Tag Archives: data visualizations

Into the Woods? or, Is Big Data Simply Enough?

The pressing problems of how visualize our rapidly growing environmental footprint–and map the concept of a footprint over time–have found a new answer in the rendering of topographical and thematic layers to chart the degradation of forests world-wide.  If deforestation is hard to get one’s mind around or grasp effectively, the tracking of the quickening pace of the loss of forested regions and indeed of the carbon sequestration that forests provide are elegantly tracked in a set of web maps that provide new cognitive tools to measure the effects of such abstract entities as globalization and free markets on the expanding losses of forested land.

Indeed, such interactive web-based maps provide something of a needed stimulus to the stewardship of intact forests, by offering ways to chart intact forest landscapes worldwide and survey anthropogenic disturbances in forested lands, and inviting analysis of existing forest cover, agricultural conversion, loss of forests to lumber, man-made fires, and industrial conversion, so as to render the planet’s surface area in newly readable form.  While offering an interpretive surface unlike the symbolic forms or indexical referents of most existing GIS maps, the Google Maps base map offers a basis to render a uniform record of human activities on a rapidly shrinking range of forested lands–and the rapidly shrinking carbon storage intact forests provide.  At a time when forest loss spiked in Russia and Canada, even as forest losses have grown worldwide, the map offers an exposé on forest management and best practices of conservation of forested lands, as well as a record of our global footprint in sites of carbon storage.


Forest Loss, Canada 2013

Forest losses in Canda, mapped by Global Forest Watch (2013)

The ability to indicate forest losses with striking precision provides a welcome if unforeseen assistance from satellite surveillance whose data can help visualize the growing footprint of global forest loss.  Although the necklace of satellites that necklace the earth are now more often associated with espionage of cell phone metadata, NASA satellites record the biomass of global forests by measurements that can construct a comprehensive muliti-dimensioned map of the balance between forest growth and loss.  The zoomable map marry technology to ecology to chart a terrifyingly revealing record of incursions into natural resources worldwide, whose detail provides something closest to a tally of global lost and a record of the footprint of our globalized economy on the fragmentation of forests with a startling degree of accuracy.  Remotely sensed data from MODIS satellites has allowed Global Forest Watch to bundle geolocated data for ready consultation by manipulating colorful detailed layers of an interactive map to visualize the effects of recent forest loss with an immediacy and precision not earlier possible.

The comprehensive interactive map of forest loss effectively materializes a global footprint in startlingly effective manner:  for rather than merely mapping the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere in ways that reflect GDP, visualizing the scope of the depletion of forests–and of trees that offer reserves of carbon–suggests a true wake-up call by tracking the progressive effects of forest loss over a global expanse.  The relative distribution of tree cover gain and loss can be readily scanned, beside the density of intact forests, or natural catastrophes, at a level of zoomable detail that stands as both a barometer and a chart of the unprecedented scale of forest degradation over the past fifteen years.

The extent of forest losses since 1960 have been estimated at over 180 million hectares, and the consequences of an estimated greatly diminished capacity to generate new forests of almost twice as many global hectares.  The collation of a detailed map of forest degradation worldwide boggles the mind for its ability to comprehend the accentuation of forest loss in recent years, when inroads were made into the forested areas of Indonesia, Amazonia, and Central Africa–as well as the Canadian north–in increasingly rampant ways.  The map Global Forest Watch has created and featured in their dynamically interactive website invites us to re-examine a global picture of forest change since 2000–of which North America is shown below as an example–translating big data into a set of actual traces and scarring of landscapes, marked by incursions of sensed biomass loss in bright magenta:  at a time when the US federal government may auction off hundreds of millions of acres of national forest, wilderness areas, and refuges, projects the potentially disastrous consequences of sanctioning “increased resource production.”  Whereas often classified satellites are better documented as creating a record of global surveillance, the remote sensing assembles a picture of the increasingly fragmented landscapes of forested land that suggests an often concealed inheritance of globalization, difficult to visualize or conceive on a global scale, that serves as a deeply monitory image of the growing global footprint that deforestation creates.

Does the footprint that these maps trace reveal a more complex dynamic of forest loss than earlier provided?  Might the map offer new tools to understand the threats to the survival of not only old growth forests but intact forests worldwide?  The image surely serves a somewhat stoic function for looking back, retrospectively, at the incursions into a planetary ability to store carbon worldwide, and of the dire lack of restraint and of the enforcement of policies of forest use.

1.  Global disequilibria of legal forest harvesting and trade reflects a global difficulty to meet demand for wood. Structural imbalances are more often mapped as the consequences of population growth, as by Global Footprint Network:

NEt Trade in Forest Biocapacity

National Footprint (2014), http://www.footprintnetwork.org

Yet the differences in the distribution of wood losses worldwide are not necessarily linked to wood market, but a wide range of potential reasons for the degradation of forested lands.  Indeed, the problems of mapping both the expansion of agriculture and the illegal logging trade has created problems of accurate modeling of forest loss, in part due to the lack of an effective system of monitoring.  The web-based maps of the Global Forest Network identify the world’s greatest exporters of wood–Canada, Brazil, and Russia–as not exclusively lying in sub-equatorial tropical rainforests, however, and indeed suggest the broad range of forested land that meets a demand for wood products worldwide–even as the demand has more than doubled since surpassing the biocapacity of forest land from the 1970s.

