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The Atmosphere on the Eve of Re-Entry to Paris

The nation turned to a frozen core as the entrance of gelid air from a polar vortex poured across much of the midwest last month, flowing all the way to the Texas coast that overloaded electric grids and shocked weather maps that seemed out of whack even for mid-February, as even the sunbelt of the southwest turned gelid cold as subzero temperatures arrived. The shock of this map is its dissonance, of course, from the weather maps that we are used to seeing, the entire nation now, in mid-February, almost blanketed by subzero temperatures of deep blue cold, extending out in wispy breezes into Utah and Arizona, as well as across Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia, leaving only SoCal and Florida pleasantly warm.

The sudden entrance into our borders of such gelid air is an effect of global warming. The suddenness of its entrance over four days is made manifest in a chilling snapshot of the arrival cooler air, no longer containing arctic temperatures in true north. If we had been spending a lot of time parsing the nation by the chromatic essence of counties, looking for purple America, the cobalt of the northern states faded to Egypt blue that the weather maps–“cerulean blue” is regarded the first synthetic pigment, but had multiplied in an array of chemical cobalt compounds in the late nineteenth century. And the ceruleans streaming across the nation seemed designed to shock as a wake-up call: if the haute couture assistant was chastised in Devil Wears Prada for missing the impact arrival of Oscar de la Renta’s 2002 cerulean collection, soon copied by Yves St. Laurent, the waves of cerulean frostiness that spilled arctic air onto national weather maps from February 12-16, 2021 seemed a plea for collective resolution on the even of the nation re-entering the Paris Climate Accords.

From the orange region of coastal Northern California, I surveyed the subzero temperatures entering much of the nation at a remove, but with apprehension, almost overwhelmed by concern at the sense of pathos in that deep cobalt midwest expanse. The commitment to monitor–and reduce–carbon emissions demanded a moment of judgement for the national reorientation. After eight years in which Presidential election have included debates about global warming that played out across what were “blue” and “red” state–and purple areas–there was a sense that the weather map, that most non-partisan of media, had somehow envoiced the earth to remind us that the wobbliness of the polar vortex climate change had wrought was not only rewriting the nation but disrupted the electric grids of much of the southwest and midwest. Across states once reliably “red,” the azure cold provoked by near-polar winds bearing colder temperatures, often more than ten degrees below zero Fahrenheit: at the same time as many residents without heating in Dallas and Austin burned furniture for warmth after their electricity had been cut, much of the nation seemed to be sent back in time to quasi-medieval heating systems, after ignoring climate change debates. Has the wobbly vortex not cast chill on these debates of alleged political divides? The result is more of a “frozen-core” version of the United States that seem designed to registerd the entrance of windblown gelid temperatures to send shivers up the spines of readers even in Miami.

Lowest Temperatures in Coutnry, February 12-16/New York Times, February 18, 2021

The focus of all those maps on blue and red counties were disrupted by the wonderfully airy visualization of wind-driven cold temperature, as the temperatures above freezing temperatures seemed limited to the southwestern states, southern Atlantic states and the state of Florida, the largest continuous stretch of super-freezing temperatures. Based on a  Global Forecast System, of national ground-level temperatures, cerulean fit the atmospheric movement of an arctic weather system dipping into the lower forty-eight to chill the United States in a fitting close to the Trump era, if a painful one: record-low temperatures in Texas and much of the United States, the arctic airs that extended south of the border created meteorological dissonances as southern Texas was at points quite colder than the Aleutian islands, and the outage of electricity over the entire Texas grid–raising questions as to why they ever separated a grid separate from the country, as their two-tongued Governor blamed wind power for endemic suffering, concealing the dismissal of a climate emergency–as many Texas residents went without their power–as the weather system intersected with the nation’s power grid, disconnecting power plants form the grid as rolling blackouts for many of 26 million Texans served by the autonomous ERCOT grid–to make one query the promise of Energy Reliability that is embedded in the ERCOT acronym–interrupted power supplies of 4.5 million Texas homes and businesses.

Abbott was readying himself to sue the Biden administration over environmental regulations he scoffed at as pure “regulatory overreach,” freezing oil and gas leasing on federal land over the objections of the petroleum industry that Abbot promised he would take it as his primary duty to protect. But it’s no surprise that Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and states of the “Gulf south” are going to be hit hard by climate change catastrophes, many of the very states where the poorest Americans dwell: the dire scenarios of climate change situation that is projected by RCPM 8.5 across the “Gulf South” suggest sustained economic damage across the Gulf states, from Texas to Florida, and portends complex questions of environmental justice in years to come, not limited by any means to the polar vortex or the climate imbalances that it portends–assuming that we conduct business as usual.

