Tag Archives: climate change

Loopy Maps to Rationalize Random Shut-Offs?

As the haze is again settling over San Francisco and blanketing the Bay Area, fire season has begun again in Northern California. The densely populated Bay Area is surrounded by levels of particulate matter from the fires based in the Sierra Nevada, sending some flakes to San Francisco, as alerts are issued to those in Santa Rosa, Livermore and San Jose sensitive to air quality to avoid extended outdoor activities, and reduce their time out of doors.

The new strategies of fire containment, however, that have been adopted by PG&E, after the private company used its privileges to declare power shut-offs in ways that did not seem so “surgical” at all–leading led Bay Area State Senator Jerry Hill to remind the corporation that all safety shut-offs “must be a surgical, last resort measure,” not a knee-jerk method of containment–although what a “surgical” sort of shut-off of electricity would be was unclear, as it would presuppose an assessment of transmission poles, the clearing of nearby trees, and tools of pinpointing high winds. In an era when, in the East Bay and in Oakland, we’ve been looking at fire warnings in public service announcements placed on the side of park entrances and highways for over ten years,

the emergency warnings that extended a red flag alert of extreme fire danger to the entire Bay Area on October 8.

The increased gustiness of winds generalized a sense of extreme fire danger, reminding us of the broad state of fire in a drying state, where rainfall has created a rage of fires across the state. Obi Kaufman has compiled the fearsome image of fires across the state in a rather fierce water color map, which belies its medium, that serves to picture the spread of fires across the states’ counties more concretely than the best remote sensing allows–and indeed how fires have increasingly shaped the topography of the state–raising the deep, primeval fears of fire as a plague of contiguous burning regions across the state, as if its entire surface is lit by fires that bled into one another, moving across space in record time.

Obi Kaufman, “Fire Desnity”

Numbers of residents displaced by the fires over the last five years in California stands as a human rights crisis, particularly acute among lower-income residents of the state, often displaced by loss of homes which leaves them without options of relocation. Because most communities in California wait an average of five years until homes are rebuilt after fires subside, the increasing occurrence of “wild” fires in the state significantly increase the income divides, diminishing the amount of available housing stock across much of the state, and increasing the cost of rentals after fires have been extinguished,

One must read the map of the occurrence of fires in the past five years is also a map of displacement, and pressures on public housing, and of the increased salience of a public-private divide afflicting the local economy and all residents of the state, and standing to disrupt the common good more precipitously than property loss can map: the occurrence of fires around the so-called urban-wildlands periphery, where many seeking housing are also pushed–outside of Sacramento, San Francisco, and Los Angeles or San Diego–creates an apocalyptic scenario where many of the suburban residential areas are consumed by raging fires, displacing residents who will find it even harder to find a home.

The mosaic of the fires seems an impossible challenge to process or parse. But it suggests the impossibility of removing the range of fires that have occurred in the last five years form the cities where populations are concentrated in California, and indeed confirms the surreal nature of how a sustained absence of precipitation has ringed the capital with hugely destructive fires, which despite their individual names suggest the new landscape that tightening resources in the state are compelled to address, both in prevention and mitigation even as the costly nature of controlling what has been an almost year-round fire season creates a budgetary costs few have prepared for:

Is Kaufman’s map the true map underlying the panic at the possibility of new firestorms? It will help us take stock of the dissonance of the maps that PG&E presented of electric shut-offs, and the contorted syntax of public explication of the potential shut offs of elec. We were warned to potentially be the very wind conditions that in 2017 helped spread the North Bay Fires, rendering immediate danger signs throughout the Oakland Hills where memories of the Oakland Firestorm of 1991 were still raw, inscribed in the landscape, as the largest suburban conflagration that spread from the Oakland Hills over the weekend, as the Tunnel Fire was fanned by Diablo winds in late October, destroying hillsides of homes, and pain, shocking residents in ways that would barely receded from the public imaginary by the time of the North Bay Fires were fanned a quarter of a century letter. The mosaic of the regions that were consumed by fire in the past five years in California reveals something of a patchwork quilt.  But the dramatic expanse of the Camp Fire that consumed the city of Paradise, CA suggested a new era of fire regimes, as it flattened the city in ten minutes, creating refugees of climate change on our own soil as it destroyed 14,000 family dwellings and displacing 50,000, with refugees across Yuba City, Chico, Sacramento, and across Butte County.  Nearby, the devastating fire was witnessed differently than other wildfires:  as the air entered our lungs in the Berkeley, Davis, and Sacramento, and we witnessed the sun go red and skies grey.  While the fire was removed, it was immediate, inhabiting multiple spaces at once, if burning across a wooded landscape and consuming huge carbon reserves.