The intensification of deforestation has dramatically increased since 1995–the conventional date of the social effects of the globalization of markets from 1993-5, even if the process can be traced to earlier precedents, rather than 1492.  As the need for carbon protection by forests has effectively surged, the pronounced patterns of forest loss reveal a lack of controls on forest loss, even at a time when we would require twice as many forests as exist to absorb the carbon emissions generated worldwide.  How can such an expansive loss be fully comprehended?  The layers that map wood losses in the Global Forest Network’s interactive visualization marks the extent to which we have pushed the ecological limits of incursions on forested lands, anthropogenically expanding the effects of natural fires or climatological disaster:  the austere visualizations embody inroads in global forest-cover and intact forests, by tallying forest change by marking gain in blue and biomass loss in pink.  The resulting pockmarked pink landscapes focuses viewers’ attention on the increasingly fragmented condition of forested lands, and raises big questions about their consequences.  Indeed, it offers a definitive and geographically specific way to tally the results of the increased scarification of forested lands, linking the loss of forestsnot only to the extent to which high-income countries are expropriating natural resources of tropical lands, in Brazil or Central Africa, but the extent to which widespread practices of illegal logging has grown globally.

The suitably austere layers the map suggest a voracity of the fragmentation of many formerly intact forest, fed by demand for agrarian lands or lumber,  in a form that gives a plastic and material evocation of the expanding losses of forest over time.  The layers of the interactive web map effectively translate some very big data to create an image of lands are rent by natural and rising global demands, offering a new way to view the  inhabited world or ecumene less in terms of sites of habitation or population, than map a loss of biomass that is almost elegiac in tone, despite its stark finality.  Viewers are invited to scan interactive layers of the web map and take stock of the balance forest loss and growth over the earth since 2000, detect areas of deepest deprivation of tree-cover, and scrutinize the scale, scope and sheer size of forest loss to measure environmental change in an age of globalization.  The Global Forest Network converts data to map the quickly expanding global footprint in forested lands, measuring the ecumene as it has rarely been seen and charting the fragility of forests in which we will now never walk.

tree cover north america

The expansive and expanding degrees of degradation are difficult re cognitively quite difficult to contemplate or process. But the spatial collation of disruptions on local habitats creates a new sense of the readability of the map and of attending to the widespread degradation of forested lands that seem an unnoticed–and somewhat elusive–counterpart to the growing globalization of the demand for wood and for agricultural land, by mapping the disappearance not only of habitat but of wooded lands–and even providing tools for actively engaging with a rapidly changing world.

2.  Cartographers have long worked to render a “mathematical figure of the earth” viewers could readily scan, translating spatial distributions to accurate formats despite the multiple and inevitable distortions of any map and wresting with questions of accuracy.  Interactive visualization wizards of web maps showcase distributions by a spectrum that filters experience in multiple layers:  visualization wizards seem particularly apt tools of responding to problems of embodying data trends–and ffiltering data to generate images which embody exact distributions of forest degradation along roads, rivers, in regions of timber harvesting, and even in currently protected areas. The maps of forest loss provide a record of future archeology of the anthropocene, akin to maps of temperature change or of our overheating world.

The destruction of some 250 million acres of forest since 2000 by human development threatens to bring the fragmentation of forests, compromising not only integrity of ecosystemsanimal habitats, and tropical rainforest, as well as increasing erosion, but the sequestration of carbon in ways that have irreversible impact on the planet.  We see the world with new eyes by measuring the extent of timber lost by something that approaches real-time measurement in the dramatic amps the World Resources Institute and Global Forest Watch have created online.  Although satellite measurements more often identified with surveillance, the high radiometric sensitivity are able to pinpoint a record of biomass loss across the world’s forested lands that set new standards for a running-time comprehensive map for charting the distribution of dramatic losses of  forested land–similarly to the detection of forest fires–in an increasingly expansive and loosely regulated market for wood.  Even without describing or identifying the causes of forests’ fragmentation, the layers of the web map offer an almost inevitable and irreparable image of the scope of forest loss even in protected lands.

Amazon Cattle Graze:Daniel BeltraCattle Grazing in Amazonia (Brazil)/Daniel Beltra

British Columbia Clearcut:Garth LentzClear-cutting in British Columbia/Garth Lenz

The collation of growing forest loss within these maps raise questions about the sustainable practices in forest regions aptly characterized as the planet’s lungs.  Ten million sq km of forested land have been estimated to have been cleared between 1890 and 1980:   a further 500,000 square miles of lost heavily forested land were lost since the year 2000 that can be watched in stop-action accelerated real time in the web maps that display forest data, by geotracking the loss of a further million sq km of intact forest through 2013, in a sort of stop-action map that includes Indonesian forest fires, land clearance in Brazil and the Amazon, and the increased commerce in wood and forestry in Canada, Honduras, Indonesia, and much of South East Asia that seem an inexorable result of a voracious market for wood in a globalized economy.