County-level Annual Damages in Median Scenario for Climate (RCP 8.5), 2080-2099
Negative damages constitute economic benefits/Global Policy Lab, Berkeley

The vortex was wobbly indeed–or more wobbly than it was even in 2014, as the anomalous displacement of cold air first shocked Accuweather charts, placing it among the “most upsetting” data visualization of winter 2014, one of the first emotional glosses of a meteorological charts. The figurative migration of arctic air currents to sub-arctic latitudes was something that was hard to narrativize, and the tendency to indicate human failure overlooks the extent of a collective failure to control the impact anthropogenic processes as a collective failure to control the human contribution to falling temperatures. As we watched the wobbly vortex in past years, the drop of arctic air was hard to map in terms of human agency, as we blamed government failure or a rapacious energy industry that sent rates skyrocketing for many Texans. Historical climate change familiar from Impact Lab sketches a different picture from 1981-2010, of course, with heating up temps across the southlands that one associates with global warming–and a warming up of the northern climes–

Impact Lab, Historical Climate Change 1981-2010

–that, to use the current color ramp, suggests a parched mid-century across much of the southwestern states, with temperature shifting just three degrees above the historical levels, but absolute levels in Texas and Arizona consistently in the eighties in the coming years, rising by mid-century to high eighties. In short, this was not supposed to be what we were expecting–but the polar jet stream that once held arctic air in the poles has wrecked havoc as its meander grows, allowing sudden southern migration of cold air no longer penned in the poles; arctic has warming created a far less clearcut atmospheric river of the jet stream leads the polar vortex to wobble, sending snow flurries into the very regions forecast to reach average temperatures in the high eighties.

Climate Impact Lab, Projected Mid-Century Temperatures for United States, 2040-2059, Winter Months (Dec/Jan/Feb)

The very cerulean colors of arctic air that that streamed across weather maps were far removed from the clear skies that cerulean was once marketed to painters to provide: if cerulean skies are barely seen in the smoke-filled cavern of the hulking train station Claude Monet explored, examining the concealment or disappearance of the blue skies he would have seen in the country retreat at Argenteuil in a series of rather haunting portraits devoted to the massive Gare Saint-Lazare, then the busiest of Parisian train stations, especially of its interior overwhelmed by the steam from coal-burning trains. The colors filtered out of the sound of engine whistles, panting of pistons, and soot that hung in the air but focussed on the new altar of industry as effect and by-product of Haussmanization by which streets welcomed increased traffic, but emphasized the radial network of trains that converged in the central stations of the capitol, connecting the country and the city with unprecedented rapidity that shifted ideas of space.

The change seem to be captured in Monet’s sequence of paintings not only in the sooty interior, but how the vivid cerulean blues of the open skies were almost obscured by the billowing pillars smokes that filled the station: clouds of steam power that fill the tracks on which three trains approach obscure all but spots of cerulean blue, seen through the screen of a lattice of wires over the tracks of the switchyard, capturing the new consciousness of air pollution of the late nineteenth century. At the same time a radial network of railroads brought increased traffic into the city, creating a daily spectacle of the urban spectacle of industrial emissions that proved a new motif of modern life from different perspectives, trying to capture the cerulean blues seen through the industrial interior that were almost obscured by the vapors that filled the station as rail service multiplied.

Claude Monet, The Gare Saint-Lazare Station (1877)/Musée d’Orsay

As Monet set up his easel in St.-Lazare, in 1877, the arrival of trains was accelerated form the Parisian periphery and the nation, spewing forth a level of soot and smoke as a moving industry, that the stations could not in themselves contain, creating a spectacle of the diffusion of the emissions of modern life from their coal-fired engines as they pulled into steel and glass halls.

