the world’s rapidly changing climate–and perhaps among the most compromised.  For they imply a remove of the viewer from space-and from the man-made nature of the environment or the effects of human activity form the weather systems whose changes we increasingly register.  By reifying weather data as a record of an actuality removed from human presence at one place in time, they present a status quo which it is necessary to try to peel off layers, and excavate a deeper dynamic, and indeed excavate the effects of human presence in the landscape or geography that is shown in the map.  We are drawn to tracking and interpret visualizations of data from satellite feeds in such weather maps–or by what is known as “remote sensing,” placed at an increased remove from the human habitation of a region, and indeed in a dangerously disembodied manner.

Visualizations resulting from remote observation demand taken as a starting point to be related to from the human remaking of a region’s landscape that has often increasingly left many sites increasingly vulnerable to climate change.  But the abstract rendering of their data in isolation from a global picture–or on the ground knowledge of place–may render them quite critically incomplete.  The remove of such maps may even suggest a deep sense of alienation form the environment, so removed is the content of the data visualization form human presence, and perhaps from any sense of the ability to change weather-related events, or perceive the devastating nature of their effects on human inhabitants:   their stories are about weather, removed form human lives, as they create realities that gain their own identity in images, separate from a man-made world, at a time when weather increasingly intersects with and is changed by human presence.  While throwing into relief the areas hit by flooding near to the southeastern Texas shore at multiple scales based on highly accurate geospatial data, much of which is able to be put to useful humanitarian uses–


Harvey flooding_1.jpgDartmouth Flood Observatory/University of Colorado at Boulder, August 29. 2017


1504094467hurricane-harvey-flood-map.gifMaps of the World


–the reduction of floods to data points creates a distorted image of space renders their occurrence distant from the perspective of folks on the ground, and places their content at a considerable remove from the complex causality of a warming Gulf of Mexico, or the problems of flood drainage by which Galveston and Houston were beset.  Indeed, the multiple images of that report rainfall as an overlay in a rainbow spectrum, at a remove from the reasons for Houston’s vulnerability to flooding and the limits the region faces of flood control, in broadcast Accuweather images of total rainfall in inches advance a metric that conceals the cognitive remove from the dangers of flooding, ora human relation to the landscape that the hurricane so catastrophically affected.  Can we peel under the layers of the data visualization, and create better images that appreciate the human level on which the landscape stands to be devastated by hurricane rains, as much as tracking the intensity of the growth of rainfall over time?


90-5.jpegAccuWeather, Rainfall levels by Thursday

90AccuWeather, Friday to Monday


Such layers of green, meant to suggest the intensity of rainfall that fell over land, reveal the concentration of water in areas closes to the Gulf of Mexico.  Even the most precise geographical records of the dangers of flooding in the floodplain of southeastern Texas with little reference to the historical modification of the region by inhabitants–


Harvey flooding_1Dartmouth Flood Observatory at University of Colorado, Boulder/August 29, 2017


–and conceal the extent to which the landscape’s limited ground cover permeability has left the region far more susceptible to flooding, and elevated the risks of the emergency.  The problem of reading any signs of human presence into these “images” of precipitation provoke problems of disentangling remote sensing data from knowledge of the region’s recent urban growth and the consequent shift in local landcover.

The perspective of our relation to these events is often as fleeting and as existential as they flood us with data, which we viewers have little perspective or tools to process fully.  The onrush of recent remote sensing maps batter us with an array of data, so much as to lead many to throw up their hands at their coherence.  Even as we are  still trying to calculate the intensity of damages in Puerto Rico–where electricity is so slowly returning that even even after four months, almost a third of its 1.5 million electricity customers still lack power–and the cost of fires in southern California.  We look at maps, hoping to piece together evidence of extensive collateral damage of global warming.  Yet we’ve still to come to terms with the intensity of rainstorms that hit southeastern Texas–deluging the coast with rainfall surpassing the standard meteorological chromatic scale that so misleadingly seems to offer a transparent record of the catastrophe, but omits and masks the experiences of people on the ground, digesting swaths of remotely sensed data that take the place of their perception and experience, and offering little critical perspective on the hurricane’s origin.

The rapidity with which rain challenged ground cover permeability provides both a challenge for mapping as a symptom of global warming and landscape modification:   the mapping of “natural” levels of rainfall blurs the pressing problem of how shifting landcover has created an impermeability to heightened rains, and indeed how the new patterns of habitation challenge the ability of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico to absorb the prospect of increased rain in the face of decreasing groundcover permeability, and the extreme modification of the coastline that increasingly impeded run-off to the Gulf.


2.  Across much of southeastern Texas, a region whose growth was fed by the hopes of employment in extractive industries, real estate demand and over-paving have unfortunately intersected with extreme weather in southeastern Texas in ways which dat visualizations have had trouble exposing, but which raise a curtain on the coming crises of a failure of ability to accommodate increased levels of rainfall  If the lack of precedent for the intense rainfall in Galveston Bay generated debate about introducing a new color that went beyond the rainbow scale employed in weather charts, what seemed a problem of the cartographic color-spectrum suggested a problem of governability and indeed government response to extreme weather conditions.  How to register the dangers of rainfall that goes of the scale or standards of measurement?

One must consider how to orient viewers to the intensity of consequent flooding, and to its consequences and better prepare ourselves for the arrival of deluging rains without falling back on the over-freighted metaphor of rains of biblical scope.  How many more hurricanes of increasing intensity can continue to pound the shores, by whipping precipitation from increasingly warming waters and humid air?  The cumulative pounding of tropical cyclones in the Gulf stands to create a significantly larger proportion of lands lying underwater–temporarily submerged lands–with radically reduced possibilities of drainage, as hurricanes carry increased amounts of evaporated water from the humid air of the warming gulf across its increasingly overbuilt shores. in ways that have changed how the many tropical cyclones that have crossed the land-sea threshold since NOAA began tracking their transit (in 1851) poses a new threat to the southeastern coast of Texas, and will force us to map the shifting relation between land and water not only in terms of the arrival of hurricanes, or cyclonic storms–



–but the ability of an increasingly overbuilt landscape to lie underwater as the quantity of the Gulf coast rainfall stands to grow, overwhelming the overbuilt nature of the coast.

Most maps that chart the arrival and impact of hurricanes seem a form of climate denial, as much as they account for climate change, locating the hurricanes as aggressive forces outside the climate, against a said backdrop of blue seas, as if they  are the disconnect.  Months after the hurricane season ended, the damage for hurricanes caused have hardly been assessed in what has been one of the most costly and greatest storm damage since 1980 in the United States,–including the year of Hurricane Katrina–we have only begun to sense the damage of extreme weather stands to bring to the national infrastructure.  The comparison to the costs of storm damage in previous years were not even close.

But distracted by the immediacy of data visualizations, and impressed by the urgency of the immediate, we risk being increasingly unable to synthesize the broader patterns of increased sea surface temperatures and hurricane generations, or the relations between extremely destructive weather events, overwhelmed by the excessive destruction of each, and distracted from raising questions about the extremely poor preparation of most overbuilt regions for their arrival, and indeed the extent to which regional over-building that did not take the possibility of extreme weather into account–paving large areas without adequate drainage structures or any areas of arable land–left inhabitants more vulnerable to intense rains.  For in expanding the image of the city without bounds, elasticity, or margins for sea-level rise, the increasingly brittle cityscapes of Galveston and much of the southeastern Texas shoreline were left incredibly unprepared for the arrival of hurricanes or intense rains.  Despite the buzz of an increased density of hurricanes to have hit the region,




the questions of how to absorb hurricanes of the future, and to absorb the increased probability of rainfall from hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and its shores, suggests questions of risk, danger, and preparation that we have no ability to map.  What, indeed, occurs, as hurricanes themselves destroy the very means of transmitting on the ground information and sensing weather, and we rely exclusively on remote sensing?


Destroyed satellite dishes after Hurricane Maria hit Humacao, Puerto Rico  REUTERS/Alvin Baez



To characterize or bracket these phenomena as “natural” is, of course, to overlook complex interaction between extreme weather patterns and our increasingly overbuilt environments that have both transformed the nature of the Southeastern Texas coast and have made the region both an area of huge economic growth over time, and have paved over much of the floodplain–as well as elevated the potential risks that are associated with coastal flooding in the Gulf Coast.  To be sure, any discussion of the Gulf of Mexico must begin from the increasingly unclear nature of much of our infrastructure across land and sea, evident in the range of pipelines of gas and oil that snake along a once more clearly defined shore charted by ProPublica in 2012, revealed the scope of the manmade environment that has both changed the relation of the coastal communities to the Gulf of Mexico, and has been such a huge spur to ground cover change.

The expansive armature of lines that snake from the region across the nation–


pipeline_line_mapProPublica, Pipeline Safety Tracker/Hazardous liquid pipelines are noted in red; gas in blue


-and whose tangle of oil pipelines that extend from the very site of Galveston to the Louisiana coast is almost unable to be defined as “offshore” save as a fiction, so highly constructed is much of the national waters in submerged lands in the Gulf of Mexico–


gulfofmexicopipelinesProPublica, Pipeline Safety Tracker/Hazardous liquid pipelines are noted in red


They indeed seem something of an extension of the land, and a redefinition of the shore, and reveal a huge investment of the offshore extractive industries that stand to change much of the risk that hurricanes pose to the region, as well as the complex relation of our energy industries to the warming seas.  Yet weather maps, ostensibly made for the public good, rarely reveal the overbuilt nature of these submerged lands or of the Gulf’s waters.

Despite the dangers that such an extensive network of hazardous liquid lines along the Gulf of Mexico, the confusion between mapping a defined line between land and water, and visualizing relations of extreme weather disturbances as hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and local infrastructure haunts the extremely thin nature of the sort of data visualizations that are generated about the dangers of hurricanes and their landfall in the region.  For all too often, they presume a stable land/sea divide, removed from the experience of inhabitants of the region and how we have remade the shore.


3.  How can we better integrate both a human perspective on weather changes, and the role of human-caused conditions in maps of extreme weather?  How can we do better by going beneath the data visualizations of record-breaking rainfall, to map the human impact of such storms?  How could we do better to chart the infrastructural stresses and the extent to which we are ill-prepared for such extreme weather systems whose impact multiplies because of the increased impermeability of the land, unable to absorb excessive rainfall, and beds of lakes and reservoirs that cannot accommodate increased accumulation of rainfall that  stand to become the new normal?  The current spate of news maps that provoke panic by visualizing the extremes of individual cases may only inspire a sort of data vis-induced ADD, distracting from infrastructural inadequacies to the effects of global warming–and leaving us at a loss to guarantee the best structures of governability and environmental readiness.

Indeed, the absence of accurately mapping the impact and relation between landcover, storm intensity, rainfall, flooding, and drainage abilities increases the dangers of lack of good governance.  There need not be any need for a reminder of how quickly inadequate mapping of coastal disasters turns into an emblem of bad governance.  There is the danger that, overwhelmed by the existential relation to each storm, we fail to put them together with one another; compelled to follow patterns of extreme weather, we risk being distracted from not only the costs but the human-generated nature of such shifts in seasons between extremes of hot and cold.  For as we focus on each event, we fail to integrate a more persuasive image of how rising temperatures stand to create an ever-shifting relation between water and land.

Provoked by the rhetoric of emergency, we may need to learn to distance ourselves better from the aerial views that synthesize intense precipitation, tally hurricane impacts, or snowfall levels, and view them less as individual “strikes” or events and better orient ourselves to a broader picture which put us in a less existential relation to extreme weather.


2017-four-us-hur-landfalls_3The Weather Channel


We surely need to establish distance to process syntheses of data in staggering aerial views on cloud swirl, intense precipitation, and snowfall, and work to peel back their striking colors and bright shades of rainbow spectra, to force ourselves to focus not only on their human costs, or their costs of human life, but their relation to a warming planet, and the role of extreme of weather in a rapidly changing global climate, as much as track the “direct strikes” of hurricanes of individual names, as if they were marauders of our shores:  their creation is as much tied to the changing nature of our shores and warming sea-surface temperatures, and in trying to create a striking visualization, we deprive ourselves from detecting broader patterns offering better purchase on weather changes.


direct-strikesThe Weather Channel


If patterns of weather maps epitomized by Accuweather forecast and projections suggest an exhilaratingly Apollonian view on global and regional weather patterns, they also  shift attention form a broader human perspective in quite deeply pernicious ways.  Such maps provided the only format for grasping the impact of what happened as the hurricane made landfall, but provided little sense of the scale of inundations that shifted, blurred and threatened the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.  They provide a format for viewing floods that are disjoined from victims, and seem to naturalize the quite unnatural occurrence of extreme weather systems.  Given the huge interest in grasping the transformation of Hurricane Harvey from a tropical storm to a Category Four hurricane, and the huge impact a spate of Category Four hurricanes have created in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s no surprise that the adequacy of the maps of Hurricane Harvey have been interrogated as hieroglyphs or runes of a huge weather change:  we sift through them for a human story which often left opaque behind bright neon overlays, whose intensity offer only an inkling of a personal perspective of the space or scale of their destruction on the ground:  while data maps provide a snapshot of the intensity of rain-levels or wind strength at specific sites, it is difficult if important to remember that their concentration on sites provide a limited picture of causation or complexity.

All too often, such maps fail to offer an adequately coherent image of disasters and their consequences, and indeed to parse the human contributions to their occurrence.  This post might be defined into multiple subsections.  The first actions suggest the problems of mapping hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico in relation to flooding in data visualizations of the weather and the overbuilt region; the middle of the post turns to an earlier poetic model for considering the relation between land and sea that visualizations all too easily obscure, and the meaning that the poet Elizabeth Bishop found in viewing relations between land and sea in a printed map of the Atlantic; after returning to the question of the overbuilt shore compounds problems of visualizing the Texas coast, the final section, perhaps its most provocative, returns to Bishop’s reading of a map of the Atlantic coast.