NWS warned about this danger of fire, which couldn’t have been clearer in anyone’s mind, or to PG&E’s new board of directors as they were forced to decide upon a plan of action with the growth of Red Flag warnings in much of the northern state.:

If the dystopia of Fire Season lay last year in raging firestorms that consumed homes, tract housing, and high carbon forests, the safety measures that were adopted after the North Bay Fires of 2017 to curtail corporate responsibility have become a new dystopia, of intermittent power supply, immediately inconveniencing the poor, elderly, and infirm, as a temporary safety tactic was extended to thirty-four of fifty-eight counties–over half–as if this was a new strategy of fire prevention or containment.

For Califorrnia’s largest publically traded utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, faces charges it is unable to maintain, respond, or oversee a state-wide safety issues beyond its control, even if it has entered bankruptcy. The state utility company has been widely blamed for failing to maintain the safety of its transformers has just openly recognized its transformers were the “point of ignition” of the recent tragic fires–exposing itself to 11.5 billion in damages for what was the most deadly fire in California history as it spread across 150,00 acres that the admission of a site of ignition and previous charges for which its equipment was blamed, if not $30 billion in damages.

California’s legislature had tried to extend support to the utilities company in the wake of previous fires to spare it from previous wildfire liabilities; the reluctance to extend any similar security to PG&E has turned to anger in the face of the current destruction, however, reflects huge discontent with continued abilities of forest management and outrage at the scope of the devastation of local neighborhoods, and the scale of the destruction of over 18,000 buildings in the Camp Fire. Even as the current scare has retreated, allowing air quality to improve for now around much of the Bay Area,

there are steep charges PG&E improperly maintains forested areas and trees in proximity to electrical wire–especially dangerous in a parched landscape that has lacked rainfall over multiple years. After the rapid spread of the fires of the Camp Fire, after multiple combustive wildfires to scorched the North Bay in October 2017 that killed forty-four, it is hard to single out poor maintenance as the issue at stake in the fires’ spread. Yet the corporate entity has become blamed on inadequate repairs, maintenance, or poor record keeping, as if such bad practices left state residents increasingly vulnerable. Even if most dismissed President Trump’s wilder claim that the spread of fires in Northern and Southern California were due to “gross mismanagement of the forests,” the notion of blaming the utilities company for its negligence seemed more credible. But building beside grasslands and desiccated forested land have created a new geography of fire and of fires’ spread–revealed in satellite measurements of the fearsome spread.

The liabilities that the power company was assessed for the destruction with which the recent fires’ spread undercut its credibility and increased a sense of its negligence, removed from the extreme weather the state has faced and for which few containment strategies exist. To be sure, the demand to define a felon seems to have overridden the danger of placing transmission lines near forested areas without rain. The aftermath of the fires–perhaps critically the time since Paradise, as it were–has created a sense of nervous breakdown in assessing, monitoring, and mitigating fire danger, it almost seems, as we rush to individuate and indicate clear blame for a changing climate and a lack of response to a decreased level of precipitation rarely experienced, in the need to identify a clear cause or victim for such massive and persistent disequilibria that undermined the public good and well-being in the apocalyptic fires northern and southern California faced, and the terrifying alarm before maps of the fires’ destruction and accelerated spread, perhaps without pausing to consider inter-relations that create a radically new firescape. And the outage maps that PG&E issued to its clients as gustiness of winds grew suggested a similar remove from an overderied landscape, long lacking rain.