CHnaging Rail Network in France, in 1850, 1860, 1870 and 1890

On the eve of re-entry into the Paris Accords, the entry of arctic air across our northern border wasn’t unprecedented, but a wake-up call. Search to the map’s colors to find some purchase on the plummeting temperatures across the midwest, ceruleans brought me back to Monet, finding traces of the increased carbon pollutants that filled the atmosphere registered in a map of the sulfurs that spewed up from power plants, the modern ancestors of the sulfur emissions that are in far better need of being mapped as we enter the Paris Accords, with the sort of about-face that Monet made in leaving idyllic garden at Argenteuil to face the carbon spewing out of the Parisian train station at Gare Saint-Lazare in twelve canvases that tried to capture modern life that ponder the dissolution of clouds, steam, smoke, and even asking the station master to leave train engines idling in the switchyard so he could to capture the effects of how steam smoke obscured the cerulean skies as the train station air filled with the bitter air of burnt coal.

Shifting perspective on the sky, satellite data on the far from cerulean skies suggested the ghostly configuration of sulfur dioxide emissions emerging from what were increasingly less regulated North American power plants, refineries, cities, shipping industries, smelters and production of gypsum and fertilizer, as well as volcanos, to reveal the huge footprint of emissions released this past winter, cartographer Logan Williams showed in a snapshot that begs us to reconsider our relation to God’s green land. The continent is viewed by the anthropogenic release of airborne sulfurs registered by satellite, among the principle of climate change, where the once prominent contribution of the Cascades have been displaced by new hot spots of burning from power plants: these spots are not isolated, if there are clear concentrations of SO2 around them, but the products of a nation enmeshed in practices of carbon burning and fuel combustion, and dependent on the creation of electricity from power plants and refineries.

Logan Williams/@Obtusatom

The blurry activity of a speckling of the national map in the visualization in part results from the pointillistic geo-referenced data of remotely sensed data from the NASA satellite Sentinel-5P: but there the data here invests the map with a ghostly tenor, as its pixellated blur recalling nothing so much as an after-image burned on our optic nerves, although it is labelled to give some legibility. It is an image we have burnt onto our world: volcanic eruptions like Krakatoa are studied for their historical imprint, and volcanic eruptions that have increasingly oxidized the atmosphere have historically marked major shifts in global temperature now manifested in climate change, and the industrial uses of carbon fuels that have released as much sulfur into the atmosphere as a major volcano every 1.7 years since 1950 have created a world that we are changing more rapidly than we can grasp. Emissions from power plants and refineries dropped since 1980, when they reached a high point, as we first reckoned with the effects of acid rains that led to Rachel Carson’s work on aquatic ecosystems, appreciating the ecological risks difficult to reverse it creates; if even trace amounts of sulfur dioxide can effect the biological ecosystems and rise temperature, levels of atmospheric emissions astound.

Tons of SO2 Released into National Atmosphere/EPA

The cascading effects of all that atmospheric loading of gaseous sulfur dioxide released by combusting fossil fuel in industrialized areas wreak havoc on ecosystems, even if most often evident in inhibiting visibility by near-permanent haze. But the particulate matter combines with other pollutants create new level of obscuring smog, they not only enter human lungs to lower mortality, but sulfur acid aerosols increase pH levels to which aquatic creatures are sensitive, defoliating trees and inhibiting plant growth as increased acid rain move not through aquatic systems before leaching into the soil in ways difficult to map: the cascading aftereffect include increased in dying and dead trees across the landscape of potentially far greater combustibility. The United States, in this map, lacks crips outlines, but its global sulfur footprint glows as a deep blue blur of ultramarine that might be lapis, presenting the radiating afterglow created by widespread carbon combustion across the land. There is little differentiation we can recognize–without the tags of the Cascades, Chicagoland, and the San Joaquin valley we would have trouble orienting ourselves, but the BC and Ontario smelters, petroleum refineries, and power plants are the primary sites of orientation to red hotspots and challenge us to orient ourselves to the whole.

Logan Williams/@orbusatom

The ghostly static that might recall an old Talking Heads album cover is the anthropogenic residue of the nation, and in many ways the complimentary data vis of the intensification of climate change. The units of sulfur emissions are so staggering the best proxy for their production is perhaps not Dobson units but the active emissions of volcanic eruptions: anthropogenic sulfur emissions have created such a catastrophe in temperature rise, sulfur emissions equal to a rate of a large volcanic eruption every 1.7 years by 1962, and their carbon production exceeded that since by two or three factors, forcing acceleration of global climate change; anthropogenic sulfur emissions decreased after 1980, but rose so dramatically from 1950 through 1980 to provoke the first efforts in national policy to curtail and limit the increasingly devastating effects of acid rain. Concentrated in industrial areas, our sulfur emissions seem to be exploding by 2020 across North America, increasing industrial emission of sulfur even if these emissions were not accorded any clear contributory role in climate change models of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And if we focus, as the EPA, on production of SO2 at power plants alone, in a less jarring color palette, the less jarring “data” viewer almost conceals the tonnage of atmospheric pollutants released.