As well as documenting the loss of some 8% of the economy since 2000, Global Forest Watch has embodied remotely sensed data in dramatic and disquieting to map the ongoing fragmentation of forested lands in a time-lapse map of some thirteen years–mapping the surface of the earth at a time when the range of anthropogenic incursions into forested lands, and the planet’s history, rapidly grew provoking discontinuities in previously intact forests and forested habitats of which we are only beginning to take stock, and whose disruptions threaten to radically change the planet’s lived geography. The layers of forest change that are distinguished in the interactive web maps the Global Forest network devised present a color-coded basis to gauge the incursions into forested lands of the world by human industry and economy as well as fire.  They offer an image that is both the tabulation of a benchmark and a memory map that reminds us of the loss of forested land over thirteen years which is a cautionary note about the need for better stewardship of forested lands in a globalized economy–and, indeed, those sites that are most intensely aggrieved in the modern age.

3. In a less frequently cited monuments of cameralist thought, Saxony’s Chief Inspector of Mining, Hans Carl von Carlowitz described forms of the conservation and cultivation of native trees where his family had long run mines; the Sylvicultura Oeconomica which in 1713 perceptively responded to fears of a shortage of wood after the Thirty Years War, to benefit the common good by advocating sustainable practices of forestry.  Nachhaltende Nutzung provide a set of responsible practices, or “a blueprint for the guiding principle of our time,” and something of an early recognition of the intentional planning of practices for the conservation of wood “for posterity” that we might look to at a time when the fragmentation of intact forest rapidly grows, as the remote registration of the distribution of decreasing forest biomass detected remotely by MODIS satellites reveal that go beyond the sort of aerial photos of forest degradation below seen in the Rondonia in Brazil over a mere six years.

aster_deforestation_brazil Rondonia over six years

Although the reasons for the degradation of forests due to alternative anthropogenic causes–land conversion; timber extraction; degradation of land–is not clearly distinguished from loss of forests to fire or catastrophe, individual layers allow the reader to distinguish between potential factors that precipitate forest lost, and uncover varied reasons for the growing crisis in sustainability of forests worldwide, as technology provides a useful medium to measure effects on the natural world. The dynamic qualities of static maps is enhanced by  suggestive chromatic variations, the ability of LandSat 8 to create a remotely-sensed picture of the world in but sixteen days allows dynamic records of land change to offer the chance of intensive reading and investigation not earlier possible.  While the causes of wood loss cannot be clearly discriminated, to be sure, the layering of maps provides a basis to take stock of the extent and locations of wood loss.  The layers of web-based maps invite viewers to investigate multiple potential narratives about the shifting ecosystems in a rapidly changing world. The layers of the map suggest a new way to embody data to view its palpable effects.  By importing data that they open or stake directly on the surface of a map or spatial database,web-based mapping offer a supple interactive medium to situate narratives in a global expanse–from situating the relative geographic densities of sightings of hummingbirds–


to relative geographical variations of biodiversity–


Remote sensing of incursions into intact layers of tree cover by Modis satellites provide an even more sensitive tool to display data of habitat change and ecosystems alike, and indeed to trace the incursions of a clandestine economy of wood on areas of forest that remain threatened, from clearing for agricultural areas, prospecting for palm oil, chainsaw logging, or bring of peat.  For remote sensing can record at startlingly high resolution disturbing incursions, breaks and absences in forest expanse and the distribution of intact forest and tree cover at the considerably high resolution of thirty meters, creating a tragically compelling record of anthopogenic disturbances of subtropical and other forested lands regions that comprise some 37.3% of the world’s total land area.

The record stands in inverse negative image of the expanding consumption of wood in the world’s more populated areas, and sets something of a watermark in the growing dangers of the apparent lack of oversight of the global consumption of wood. The stacking of layers of data reveals a particularly striking record of natural degradation and loss of forests, that details the increasing intrusions into intact forests and tree cover worldwide in ways that suggest the continued value of synthesizing an almost pictorially present record of our increasingly poor management of the valued resource of forested lands–both for the species who live in them and the biodiversity they nourish, as well as the atmosphere they help preserve.  These losses are materialized in especially compelling graphic terms in renderings of the comprehensive record of the incursions of lands that have created a steep loss of wooded biomass.

Global Forest Loss since 2000-13Global Forest Change, published by Hansen, Potapov, Moore, Hancher et al.

The colored layering of data in the web maps devised for Global Forest Watch create a legible balance sheet for accurate viewing the disappearance of forested lands, coloring tree cover gain and loss at an amazingly exact resolution of up to thirty meters.  The cartographical accounting of tree cover loss–and forest degradation–for viewers to begin to process and come to terms, balancing magenta losses of biomass with planting of new trees in deep blue.