What such new weather maps would look like is a huge concern.  Indeed, as we depend on weather maps to orient us to place ourselves in the inter-relations of climate change, sea-level, surface temperatures, and rain, whether maps cease to orient us to place, but when best constructed help to describe the changing texture of weather patterns in ways that can help familiarize us not only to weather conditions, but needed responses to climate change.  For  three months after the hurricanes of the Gulf of Mexico caused such destruction and panic on the ground, it is striking not only that few funds have arrived to cover costs of rebuilding or insurance claims, but the judgement or understanding of the chances for future flooding have almost left our radar–perhaps pushed rightly aside by the firestorms of northern and southern California, but in ways that troublingly seem to forget to assess or fail to assess the extent of floods and groundwater impermeability  along the Texas and Louisiana coast.  The problems that preparation for future coastal hurricanes off the Gulf of Mexico raise problems of hurricane control and disaster response that seem linked to problems of mapping their arrival–amd framing the response to the increasing rains that are dumped along the entire Gulf Coast.



Indeed, the chromatic foregrounding of place in such rainbow color ramps based on GPS obscure other maps.   Satellite data of rainfall are removed from local conditions, and serve to help erase complex relations between land and water or the experience of flooding on the ground–by suggesting a clear border between land and sea, and indeed mapping the Gulf of Mexico as a surface as if it were unrelated to the increased flooding around Houston, in maps prepared from satellite imagery, despite the uneasy echoes of anthropogenic causes for the arrival of ten hurricanes in ten weeks, in ways that suggest how warming waters contributed to the extreme inundation of the Gulf Coast.  Despite NOAA  predictions of a 45% likelihood of ‘above-normal’ activity for the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, with, a 70% likelihood of storms that could transform into hurricanes, the images of inundated lands seem both apocalyptic and carefully removed from the anthropogenic changes either to the ocean or land that intensified their occurrence so dramatically on the ground.


Dartmouth Flood Observatory Flooding Harvey Dartmouth Flood Observatory


Harvey flooding_0.jpgDartmouth Flood Observatory/August 29, 2017


Is it possible to recuperate the loss of individual experience in such data maps, or at least acknowledge their limitations as records of the complexity of a changing climate and the consequences of more frequent storm surges and such inundations of rainfall?  As we seek better to understand the disaster relief efforts through real-time maps of effects of Hurricane Harvey as it moved inland from the Gulf of Mexico, shifting from Category 4 Hurricane from a tropical storm, we tried to grasp levels of rainfall that spun out of 115-mile-an-hour winds across southeastern Texas that damaged crops, flooded fields, ruined houses, and submerged cars, we scan stories in hope of clues to assess our position in relation to increasingly dangerous weather systems whose occurrence they may well forebode.  At a time of increased attention to extreme weather has long developed, the gross negligence of climate change denial is increasingly evident:  it recalls the earlier denial of any relation between hurricanes and climate change, when increased hurricanes were cast as “the cycle of nature,” rather than as consequences whose effects have in fact been broadly intensified by human activity.

Current attempts to map the toll of record-smashing hurricanes focused almost exclusively on point-based data view rainstorms largely as land-based records; even as they intend to monitor the effects of Harvey’s landfall by microwave censors, they risk seeming to isolate real-time rainfall levels from the mechanics warmer air and sea-surface temperatures which result from human-caused global warming, not relating increased storm surges or inundations to achanges in coastal environments or climate change.  To render such changes as natural–or only land-based–is irresponsible in an age of reckless levels of climate denial.  Indeed, faced by the proliferation of data visualizations, part of the journalistic difficulty or quandary is to integrate humanistic or individual perspectives on the arrival of storms, rendered in stark colors in the increasingly curtailed ecosystems of newsrooms which seek simplified visualizations of satellite data on the disaster, which fail to note the human contributions to the travails that are often reserved for photographs, which increasingly afford opportunities of disaster tourism in the news, emphasizing the spectator’s position before disasters, by images that underscore the difficulties in processing or interpreting the proliferation of data from MODIS satellite feeds:  we can show the ability to measure the arrival of torrential rains, but in offering few legends, save the date and scale, but offering few keys o interpret the scale of the disaster.

The looming portent of human-made climate change, however, underlies the poor predictions that NOAA offered of perhaps 2-4 major hurricanes this Spring, and the lack of a new director for NOAA–on which local and state agencies depend to monitor the nations shores and fisheries–suggested the, from June to September, which left states on their own to make decisions and plan for disaster mitigation programs and better flood maps.  (The danger of appointing a newly nominated director, Barry Myers, who is a strong supporter of the privitization of weather maps and an executive at the private Accuweather mapping service, suggests the difficulty of determining the public-private divide in an era of neoliberalism, and a free market of weather maps that were once seen as central to national security and standards of safety.)   There are two hidden scales on which we read these opaque maps of global warming and globalization and local inundation are triply frustrating.   For all the precision and data richness of such point-maps of largely land-based rainfall, local temperature, or flooding, the biases of such instantaneous measurements seem to fit our current governing atmosphere of climate change denial, and dangerous in erasing how such storms are informed by long-term consequences of man-made climate change.  (As the mapping tools of coastal weather seem destined to change, what sort of change in direction for NOAA coastal maps do we want:  the appointment suggests the terrifying possibility of a return to the Bush-era proposal nominee Myers supported that prohibiting the agency from producing any maps already available in the private sector then threatened federal weather lines to go dark–lest they literally compete with ad-supported websites private providers–and shift federal information offline?)

For making moves toward the future readability of weather maps may well be at stake in critically important ways.  The 2005 proposal that Myers backed would have eliminated the National Weather Service, even while exempting those forecasts needed to preserve “life and property,” would in essence have returned the weather services to a pre-internet era, even as the most active hurricane season including a record breaking fifteen hurricanes and twenty-eight storms began in the gulf coast, including the infamous hurricane Katrina.  The proposed bill would have prevented NOAA from posting open data, and not only readily available to researchers and policymakers, in ad-free formats, free of popup screens, but allow them to make their own maps on the fly–ending good practices of posting climate data would work quite dangersously to prevent development of tools of data visualization outside commercial models of rendering storms and hurricanes as if environmentally isolated.





A deeper problem of providing such limited weather maps of tropical storms may be the subtexts about the relation of human causes to weather they convey, and the absence of a greater narrative of the transformation of a global ecology or of the ecology of the Gulf Coast.  The curtailed images of “nature” they present by symbolizing rains, winds, floods, or submerged regions in appealing hues as natural–raise questions of the odd simplicity of the absent storylines:  cheery colors erase or bracket complex questions of climate change, the human contribution to extreme weather events, or the human experience of suffering on the ground:  Rita, Cindy, Katrina, Dennis, and Wilma seem not part of the environment, epiphenomenal interlopers moving across a static deep blue sea, in an apparent dumbing down of the mechanics of hurricane or storm formation in a rainbow spectrum removed from a human-made environment.

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The Terror of Climate Change: Uncorking Bombs of Streaming Snow in the Atlantic

Even in an era when waking up to weather bulletins provide a basic way of orienting oneself to the world, the arrival of the bomb cyclone in the early morning of January 4, 2018, along the east coast of the United States, commanded a certain degree of surprise.  For those without alerts on their devices, the howling winds that streamed through the streets and rose from rivers provided an atmospheric alert of the arrival of streams of arctic air and snows, creating something called “white-outs” in highways along much of the eastern seaboard that paralyzed traffic and reminded us of the delicate balance over much of our infrastructure.

The effects of the arrival of a low pressure system in the western Atlantic created effects that cascaded across the nation, setting temperatures plummeting and winds spewing snowfall as the extratropical cyclone was displaced off New England, and propelling snow over the east coast from what was an offshore weather disturbance.  While the “bomb cyclone” sounded portentous, the actual explosiveness was perhaps not felt at its eye over the Atlantic–




–as the bomb-like burst of pressure scattered snows through howling winds across much of the coast, but rather in the unbalanced distribution of snowfall across the nation that it so quickly created.  The cyclonic winds of the “weather bomb” could not be localized:  their effect was to set off a burst of precipitation, chilled by arctic airs, remindeding us of the delicate relation between land and sea in an era of climate change, when we are apt to feel the effects of colliding air masses across the country, as far as Tennessee or Ohio.

The bomb created a deep oceanic disturbance in the dissonance of sea-surface and air temperatures, and triggered the increasing imbalances of the distribution of snow across the nation, as if inaugurating an era of the increasingly unequal levels of snowfall, as a bomb that seemed to burst over the Atlantic sent snowfall flying across the east coast–


Thursday am bomb


–in ways that led to a deep disparities of snow and ice levels across much of the country, where much of the nation’s western states were surprisingly free of snow, increasingly rare save in several spots.







The bomb cyclone spread across a broad surface of the eastern seaboard and Gulf of Mexico, as the areas that stand to be open to gas- and oil-speculation suddenly took a far greater hit than was expected, raising questions of the arrival of extreme weather systems as sea-surface temperatures grew:  the kink in the Gulf Stream created a swirl that sucked in arctic air and spread clouds of snowfall across the eastern seaboard as the seas became incredibly stormy, driven by hurricane winds.  The bomb cyclone wasn’t a major disaster, but seems a wake-up call of the charting of minerals stored in the seabed of offshore areas in the Outer Continental Shelf off the United States–the “federal lands” that the government decided since it administers directly it may as well start to lease.


Thursday am bomb.pngPrecipitation Column Rising from Offshore Winds, January 2-4/Ryan Maue

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Filed under energy independence, environmental change, Global Warming, oceans, remotely sensed maps

Ink-Jet Wonders and Other Printed Curiosities

The appeal that was exercised by a newly discovered set of gores that arrived at Christie’s announced was considerable.  The map constituted one of the first mappings to show the place of America on the globe–and indeed to map the globe as a globe.  The considerable attention that the gores slated to go to auction in mid-December attracted must have lain not only in their rarity, but the cult of priority of the naming of place.  The gores exemplified the declarative role of mapping to designate place, as well as a geometric organization of global continuity shortly after the discovery of the new world, but it was hard to imagine that the appeal of the gores in our increasingly pixelated, pointillistic, and fragmented mediated sense of space was not in the solidity with which they seemed to embody “America,” both on the map and on a globe.

The gores were highly valued as the first image that mapped America–and assigned it a name–whose almost cultic prestige had grown allowed viewers view a watery western hemisphere, since described by antiquarians as the “birth certificate” of America, in an ahistorical but nineteenth-century fashion, for bestowing the name of the European navigator Vespucci on the continent that he had described in a set of letters that widely circulated in Europe from 1503, and provided a written account that oriented readers to to the New World, describing a vicarious sort of witnessing the unknown that expanded the demand for global maps as they were widely reprinted.   Amerigo Vespucci described the long shorelines of a New World  that allowed a distinctively modern way to view a rapidly expanded image of the inhabited world, and allowed Waldseemüller–even if the humanist cosmographer who had trained as a theologian rarely travelled beyond his town of St. Die, near Strasbourg, but exploited the printing press to reconcile Vespucci’s findings with precepts of map projection derived from cutting edge cartographic tools.  And when he adopted the format of the mathematician Apian to render the world on gores, he used the graphic techniques of projection to lend solidity to the first narrations of the New World.  So it was quite surprising that the forged copy of gores that almost made it to auction in 2017 belonged to the same visual culture of online images–the culture of image capture and digital reproductions–as what seemed a worm-eaten sheet of printed paper was found to be created by tools of digital photographic reproduction, with little human trace of an engraver’s hand, although they seemed strikingly similar to the long unknown image of a material rendering of the post-Colomban world.


MUNICH WALDSEEMULER in Peckham, 1504:1510pngUniversity Library of Munich, ULM Cim. 107#2. Courtesy of University Library of Munich

Indeed, the similarity between the online diffusion of the image and the reproduction of the fake seems a modern rewriting of the intense attention that Waldseemüller and his circle of geographers in St. Die embraced the tools of early modern engraving to design multiple woodcut maps in the first decades of the sixteenth century, in order to meet a fast-growing market for globes that lent legibility to the world.  But the new forms of legibility that the online reproductions prized–so distinct from the printed images of the early sixteenth century–seem something like a moral fable of the different levels of spatial legibility of different ages, if not two period eyes.  The gores that cosmographer Martin Waldseemüller and his St. Die circle had designed were printed in 1507 had been long prized as the earliest example of an identification of the New World as America, in honor of Vespucci.  In an elegant description of the entire surface of an earth as yet not fully known, but able to be mapped in a woodblock form, the gores adopt and incorporate aspects of recent engraved maps and nautical charts in a synoptic visual digest.  The gores form part of a distinctly cosmographic project of rendering the world on a graticule of parallels and meridians, and vaunting the adoption of an ancient global geometry for transposing the curvature of the inhabited surface of the globe to a sectional globe of two dimensions, despite their limited toponymy, and balance their comprehensive coverage with the treatment of the map as a canvas to advertise the new naming of America, expanding the map’s surface far beyond the manuscript tradition of Ptolemaic maps and orienting viewers to the predominantly watery surface of the world.




The single sheet that seemed early modern map gores for a short bit of time seemed to belong to the first records naming the continent after the navigator, and clearly gained their value as such as a piece of paper:  the announcement of a new discovery of the sectional rendering of the world’s surface by regular intervals of thirty degrees appeared to offer an early geographic primer modernizing Ptoleamic geography, based on the first nautical charts of the new world.  The attempt to chart global space for Renaissance readers who remained in Europe were long associated with the cosmographer Martin Waldseemüller, the mathematically-trained theologian and cartographer known for creating several global maps, and for writing one of the first treatises of cosmography to adopt Ptolemaic principles to explain and describe the principles for mapping the New World.  By announcing the adoption of a new set of tools as a new descriptive framework in a manner similar to his 1507 cosmographic wall-map, which unified the nautical charts of America Vespucci with a Ptolemaic framework of world-mapping; the sheet of map gores supersede traditional nautical charts in a form of world-making.