The ease of registering SO2 from satellite scans provides a clear basis for charting the extent of anthropogenic emissions in once remote Indonesia: anthropogenic emission of such climate-forcing gasses now by and large drown out volcanic activities that constitute a major source of sulfurs’ atmospheric release, easily registered remotely, that overwhelm the Indonesia peninsula to put Krakatoa in its place among anthropogenic SO2 emissions overwhelmed the passive release of sulfuric gaseous emissions from local volcanoes, indicated by triangles in low bands of Dobson units, presenting a somewhat complimentary picture of how man-made off-gassing outweighs the passive emissions of volcanic ranges that once created the largest atmospheric off-gassing, so that the emissions of a local power plant may indeed overshadow the passive off-gassing of sulfurs, 2005-7, from Krakatoa, after all.

Anthropogenic Emissions of SO2 in Indonesia, Sulawesi, and Singapore, from A decade of Global Volcanic SO2 Emissions Measured from Space, 2005-7 
Interactive Data Language (IDL) version 8.5.1

The extent to which the passive volcanic release of sulfur gasses across Indonesia drowns out the site of volcanic off-gassing, including Krakatoa, in this remotely sensed image from NASA’s Aura satellite’s Ozone Monitoring Instruments (OMI) that the effects of gaseous emissions pale in the force of overwhelming anthropogenic releases of climate-forcing gasses. But, to end this post on an up-beat note, although all these many data-points are remotely sensed, they have been embodied in both graphics of North America with a compelling coherence that allows them to be consumed: if the planetary climate seems to be punching back across the red-blue divide due to the shift of the polar vortex, beyond the nation, global warming is far from mysteriously sourced; the increased combustion of fuels that is pumping sulfur dioxide into our atmosphere remind us of the need for regulation, and help us process, assemble and map the cascading effects of atmospheric pollution on the world.

There is luckily more than a bit of visual intrigue and pleasure to help us process a dire story of anthropogenic change: the fading of the territory of the United States to a vivid deep blue blur that recalls artificial luminescence or background radiation is a classic heat map of pressing concern, and the increasingly cataclysmic new frontiers in climate change we may be poised to confront, perhaps less vertiginously than Monet watched the steam of coal-fired engines fill the capacious station’s atmosphere to obscure the sky seen through its skylights, even as the smoke from their engines seems to blanket out the blue sky.

Claude Monet, Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare (1877)/The Art Institute of Chicago

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Filed under Climate Change, climate monitoring, climate sciences, data visualization, industrial pollutants

The Cognitive Clouding of Global Warming: Paris and Pittsburgh; Creditors and Debtors

The argument of America First seems to have been extended to its logical conclusion as the apparently selected President of the United States has single-handedly subtracted the nation from a map of climate change.  By denying the place of the United States in the Paris Climate Accords, President Trump seems, in the most charitable interpretation, to have acted on his own instincts for what was the benefit that accrued to the country in the very short term, and after looking at the balance books of the United States government for what might have been the first time, decided that America had no real part in the map of the future of a warming world.  Rather than outright denying global warming or climate change, Trump decided that the conventions established to contain it by the world’s nations had no immediate advantage for the United States.  

The result wasn’t really to subtract the United States from the ecumene, but from the phenomenon or at least the collective reaction of the world to climate change, and openly declare the supremacy of his own personal opinion–as if by executive fiat–on the matter. The personal position which he advanced was so personal, perhaps, to be presented in terms of his own clouded thinking on the matter, or at least by seizing it to create what he saw as a wedge between national consistencies, and to use wildly incommensurate forms of data to create the impression of his own expertise on the issue–and to mislead the nation.  For Donald Trump took advantage of his having Presidential podium to diss the Paris Accords by a torrent of alliteration developed by a clever speechwriter as resting on a “cornucopia of dystopian, dishonest and discredited data.”  Even if one wants to admire the mesmerizingly deceptive excess of alliteration, the notion of rooting an initial response to planetary climate change in the perspective of one nation–the United States of America–which produced the lion’s share of greenhouse gasses–is only designed to distort.  