Tree Cover Loss

The global purview of this data Global Forest Watch is effectively rendered in CartoDB offers a point of entrance to a dramatic narrative of loss. The mapping of forest loss can be measured against the globalization of an economy for wood that knows relatively few restraints, creating a compelling visualization on scenes of clear-cutting that might otherwise leave their viewer speechless.

Industrial Forestry in WilametteNational Forest, Oregon--Daniel Dancer

Industrial Logging in Wilamette National Forest, Oregon (USA)/Daniel Dancer

4.  Globalization increasingly forces us to try to conceive as well as calculate the steep variations in the consumption and use of resources worldwide.  The increased variations–and variability–in geographical description of how we consume resources suggests the need for new ways to imagine geographic space that foreground its alteration that reveal the huge losses of biomass worldwide over time with a precision that sets new notions for the accuracy and possibilities for the persuasive powers of maps as images.  The charting of the lost biomass of forested lands creates a constructive relation of tragic narrative of loss, to be sure, using thematic maps of the physical changes in the global landscape to direct attention to a range of narratives of loss, and alert us to multiple possible narratives of both loss and potential ways of averting impending future losses by rendering visible the loss of forests and  invite investigation of their causes and origins.  If in many ways the history of the most recent periods is both hardest to tell and to try to comprehend, the multiple thematic maps of tree cover loss highlight the changing landscape of tree cover and carbon stock–and the threats to intact forests that wood use poses–that provide an investigative tool to examine the emerging threats to intact tropical forests and wooded ecosystems in ways that viewers can visually process and cognitively digest.

For the totality of forest loss that the interactive thematic maps of the Global Forest Watch synthesize and render reveal a record of intersecting ecosystems that foreground questions of the continuity, density, and loss of connectivity in forested lands that raises serious questions of concern about their increased fragmentation.  By providing a global synthesis about the use, degradation, and replanting of forested areas and trees worldwide, the tally of global biomass that they reveal provide an elegantly  color-coded record of the limits of sustainability of our forests.  The sustained silence about the contribution of the destruction of worldwide forests to the release of greenhouse gasses in the planet is a deep deception that the illusion of the limitless potential for the expansion of a market for wood and wood products perpetuates in a particularly insidious way.  The global thematic maps of remotely sensed presence of wood and forest density in a remarkably accurate manner provide a necessary corrective.

By revealing the loss of forest cover and the fragmentation of forested lands in a zoomable fashion, the thematic maps invite not only reflection on a tragic narrative of the memory of loss–as they do–but might perhaps incite similarly global strategies of protection and conservation, helping to ken the steep risks that globalization portends to the possibility of a truly sustainable future.  At a time when industry increasingly rests extracts revenues in whatever ways possible, the sacrifice of forest lands demands increasing attention.

Global Forest Network has opportunely responded to the need for mapping a totality of forest degradation by assembling a remotely registered image of the scope and extent of biomass loss in forests worldwide.  By mapping an effective tally of trees planted and forested land lost over time in a time-lapse fashion, one can visualize the unsustainable rhythm of an all too rapidly growing footprint of the loss not only of habitat but of reginos that might be called the planet’s lungs.  Their web-based maps reveal offer indices and tools to reflect on the impact of globalization on forested lands.  The 2013 map of the shrinking forests of the world sensed remotely from 2000 to 2012 used the first high-res comprehensive global map of forest degradation to craft an alarming story by directing detailed attention to the question of costs:  synthesizing 654,178 individual images to model human and natural forest loss, the result is a persuasive record of human geography, delineated in the rich color palette of CartoDB, inspired on one devised by Cynthia Brewer:  losses of forest are strikingly rendered hot pink to purplish magenta, fire red-orange, tree-cover pea-green against intact forest rendered a rich kelly green.  Rather than retain national boundaries as the prime units to parse ecological change and man’s impact on the environment, these maps of the sustainability of forested lands provide multiple layers to examine the use of wood worldwide–and contemplate the ecological and economic implications of a huge reduction of over 500,000 square miles of formerly healthy forests by for the first time charting the local loss of forests in an accurate and globally consistent manner–conspicuously marking variations in land use in a year-by-year distribution, discriminating between forest land lost and gained to shine a lens on the question of the sustainability of forests and the fragmentation of forests, tracing the expansion of our carbon footprint through the ongoing scope of forest degradation and loss that has expanded with a demand for wood worldwide with major risks to the surrounding environment.

The survival of a coherent network of forested land is a central to the survival of ecosystems, and to local livelihoods of a large range of humans, as well as to the global storage of carbon in the ecosphere:  the hugely negative effects of forest degradation stand to contribute to upwards of a fifth of carbon emissions, as well as to have disastrous effects of animal habitat and local ecosystems and biodiversity, and an image of the loss of forest cover and the fragmentation of formerly intact forests provides a compelling record of human-made and natural incursions into wooded lands from 2000-2013, revealing the uneven distribution of the exploitation of forested lands in a globalized economy.  Although the largest regions of intact forest are located in Tropical and Subtropical Forests (45.3%) and Boreal Forests (43.8%), and almost 64% are located in Canada, Russia or Brazil, they face distinctly different challenges of industrial logging, oil and gas extraction, and natural clearing:  even without distinguishing patterns of land use, the maps suggest the incursions of human influences on these and other particularly fragile forested landscapes, in ways that trace a narrative of the distribution of forest losses in the new millennium, and more importantly the balance between forest loss and gain.