Indeed, the single sheet seemed to seek to promote universal geometric tools to unify an expanded global expanse:  the new sense of the “cumene” would not be recognized by Ptolemy or ancient mappers, and gave an expansive portion of its surface to oceanic expanse, registering a new conception of a terraqueous world.  The graphic image following Ptolemaic principles of projection incorporated Vespucci’s accounts and nautical maps in a new model of cosmographic knowledge, inviting readers to experience vicariously his travels to the New World, and to understand the greater value that he attributed to maps and cosmographical knowledge to arrive at this site across the ocean in another world:  much as Carlos Fuentes has recently offered an indelible picture of the epistemic paralysis of the monarch Don Felipe, a barely disguised version of Philip II, as a semi- autistic ruler doubting the existence of a new world that was not comprehended in the palace to which he has withdrawn in Terra Nostra (1975), a massive novel whose literary structure mirrored the tripartite structure of the palace Philip II commissioned to include maps of all the Spanish possessions, the embodiment of the globe on a set of twelve elegant map gores would condense and rebut such the imperial stance of utter disregard to the new world that possessed Fuentes in his novel.  The careful construction of the globe’s surface onto indices offer a global purview that might be called the first age of globalism.


1. Waldseemüller’s single sheet map condensed the cosmographic principles the he had followed in series of elegant wall-maps that foregrounded the artifice and difficulty of the composition of the world map.   Waldseemüller and his circle had actively promoted standards of global legibility, using Ptolemaic precepts in a triumphal manner to celebrate the power of naming, charting, and mapping new lands for European audiences that invited ways of telling, describing and narrating Europeans’ spatial relation to a new world.  The large wall-maps that he produced in over a thousand copies promoted modes of reading globalist relations  facilitated by copious textual cartouches and inventive decoration, that underscore its cosmographical nature as a product of writing, drawing, and design to affirm the growth of oceanic expanse that defined the continents.  The wall map was hardly free of what Edward Tufte might call “chart junk” on its exuberant margins, but conveyed tthe excitement of heralding a new graphic synthesis of a global map over which Vespucci presided in one lunette, adding continents of a new hemisphere to the known globe, offered a cartographic solution to a problem of ordering terrestrial space.


Vespucii On Map

Waldseemuller-Map-631Martin Waldseemüller, Universalis Cosmographia secundum Ptolomei Traditionem . . . . / Library of Congress



The image is no less than celebration of the new status of cosmographical arts that elevate the medium of engraved images to tools of global description.  If the twelve-sheet c wall maps Waldseemüller’s school composed, designed, and whose engraving they closely supervised set a new standard for the elevation of cartographical skill from a technical craft to a new model of knowing and seeing–and a way of making epistemological claims, as much as using transmitted forms, in ways that linked the art of mapping as a scribal technology to cultures of telling, describing, and demonstration, the wall maps invite viewer’s eyes to comprehend space outside a situated position.


Waldseemuller_map_2Martin Waldseemüller, Universalis Cosmographia secundum Ptolomei Traditionem . . . . / Library of Congress


In a counterpart to the large wall maps that he designed and sold, Waldseemüller expounded the modern precepts to orient one in space and synthesize global knowledge by parallels and meridians in his Introduction to Cosmography (1507).   The slim volume,  the basis for his identification with the unsigned gores, seven as a manifesto for the twelve-sheet engraved global wall map, over which preside busts of Ptolemy, the ancient geographer who formulated the mathematical precepts of terrestrial projection on a graticule, with America Vespucci, combined the modern experience of navigation with the ancient precepts of learning and naming place.   Waldseemüller himself never travelled far beyond his native Strasbourg, but invested the map with authority to communicate geographical knowledge as a token of modernity of embodying a global geographical knowledge, albeit a modernity now displaced by the grid.  Waldsemüller’s projection has the energetic displacement of the authority of a nautical chart, echoing how Vespucci declared his competency in his letter to arrive at the New World even “without the knowledge of sea charts” prized by navigators, being “more expert in navigation than all the pilots of the world.”   The gores staked a similar model of expertise of reckoning and calculating distance and place by a new matrix of latitude and longitude that they embody:  the preeminence of the graticule as an epistemological tools of global geography that expanded the scope and nature of geographical knowledge lasted some four hundred and eighty years until it being displaced by grids.  Indeed, the value that the map was readily assigned suggests its survival in a distinctly post-scribal culture of mapping.

Did the value that the auctioneers assigned the map gores reflect these grandiose knowledge claims?  The gores elegantly translated knowledge of the earth’s newly discovered hemisphere to indices the viewer could readily process and digest, foregrounding the new name that it proposed for the continent named after the Italian navigator.  But they assumed a new status in the age of digitized maps, and Google Earth images of global interconnectivity, which may have been paradoxically elevated by the newly antiquated image they acquired.  Rather than being sold as emblems of knowledge, the new image of the gores that Christie’s claimed to bring to public auction had gained an immeasurable status after the earlier auctioning of similar gores for above a million dollars, not to mention the unprecedented price that the United States Library of Congress agreed to pay in 2003 of $10 million for the sole surviving edition of the large wall map Waldseemüller had engraved, the one copy of the thousand-odd he had printed, of which it was something of the poorer cousin, but which had been widely touted as the “birth certificate” of America, and the map on which Waldseemüller had proposed using the name of the Florentine navigator Vespucci who had described the long coastlines of the New World in his printed letters.

The set of map gores, a complementary spherical map that Waldseemüller had described making, provided an early image of global totality that gave a similar dominance to the line–indeed, the geometrically determined line–to orient viewers to a global surface.  When the late historians of cartography David Woodward and J.B. Harley tersely defined the map in “purposely broad” terms, at the outset of the monumental History of Cartography, an extremely elegant series since expanded over multiple volumes, as “graphic representations that facilitate spatial understanding of the world of things, concepts, conditions, processes, or events in the human world,” they may have been thinking of the graphic lines of the gores as such a facilitation of spatial understanding.  For the gores process the encounter with the New world, the travels of the navigator, and the recovery of Ptolemaic precepts of world-mapping, and the naming of the newly discovered continents in the western hemisphere on a clearly graphic construction.  Woodward and Harley’s emphasis on “graphic representations” recuperated the ancient Claudius Ptolemy’s use the Greek verb  γράφειν (graphein), or “to write,” and Waldseemüller’s assimilation of that verb of the act of writing to engraving tools; it caused much revision, even by Woodward himself, of its lack of allowance for cross-cultural comparisons, but suggests a significance of writing systems as a mode of ordering space.  Waldseemüller appropriated the authority of the verb in print, giving the engraved line a deictic sense of displaying space–


Single Sheet UNM


Waldseemüller School, 1507 Globe Gores/Badische Landesbibliothek


–in a map of globular design of the sort that Woodward idealized as the culmination and embodiment of cartographical principles, in a globular map of the sort that was more readily defined in a more familiar globular form by 1583, here shown in two images of the same year in “universal rendering of the newly discovered parts of the world,” printed in Italian, or discovered parts of the world, which emphasize nautical travel as the basis for the incorporation of place on the globe, and reveal the increased scope of geographical exploration in the intervening eighty years.


Globular Italian Map Parte del Mondo Ritrovato 1583





More broadly, however, “graphein” might be understood as the trace of the human that orients themselves to the world, hand-drawn or manually rendered.  These were soon shown to be absent from the gores:  indeed, the blurring of the very lines of the gores that went to auction suggest that they belong to a new visual culture of scanned images and photographic reproduction.  The very traces of graphical operations were permuted and erased in new ways, as is the sense of a human presence, in ways that suggest the distance of our own visual culture from Waldseemüller’s world, in ways that the forger never intended.

In their groundbreaking History of Cartography, David Woodward and Brian Harley had celebrated the line as the means of graphical orientation, in what now seems an elegy to the art of printing.  An unforgettable image remains clear in my head of David Woodward in his basement, in Madison, WI, running maps off a letterpress printer, and hanging them to dry on strings by clothespins, and his love of the ink applied to the engraved plate to present a precise rendering of space.  But the fake set of gores that reached auction were not printed or drawn, let alone in the Renaissance or during Waldseemüller’s life, but probably printed some five hundred years later, from a scan of the map in the James Ford Bell Library’s website.

The gores that arrived at auction this December suggest far less of a clear trace of a human hand, and perhaps belong to a different visual culture of online images.  Indeed, the astronomical value that the single sheet was invested may be a symptom of our entrance into a different visual culture of mapping–indeed, the sheet that seemed to be valued at more than a sheet of gold of the same size suggests the fetishization of the paper map in an era of web-based mapping, and mobile GPS.  The fake gores suggestedthe translation of Ptolemaic terms to a visual culture that privileges the dot and the grid as a basis for orientation, rather than the engraved line, but where the aura of the writing of space persists, and the paper map fetishized in a world that increasingly relies exclusively on mediated digitized images.  The set o fraudulent gores is itself something of a post-modern artifact,–less concerned with the authorities of narratives of discovery, but able to admit the false authority of the map as objective, and almost ready to accept the value of its aura even if it was only an image grab printed on old paper.

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Filed under fake maps, globalism, globalization, Mapping the New World, media studies

Clipping Bears Ears

The recent demotion of Bear’s Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante as national monuments pose risk of a deepening widespread and almost inevitable alienation from public lands.  The tenuous status of public lands was apparent in the mandate of protection after intense lobbying of the American Petroleum Institute and other players in the energy industry to cut the limits of National Monuments across the United States, in ways that stand to redefined American West.  And even as our so-called President touts his relation to the common people, apart from the political class, the proprietary relation to public lands that he seeks to instill by removing protected lands of national monuments like Bears Ears stands sadly at odds with the longstanding image of the identification with the legends of the white man in the open space of the American west’s sun-drenched outdoors, whose landscape was open to the grit of white, male conquest of an empty space–although the decision to remove Bears Ears from the list of protected lands suggests an abandonment of that image of the heroic cowboy, replaced by the disillusioned world-weary post-industrialist capitalist character we seem to have as American President.


Trump and Wayne in western backdrop.jpg


For Trump has definitively moved away from that imaginary, and the image of the open frontier, or of this land is your land, this land is my land, into a vision where the very same land is now poised to be opened to mineral extraction and prospecting, reducing the area once identified with the West to an area defined by the priority of industrial claims, and transforming it to a terrain inviting the colonization by extractive industries.  With his pursed lips, and evasive eyes, turning his back on a monumental landscape of the West, President Trump appears oblivious the destruction of space to occur across the national monuments opened to prospective mining, extraction of resources, and mineral industries, as if to deny their history, and allow the big rigs of extractive industries to enter to repossess those areas they have claimed on the map.

The preservation of a national monument that would rejoin fragmentary Indian Lands, indeed, was the strategic scope of the declaration of the two regions as part of our protected national heritage, in an attentive to remove previously protected lands from mineral prospecting in southern Utah, with the aim to improving the local economy and attract investment to the state now represented by Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch, who have both advocated the proposal to open the region to prospectors, with far less concern for its future of the country–responding to heavy lobbying by uranium mining company Energy Fuels Resources, which provoked a widely criticized Interior Department review, Trump issued executive orders that shrunk the monument to newly reduced boundaries.  For Hatch, eagerly labeling the designation of the national monuments as “unjustified federal land grabs,” evoking the increasingly militant anti-federal lands movement, particularly strong in Utah, who act as if the government had hidden interests in staking claims to a territories form wildlife refuges, conservation areas, national parks, or national monuments, summons a misguided anti-government credo as a basis for ending public lands.


Protection of National Monument of Bears Ears would expand claims to native lands in Southern Utah/Joe Burgess for New York Times


In replacing a sense of “goods” for the nation worthy of protection by the federal government–the purpose of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which expanded executive ability to conserve areas for preservation of their historical or scientific interest–to a vision of the executive asfacilitating abilities for exploitation of national space, and ensuring energy extraction.

The result is to threaten fragile material evidence of the region’s prehistoric inhabitation in a site recently put off-limits to oil and gas exploration on account of its use value to extractive industries, contesting the inherent value of preserving an area that has been considered among the most “endangered” historical sites in America.




The rewriting of what constitutes a national monument is quite a sense of a sharp change in history, marked by an inevitable separation of the landscape from the past.  The shift of Bears Ears from a site worthy of conservation,seems definitively erased as the revelation of the minerals, oil, and gas that lie beneath the ground within the earlier boundaries of the former National Monument.  The possibilities of extraction had been mapped in surveys of the mineral resources of the region, which focus not on the delicate nature of its environment; the map of minerals ignores sacred remains lying on the surface in its boundaries, and foreground them, rather than the delicate ecosystem of animals and pure water.  Indeed, its pollution would irreparably compromise the region, and replace the reasons cited for its historical and cultural value to its exchange value.

Are we in danger of mipmapping not only our national patrimony, but future?  It is almost as if Trump is following a new map, provided by the extractive industries with which he has thrown in his lot.  And in place of preserving individual sites of antiquity, this map shifts from the above-the-ground complex ecosystem and archeological ruins previously cited as warranting protection for future generations and for the nation:  what was a “good” for the nation is in the course of being redefined, as the underground “goods” able to be extracted displace those lying on the surface of a bioregion of southeastern Utah currently in danger of being compromised–even as the newest national monument in the intermountain desert protected by Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition largely in recognition of widespread evidence of its historic inhabitation.  While Trump argues at his own tribal rallies, exultantly insisting “we’re into [clean air and water” also, folks–but you don’t have to turn off all business!” even as the EPA rolls back clean air and water rules, the absence of attention to environmental preservation in the national monument is striking and mind boggling, if not a relinquishing of duty.

By revoking the region’s status as a national monument, and reducing the protected area to almost 80 percent of the current Bears Ears National Monument and the Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument by 45 percent, Trump has divided Bears Ears into two smaller regions, to allow access to the red, mineral-rich areas, in particular, following on the recommendations of his Interior Secretary drastically to shift the status of a considerable range of national monuments that would include the historic mesas.