And the maps that were issued to make the case for the outages weren’t that convincing, seemed quite improvised, if they did alert customers to the impending danger of power outages as a response to contain future fires. The loopy maps that were recently issued by PG&E, California’s very own home-grown for-profit energy company, to its customers or “consumers” seemed a weak public wager of confidence. After hemming and hawing, apparently, about deciding how to respond to the forecast of possible high winds returning to northern California, a region over recent decades that is haunted by fires by every earlier autumn. Whether they actually prevented fires–as PG&E insists, and left us all to sight with relief–or not, the hodge-podge constellation of overlapping parcels of indicating potential electrical shut-offs was disorienting–

–and didn’t create more clarity by drilling deeper down into Bay Area neighborhoods..

Were the maps a warm-up for the difficulties of managing the threat of fire in a new fire season? Our “fire season” now stretches past winter, if not lasting all year, and its length has created such problems of management that PG&E elected to announce last Tuesday evening that the power was being turned off to over 800,000 of its customers preventively, affecting what might be upwards of 2.5 million individuals. It did so by exploiting an ability that it had gained after inadequately struggling to respond to past fires that had caused damage across the state, but intense loss of homes and property in Northern California, after the Camp Fire almost a year ago in 2018;, combined problems of infrastructural management and climate issues of a lack of rain it was unable to face, management of which was triple jeopardized after it had declared bankruptcy as a private corporation, which this time shut the power preemptively as the gusty winds began to blow.

This being California, it was significantly striking that the turquoise rings seemed electrified version of the iconography of radiating earthquake tremors, and caused a comparable alarm.

The maps were hardly much grounds of confidence, born as the board of directors hunkered down in preparation for those dry, warm wind of winter to sweep across Northern California. They were announced to be the result of the sudden arrival of “unprecedented fire risk,” even as the highest temperature anomalies recorded in the state had been published online since early summer, as dry autumn winds of increasingly high velocity returned to raise fears across the state, setting off alarms for a new geography of firestorm risk.

For “risk” in this case meant winds, and fire danger was understood as an intersection, as in a Venn diagram, between combustible undergrowth and winds that could carry dangerous embers from downed power lines–the apparent paradigm of recent outbreaks of what the media still calls–with PG&E–“wildfires,” as if they were due to a failure to thin the woods.

This may be the best optic through which to understand the awfully loopy maps that the company released, in an attempt to suggest that this time it really had the situation under control, or at least to dodge the danger of not seeming to have responded to verifiable risk. The responsibility of PG&E exercised over the electrical infrastructure of the state had led to its ability to monitoring weather privately to determine the urgency of shutting off residents’ power, allowing customers to consult a weather webpage to ensure some sense of transparency.–and security–until it crashed under broad demand for answers. The project of educating customers to the possibility of unprecedented outages raised questions responsibility and agency that many felt the private company had not been delegated authority to adjudicate.

The prediction of gusts of wind from the Great Basin over areas that still bear traces of firestorms created a broad sense of alarm, however, and with good reason. High gusts of dry air had spread firestorms of huge destruction, crumbling steel lattice structures of aging transformer towers that sent power lines crashing into dry underbrush, in Pulga, as low precipitation, low atmospheric moisture, and sparks led to particularly extreme consequences: debates about what “good forest management” has led to concern about the strength and durability of elevated electric wires knocked down by the force of high winds, pushing brush fires that became firestorms over vaster areas than firefighters had been used to manage–or fire fighters had even recently imagined. It led many to contemplate the stubborn fact that an expanded network of elevated electrical wires, bearing charge, running more prominently than ever before across a wild lands-urban interface, with terrifying consequences.

Despite the complexity of expertise required to explain the fires’ spread and indeed the problems of forest management, the maps that PG&E issued to explain outages were not clear. Only earlier this year, Judge William Alsup called the PG&E “the single most culpable entity in the mix” within the current “crisis that California faces on these wildfires.” This led several attorneys had sued the company for the huge damages of the Camp and North Bay wildfires eagerly listened, happy that some accountability did seem to be in the air. But as PG&E had let its budget for reducing trees near transmission lines whither, they seemed to illustrate utter irresponsibility in neglecting “a large number of trees that should have been removed, and that appears to be the single biggest factor in the 20107 and 2018 fires,” demanding that the fire mitigation plan of the energy corporation follow state law by trimming trees that might contact power lines in high Fire Season winds, which were only expected to grow, and placing there corporation on probation. The limited sensitivity of CEO Bill Johnson to the question of trimming may have not been able to be dislodged from how his salary was being pegged to safety performance, as much as responsible maintenance.