If the loss of forests truly accounts for more than the sum total of carbon emissions of all cars, trucks, planes, and ships every year, and create a more compelling way to combat climate change, as well as acting to purify air, preserve watersheds, and foster biodiversity, and prevent impending dangers of erosion, the shrinking area of forested land provides a particularly sensitive barometer that demands to be on the global consciousness and a site for restraining consumption.  Indeed, once stewardship of forests are included within measures of carbon emissions, tropical rainforest-rich countries like Brazil and Indonesia–both growing economies, to be sure–jump into the group of the top ten global polluters–a fact concealed by the expansive international market for wood.

Rather than only measure the metrics of forest loss, the rates of forest degradation in different areas create an interesting record of the inequities and incursions into forested lands, which has striking parallels to the disappearance and lack of protection of community land-rights in the face of economic demand. How to calibrate the role of pollution that results from forest degradation?  The layered web maps raise the possibility of tally that could lead to better stewardship of forests, and pose a call to manage “carbon stocks” of which we have few comparably accurate measures. The maps offer a quite significant key to curb global greenhouse gas emissions, indeed, by charting the threats to carbon stock of sensitive areas from tropical forests–from the Amazon to central Africa from Equatorial Guinea to Rwanda and to Indonesia–to North America, by visually highlighting the balance of intact woodlands unlike a static map, by conspicuously marking loss of woodlands in pink/magenta and using orange to note carbon stock threatened by tree-cover loss to trace the all too human incursions in the tropical forests, balanced against the scattered tree-cover gain noted by periwinkle blue.

The result is to make the land speak in an almost palpable way by inserting crucial layers to map the shrinking landscapes of intact forest, continuity in tree-cover extent, and note protected regions, biodiversity hotspots, current fires, and regions used for logging, mining, or wood fiber plantations, so that we can, even with the introduction of only a few layers, sense the risks to forests in Amazonia or Indonesia that are particularly sensitive to globalized markets for wood. Tree loss to 2013 and tropical carbon stock Wood biomass in INdonesia One can as easily add a layer revealing the primary forest of Indonesia that maps the extent of its coherence, and allows continued depletion of forested lands in the region to be read in relation to its most densely forested regions, beside the depletion of forests in the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Papua New Guinea: Indonesian Forests and Thai:Philipines

The result is a brilliant visualization able to mediate the concept of sustainability in its multiple layers. The idea of such a comprehensive map of forests derive from synthesizing the MODIS images on a Google Earth engine to trace the contours of such a footprint. They can be read interactively by adding, removing, or toggling between specific layers displaying the ever-shrinking quantity of “intact forest landscapes”–regions untouched by human economic activity, settlements or industry of 500 sq km without evidence of habitat fragmentation, regions distinguished by tree loss or gain, and regional tree cover.  Although much wood and fiber has concentrated on economic value rather than ecological effects, the interactive map brilliantly illuminates the changing contours of forest landscapes worldwide, including land-use change, log forests sawn for lumber, fires, and clearcutting over time that provide a baseline for stewardship and management, revealing the extent and nature of the loss of forest extent in South America and sub-Saharan Africa. Global Forest Watch has assembled stunning interactive web maps that invite readers to investigate the relative imprints in each region over twelve years, creating a valuable historical document of deeply monitory functions, if as well as a stunning record of historical change on a global scale.

The significant role of forest in contributing to the livelihood of over a billion of the world’s the poorest dwellers suggest the economic as well as ecological imperative of restricting losses that would be impossible, if not difficulty, to ever recuperate or restore.

forestsEndangered Amazonian Forests in French Guyana

The geographical remoteness of many vulnerable areas of forestry creates a clear need for the globalized mapping of forest loss–if only to offer a needed corrective to the globalized market for commodified wood, which enters markets with almost no sense or measure of its site of origin, and with few reports of the degradation of forested lands that result in such particularly sensitive ecosystems in tropical forests.  The interactive web maps may address the considerable alienation of most commodities markets–or even markets for wood and wood-products–from the very habitats and ecosystems that forests create, and the levels of unsustainability of the current market for often indiscriminately forested wood and wood-products. Indeed, many early modern maps reveal the situated nature of local interdependency between peoples and forested lands–and the commerce with wooded lands–that is so often abstracted from market of wood, characterized as they are by the relative alienation of patterns of consumption from the survival of forests.