The new geography of the national monument suggests a vision that is stubbornly and insistently reduced to mineral resources, flattening the historical value of the region and replacing any sense of its place by mapping it at a dangerous remove, and foregrounding the value of its industrial resources above its landscape.  Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History could not see the destruction of the open spaces of lands until after they have occurred, of course, at which point they lie at the feet of the Angelus Novus, who is propelled forward in time, seeing only the wreckage at his feet; but the rewriting of the material relation to the land–and the symbolic relation to the land–constitute a broad remapping of the place of the west and western lands within our minds.  If labor was the exploitation of nature for Benjamin, the exploitation of nature rests both on material labor, but the remapping of the landscape we once saw as part of historical memory as a nation to a material resource, destined to be opened to a growing energy market, and be converted into petroleum and gas.  Trump has, in short, turned his back on any romantic concept of the open spaces of the west, with some uncertainty, as he seems to take a step into an unknown future of open access to energy resources mapped as lying under these once hallowed grounds, which stand to become transformed into an industrialized landscape, and changed beyond recognition, without a sense of what we have lost.

We are in danger of losing any sense of the picture on the ground.  The map of resources seems to compromise the map of the land by local inhabitants, or indeed the picture of the region on the ground of a lived landscape, filled with rich traces, and freshwater streams, that has long held status as a sacred site in our national imaginary as a frontier.


Wlderness Photography Bears Ears


The accelerated arrival of an entirely new relation to the land, as extractive industries that has been used to demote Bears Ears from a nationoal monument stands to transform open spaces that were once identified with the mythos of the nation.  The resulting removal of all regulations that the reduction of national monuments would mean fails to understand the monument as an ecosystem of environmental integrity, and indeed the historical value of the lands as sites:  it is almost as if the difficulty of defining the value in a society which uses GPS to map locations on a UTM projection to locate mineral deposits and sites of potential petroleum drilling–and erases the holistic image of a vanishing landscape that has long been so central a part of our national patrimony.  For by reducing the land set aside in the National Monument to questions of cash flow, the administration seems to have decided to use a map to abstract the Bears Ears area to the value of resources hidden beneath its historic landscape.


Mesas of the Valley of the Gods in former Bears Ears National Monument near Blanding, Utah/Alex Goodlett for The New York Times


The revisionary mapping of public lands that has occurred within the Trump administration is no less than a dramatic revision of national priorities.  It reveals something like an amnesia of the relation to the land, now seen as an antiquated practice of political regulation, and a rhetoric of opening valuable historical regions to mineral prospecting, in ways that no President has ever elected to disrespect one of his predecessors by rescinding the area of a designated monument that a president has decided to set aside.  In ways that shifts our relation to our own futures and pasts, the remove of the landscape suggests a remapping of priorities and space, removing protections from red rock canyons where some 10,000 artifacts remain.  As parcels of that landscape increasingly stand to be leased to extractive industries, despite the fragmentation of open lands across western states.  Indeed, the encroaching the interests of the American Petroleum Institute on what was once understood as preserved wilderness has become a way to rewrite the state’s relation to federal lands, and indeed the patriotism of the protection of public lands of longstanding historical value.  In ways that reflect the deep anger at the protection lands negotiated by the Obama administration–and done so in a way that tried to involve community stakeholders over time, if concluded late in the Obama Presidency–and the obscuring of claims historically made from 1976-2010 alone in the region once defined as Bears Ears–


–the division of the national monument into two rumps opens many of the areas where mining claims  were staked, and allows further claims to be made, as well as encourages easy transport of extracted materials from the historic grounds, by denying their claims to historical value.  Indeed, by reopening many of the BLM claims on the region, the decision to parse Bears Ears from a continuous monument seems a give-away to extractive industries.

The gains of that lobby in asserting their claims and rights to access mineral deposits and veins stands to emerge as one of the largest land grabs in American history, reshaping the notion of the protection of public lands and access allowed to drilling, pipelines, and mines on federal lands, as if definitively abandoning any concept of the value in their preservation for posterity.  Indeed, only by recasting the role of government as securing lands worthy of protection as a case of undue restraint on business can the dire effects of  the plans for expanding private leases on public lands be failed to be recognized as a shifting the preservation of historical legacies to permit widespread industrial leases on federal lands in ways that abandon and relinquish a clear long-term view of their value.  When Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke questioned whether a third of Interior employees were “loyal to the flag” before the National Petroleum Council, a petroleum industry group–and desired to reduce the “physical footprint” of the Interior Department by reducing the civil service employees who he sees as obstacles to opening up the permitting process for oil-drilling, logging, uranium mining, and energy development he sees as President Trump as having a legal mandate to accelerate, Zinke seems to make an end-run around the public custody or preservation of increasingly fragile lands of sacred resonance to many of the residents who most prize its integrity.


Bears Ears Buttes Big expanseGeorgy Frey, Getty Images/National Geographic


Valley of Gods, in Bears Ears National Monument 


Indeed, the agressively regressive attacks that the Trump administration has made on environmental regulations or responsible custodianship of public lands–leading states to file suit against the Environmental Protection Agency and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt for rolling back agency policies of designating areas of dangerously high ground-level ozone in unprecedented ways–is mirrored in the attack on protecting public lands, on which the Interior Secretary seems to have no endgame save leasing them to industry.  The agressiveness with which Zinke has taken aim at the government’s custodial role over wilderness and public lands–some of the few places where undisturbed ecologies exist–suggest a widespread attack on the notion of wilderness.  Is it possible that the Trump administration is preparing to excavate any federal mandate to protect historic lands, as well as to allow the expansion of extraction across previously protected lands?

When Interior Secretary Zinke complains “I can’t change the culture without changing the structure,” he suggests a broad disbanding of regulations accumulated over time with local groups after consideration of public impact that he wants to cast as obstructionists and arbitrary bureaucrats.  Yet when Zinke suggested that “Fracking is proof that God’s got a good sense of humor and he loves us,” he conjures a terrifying hybridization of manifest destiny and unrestrained corporate greed.  Zinke’s initial review of a full twenty-one National Monuments on federal land stand to change the landscape of the American west.  For in removing acreage of interest to private industry from federal protection, in a particularly short-sighted move under the quixotic banner of energy independence, the Trump administration seems bent on allowing the very federal lands protected by government for posterity to be treated as lots able to be leased for private development, without appreciation of their historical, cultural, or sacred value.  The map of National Monuments under “review” suggest a euphemism analogous to downsizing, and a shift in the conception of the custody of national lands–including the Grand Canyon–that seems to prepare for the excavation of what were the most protected federal lands.



Reduced Monuments


The expansion of national monuments currently designated “under review”–which has led to the recent declaration shrinking Bears Ears and renaming two protected areas that constitute but a rump of the once National Monument he Obama administration named after substantive negotiation with local stake-holders, reveal the dangerously unconsidered course by which protected public lands stand to be declassified in order to meet the demands of private industries, many of whom have already mapped mineral deposits or previously leased mines in their ground.  Zinke tweeted images of how he rode to his first day as Secretary on Interior on a horse named Tonto, sporting a ten gallon hat, flanked by the US Park Police, in a coded gesture to fulfill the demands of farmers and outdoorsmen:  the self-designated cowboy of Trump’s cabinet was on his way to eliminate protected status of federal lands, ready to remap most delicate open areas for extractive industries and the environmentally toxic mining and drilling of fossil fuels, in the name of energy independence:  if intended to evoke Theodore Roosevelt’s commitment to the outdoors, the dark garb and black hat suggested apt funereal garb to preside over the dismemberment of the American West.  But the usurpation of an identity as a cowboy outdoorsman in which Zinke has cultivated seems an apt metaphor, if unintentional, for the disenfranchisement of native inhabitants of a land that has been hold sacred for generations, and is a priceless repository for cultural artifacts and prehistoric ruins, as well as a priceless fossil record of dinosaur bones.


Zinke Goes to Work.png


Zinc’s cultivation of the image of a cowboy outdoorsman who loves western open lands exemplifies a dangerous sort of double-dealing.  For his policies he adopts run rampant over protection of the most fragile federal lands.   And despite presenting a public face of affection for the outdoors concealing the agenda of energy industries to shift the landscape of the American West, the re-dimensioning of public lands and National Monuments opens them to coal industries and petroleum and uranium mining.

The redrawing of Bears Ears is isolated, but foretells a terrible vision of the curtailment of federal lands by future leasing, drilling, and mining–at the same time as curtailing access to parks by substantially raising their entrance fees nationwide.  Nowhere are the fears of opening lands to drilling more feared than in the Alaska’s Wildlife Refuge.   Yet under the quixotic directive of ensuring “American energy dominance” the koan of the Trump administration, and the meaningless slogan “Energy Is Good,” the charge to remove regulations on coal, drilling, and oil pipelines are cast as a means to confirm our prosperity and energy independence as a nation, in deeply misguided ways that are based only on doublespeak, but epitomized by the withdrawal of any sense of custody for the increased scarcity of undisturbed open lands, or an obligation to future Americans.

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Filed under American West, Bears Ears, environmental preservation, federal land protection, national monuments

Is Health Care a Democratic Right?

The bulbous, bloated cartogram meant to render the prospective withdrawal of insurers from individual health-care exchanges under the Affordable Care Act in its deepest colors foregrounded the concentration of a reduced insurance market in rural areas.  The image of a nation seething over, and the ground boiling over as if with discontent, cartogram, distorted “red” and “blue” states alike, but seemed evidence of the ways that the Affordable Care Act warped the even playing field in the United States–as if that ever existed, and could be expected to exist today.  But it might be taken as an emblem of the deep anger and resentment that many areas of the United States felt toward what was labeled “Obamacare,” and the regional markets left with but one insurer–and an inevitable feared rise in their insurance premiums–in the health insurance markets that the Affordable Care Act would create.

The designers of the cartogram warped to counties’ population almost aptly if inevitably rendered the country as boiling over with anger:  it seemed to render a powerful emblem to justify if not inspire broad indignancy about the apparently uneven consequences of mandated insurance exchanges which it argued the less populated–and poorer–areas of the country would be stuck with, as a distillation of social injustice.  For the cartogram captured what its designers argued was the distorted market for health insurance which people on the coasts had designed as destined to shut out large areas of the country shaded in lighter colors–and prevalently light pink.  But the prediction of a contraction of providers that undergirds this ominous scenario, as we now know, didn’t come about at all,–even if the strong passions provoked by the fight over health care did leave the country boiling over with anger and indignancy widely felt to be objectively justified.


map2_20170725Warped Map on Insurers Red v Blue Goves

It can be quite forcefully argued that health care deserves to be regarded as a  democratic right–democratic with a “small ‘d,'” in the sense of an egalitarian right, even though debates about access to health insurance are increasingly cast in politically partisan terms.  Although access to insurance exchanges are increasingly treated as a question less of a right than the reflection of a political position, the proposition of guaranteeing health coverage is rejected by champions of the marketplace and its benefits, who argue that its falsity undermines a free market.  As a result, in part, health-care exchanges are increasingly mapped in terms that might well be mistaken for political partisan divisions within the fabric of the nation.  Indeed, the sharp, flat blues, reds, and deep carmine of different regions suggest the hopes and difficulties of providing a uniform insurance plan for a nation of radically different numbers of insured, facing the hope to provide more with coverage in a way that may seem to tilt against the open nature of the marketplace.


Us Marketplaces.png


But democratic rights include not only political participation but due rights to certain benefits that accord undeniable liberties.  And although liberties which were not defined as including health care in the eighteenth century, leading many strict constructionists to view health insurance as an excessive presence of the state in individual lives, the range of liberties have expanded to-liberties to education, or to health, or protect against race-based, ethnic, or sex-based discrimination–revealing the broadening scope of understanding liberties, and might be  mapped into the fabric of the nation as an individual rights, and a basis for ensuring greater egalitarianism–and social equality–as a right.


Obama-healthcareBlack Enterprise


Back in 2013, of course, the institution of health-care exchanges set up a new landscape of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act–the Affordable Care Act or simply ACA–allowing most Americans to buy insurance on  government-run exchanges (or marketplaces) to have access to health care that they were often lacking in all fifty states, creating the reign of designing data vis of Obamacare exchanges often subsidized by the government for those eligible, to make it available to all, in ways that created some thirty-six exchanges run with the federal government, as states ran the others alone–creating the odd scenario that more enrollees came from red states, where they were run largely by the federal government.




But this was not widely accepted, and the rejection of the promise of what is now widely labeled Obamacare reflect the deep divides that its opponents argue the government mandate for buying insurance policies will impose on the nation.  The online popularity of recent projections of a constriction of health insurance options for most counties of the nation that were proposed as recently as the spring of 2017 seemed to reveal the deep dishonesty in the proposals of the Affordable Care Act to level the playing field.  And although the capital of health care as a good to the nation demands to be mapped, the difficulty of parsing the ACA independently of the name of Barack Obama reflect the unfortunate polemic level of debate about seeing adequate health insurance as a right of all–even as fear of losing health insurance dramatically rose across the nation, and the fears of rising premiums posed by its mandates were widely stoked by data visualizations suggesting widespread abandonment of insurance exchanges.


Changes in Providers.pngUS Health Policy Gateway


The data visualization–which almost amounts to a tool of outright propaganda–uses flat carmine to blanket the real improvements in numbers of the uninsured.  The presentation of an apparent distortion of the market is confirmed by declining insurance policies available on Obamacare exchanges, as its accompanying text assures readers that the real people to benefit from “marketplace enrollment” was the “private health insurance industry” who gained $90 billion in premiums, greatly profiting “publicly traded insurance companies”–distorting meanings of “public” and “private” as if to imply the dystopian nature of health exchanges that benefit coastal states alone.  The map of possible changes in rates of premiums were even more striking, and was presented as evidence of poor policy planning, as well as signs of a grim “slow motion death spiral”–a strategic choice of term suggesting the poor level of health-care it provided, and organically faulty nature of its establishment, but alienating the numbers of premium growth from individuals covered.