Judge Alsup had ominously warned the corporation it would be bad in the docket come December, wen the number of wildfires PG&E started would be reckoned, and he hoped it would be none: the expectation were balanced by the significant bonuses Johnson would gain if he created conditions to allow the stock of the utility company bounce back to the heights they enjoyed in 2017. And the power of PG&E to shut power of temporarily to 500,000 and ten 800,000 Californians provoker indignation but were won as a right to announce “public safety power shut off” with little warning was won, without being imagined to be used in such an aggressive and proactive fashion as Johnson and his Board seem to have done, raising questions about the current corporate culture of PG&E, if it had committed to “only consider proactively turning off power when the benefits of de-energization outweigh potential public safety risks.” These benefits were not only regarding safety, but the dangers of being found negligent in managing the energy infrastructure.

The problems of fire management that this mapping of fires revealed was both problematic, and difficult to respond to: PG&E asked–or demanded?–the ability to shut off power in high-velocity winds in response. The consequences were not only personal inconveniences. They may well have compromised valuable cancer research on temperature-controlled cultures within a week of conclusion, costing 500K and countless hours of lab work, as controlled experiment were rushed to San Francisco. Even if a warning on October 9 let folks know that the private energy agency “continues to warn of a power outage,” the absence of anything like expectations of such a shut-off or even plans to deal with the web traffic that meant that the “inconsistent” and at time “incorrect” information on the PG&E website, which would continually crash due to high volume of folks seeking information urgently, led to a broad swath of apologies that however refused to admit any underlying fault–“I do apologize for the hardship this has caused but I think we made the right call on safety,” said CEO Johnson, who arrived at PG&E only recently from the Tennessee Valley Authority, and installed a new Board: Johnson is a proud long-time Grateful Dead fan, but may be more conscious his salary was tied to safety performance than California topography or corporate ethics, and expected that the state would rapidly accept a declaration of fire emergency.

Perhaps the arrival of winds didn’t inaugurate a “fire season,” however, but revealed a new aspect of the electrical infrastructure about which no clear working process had been devised or imagined. If such winds inaugurated the “fire season” in California, this was now not an issue to be addressed by thinning forests or environmental management alone–the large carbon loads of forests had gained an increased vulnerability to high-charge electric sparks, in ways that had exponentially expanded the vulnerability of the landscape to fire, and risk of firestorms,–

–of the very sort that had generated ever more terrifying images around the time of the Camp Fire of statewide fire risk; winds that created conditions for the fire fanned the flames further, at higher velocities, to create firestorms and new management challenge of fire whirls, or vortices of flames of extreme heat intensity.

Did it all start with dry winds, or with carbon loads, or with live electric lines suspended in what were revealed to be dangerously unstable ways? Heat maps of the nature of air quality became seared into northern California residents’ minds.

Mapbox Heat Map of Smoke Emissions of Camp Fire

The high gusts running through trees that received far less water or snowpack than in previous years, the deep worries both among PG&E administrators who balanced their abilities of oversight of the electrical infrastructure with their public responsibility, was mirrored in the haunted nature of the Northern California residents who had seen increasing numbers of fire men stream into the areas near Chico, Sacramento, and the North Bay or the Sierras and Yosemite each Fire Season like clockwork in previous years–in ways oddly dissonant with bucolic green surroundings.

This time round, the temperature anomaly alone had offered some guide to prediction of the eventuality of future fires, but provided little guideposts to the possibility of managing the situation at hand. The arrival of winds were terrifying, and not only to PG&E. The gustiness of local winds seem new indices that will mediate all future responses to what Daniel Swain called the ongoing firestorm of California, and are destined to filter our future collective reactions to future fires’ spread.