5.  The sensitivity of early modern notations of forested areas nicely suggests something like a need to change our practices of global mapping to track the  interdependence of urban economies and patterns of consumption on forests that are increasingly far flung rather than surround our lived environments, or the absence of a clear sense of forested areas as rich resources of life and commerce on which a built city–such as this image of the merchant city of Nuremberg, drawn and painted on linen by its own early sixteenth-century surveyor, Erhard Etzlaub, which suggests a particularly complex understanding of forest management and use in depicting the considerable levels of forest density proudly preserved around Nuremberg. AKG98341 Erhard Etzlaub’s View of Nuremberg from the North with the Sebalder and Lorenzer Wald, opaque colors on parchment (1515)

If the Nuremberg surveyor Erhard Etzlaub conveyed the wealth of the surrounding forest to the city’s economy, drawing the clear boundary between the forests and cleared land, Venetian surveyor Christoforo del Sorte attentively sketched the forested regions of the especially rich interior hinterland, or Terrafirma, that would continue to provide so much of Venice’s timber were detailed with a similar care in his 1556 map of the northern Veneto, whose aestheticized painted view reveal a similar consciousness of a relation to forested lands, even in a time of land-clearance:
C Sorte north of Veneto 1556

As well as provide images of a landed patriciate, the mapping of forested areas suggested the lustrous habitat that many modern drawn maps lack. Da Sorte GuardaLake Garda and Surrounding Areas (oil on panel) by Cristoforo Sorte (fl.1510-95)  —  Museo Correr, Venice

The relative absence of maps that effectively preserved an affective record of forest loss has been designed to meet the hugely magnified loss of forests worldwide, and especially in equatorial regions where they seem to have fallen prey to a growing global hunger for consuming wood that cannot be easily sustained.  The series of zoomable maps offer an invaluable basis and provocation to reflect on the virtues of data and the limits of best rendering data in visual form.  More specifically, they provide a basis to use maps as a tool to model the levels of sustainability that exist in forests worldwide, by the actual mapping of both forest loss and forest degradation worldwide that has been increasingly conceived as the growing ecological footprint created through a decline of worldwide forests that have never been able to be satisfactorily visualized or conceived of in their totality.

6.  The Canadian economist William Rees introduced the conception of ascertaining the impact humans exercise over natural surroundings as a “footprint”–using a term developed by his student Matthis Wackernagel with him in hopes to conceptualize the undeniable traces that they left on the environments in which they live, by analogy to the “footprint” of a computer resting on a workplace desk.  The rapidly accepted currency and quick adoption of the term was striking. Its ready adoption reveals apprehension of an unsustainable set of practices to consume resources that exceeded natural abilities for their replenishment, long before the archeological definite that led our own age to be described as the anthropocene.  Although Rees introduced the term of a “footprint” predominantly as a conceptual tool, it has also begged visualization due to its concreteness, and ready connotation as a tangible record of impact–and as such demands to be mapped–it has often been taken too literally as a guide to creating data visualizations.

The linking of levels of emissions to the lifestyles of residents of individual countries is telling, but risks the sense of reminding one of the difficulty of changing differences of consumption as if they were an inevitable cultural choice–and have the odd consequence of removing the figure of speech of the “footprint” from a logic of sustainability, in this image of Stanford Kay, which relies on a bubble map to pose a charge to the most popular polluters, but tends to obscure the scale of the question and its possible impact on the world–the rainbow colors allow us to parse the relation of pollution to continents to some extent, but make it truly difficult to assemble a picture of sustainability, or of the global consequences of the expanding carbon footprint of the earth’s inhabitants.  While we don’t doubt that China creates the largest carbon emissions in Asia, what measures of sustainability need to be taken or could be proposed?  Need we only accept the habits of consumption adapted in the world’s most populous nations or can we curb them? Kay Two Feet-  national and per capitaStanford Kay 

A static if cumulative atlas of carbon emissions was produced by the Energy Information Administration and ran in The Guardian in 2011, in the form of an actual terrestrial map, which charted both the relative contribution of countries to the global footprint in the millions of tonnes of carbon emissions it generates, and a notation of their relative augmentation or decrease in 2008-9:  the infographic provide a document used as something of a running tally of CO2 emissions per country, as a way to measure the reduction of emissions agreed as a goal at the Kyoto protocol, and was imaged by artists Mark McCormick and Paul Scruton of the world’s distribution (available as a PDF file) that took a traditional terrestrial map as an alternative visualization of the greatest emissions by continent–and laying the blame at the doorstep of specific countries.