The familiar series of sequential images forecasting the mass exit of insurers from exchanges over a period of four years of the adoption of Obamacare stand at odds with the fears of losing health care and the defense of health care as a right, as well as a national system of insurance.  And despite an onslaught of maps  ostensibly demonstrating the ever-narrowing options for individuals as available insurers in state-based exchanges  dry up; they convey an imaginary future in which few counties with “active markets” of four or more alternatives–apparently compromising the rights of many Americans.


nssustaniable decline

Bloomberg Graphics/2017 Health Insurer Exits (projected)


Indeed, the image of rapidly dwindling options faced by Americans that such data visualizations claim to be based on data from seem to suggest a focus on individuals.  But the broad brush strokes leave little to the imagination and present an ominous emptying of choice that seems designed to induce panic.  The images are executed with great dramatic effect, but little sense of cartographic skill–they presented a dire picture in which four options would be only available to residents of eight to ten states by 2017, calling into question the ability of much of rural America to remain insured.  The images of rural abandonment by health care exchanges were particularly powerful,  so absolute in their predictions as if to afford little room for interpretation

Yet the projections, for all their power, stand at variance with reality.  There will be, we now know, in fact no Obamacare marketplaces that remain at risk of being without insurers in 2018, as of August 24, 2017–


w:o insurers in echange

–and but a smattering of counties that were at risk for being without any insurers:


at risk of no insurer

Kaiser Family Foundation Interactive Version/Open Street Maps:  Counties at Risk of Having No Insurer on the Marketplace in 2018 as of August 24, 2017


In short, the disruption of the narrative of a dwindling of insurance options has been, after the failure to repeal the ACA, dramatically disrupted.  Even while acknowledging that there was a record low of uninsured in America after the American Care Act was adopted in “Obamacare marketplaces”–a coded term if there ever was one, loaded with disparagement–data visualization were crafted to predict deteriorating coverage options deteriorated in the months ahead in many rural states of apparent objectivity; hastily created maps, at an odd angle to reality, suggested that as much as over a fifth of all federally run marketplaces–predominantly in rural areas–were with only one insurer.

The alleged “bolting” of insurers from such marketplaces were predicted to leave areas like eastern Tennessee without any insurers, like, perhaps, southern Georgia, much of Colorado, almost all of Iowa, many counties in Ohio,  and large numbers of Virginians, as Aetna, Wellmark, and Anthem were predicted to “bolt” from the exchanges, leaving those Obamacare “customers” high and dry.  The argument of the abandonment of rural America was particularly grim.  But as the projections of the “bolting” of insurers fail to acknowledge the sparsely populated nature of many rural areas, the story that they tell of magnifies the poorly managed nature of the marketplace, obscuring the benefits or rights to health care–and the reduction of the number of uninsured across America– that the ACA has managed to create.  By privileging the size of largely unihabited regions of the midwest, maps of uninsured counties presented a decidedly skewed picture of enrollment, where the square miles covered by insurers projected to participate in health exchanges  seemed to outweigh those where insurers participated, irrespective of the sizes of inhabitants.  It is perhaps no surprise that support for Trump’s candidacy did not correlate with support for the ACA–





We focus on individuals to measure popularity for the support for health care reforms across the country.  Although many have recently entertained sustained interactive levels of introspection about where Americans supported  the Affordable Care Act in the months that preceded the election, pouring over the support for the ACA through county-by-county lenses that made sense pretty much only in how they might translate into votes.

While moving toward the acknowledgement of health care as a right is independent from such measurement of support for the ACA, the  low support for the act in sparsely populated areas intensifies as one moved to less populated areas, by and large, to suggest poor penetration of exchanges into much of the nation–and the distance of health care from what seemed in square miles a quite considerable geographic area.  Resistance to the ACA however reflects a rejection of the broad classification of health care as a right–or to even start to affirm it as one nation.   The division of the country, while reflecting the red state/blue state map in many ways, suggest pockets of counties with strong support for the ACA in a surprising range of the south, southwest, and other regions–across the divide between red states and blue.  Haystack’s micro targeting models estimated just under 98,943,000 ACA supporters nationwide–wondering how the electorate would parse on such a push-button issue.  And, indeed, the Senate Republicans were quick to issue a somber grey data visualization that affirmed a clearcut divide suggestive of the status of yellow- or red-alert in areas “abandoned” by Obamacare– in an openly partisan moment, undoubtedly funded by tax dollars.

Senate Republican Party flawed policies 2018U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee


If over a third of the nation, colored an arresting yellow, seem to flounder in facing monopolies of insurance in the image that the Republican Policy Committee in the United States Senate designed for public consumption, who seem to have sought to raise a yellow- or red-alert for subscribers of Obamacare being abandoned, the map foreground  a divide in deeply partisan ways, failing to note persistently steep inequalities among  uninsured across the states, and the difficulties to attract insurers to markets in equal numbers, particularly in regions where up to a fifth remained uninsured in 2001-3.


% Uninsured 2002-3.png



Despite some questions of whether Republicans would be “alienating their own voters” didn’t affect the results of 2016 congressional elections.  But the power of the continued threat of a coming “implosion” of exchanges that upset the level playing field as an inevitable occurrence was successfully manufactured in projections of insurance markets that peddled groundless prognostications as if they were objective fact:  they successfully mobilized fears of the ability to avoid or precipitate a coming crisis by making it concretely manifest for viewers, pushing many to question the benefits that the extension of the ACA would actually bring–and to see it as a promise that would not be able to guarantee continued coverage or familiar premiums, and indeed to be engineered by the coastal elites and insurance companies that so much of the country has already come to distrust.   For the data visualizations that projected the uneven playing field that exchanges would create cast a divided commonwealth as a result of the limited choices restrictive options of health insurance many Americans would face.  These visualizations raised significant alarms bout the fate of Obamacare–and the specter of its undemocratic nature raised questions of what it provided to the country, or what future it might bright–that were deployed in particularly effective ways.

Flat colors of a data visualization communicate as many falsehoods about its actual relation to people as Trump’s favored declamation of Obamacare “very, very bad insurance.”  They obscure satisfaction ratse of over 75% among those enrolled in plans, and of almost 90% in public Medicaid programs for the poor.  Rather, the picture of an implosion of insurance markets garnered ungrounded trust, and became demonized as but “a first step” toward what he presented as the apocalyptic scenario in which the “government basically rules everything”–a fear of the implosion of a free market–ignoring that the American Care Act is premised on encouraging competition among medical insurers.  Yet the image of such an implosion or collapse perpetuated in data visualizations of crude colors was something that was manufactured in projections that masqueraded as objectively designed maps.  In charting decreasing insurer participation in exchanges as actualities, data visualizations seem designed to stoke uncertainty about the future viability of health insurance markets in America.  Yet the uninhabited nature of this landscape of counties–a metric that makes sense only really as a convention of electoral politics, rather than health care or even of individuals residing in different parts of the country, is starkly removed from health care save in terms of how it might translate into a political choice.

The rhetoric of these “maps” uses projections cover the individuals who benefit from medical care.  They encourage voters to feel slighted in new medical marketplaces, and ask them to chose a future–without considering metrics of coverage or the relative quality of medical care.  They serve to map a landscape of fear, encouraging fears of growing premiums and less choice among voters in what is painted as a compromised medical marketplace.


1.  Construing health-care as part of a democratic system has been understood in surprisingly partisan terms.  Some would restrict liberties to participation a marketplace, by adopting and privileging the market as a primary metaphor if not end of civil society:  the success of such a distinction has lead to a broad and striking demonization of its mandate, rather than the policies of the health care law signed in 2010–the Affordable Care Act–which as a law has consistently received far less opposition than the change in health insurance provision that mentions President Obama’s name.  The divide in perceptions seems to have been broadened considerably by recent visualizations that project the future market for health care, or project the numbers of insurance carriers available in exchanges, the colors of the availability of carriers overwhelms the presence of individuals, and reveal the new markets that the Affordable Care Act (or ACA) created as if it were an uneven playing field for all Americans.

Indeed, as recently as June 2017 and during the Trump-Clinton campaign, media outlets and websites trumpeted “maps” or “a map” as evidence of the uneven playing fields that the ACA would bring in the country and the restrictive options that were increasingly identified with “Obamacare,” as if it were something different from the health policies that increasing numbers of Americans had enrolled in, but rather a specter of higher premiums, fewer rights, and new restrictions on providers if not health policies that could not be trusted, in ways that continued a drumbeat of visualizations predicting coming imbalances for those enrolled in Obamacare to insurance carriers or to a competitive marketplace–if not rob them of access to insurers–concretizing what Donald Trump cannily called “the broken promise” of Obamacare, as some 2.4 million “customers of Obamacare” would be with but one insurer to select in the coming year.   Health officials in the Trump administration issued a “new map showing in full color how many counties in the United States could have zero or just one insurer selling Obamacare health plans in 2018” as if to provide confirmation of the poor deal that was offered the nation; the data vis produced by the folks at the Heritage Foundation was accompanied by an announcement that, in case any one missed the point, insurance exchanges in 2017 would feature ” a major decrease in competition and choice” (italics added) that exposed the deep failure of the ACA to promote competition as promised:


IB-exchange-competition-2017-map-1-825.gifHeritage Foundation (January 30, 2017)


The absence of competition left some state, the not unsubtle point was made, that were neglected by the insurance companies that had promoted the ACA:


ACA Header?.png


The stark contrasts of the data visualization were a rallying cry for a public campaign for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, designed to activate the red states that were shown to be the largest losers of the insurance exchanges Obamacare created.  The map released shortly after the inauguration in a push to confirm the repeal of Obamacare, showed almost all counties in the southern United States with but one insurer–as almost a third of the counties in the nation–but not the population by any means.  In the rhetoric of an earlier map that described how “large of swaths of yellow cover a number of Southern and Midwestern states, all of Alaska, and elsewhere indicating counties . . .  are projected as of now to have just one insurer selling individual plans next year,” the images of a restriction of opportunities to buy health insurance was alerted, with areas with but one insurer appropriately colored red, as if to convey danger.

The slightly different visualization from June that accompanied this projected danger suggested that some counties–colored red again–would strip residents enrolled in Obamacare from any insurer for those enrolled in Obamacare–this time in “a new map showing in full color how many counties in the United States could have zero or just one insurer selling Obamacare health plans in 2018“:


Conties Analysis ObamacareMSNBC (June 13, 2017)


The fear that such maps stoked of an imbalance that cut into the insurance options of many as far as health goes suggested a lack of care and a lack of coverage that suggested a deep disinterest of almost a third of the nation, but did so with little actual grounds.  Those sparsely populated regions loose out in the new marketplace that Obamacare seemed to threaten to impose–even if the Affordable Care Act was created to extend health insurance across the nation:


Obamacare 2016_0

McKinsey Center for U.S. Health System Reform (August 26, 2017)


Such deep divides within the United States that cut against equal access to health insurance was of course what Obamacare was introduced to prevent, but the exchanges in the less populated states were indeed slow to attract insurers.  However, the terrifying fear of a subtraction of any guarantees of well-being and a level playing field that these projections promote–they are hardly really data visualizations, if they resemble maps–seem as good a definition and a metaphor of undemocratic policies, and a metaphor for the restricted roles people are given a crucial say in the policies and decisions that most affect their lives.  Although the sentiments for including health care as a right has become to a deep divide in the nation, the disadvantages that the initial introduction of the exchanges were cautioned to bring to peoples’ lives and policies were immediately striking.

And the recent success of mapping the actual resurgence of insurers’ involvement in many exchanges in counties nationwide reminds us of–and asks us to reconsider–the deceptive nature of their claims.  Indeed, as recently as June, 2017, media sources presented “a map” or a set of maps as evidence of the imbalances that the previous administration had failed to foresee, or willfully imposed on the nation.


1.  The negative benefits to all of health-care being a restrictive good are pretty clearly evident:  healthcare should not be seen as a commodity alone, existing on an open marketplace.  Given the clear negative pressures of lowering access to health care to society, the gleeful prediction by President Trump that Obamacare–as Trump calls the Affordable Care Act (ACA)-, as if it were just not American to promise health care to all–would be implode because of e lack of plans available on exchanges in much of the country thankfully seems untrue.  Indeed, the failure to repeal the ACA by the United States Senate–a failure that seems to have sent a shudder of initial convulsions within the Trump administration, and within Donald J. Trump’s sense of his hold on the Presidency, has led insurers to return to the many counties where they had in previous months left, provided all but one of the counties that seemed to have no clear options in the Obamacare exchanges–and that now-President Trump’s declarations of Obamacare’s demise were quite premature.  Although the graphics of health insurance providers that were available to residents in local exchanges under the Affordable Care Act seemed truly badly served in much of the nation by early 2017–when many of the counties not on the coasts or in coastal states seemed to suffer from a gap in options, as was true even shortly before the 2016 Presidential election in surprisingly effective ways.

As soon as the future markets for insurance were mapped and the maps were released, the revelation of apparent gaps and “dwindling in surname choices” and egregious absences in covering the nation’s populations seemed to show up the falsity of past promises.  The maps gained a polemic authority of their own, confirming lingering suspicions about the poor fit of “Obamacare” to the nation, and providing fodder for raising alarms about the inequitable nature of the exchanges that emerged in different states and counties.  For they seemed to reveal an apparent abandonment of the majority of the country by the coastal elites of California Massachusetts, New York, Chicago and Washington D.C.:  indeed, it triggered a sense of the abandonment of the nation by coastal elites.  The very story that was told about Hillary Clinton and the Democrats in many circles were being repeated in the Presidential campaign were used to lace increasing suspicion about the emergence of fair marketplaces in future years.