While the maps of outages seem to convey a weird spectral sort of precision, they suggest an architecture of emergency response that blankets all areas of the now legendary woodlands-urban periphery with darkness, as if in an attempt to rationalize the impending outages that have been paralleled with offers to set up cell phone charging stations, were hardly reassuring.. Promising lavishly to set up a designated communications network with its clients and customers, that seemed a bit like not allowing the news to get into the game, preferring texts, emails, and robocalls as a way of staying in touch and broadcasting emergency to folks who it assumed would have fully charged phones–because who lets their phones run low–though it wasn’t clear communications could continue if outages lasted the full “five days or longer” as announced. The company had its own private team of meteorologists, to prevent any redundancy from designated communication with the NWS or NOAA. But trust us, POG&E seemed to say–as Sumeet Singh, PG&E vice president of the Community Wildfire Safety Program, put it, “some of our customers may experience a power shutoff even though the weather conditions in their specific location are not extreme.”

The memories of the Camp Fire created a sense of disorientation before the impending arrival of high winds, which triggered a memory of the massive destruction of property and loss of lives even as the much of the nation is distracted on other media sources, and indeed by greater problems of irresponsibility. With the memories of the Camp Fire and to the North Bay Fires of the fixed in our head, from the toxic air they across the city, to streams of refugees who lost their homes, we had only just started to face the first evidence of the start of a new fire season in smoke from the first fires, which only last year had made Northern California site of the worst air quality the world, as we studied maps of how the Firefighters have made progress containing the deadly Camp Fire was tired to be contained. As we tracked the fear of fires growing not only near Los Angeles, but near Chico,

we faced a new beast in the unprecedented power shut-offs that became a possibility for hundreds of thousands of customers of the utility company over the last week, a highly controversial act that enabled power to be preventively cut to regions in California that we tracked through loopy maps of potential shutoffs, shown in alientating map layers that seemed to glow with radioactivity, as the authority of the utilities company had assumed in public life in California, elevated after a series of mismanagements or mishaps, meant that the combat of ever-present fire threats extended to the disruptive dangers posed by power shut-offs, perhaps strategic.

But the maps offered no clear logic to their arrival or creation, though they seemed to follow global curvature, akin Bowie net, though the GPS loops didn’t also overlap so often, and derive from power lines on a local level. The threat of interruptions of electricity seemed issues of global importance, altering access to electricity and shifting many to local generators–even closing the University of California for a few days until wind levels died down.

The large, privately held public utility company elected, with winds forecast from Wednesday through Thursday to reach velocities as high as sixty to seventy mph at taller elevations of the state, to adopt what was called “PG&E’s state-mandated wildfire mitigation plan, which aims to cut down on the ignition of wildfires during high-risk periods”–presumably because it was in bankruptcy, more than or as much as a form of public protection, at a time that PG&E has its back up against the wall. The widespread “voluntary” withdrawal of power supply was due to a failure of risk management, and the dangers of firestorms that could not be contained. The threat of electrical transmissions lines malfunctioning, collapsing, or igniting brush–as had begun the conflagration known as the Camp Fire of 2018 and the Tubbs Fire and the North Bay Fires of 2017, lead Berkeley residents to be asked to evacuate the Hills–an area where evacuation would be judged difficult in an actual emergency. The extensive elderly population dependent on life-sustaining electrical medical equipment–oxygenators; dialysis machines; ventilators–whose loss of power could pose diastrous health risks. Even the announcement of power loss could trigger panic sending customers into a tail spin.