By pretending to unmask the Paris Accords as in fact a bum economic deal for the United States, as if it were solely designed to “handicap” one national economy, set a sad standard for the values of public office.  For as Trump dismissed data on climate change as discredited with mock-rage, and vowed that the entire affair had been designed by foreign groups who had already “collectively cost America trillions of dollars through tough trade practices” and were desiring to continue to inflict similar damage.

But the large future on trade imbalances–which he treated as the bottom line–he staged a spectacle of being aggrieved that seemed to take on the problems of the nation, with little sense of what was at stake.  Trump’s televised live speech was preeminently designed only to distract from the data on which the Accords had been based.  And even as Trump sought to pound his chest by describing the Accord as a “bad deal for Americans,” that in truth “to the exclusive benefit of other countries.”  By turning attention to an America First perspective on global warming, Trump sought to replace the international scope of the challenge–and intent of the much-negotiated Climate Accords–by suggesting that it obscured American interests, even if it only took America’s good will for granted.  As if explaining to his televised audience that the agreement only “disadvantages the United States in relation to other countries,” with the result of “leaving American workers–who [sic] I love–. . . to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs [and] lower wages,” he concealed the actual economics of withdrawing from the Accords were buried beneath boasts to have secured “350 billion of military and economic development for the US” and to help American businesses, workers, taxpayers, and citizens.  

In continuing to dismiss the data out of hand about the expanded production of greenhouse gasses, Trump seems to seek to overturn the deceptions of data visualizations that have alerted the United States and world about the consequences of unrestrained or unbridled climate change. Trump ridiculed the true target of the nearly universally approved Accords, scoffing at the abilities to reduce global temperatures; instead, he concentrated on broad figures of lost jobs in manufacturing and industries that are in fact small sectors of the national economy, and incommensurable with the dangers of ignoring global warming and climate change, or the exigencies of taking steps to counter its recent growth.

global warming
Increased Likelihood of Temperature Surpassing Previous Records by 2050 and 2080

Sea Surface Temperatures against a Historical Baseline of a Century Ago/Climate Central

As if years of accumulated data of earth observation could be dismissed as deceptive out of hand by executive authority, independent of an accurate judgement of its measurement, Trump dismissed expert opinion with the air of a true populist whose heart lay in the defense of the American people and their well-being–as if they could be abstracted and prioritized above the world’s  Trump’s largely rambling if gravely delivered comments in the Rose Garden press conference that painted himself as daily fighting for the country cemented the alliance of populism and a war on science by its odd substitution of bad economic data for good scientific data.  

The switch is one in which his administration has specialized.  His address certainly culminated an outright dismissal of scientific conclusions based on a distorted America First picture of the world, where a stolid declaration that “the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords” made sense as form of national defense–despite the potential global catastrophe that rising global temperatures and sea surface temperatures threaten. Is the technique of juxtaposing statistics and muddying data an attempt to undermine evidence, or an illustration of his insecurity with giving authority to data, or to scientific authority, the mirrors his concern about concealing “his profound illiteracy,” or his insecurity about illiteracy, that linguist Geoffrey Nunberg argues not only distance his own speech from words, and discredits their currency, but an insecurity of having to rely on language and linguistic skills alone, in ways that might be well seen as analogues to his plentiful use of all caps on social media, as stepping outside of the language of public life to a medium more direct and complicit with his audience, if outside the usage standards of a written language.

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

Exiting the Green.png  Al Drago/New York Times

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

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

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

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


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

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

Broad hands.png
Cheriss May/Spia via AP

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

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Filed under data visualization, data visualizations, Donald J. Trump, Global Warming, statistics

Mapping Our Shrinking Shores

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Alternate Scenarios

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

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


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


or, indeed, in Mumbai–


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

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

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


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

Lower Manhattan Island?

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

lopped off lower Manhattan

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

ACS 2005?

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

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

Eastern Parkway and Atlantic Avenue above the seas

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


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

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 8.20.11 PM

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

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

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

Truncated NJ and absent upper East side

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


Radical Cartography (2006)

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

Two Inches in Lower Manhattan

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

Mapping NYC by Sarah

Sarah Levine Maps Manhattan

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

Sarah's Lower Manhattan

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

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

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

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