County-Level Data on Insurance Providers under ACA/AP  (October, 2016)


The deep brown nature of the map didn’t reveal the restrictive choices of insurers, but muddied the picture of the nation, as if throwing into relief a plurality of counties that existed on a higher plateaux of health care, and left behind the rest.  The visualization suggests that a sombre picture of health-care had emerged before the Senate failed to dismantle Obamacare, light tans suggesting the greatest gaps in low-lying lands of few insurance options, and markets where sufficient variability would not bring lower costs.  In those regions, the widespread “lack of choice” appeared so evident in dismaying gaps across the nation, where the departure of insurers from a market seemed that had been seen to rise in 2015 and 2016 had started to fall precipitously, raising the fears of rising premiums.  Several entire states–deep red states, as it happens, like Alabama, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Wyoming–had only one participating insurer across the entire state, suggesting gaps in the health plan that claimed to be engineered to offer choice.

The mapping of these projections seemed to make manifest the deepest fears of inequality and an unloved playing field, which data visualizations like the above seemed to expose–while dying the projected nature of its claim that insurers’ “departure” had already occurred.  Yet the residents of all counties in the United States but one will be able to purchase an Obamacare plan in the coming year in actuality–the fifth year and enrollment cycle of Obamacare insurance markets, has brought successful expansion, with increasing coverage is provided by insurers across the United States may be even effect a new acceptance of health care as a right.  For despite widely stoked fears of drying out health insurance markets projected in deceptive data visualizations with such particularly alarming effects.

Just a mere two months ago, it was predicted that forty-seven counties would have absolutely no insurers by 2018, and that residents of greater than a thousand counties–and up to 1,200– would be left “bare”–hight and dry–with access to but one insurer in their exchanges.  The alleged analysis of the impending “collapse” of insurer participation nationwide showed an image of “projected insurer participation” as if they described an actuality of declining participation that had effectively fractured the nation–lending currency to pronouncements that struck fear into many voters.


County by County analysis.pngExchnage Carrier.pngCNBC, June 13, 2017


Despite the manipulative nature of these data visualizations, the recent resilience of markets after election, and specifically the failure to repeal Obamacare, has responded in ways that stand to change.


2.  But the picture was indelible when it was framed, forged in the sharp colors of data visualizations which arrived with regularity at the same time as maps of projections of the Presidential election dominated social media and the press.  They created a terrifying image of a divided nation, destroyed by the all but inevitable impending “collapse of Obamacare ‘coverage’ in 2017” as revealed in “stunning maps” released in the late summer during the Presidential election, as if they were the hidden understory of national divisions that some candidates just didn’t get.  These visualizations allegedly revealed divisions of the nation in ways that must have spooked many, weren’t being addressed by the White House or health care officials, and seemed to signal an era’s end–touting “Higher Costs and Fewer Choices for Obamacare Customers in 2017.”  The below-the-radar war of data visualization for national attention suggested nothing less than the erosion of the union that was tied to the encouragement of insurance exchanges.

Such data visualization worked their magic, triggering narratives of abandonment and appearing to reveal an isolation of several of the poorer parts of the nation that set of alarms about the increased division of a nation and an uneven playing field that the Affordable Care Act–now demonized by the name “Obamacare” to distance itself from the actual legislation–that revealed the apparent absence of competition in “stunning” ways.  For by depicting the “epic collapse” of a system that in fact seemed to be give greater stability to a projection and make it manifest as reality.  The magic of the data visualization was that they purported to reveal an actuality the Obama administration seemed to deny as if it were an actuality that denied options to many Americans.   And although the spread of the one-carrier-ounties across much of the “heartland” seemed confirmation, for many Republicans, of an abandonment of the mythic heartland of Trump voters, which pulled from Iowa to New Mexico to West Virginia for Appalachia for Trump–the complexion of where insurance is available.

The alleged objectivity of the visualization left many with breath held, as “stunning maps” released during the heat of the Presidential election in late summer prophesied an impending “collapse of Obamacare ‘coverage’ in 2017” as an all but inevitable reality.


Obamacare 2016_0McKinsey Center for U.S. Health System Reform


Data visualizations of jarring color selections suggest the discontinuity in a system of health care, using the not necessarily clear metric of the existence of a range of carriers.  The notion of the medical marketplace that such competition was supposed to create however realized clear gaps with the counties in violet, whose disarming continuities suggested pockets of the nation that were unfairly left behind, and others in pink that seemed to be similarly compromised in the notion of options or choice their inhabitants were offered.  But the alarmist cartographies were extremely effective in tellign of a story of those regions that were left out–not only Kansas, but Wyoming, West Virginia, and stretches of North Carolina, South Dakota  and Michigan. The maps spoke to many.

The deeper debate about health care as a right demand to be examined in far greater detail than the polemic nature of such visualizations allowed.  And the recent resurgence of insurers in almost all counties of the nation provides a good occasion to do so.   It’s not a secret that the difficulty of construing health-care as a democratic right has also been rejected by many,–who would  restrict liberties to participation a marketplace.  In doing so, they adopt the market as a primary metaphor if not end of civil society–and view any tampering with the health care market as undue governmental meddling.  Yet the guarantees of well-being and a level playing field seem as good a definition of what is democratic as any, as it affords a needed means to allow people to have greater say in policies and decisions that most affect their lives.  And sentiments for including health care as a right has however come to be one of the deeper divides in the nation.  And the recent success of mapping the real resurgence of insurers’ involvement in many exchanges in counties nationwide reminds us of–and asks us to reconsider–the deceptive nature of their claims about the narrative of the impending collapse of Obamacare that many data visualizations of the nation relentlessly advanced, with minimal questioning or interrogation, and the how the image of the nation they suggest may explain public understandings of health care as a democratic right.

But since the negative benefits to all of health-care being a restrictive good are pretty clearly evident, healthcare should not be seen as a commodity alone, existing on an open marketplace alone.  Given the clear negative pressures of lowering access to health care to society, the gleeful prediction by President Trump that Obamacare–as Trump calls the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as if it were just not American to promise health care to all–would be implode because of e lack of plans available on exchanges in much of the country thankfully seems untrue.  Indeed, the failure to repeal the ACA by the United States Senate–a failure that seems to have sent a shudder of poor guidance and convulsions within the Trump administration, and within Donald J. Trump’s sense of his hold on the Presidency, has led insurers to <em>return</em> to the many counties where they had in previous months left, provided all but one of the counties that seemed to have no clear options in the Obamacare exchanges have gained them.


3.  Trump’s declarations of Obamacare’s demise were indeed quite premature.  Although the graphics of health insurance providers that were available to residents in local exchanges under the Affordable Care Act seemed truly badly served in much of the nation by early 2017–when many of the counties not on the coasts or in coastal states seemed to suffer from a gap in available options, as was true even shortly before the 2016 Presidential election in surprisingly effective ways.  The sentiment of a curtailing of options–and of choice, that elusive and so malleable term–became something of a battle-cry against the ACA, which redefined how it was portrayed and cast as an imposition that failed to meet health needs, but whose premiums were substantially more.

If one might say, with poet Elizabeth Bishop, that “more delicate than the historians’ are the mapmaker’s colors,” unlike the color-choices by which cartographers define land and sea as areas viewers can inhabit and read, the stark colors of the data visualization suggest clearcut differences and decisive results–too often just to stark to be lent the credibility that they seek.  Bishop linked the art and science of the cartographer and the art of poetry, in her first published poem, written when staring at a framed map of the North Atlantic that lay under glass as she was ill.  In tracing the mapped waters, and the land that lies beneath the water in maps, shadowed in green, she admired the transformative nature of the cartographer’s art and the expressive license of defining land and sea, and the edges of sandy shelves, as allowing the cartographer to create an aesthetic object able to engage the viewer’s fantasy, through the delicacy of color choices:  the stark, flat tones of the above data visualization–whose colors are all too strict and edges overly severe–work best to create oppositions and manufacture absolutes that offer little distance on the world, or clear purchase on it.

The colors chosen by the cartographer, if at odds with the actuality of the ordering of the land, cannot compare to how the translation of the edges of insured and uninsured are erased in the clear contrasts that compress the actual contours of health care.  If Bishop contrasted the reality claims of the historian to the artifice of the map-maker, whose creations appear arbitrary, but reveal actual complexities, as allowing possibilities for the contemplation of the world.  But rather than presenting an authoritative version of the world, the human measure of a carefully made map, and the invention it offered as an angle at which to examine the world absent from many visualizations, which privilege a single actuality as sufficiently authoritative to orient viewers to the world along a single narrative–and not preserving a human scale to do so.  The deceptive nature with which data visualizations foretold collapsing insurance choices in the Affordable Care Act presented a false reality. about health insurance exchanges, in short, by creating alarming contrasts between sharp colors in maps that offered no opening for interpretation. In contrast, maps of the actual numbers of those without health insurance reveals a landscape of much more complex edges and shadows, as well as deep divides, demanding to be moused over in detail for their interactive experience, if only to come to terms with the changed life experiences of those in many states, as from 2013-16, as the constantly shrinking number of uninsured grew nation wide in ways that attest to the increasing health of the nation–if with considerable numbers of uninsured remaining in may exchanges:


shrinkin uninsured.png


percentage uninsured.png

New York Times


In contrast, the almost uninhabited landscapes bereft of insurers that data visualizations depict to suggest a narrowing marketplaces and dwindling options of Americans offers an image less about “health”–our about our health as a nation–than the problems of creating continuity among the insurance exchanges that underwrite the insurance marketplace.  The lack of perspective that they offer on the residents of each county and of our country–and the forced viewing of “health” in terms of insurance companies which participate in exchanges, suggest what more contemporary poet, Claudia Rankine, called the particularly contentious meaning of “health” today in the United States:  at a time when “Affordable Care Act” is seen as something different from “Obamacare” by most Americans, who want the affordability of health care but suspect the inequality of “Obamacare”–whose repeal Trump declared his first order of business as President.  “We heard health care and we thought public option/we thought reaching across the street across the lines,/ across the aisle was the manifestation of not a red state/ not a blue state but these united states we thought,” Rankine wrote with assurance of a new landscape of health insurance, “we could be sure of ourselves in this one way sure/of our human element our basic decency.”

But the increased decency of providing more Americans with adequate health care, “a kind of human kind of union we were ready to check-up,” as Rankine wrote, in the belief that “in this one way we were ready/to care for each other we were ready to see/our range of possibilities as a precious commodity,” was distorted in a map that focussed on the marketplaces of insurance options that Obamacare–the Affordable Care Act–sought to create.  If in this nation “despite being founded on genocide and sustained by slavery/in God’s country we thought we were ready/to see sanity inside the humanity,” the humanity of health care seems sadly obscured in the exclusive focus of data visualizations that focus on providers absent from the marketplace.


4.  It is rather terrifying that the alleged objectivity and authority of such data visualizations were arrogated to make a point that disguised their nature as projections and roles as arguments.  While doing so is tantamount to disinformation, claiming predictive value as declarative statements which has since proved to be without any merit.  For not only did they distort the question of coverage by ignoring that the areas where three or more carriers would be options were most populated–where the best job had been done informing patients of their options to enroll in policies, and also where far better medical coverage existed for Americans in previous years–but the alarms that they sounded were ungrounded, although the image of two coasts and a well-off midwest that suddenly left large parts of the nation in the lurch effectively tapped into deep suspicions and uncertainty.

Rankine persuasively hypothesized–and elsewhere actively protested–the deeply ingrained racism that motivated a nation ready to distinguish between “Obamacare” and the “Affordable Care Act”–valuing the affordability of health insurance, but suspicious of the insurance labeled by the name of Trump’s predecessor.  The motivations for suspicions about “Obamacare” as a tampering with the free market of health providers is unclear, but it undermines the interest in our understanding of the preciousness of health care as a right.  Yet the humanity of health care seems sadly forgotten by the shift from a topography of individuals insured to a topography of the marketplace.  Although Trump seemed to think he had fired Obamacare from the country by declaring it “dead,” and just destined to implode, the markets revealed themselves to have been set up with considerable resilience, despite deeply troubling glitches in its roll out; if more than eighty counties earlier risked offering no options to enrollees, insurers returned overwhelmingly, where they were able, especially when already strongly present in the marketplaces, despite the threat from President Trump to pull federal subsidies.

The presence of mapping future markets for insurance were released with claims to show of apparent gaps, “dwindling insurance choices,” and egregious absences in covering the nation’s populations.  They seemed to show up the past promises of the President to preserve choices for Americans to adopt a health plan that suit them best, and portray them as undue impositions on the marketplace.  The projections acquired a polemic authority, as if confirming lingering suspicions about the poor fit of “Obamacare” to the nation, by providing fodder for raising alarms about the inequitable nature of exchanges in different counties and even in different states.  They seemed to confirm a feared narrative of the abandonment of the much of the country:  indeed, many popular data visualizations triggered a sense of the abandonment of the nation by coastal elites in New York, California, and Washington DC, in particular in Arizona, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Missouri and the Deep South, as well as parts of Michigan.  They confirmed the very story told about Hillary Clinton and the Democrats repeated in the Presidential campaign as if to lace suspicion about the emergence of fair marketplaces in future years.



County-Level Data on Insurance Providers under ACA/AP  (October, 2016)

The particularly grim picture that they offered came in for little criticism or rebuttal.  But the data visualizations describe landscapes that are curiously depopulated, even as they present a sobering picture to suggest the withdrawal of insurers from medical exchanges.   The map implies an absence of interest in much of America by the very insurers who claimed to have sponsored the new marketplaces–but had only concentrated on the most profitable regions.  Its implications one of the abandonment of many of the rural areas of the country–the less densely populated–although the greatest success of such exchanges in densely populated urban areas that were liberal-leaning is no secret, they imply an absence of interest in less populated areas of the nation.  The implicit message that little attention was paid to the rural areas was underlined through the strategic colors of the data visualization, which seems to suggest a relief map of areas that would suffer higher premiums:   audiences in much of the country were convinced that they just had it worse in the projections all too often portrayed as eventualities that the nation would stand to suffer.  The tan colors that suggest diminished choices of medical insurance muddied the picture of the nation, throwing into relief a plurality of counties that existed on a higher plateaux of health care, and left behind the rest.