Since the potential outage map on the PG&E website first appeared, and before it crashed, significant panic grew as the need to follow a careful protocol seemed absent in the energy corporation’s plans. The maps revealed in complex if simple fashion a blanketing of many of the areas of the Berkeley Hills-based on what must have been the newly launched website PG&E had devised to help customers prepare for wildfires readiness, and indeed presented to the Berkeley City Council this past July about the potential for emergency ‘public safety power shutoffs’ and presumably also the need to develop a strategic response given the problems of residents who relied on electricity for medical devices, cel towers, and city reservoirs, who would all be thrown into disarray in the eventuality of a “public safety shutoff” that the energy company had recently acquired–or been forced–to adopt. The sort of outage map that PG&E distributed were low on actual information, and rich with apparent looniness and difficulty to read,–

–the image of state-wide potential outages even more generic at such small scale. The map is more suggestive of targeting of sites of past ties created by sparks from wind-driven fallen transmission lines or as a result of the sudden collapse during high winds of aging electrical infrastructure. All state residents were alerted to update their contact information to receive more local bulletins at pge.com/mywildfirealerts, a dedicated communications infrastructure over which PG&E held all strings; any possibility of confused communications was sought to be contained–as was that of examination of the protocol for delivering information.

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Filed under climate change, fires, Global Warming, PG&E, Wildfire, wildfire risk

Freezing Time, Seaweed, and the Biologic Imaginary

We can lose sight of the central role that seaweed plays in the coastal habitat of Northern California. For while often present before our eyes, the problems of mapping often submerge seaweed forests with any fixity is mirrored by the threatened disappearance of offshore kelp beds in an amazingly rapid timeframe, as creating an actual image capture able to register the extent of kelp forests is sadly mirrored in the diminishing kelp beds off the California coast.

Has predominantly passive registration of location–onshore registration of sites remotely by satellites, from the harrowing images of the spread of fires. We are reminded by maps showing the rapid advance of the burn perimeters of Yosemite wildfires of 2013, North Bay Fires, or the disastrous Camp Fire of 2018. The rapid pace of the loss of these forested lands seems eerily echoed in the shrinking of coastal beds of kelp along Northern California, and correlates to the advance of warming climes.

If we have developed tools to map the continuity, intensity, and growth of forest fires by satellite and drones, the problem of passively registering the loss of kelp forests, and its relation to the advance of urchin beds, removes a part of coastal environments we are in need of mapping. The scale of maps of the destruction of seaweed beds on the California coast are less rooted in real time, but have advanced in striking fashion over ten years, although the ravages of destruction for now seem to remain undersea. But we are less skilled to communicate their crucial place in offshore environments.

The nutrient-rich cold waters of coastal California provided with its rocky seafloor afford a perfect environment for lush kelp forests, that extend up into British Columbia and Alaska. But as waters are warming, with astounding rapidity, we need to ensure kelp beds are mapped, although many are often off the map, and difficult to register, even as their size has come to be threatened by global warming and climate change, in ways that eerily parallel the loss or threats to irreplaceable forested environments. While the nature of the decline of seaweed is not linked to warming waters directly, the shifting ecosystems that climate change has created have caused a drastic and rapid decline of seaweed’s offshore presence that we have yet to fully map. For the passive registration of kelp beds, traced by GPS or captured through aerial photography, is far less hands-on than examination of their extent would warrant, and low-flying satellites of remote sensing offer few possibilities for accurate mapping of their extent. The rapidity of the disappearance to kelp–and beds whose boundaries are shifting in time with the rapidity of the advance of forest fires on the scale of their destruction–pose problems of global dimensions that are pointing for the immediacy of loss of kelp of over 13,000 species whose biodiversity and creation of oxygen by photosynthesis feeds much of the world drives our own ecosystem.

Paul Horn, Inside Climate News/Source Wernberg and Staub,
Explaining Ocean Warming (IUCN Report, 2016)

Even a map of globally threatened areas cannot emphasize properly the extent to which the Pacific coastline provides a site of cold waters, ocean upwelling that provides rich mineral nutrients, and sunlight that makes it an especially abundant site of kelp forests, in a true megaregion of coastal ecology whose catastrophic loss is impossible to imagine. Even a map of kelp’s local abundance fails to map its ecoystemic centrality in adequate ways–ways that the diversity of kelp speciation also fails to capture, despite its clear .scientific value to survey the ocean populations that are most risk.