An Atlas of PollutionThe Guardian

Chuluun Togtokh of Ulaanbaatar invested considerable forcefulness to similar statistics in a pointedly polemic manner when he effectively retabulated a the levels of countries’ levels of sustainability in a brilliant revisionary cartography, including control of carbon emissions within what constitutes the United Nations’ Human Development Index–a metric synthesizing life-expectancy, literacy and purchasing power–but which omits sustainable growth as a relevant criteria of development:  by reminding readers of the ethical imperative to cease ignoring the costs of the greatest polluters in the world, lest we fear to acknowledge the ever-steeper competition for dwindling resources that “growth” perpetuates, Togtokh’s measurements present the ability to remap the question of “economic development” in ways that include environmental stewardship as a criteria:


As vice-chair of Mongolian IGBP Global Change National Committee, Togtokh chastised as much as reminded the UN and other international agencies of the folly of ignoring sustainability or carbon footprints in calculation development.  The map reveals the importance of what data we include in the map, and what story we decide to make it tell.  The visualizations of forest loss provide a far more finely grained story of carbon emissions, less artificially flattened along national lines, and focusses on one variable in need of urgent response.  And at a time when humanity’s demand on nature exceeds natural resources by twice, such footprints might be more compellingly visualized and communicated.  Forest degradation provides a particularly relevant index of global impact, both a record of compromised carbon storage and since the destruction of biomass in land-use change creates a massive 17-29% of global greenhouse gas emissions and irremediable loss of habitat for vertebrate animals.

7.  The vivid contrast between geolocated data within the interactive web maps create a dynamic panorama that tally tree loss to reveal an actual imprint of the human economy on deforested lands–far beyond what it was during the entire twentieth century due to new techniques of clear-cutting.


Darius Kinsey (1861-1945), Crescent Camp Number One (c. 1930)

forestfragmentationMAINSavannah River Site Corridor Experiment examining the effects on habitats on the edges of forest  

Photograph:  Ellen Damschen

The global and regional maps parse local data changes in the size, fragmentation, and density of forests over different periods of time that provide a crucially informative tool to examine the rapid pace of our apparent losses and rabid degradation of forested lands–losses of which many, if not most, are blithely unaware.

The striking coloration of the interactive map jointly charts the diminution and growth arboreal expanse worldwide to alert viewers to the impact of the footprint of forest loss and clearings.  In ways that are easily apprehended, bright colored magenta pink call attention to the relative loss of forests in different areas that one can scrutinize in zoomable fashion, to generate legible maps that show forest degradation that convert available data with a precision that seems almost instinctively legible far more dynamic and more legible than a bubble map that is abstracted from the land. The zoomable record of terrain allows one to track the points of forest loss against intact forests in such disparate regions as Amazonia or around Lake Victoria in the Congo or the Northwest Territories, tracking the extent to which such loss outstrips any areas of forest gain (highlighted in periwinkle blue) and allows one to observe the intensity of loss across land.  Even if they include few words, the variability of color and hue provide a case where the land speaks, and the cumulative loss of tree-cover can be examined in detail across borders, and over a twelve-year period of time in which the forces of globalization have made their impact felt worldwide:

Amazon Footprint? footprint in Central Africa

And to observe the scale of the “footprint” at a considerable high resolution, taking into account the losses of tree cover that are registered in relation to the areas of “intact forest landscape” that is registered in dark kelly green, with small areas of forest growth noted in periwinkle blue, in ways that synthesize a record that shows the degrees to which tree loss is exceeding the capacities of local ecosystems that may be particularly fragile indeed, and forever transfigured:

lake victoria pallette

Weirdly predictable patterns of tree loss line what seem to be rivers that run into older intact forests in the Central African Republic:

tree loss in CAR

The areas devoted to lumbering across the Northwest Territories can be noted in an overlay of tan, setting it off from the areas of considerable tree cover loss that are relatively widespread within it, but spread with a terrifying concentration of clustering in areas of intact forest landscape as well:

Canada forests lumber

The very visibility of a footprint in these satellite maps materialize the concept of a sustainable footprint that Mathis Wackernagel first developed, and is associate with both Wackernagel and his teacher Rees as a fundamental critical tool of ecological economics.  The recent definition of “intact forest landscape” provides a crucial parameter by which the maps invest materiality in the notion of a “footprint” which build upon desires for sustainability, and a mapping construct that allows one to ascertain and observe forest degradation in new ways, and indeed the extent to which most industrialized countries have far outstripped their “carrying capacity” of their lands.

Indeed, the problems of sustainability have been deeply exacerbated by globalized trade that Rees and Wackernagel’s demand to reduce our ecological footprint–too readily directed at a few nations, rather than recognized as important as a global imperative–demands an ability to confront the problem of ecological overshoot that would have as its most obviously persuasive source the form of a world map whose uniform distribution allows us to target the biomass in need of protection.

amazon_soil-Guenter Fischer:World of Stock

It is striking, however, that if the notion of a “footprint” provides a reflective tool to take consciousness of outstripping global resources, it has been widely adapted in ways that almost excavate it of the attention to ecosystems.  Most recently, the notion of the “footprint” has enjoyed far wider currency as a cartographic conceit, diluting its original intent in an almost comic turn, when adopted by the US Department of Defense in 2008 to illustrate the global dominance of the presence of military forces over an unprecedentedly far-flung portion of the globe, in an apparently odd appropriation warping Rees’ original intent.