The visualization suggests that a sombre picture of health-care had emerged before the Senate failed to dismantle Obamacare, light tans suggesting the greatest gaps in low-lying lands of few insurance options, and markets where sufficient variability would not bring lower costs.  In those regions, the widespread “lack of choice” that appeared evident in dismaying gaps across the nation, where the departure of insurers from a market seemed that had been seen to rise in 2015 and 2016 had started to fall precipitously, raising the fears of rising premiums.  Several entire states–deep red states, as it happens, like Alabama, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Wyoming–had only one participating insurer across the entire state, suggesting gaps in the health plan that claimed to be engineered to offer choice.

Such premature projections seemed to make manifest the deepest fears of inequality and an unloved playing field, and invested themselves with an objective authority of exposing an uneven system that was indeed rigged–denying the projected nature of its claim that insurers’ “departure” had already occurred.  Yet residents of all counties in the United States but one will in fact be able to purchase an Obamacare plan in the coming year in actuality–the fifth year and enrollment cycle of Obamacare insurance markets, has brought successful expansion, with increasing coverage is provided by insurers across the United States may be even effect acceptance of health care as a right.  For despite widely stoked fears of drying out health insurance markets projected in deceptive data visualizations with such particularly alarming effects.


2.  To better grapple with the readiness of insurers to fill the health-care marketplace, the stunning maps of the presence of insurers who have made health-care policies available demands to be examined through a red state-blue state optic.  For eve if the aversion of Republican-leaning regions in the United States to providing alternatives to health care insurers creates a deep divide concentrated in much of the south, prairie, and southwest, where only 1-2 insurers exist, and despite uneven nature of conditions conducive to access to health services that guarantee well-being–and presumably happiness–the markets have grown.


HEalth Care Insureres:Red v Blue Govs.png



If the divide looks harsh anyway for many rural areas, the red/blue divides cannot reflect the actual availability of health providers to Americans.  Since the notion of the division of the distribution of insurance markets by counties seemed suspect anyway, given the sparser population of many of these states, a more accurate picture of national coverage is offered by a simple proportional warping of the odd division of the electorate by the “county”–an outdated geographical unit if there ever was one.  The mapped that warped counties by their relative populations reveals  an even sharper picture of the actually improving state of availability of insurers–the fewer residents of many of the just-one-insurer regions of the south and indeed midwest shrink, to confirm the growing success of the selection of insurance providers by the ACA, despite some obviously problematic and important to address gaps in coverage.


Warped Map on Insurers Red v Blue Goves.png


It is striking that these very gaps mirror with a terrifyingly clear correlation both dial-up speeds and broadband technology, as well as intractable bottom-line problems like gaps in the availability of health-care services in rural areas.





Rural Health Information Hub, December 2016



5.  Abandoning the red/blue divisions, which are taken by the elected governor, we see an even healthier division of the nation, at least in terms of the regions that provide their residents with something like a reasonable variety of possible health care insurers, with large areas of the most populated areas having three potential insurers, rather than insurance markets imploding at all, despite the clear gaps that it reveals in what seem more underpopulated areas–and, quite strikingly, the absence of broadband that would make it easier to enroll for insurance online.


5995cec01400001f002c3494Harold Pollack and Todd Stubble


Broadband 2014.pngNational Broadband Map, June 2014 (not updated since)


These gaps reveal a division of much of America into two regions–no doubt conducive between two expectations of health care or medical provision.  Most southern states indeed had far fewer insurers–left “bare” with but one provider, despite the low populations of such rural regions being just less conducive to insurance markets, and revealing an uneven playing field long preceding the passage of the Affordable Care Act–


SOUTHERN states health care insurers 2017-18Harold Pollack/


One Provider South Rural.pngHarold Pollack and Todd Schuble


The area is not only medically underserved, but suggests a “Southern Problem” having far less to do with Obamacare than with the disproportionate topography of medicine and indeed of those without health-care, but creating many counties including large stretches of chronic undeserved populations.


RAC 2014



Such maps and data visualizations only suggest a need to appreciate and fathom the deeply compromised liberties in areas with few health insurance providers, where insurers haven’t reached clear markets, that not only overlap with many of the more chronically uninsured areas and populations, but with areas of the a terrifying number of uninsured–folks who have decided or been forced to do without health insurance, and where going without health insurance becomes an accepted acceptable alternative, unlike in many regions of the country,





which often echoed the very regions of greatest vulnerability in the nation–counties that to be sure often reached out to Trump as a savior for their deep discontent.


Rural Assistance Center Underserved.png


RAC 2014.png



2.  The increasing variety of insurance options for much of the nation raises questions about the persistence of a deep inequality–undemocratic for many–in those pockets coinciding with denser votes for Trump, in a normalized choropleth, and more hospitable to an argument of revising current options of health care–and viewing the Affordable Care Act as an imposition of the federal government.


Trump votes normalized choropleth


There are interesting overlaps on those areas where Trump out-performed previous Republican candidates, notably in Florida’s panhandle and less densely populous counties in the deep south; southern Texas; and Appalachia.





The odd reluctance of these areas to attract anything like a range of possible insurers in lower income areas of low-density where Republicans have recently performed well.



New York Times



They reflect the difficult problem of distinct notions of liberty and rights in the country, corresponding to areas where the civilian population was long underinsured, often by upwards of 15%, and where shortages of health-providers–even if not as readily available in county-level data–are strikingly revealed in a state-by-state survey:  states like Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, New Mexico, Nevada and Texas remained significantly below the national average for primary care physicians in 2012, suggesting regions where there were less developed expectations for attaining health care coverage.





Increased numbers of uninsured exist in many of the same states are, to recap, unsurprisingly located in some of the same regions–which are less likely to vote for representatives who advocate the belief in health care as a right, and perhaps seeing it as able to be outweighed in importance by an argument of states’ “rights,” even if this discourse is designed to deny health insurance.




It seems a cruel irony in an era of globalization that the majority of those doctors or members of the healthcare force serving areas of the United States that were most in need, and who see some 14 millions patients every year, were from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen–citizens of countries included in Trump’s Muslim Ban.  (In other words, these immigrant doctors are filling the increasingly pronounced gap that exists among medical providers in the United States–and getting the job done.)  If medically underserved areas occur in almost every state in the country, the preponderance of medically underserved populations concentrated in less populated areas–as the southwest, southern states, and parts of the Midwest seems to have attracted foreign doctors–and had already led bills to be sponsored to allow Medicare to reimburse pharmacists directly in those communities, to acknowledge the absence of medical services needed by Medicare beneficiaries, to allow clinical pharmacists to work in medical care settings as a health provider.


Doctors from coutnries in Muslim Ban.pngSee interactive version of this map here, at the Immigrant Doctors Project


The map has some striking overlaps with those regions of rural America that are losing population, although it should be kept tin mind that the above map, which used data from Doximity to suggest the commenting zones for the number of doctors in the United States may distort by expanding the zones of providing services beyond that which physicians actually serve most actively:


map-loss.pngRural Communities Losing Populations, United States of America


The elevation of the pharmacist to a medical provider may raise ethical questions.  But the existence of hight concentrations of medical physicians from the very countries that were targeted by the so-called “Muslim Ban” that Trump championed had the effect of allowing a crucial degree of medical assistance to reach Americans–although the apparent intent of Trump’s legislation would have been to restrict their abilities to return home freely to visit their families, and compromise the proportion of doctors on call in the cities where they are most concentrated–in Toledo, Cleveland, and Dayton, Ohio as well as Detroit MI.


Medical Assistance.pngImmigrant Doctors Project


Such pronounced concentrations of physicians which were mapped online in readily seaarchable formats by the Immigrant Doctors Project provide powerful tools to view how the markets for physicians’ skills meets the needs of a marketplace, to be sure, if one recalls the huge numbers of medically underserved counties.  But this is not a marketplace that would be easily filled by our current medical system, or the health-care industries that service more rural or poorer areas.


RAC 2014.png


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Filed under Affordable Care Act, data visualization, health care, health insurance, Obamacare

Mapping Armageddon Again?

The rush to make a graphic point by mistakenly overlaying concentric circles atop a Web Mercator projection helps to render increasing fears of the range of North Korea’s powerful ballistic missiles.  As much as suggest the global import of the confrontation about North Korean missiles through their violent potential to target overseas lands, the effect is to abstract the peculiar stand-ff of a divided country that is a remnant disfigured by the Cold War as if it can be isolated from the division of the peninsula, and viewed as a focus of global attention.  But is the isolation of North Korea that they effectively underscore in such cartographically dramatic terms also not a cause for concern?  How can the intentions of the opaque government of Pyongyang even be understood save in a close focus on the local dynamics of the Korean peninsula?  If North Korea is increasingly effectively a proxy of China–cast as an enabler of the North Korean state, together with Russia–the country is shown, isolated, as if the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea, DPRK, were the last remaining  theater for conducting the cold war in a post-Cold War world.  A familiar geography of generals suddenly migrated to the media as the confrontation with North Korea was begun to be processed in maps.

The current migration of this mapping of a global vision of generals to the media presents a problem of the survival of a mental imaginary, able to compromise the pragmatics of a real problem of international relations in dangerous ways.  For by magnifying the isolation and marginality of the DPRK in relation to the globe, the maps urge us to focus on the risks that the development of intercontinental missiles pose to world peace.  To be sure, they also risk reflecting the very barbed rhetoric of triumphalism and destruction of Pyongyang–a regime that has expressed its eagerness to deliver prophesies of “a merciless sledgehammer blow to U.S. imperialists.”   The threats of Kim Jong-un are especially embodied by the creation and possession of his country, for the first time, of Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, and seems to create a narrative less motivated by actual actors, but a drama of atomic, nuclear, or ICBM strikes that is driven by disembodied geopolitical exigencies in a political theater that we don’t know where it will end, but ramps up an all too familiar cartography of fear.

These maps resurrect and resonate with the invocation of previous threats of war during the Cold War–when the fear of atomic attack was widely diffused by the U.S. Government as a basis to justify an arms race.  Indeed, by rehabilitating a Cold War imaginary of impending conflict able to escalate into nuclear war, maps seem to activate a similar mental imaginary of polarity–albeit disproportionate one, between North Korea and the United States–that reflect one of the few areas in the world where that rhetoric is still alive of identifying the role of the state in promoting nuclear war–leading Kim to praise the “thermonuclear weapon with super explosive power” as made entirely “”by our own efforts and technology and designed to exceed the atomic bomb dropped at Hiroshima.  In this context,  the fear of a “global threat” can be rehabilitated as destabilizing global balances of power.

The first scenario of an attack on the United States–cast in fearful and unresolved terms–was diffused in terrifying detail shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, as if in a surge of guilt, by the emigre Hungarian graphic artist Aleksander Leydenfrost, in a bifold spread that appeared in the extremely popular Life magazine, perhaps asking readers to feel a sense of guilt at the destruction caused by dropping two powerful atomic bombs in the Pacific theater of war, that illustrated a memorandum that the commander of the Air Force in the Pacific Theater, Harold “Hap” Arnold, in a “Report to the Army” he wrote in the late summer of 1945.  Arnold cautioned against the next war as an episode that would last but thirty-six hours, and for which the United States military must begin to prepare itself, if not to confront the unprecedented scale of destruction that the United States landscape–which war had of course not touched, thankfully–must now take time to prepare itself to face.  And the sustained campaign of firebombing Japanese cities after the massive destruction of the second atomic bomb, Fat Man, that was roapped on the port city of Nagasaki unleashed a level of violence that had followed the instant incineration in that city alone of 70,000 had created a landscape of destruction that Leydenfrost’s somber image led Americans to imagine as inflicted on the major cities of the United States, not by the delivery of airborne bombs but the arrival of intercontinental ballistic missiles–what we now call ICBM’s–launched without pilots, akin to German V-2 rockets, but able to reach across the Atlantic, in ways that would redefine what we know as a “theater of war” in globalized terms for the first time.  The nightmare of unmanned missiles, viewed from the empyrean heights above the Pacific, seemed to seek o terrify viewers to suggest how quickly and silently an attack could arrive.



Atom Bombs Descend on US LIFE 1945


The resurrection of what might be called a map designed by generals such as Harold “Hap” Arnold filled a new need to map the power of destruction that the atom bomb unleashed, and represented both a sort of spin as well as a notion of the stewardship of public debate.  Arnold wrote in a context where seemingly responsible “scientific men” were entrusted by the US government to explain to the public the scope of the horrific new power that the atomic bomb unleashed, and to rationalize the devastation of the total destruction of a city destroyed to devastating effects unprecedented in their violence as a decision of the nation, men like James Conant or Vannevar Bush, trusted to create consensus about the use of atomic bombs and the pragmatic basis for atomic policy in a postwar world, at the same time as the popular press quickly predicted the conduct of future wars which minimized all human agency, and perhaps responsibility, by pilotless “robot planes” able to span transoceanic distances and increase the vulnerability of all American cities and industry in the very manner of Japan from a “hail of atomic charges” in 1945.

Leydenfrost’s image, designed for a public announcement of Arnold’s letter, captured this anxiety.   It reveals, in a futuristic manner akin to H.G. Wells or recent science fiction, how close to the surface it was as an image of future destruction, able to be harnessed for clear ends as a narrative of imminent fear, even if one that lacked any clear narrative finality as a story which we could ever see as having clear winners.  The  “revolution in warfare” Conant detected after the destruction of Hiroshima and obliteration of many of the buildings of Nagasaki brought strategies of management of threats in a new global imaginary.  Conant quickly acknowledged that there was no real possibility of defense against such a “surprise attack by atomic bombs,” as he dryly put it.  Yet the government tried to reorient attention to the immediate problem of survival of the fearful eventuality of an atomic attack.  “We are living in a very different world since the explosion of the A-bomb,” Conant began, addressing the problem of what could be done in the event “much of our present civilization” was threatened with extinction.   Conant pondered with incredible detachment pondered how “much of our present civilization” was threatened after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nd to contemplate ways to save the achievements of the United States against such imminent destruction by buried repositories of microfilm,–as if such a parallel responsibility were adequate to the development of the atom bomb.  In contrast, Arnold’s “Report to the Army” emphasized the need of responding to a remote atomic strike in ways that created an image of vulnerability to missile strikes that quickly burned into our collective unconscious.  Its inheritance might well be reexamined in the light of the fears of global threat of strike from North Korea that has emerged in the very first months of the Presidential administration of Donald J. Trump.