The Nature Conservancy

Miller, Lafferty, Lamy, Kui, Rassweller and Reid (2018)/Royal Society Publishing,

The particular vulnerability of the kelp biomass seems to have grown in unexpected ways not only due to climate warming, but to its particular vulnerability to ocean floor sessile predators like purple sea urchins, who are more likely, it is now believed, to eat phytoplankton and microalgae in the kelp understory, rather than kelp itself: however, the role of urchins in diminishing kelp forests, which themselves feed exclusively on sunlight, the combination of how a lack of upwellings due to climate change diminished urchin food supply and the inhospitable nature of warming waters to kelp forests may increase the vulnerability of kelp in coastal oceans.

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Melting Boundaries and Frozen Pasts: Anthrax, Globalism, and Climate Change

The first six months of 2016 brought the greatest increase in global warming in recent years, and a rise in temperature that far surpassed all previous records–and occasioned a rapid melting of polar ice challenging to map as well as to imagine in all its cascading consequences.  The 378th consecutive month of land and water temperatures far above twentieth-century averages, as per the World Meteorological Organization, became an occasion to wonder how “many more surprises are ahead of us”for the director of the  World Climate Research Program, and brought the arrival of strikingly new consequences of climate change with the unearthing of unmarked graves, as the once-fixed boundary to what had constituted the northern boundary of continents has begun to retreat.

A set of such surprises have already arrived.  The increased melting of what were once thought permanently frozen regions of arctic permafrost first awoke dormant but contagious anthrax.  While this latest development provided a note of panic, it seems only emblematic of the eventual cascading of after-effects that the melting of the arctic stands to bring, and of the difficulty to place them in any coherent narrative.  Yet while we use maps to organize a range of data on climate change, it’s also true that the emergence of anthrax in the Siberian tundra provides a poignant illustration of the “surprises” that climate change will bring.  And while the world has not known smallpox cases since 1977, the contraction of the permafrost stands to reveal extinct smallpox, and indeed prehistoric viruses of up to 30,000 years old, as cattle graves are newly exhumed from permafrost.  The last smallpox epidemic in Siberia dates only from the 1890s, but the buried bodies by the Kolyma river have appeared as if by unexpected time-travel with Smallpox DNA, raising the possibility of with the unearthing of riverbanks, and  sites of burial of both infected animals and diseased bodies as the ground thaws.  Areas infected with anthrax spores release by preternatural global warming are being cordoned off, but the revived viruses and spores may travel widely in water in ways difficult if not impossible to map.

As we seem to be opening up much of the north pole and an Arctic Ocean for multiple new shipping routes, in ways that have led to projections of expanding trade-routes with names that reference imagined passageways like the Northwest Passage, the imagined increased shrinkages and thinning of layers polar ice due to global melting are understood as opening up new routes to nautical shipping as ice retreats from much of the arctic regions–but which, if they were only understood in the abstract in 2013, are now becoming increasingly concrete in the range of consequences that can cascade from them.

 

Arctic ROutes.pngBloglobal (2013)

 

The arrival of a period of pronounced decline in arctic sea ice has produced a newly palpable intimations of the vanishing of what were once expanses of ice.

 

Figure41.png

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Mapping a Century of Rising Heat

RISING Temperatur esNew York Times

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

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

Thuderstorm Forecast

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

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

Forecast and Warming

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

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

 

What Could be Lost The New York Times
 

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

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

RISING TemperaturesThe New York Times

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

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

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

Mapping License Plates/Maps in License Plates

The politicization of the design of these most common designators of place on cars, the license plate, is hardly surprising.  After all, the rise of the proprietorial sense of designing ones own plates is not a far jump to that of viewing the format of the license plats as if this designation of plate were not forms of public writing.  Even without considering the broad notion of what sort of writing this constitutes, the readiness to treat license plate design as an avenue for freedom of speech as a form of expression reveals a pronounced shift not only in the aesthetics but in the use and construction of license plate design in the past.

For during the past twenty years, we have come to identify the content of one’s plates as transcends a tag of where one’s from, taking it as an occasion to raise state revenues and provide vanity illustrations of individualization on the highway and driveway at considerable costs.  Perhaps it is worth asking how this relates not only to freedom of expression, but to our sense of place.  It is perhaps on account of the massive growth of graphic designers and graphic arts, as well as the ease of printing airbrush designs on metallic surfaces, that the license plate, that modest of all surfaces, has recently become something of an advertisement–along the lines of U-Haul moves; the images on license plates have become evocative landscapes that almost embed viewers in their content, depicting a sense of place that seems more alluring than neutrally mapped.  Indeed, the growth of new landscape icons on the license plates that are seen on the road seems to have inspired the coterie of graphic designers at Ars Tecnica to assign an award for the “ugliest license plate” to appear, at the start of the new millenium.

The call to action was in response to the proliferation of digitized plates in what once was a stable signifier of location and regional provenance.  Beyond being a form of taxonomic classification, or an add-on for vehicle registration, the personalization of plates have brought a search to capture the essence of place of patently nauseating kitsch–

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–that summons the struggle for place to still exist in a post-map world, as much as it conjures a sense of place that we might really recognize, as if an affective image that tries to appeal to the state’s residents, but is removed from the geographical map. Indeed, the victory of such airbrushed images of landscapes–instead of maps–seem all too often akin to advertisements for tourist travel, airbrushed imagery, which as much as claiming to evoke a sense of place suggests something akin to perpetual placelessness of an alteration of rural and urbanized landscapes blending into one another, almost suggestive of an appeal for place before the increasing lack of differentiation of the national landscape, even when evoking a map to give stability to a fleeting sense of place.

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Indeed, despite the radically limited cartographical content of the raised state pictured on the New York State license plate, a considerable effort was invested in affirming the iconic centrality of the state, even it it is a barely recognizable or distinguished blob of paint when raised metal when at close hand.  TO be sure, New York license plate design is distinguished by its ability to comprehend a broad geographic unity, and functions as a mapping as an illusion shrinking the geographical distances between, say, Niagara Falls and Manhattan in a somewhat short-lived attempt to spread across the economically and culturally quite diverse state–

ny_license_plate

–as if to champion the miracle of the transport of water in its hydro;pgiocal infrastructure: the parking of two vignettes of quite different scenes, demographics, and even political inclinations, links the upper state and the metropolis of New York City (or Manhattan), by moving from the bucolic scene of Niagara Falls, an abundant cascade of water and iconic from postcard view, to the image of the Empire State Building in the concrete skyline, linking built and natural environments in persuasive ways that the state map may in some ways fail to do so effectively any more, using the old role of vignettes to construct a new affective regional identity–

–that trumps actual geographic continuity, if embedding both in an imagined skyline, itself bridged by the words “New York.” more than reality. The license plate relies on the map, even if only as an atrophied remained, as a hyphen between alphanumeric license numbers, to create this bridge, and remind us of the affective relation to a region!

Although these dramatically reduced maps are but tokens, a visual pause between digits, numbers, or letters, and have lost geographic identifying functions for most states, they affirm a sense of unity. The placement of small, raised maps in northeast states–New York; New Jersey; Connecticut; and, to an extent, but in a different fashion, Pennsylvania–suggests a survival of the cartographical as a remainder of which some states are not ready to let go or consign to the dustbin of history, even in an age of GPS and digitized maps.  Not really a visual fetish, but a designator of place, distinguished by an exaggerated appendix of Long Island, the New York image is no doubt the most familiar and recognizable, even if its edges are quite abstractly smoothed so that they provide little resemblance to an actual map, which is reduced to a mere token.

NY state blip on license plate.png

While the map is paired by a similar centrality of New Jersey in license plates in the greater metropolitan area–and in the image of the ‘keystone state’ that is used to punctuate Pennsylvania plates, the diminished centrality of the map in license plates suggests a certain sense of loss, and a sense of bolstering the symbolic currency of the meaning of the old jigsaw puzzle map.

NJ.png

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Filed under classificatory schema, iconography, license plates, mapping United States, states rights

Desertification

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

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

 

africa_ndvi_200511

 

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

 

Desertification Sensitivity in EU

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

worlddesert

 

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

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

world deserts satellite view

 

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

 

desertification_map

 

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

 

Deserts RInged in Red

 

 

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

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

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

 

Human IMpact on Deserts

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

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