The power of the ICBM warheads that North Korea has developed have, rather eerily, just achieved the level of power of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, enabling exactly the sort of scenario Aleksander Leydenfrost, no doubt with editorial help, was able to so concretely map from a position over the Pacific, which oddly renders North America as an island-like target, as if it could echoe the many flights of United States bombers over Japan.  These unmanned rockets, shot from an unspecified country in Africa where the rocket launchers of a nemesis were placed, described the phantasm of the or mental image of the next stage in warfare, rather than an actual map.  But the concreteness of the map allowed readers to envision the proximity of a potential strike in particularly powerful ways.  And they have been triggered again in the azimuthal equidistant projections that project North Korea at their center, and map the ability of powerful missiles to strike the more populated cities of the United States.

Bull's Eye Range

1. Although graphics that render the potentiality of newly powerful missiles developed by Pyongyang  work to grab viewers’ attention, they draw attention to the danger of North Korea as if from a general’s point of view.  The rush to map the striking range of North Korean missiles, as in the header to this post, often were created by overlays so quickly to perpetuate a sense of a flat earth–particularly embarrassing in an age of web-based maps and spatial tracking.  The egregious mis-mapping of a nuclear threat occasioned a volley of objections to the distortions of maps that foreground their danger, and the innocent position of many who are endangered by their missiles, while mismapping their true range.  In order to come to terms with the global  import of Korea’s generation of ballistic missiles’ of ever greater striking range, web Mercator may irresponsibly effectively shrink the distances missiles travel, with geopolitical consequences, but the mapping of the range of missiles privileges a narrative of overweening nuclear ambitions and aggressive acts that runs the risk of magnifying the military threat posed by Pyongyang, and giving an opportunity for Kim Jong-un to magnify his own sense of grandiosity on a global stage, even in ways that seek to justify the need for a pre-emptive military strike against a North Korean threat.  The focus on the hypothetical expansion of missile range and the eagerness to trumpet the new status of North Korean military as able to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear strike–long desired by Pyongyang as a sort of metric of global respectability and renown–is a danger but one that repeated exaggerated mipmapping can only magnify.

For in suggesting the blameless nature of other nations before this threat, they direct focus on the aberrant nature of North Korea and its leaders as needing to be contained, and many indeed justify the importance of a “preventive” pre-emptive nuclear strike.  The maps open a possibility of alternative narratives, some particularly deadly and undesirable in the extreme, of an immediate launch of warheads not only at American military stationed in South Korea, Japan (especially in Okinawa) or Guam but at the United States as as never before.  Indeed, the public statements and postures that Kim Jong-un is “begging for war” seems to map the need for a nuclear confrontation, filled with the frustrated saber-rattling that while “war is never something the United States wants” the “outrageous” testing of a hydrogen bomb only tests its “limited” patience, as North Korea vows its ability to perform a “surprise launch of an ICBM in any place and region at any time,” seeking to prove that “the whole US mainland is within the firing range of DPRK missiles,” as the national news agency KCNA has affirmed.

The recent explosion of a bomb with the explosive power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima by North Korea on the eve its independence celebration provides an illustration of Kim Jong-un’s leadership, even if it is doubted that what seems a thermonuclear device would be able to be attached to a ballistic missile with any reliability.  But the expansion of maps of intercontinental range in the global press seems to magnify the threat of immanent attack or aggression from North Korea, as if in a presence to justify what would be an utterly irresponsible decision to launch a military exercise of any limited sort.  All too widely reproduced images of the growing range of North Korean missile strikes create an all too real cartography of fear that seem to escalate the danger of a threat and the need for an aggressive military response.

As the actions of Pyongyang have been repeatedly cast as a “global threat” by the Trump administration, from Steven Miller to  Rex Tillerson, provoking not so veiled threats of the need to respond with a “precision strike” missiles into nearby waters off the east coast of the peninsula or to strike at the missile test sites, maps of the n this game shifting estimates of the outermost reaches of NK missile strikes by the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea have provided something of a basis to reveal exactly what the states of that provocation would be and proof of the global threat that North Korea’s missile pose over the unsuspecting and innocent inhabitants of multiple continents.  Although the outermost reach of the radius of missile firing is openly acknowledged in the BBC graphic below to be not operational, the claims to have created an ICBM able of intercontinental strikes would place North Korean arms far closer to the United States citizens–as well as to United sates troops stationed in South Korea or Guam–in ways that have been a long aspiration of North Korean governments.




The new justifications of nuclear attack in the aftermath of the apparent explosion of a hydrogen bomb by Pyongyang–and the unrestrained bullying of the North Koreans that “they only understand one thing!”–have pushed the problem of military confrontation to the front pages, with Trump warning of the possibility of a “massive military response” and suggesting if not indeed mapping a targeted nuclear strike of North Korea’s nuclear and missiles sites, as if their destruction could occur without any harm to the world.  The threat that Kim Jong-un poses is being cast as a potentially aggressive act–needing to be met with immediate and massive force–even without mapping what his intentions or strategy–as the explosion of a fusion bomb of comparable size to that dropped on Hiroshima is increasingly mapped as a potentially aggressive strike on American cities.  The appearance of these charts in the global media no doubt give huge satisfaction to Kim Jong-un, whose dream of seeing his nation as a global power has been realized, as his country suddenly occupies the position of a major threat that the Soviet Union, no less, had occupied in the Cold War.

Indeed, as President Trump responds to questions of his military intentions with North Korea with a shrug intended to be menacing–“We’ll see!”–in a particularly troubling lack of restraint, he seems to be inviting audiences to map the danger signs emanating from North Korea, rather than to establish the security of his own political restraint, by perpetuating myths of the aggressive nature of North Korea.  As headlines such as “North Korea Raises the Stakes” have repeated since early July, if not from the first announcement of improving missile technology to complete the construction of an actual ICBM–intercontinental missile–of the sort it has long sought, as if to escape its isolated status, even as South Korea cautioned a proclivity for overstatement of achievement of re-entry technologies, the tenor of recent claims that North Korea raises the stakes may have shifted the metaphor of this test of wills from over thought moves in a game of chess to a contest of truth or dare or to a global game of Russian roulette.


2.  Although the maps raise red alarms as they show long-range missiles able to strike the United States, the rush to use a tool plagued with distortions on a global scale is bound to create distortions or suggest the persistence to flat-earth thinking, rather than warp the striking range to acknowledge the spatial distortions of the earth’s surface within theMercator projection.  But the readiness to map the ranges of newly tested missiles–and even missiles in development–suggest a rush to affirm a “direct threat to the United States”–as former CIA analyst Bruce Klingner puts it–that threaten to extend the missile range of missiles in development to beyond 13,000 km, which would place the entire United States within its striking range and endanger all who live in the expanded radius.  In facing such often unsourced if impressive figures deriving from Japanese news outlets or South Korea, the interests of the maps that derive from such figures demand critical review; ties alleged between military contractors and agencies that create such maps not only terrify, but trigger a powerful memory theater of rapid strikes of an increasingly broad array of long-range missiles, reminiscent of a cartography of fear tracking missiles’ arrival in United States territory from the  Cold War.

As North Korea continues to profess  commitment to a nuclear deterrent in the face of American bases in South Korea and Guam, charging “persistent moves to launch a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula,” and indeed the precareity of North Korea to American strikes, many visualizations of the growth based on fired missiles public South Korean statements provide a basis to foreground global tensions with an alleged objectivity that invest missiles’ striking range with an unprecedented of accuracy.  They may lack such accuracy–despite their imminent danger–but the cartography of fear that they create surely seems to escalate their threat and the rapidity of their possible arrival–even if they may well exaggerate the likelihood of their striking range, without noting how operational even the most recent Hwasong-12 medium long-range missile is.




April 26, 2017



3.  But in mapping the extent of such “striking range” to cover most–or indeed almost all–of the United States, such graphics manufacture an all too real danger by cartographic artifice alone, given the range of missile strikes a reality that they may well not be able to achieve in terms of either atmospheric re-entry or precision targeting, although this is an objection which we surely don’t want to have to test to find out.

The implied danger of provoking such a strike–or allowing such a strike not to be defended against–has in fact undoubtedly interested the Heritage Foundation, a conservative educational institution once prominent in setting the agenda for the nation in the Reagan administration, and now eager to bill itself again as an institution able to “transform America” by being at the forefront of conservative thinking, from the curtailing of “excessive” environmental regulations, to the use of tax reform to “grow” the economy, to the end of universal health insurance, to the distribution of military gear to local police.  The interest of increasing the military budget in the Trump years is promoted through the mapping of an impending and immanent nuclear threat from North Korea–


HeritageNorthKorea.pngFebruary 11 and 16, 2016; December 2, 2016


–that is abstracted from the military presence of the United States in the Korean peninsula, or indeed the political dynamics of the peninsula itself and the region, in particularly dangerous and short-sighted ways.  The notions of a nuclear terror that such images accentuate–ignoring the question of whenter such missiles are perpetuate all too familiar  narratives of the victimhood of those whose lives are endangered by the growing reach of bombs are particularly canny in their use of the objective rhetoric of cartography to make an unsubtle point, and suggest a sense of inevitability in the expanding ranges that North Korean missiles are able to target cities.  The sense of such strikes–and the narratives of inevitability and a needed response that they trigger–have a long history, even if they are meant to describe actualities.  For they have worked to help rationalize such a pre-emptive nuclear strike, as FOX experts speculated if “it may be time for a preemptive strike” if America should “risk Los Angeles,” imagining the waves of regret if a missile approaching the United States should a missile interceptors located at US bases not work in the thirty minutes before it arrives, in a landscape we have seen evoked before.

It did not, in fact, take long at all from the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the General leading the American Air Force to imagine the new landscape of mutually assured destruction that defined the landscape of fear of the Cold War.   Even though intercontinental ballistic missiles did not yet exist, save as imagined threats, or on the drawing board, the vision of strike from atom bombs arriving from overseas was presented an immediate fear to Americans, and enlisted as a compelling basis for justifying the expansion of the post-war military budget–and even equipping the nation with underground silos for storing and firing missiles able to respond to impending missile attacks.  Within months after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the ICBM’s that haunt the current global landscape–Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles–did not actually exist, save as imagined threats, the powerful images of destruction in what was assured to be a coming “Thirty-Six Hour War” begun by atomic bombs descending on the United States engraved a fearsome image of the danger of the first unprovoked first strike of the atomic age.

The mapping of an atomic threat to the United States invited Americans to envision the possibility of attack.  A similar spatial imaginary seems, indeed, resurgent in the nuclear standoff with North Korea, cannot help but recall the imminent arrival of those arcs of already fired atomic warheads or bombs, which smoothly move toward American cities through the night sky to target an unsuspecting population lying in bed at night, even if the projections of missile ranges of the missiles being tested by the North Korean army and their leader, Kim Jong-un, do not arc so elegantly over a landscape.  The same landscape haunts both images.  If the escalation of tensions between North Korea–N.K.–and the U.S. is mapped to process the threat of the increasing power of rockets carrying nuclear warheads, the maps advance threats of a nuclear strike on the United States in the header to this post that mirror those designed to instill panic and escalate defenses shortly after World War II, and are an odd throwback to the Cold War imaginary.  But it seems to have reignited a Cold War imagery of threatened attacks on cities of North America, all too reminiscent of Cold War maps of missile range strikes.



While it is terrifying to not know the intentions of Pyongyang, or the ever-smiling Kim Jong-un, the image of a Cold War spatial imaginary seems to mediate Donald Trump’s geopolitics, and the increased fear that Trump may not disavow a nuclear first strike, not so long ago condemned by Republicans as revealing liberal naiveté on issues of national defense–even if agreement against first-use of nuclear arms has been broad world-wide and recently won broad endorsement as a needed means of controlling nuclear weapons.  It is important to note that the map of impending missile strikes far more conditioned the United States than the North Korean government’s response.  But the spatial imaginary of missile threats has helped enable a rhetoric of confrontation and saber-rattling that Donald Trump has enjoyed effectively conjuring the threat of an immanent nuclear conflict more than Pyongyang, although the sense that an over-sensitive North Korea was only saber rattling may have been overestimated.  The odd symbolic form used for mapping of the range of NK missiles as a target centered on Pyongyang in public media sources, however, keyed o the Nodong, Taepodong-1, Musudan, and Taepodong-2 missiles, suggests the two-fold message of such maps, even more than the maps from Graphiq, which similarly placed Alaska in rapid striking range.

Bull's Eye Range

Although these maps tend to fail to distinguish clearly between missiles that have been observed or are in development–as most of the ICBM’s capable of striking the United States were believed to be–the range of US military bases within striking distance of NK missiles are both increasingly aggressive, and seem almost desperate attempts to come to terms with the rapid growth of their rockets’ power.   Images that hypothesize the expanded ranges of rockets register the shock of North Korea’s creation of intercontinental missiles and process fears of impending missile strikes from its expanded nuclear arsenal.  Such fears were of course foregrounded in North Korean media’s showcasing of Kim Jong-un’s apparent delight in the use of maps to suggest the range of those missiles he has developed at considerable sacrifices for his country–


kim-jong-un-north-korea-missile-nuclear-icbm-planet-satelliteKim Jong-un studying the flight of the Hwasong-12, which reached an altitude of 1,312 feet Reuters/KCNA  (May 14, 2017)

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Filed under arms control, Donald Trump, graphic design, North Korea, nuclear threat