DoD Footprint 2008

If one feels need for taking break from the depressing metaphorical use of footprints global and military, a nicer appropriation of the footprint lies in how vineyard-owner Bonnie Harvey decided in 1968 to include her personal footprint as the playful logo to evoke the stamping of a grape harvest, before the widespread adoption of Wackernagel’s phrase–in this “wet” footprint, if its connotations of local eating carry far more self-satisfied semantics of the California coast–albeit in ways that are now marketed by Gallo wines–as well as a sponsor of fun-runs across the state, playing on the image of the former tradition of treading grapes in vats by foot to extract their juice in annual crushings:


With the sort of untrammeled demand for commodities and consumption that has led us to double the Gross World Product in less than twenty years, driven not only by population growth but a rapid expansion of per capita energy expenditure, the importance of acknowledging and recognizing the accelerated appropriation of global resources and natural capital seems increasingly tied to crafting such an “ecological footprint” analysis in adequately persuasive terms. Yet it is reassuring that the growing footprint of the globalized economy on forest worldwide have encouraged the adoption in Canada of a Plan Nord, in which the same government often challenged for protecting foresting rights has promised to protect some 50% of the forested land above the 49th parallel in the province of Quebec, in a major accord to protect intact forests in the northern part of the country from mining, industry, lumber and development, that commitment to conservation that provides a possible basis for similar program of protecting forests in the Northwest Territories, and much of the world. Plan Nord

8.  The peculiar construction of the maps of forest degradation prepare a record invites examination through the concept of a “footprint” as both a metaphor and figure of speech implying an ecological balancing act.  If Longfellow described the hope to “leave behind us/ Footprints on the sands of time” able to inspire exemplaric lives that “can make our lives sublime,” the maps of dramatically diminishing forest-cover detail a threat that, while the public commentator and self-styled linguist William Safire once disdained this apparent “March of the Metaphoric Footprints” as a migration of meaning that seemed sloppy in its claims, and Safire, although long pro-corporate, may have been upset by the ready currency that it gave a metaphor which barely indicated the scale of its actual impact and, even moreso, the notion that an Emersonian image of untampered nature that “shines into the eye and heart” to create a “perfect exhilaration” was far from what Safire sought it worth the time to preserve.

But the incommensurability of the image might have been a large part of the problem for the New York Times pedant. The conceptual tool of Rees and Wackernagel, however, did not build on the notion of the “virgin land” and “untrammeled” landscapes as free from human impact, pace Howard Zahniser, as would be evident in not leaving evidence or footprints from a visit, but to suggest a recognition of just how great such footprints could be.  Wackernagel adopted the more pedestrian metaphor of the spatial footprint that a computer left on a desk, to suggest an empirical index and analytical tool that could be quantified.  The economics of ecological footprints provides less a figurative than an analytic tool, able to be identified and measured by global hectares, rather than by marks in the sand, and measured against the biocapacity of the earth, and a question of the consciousness of individual impacts on the environments in which one lives.  As Togtokh calculated, the footprint seemed to decisively grow in countries where levels of consumption seem so widespread to outstrip consciousness of environmental impact.

Emerson imagined the glory of nature from a subjective position, “my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,” as triggering a place where “all mean egotism vanishes: and “the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God” in a transcendent moment, where in the “line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature,” the notion of an ecological footprint returns to the material dependence of man on nature.  How to map that dependence, and describe the amount of land required to support a person, and indeed the ecological footprints of economies, and the appropriation of land in each, poses a question that the MODIS satellite images help map in a cognitively persuasive fashion.


It is hard to see how such an ecological impact could be adequately visualized or grasped.  Safire may have been intentionally obtuse in pooh-poohing the footprint’s use as a figure of speech.   Wackernagel and Rees strove to indicate the impact humans exercise on the environment, the image of an idyllic erasure of egotism and uplifting to infinite space was less the aesthetic than a hope to minimize the impact of human activity on the landscapes.  The constraints or limits on hopes for sustainability have often been charged, based on data of national policy, as a failure of ecological responsibility, or of running against the limits of what is able to be sustained by natural resources:  and the sensitivity of the biomass of forests as a reserve of CO2 provides a uniquely tangible instance of such a national responsibility.  While often not included in the maps we make of carbon emissions, which distinguish countries by directly translating data of million metric tonnage of carbon produced–the map’s tones suggest a scolding of lifestyle, habits or inefficient policy controls, but fail to render the emission-levels in tools of critical response.  Indeed, most maps root emissions them in levels of industrial production and population density that provide limited possibilities of being grasped save in a very broad sense of differences of lifestyle or something so broad as if it were a cultural choice in consumption patterns. map_CO2_emissions_Patz05University of Wisconsin Cartography Lab

The alternative of parsing data in slightly more sophisticated manners on a scale of sustainability can foreground surpassing an threshold of biological capacity of local resources, alerting us to where the planet exceeds its biocapacity in hectares, which shows, again, the concentration of populations within those areas that individual consumption exceeds the biocapacity of regions, creating a heuristic tool to understand the inadequate relation of markets to levels of natural goods worldwide.

footprint:biocapacityGlobal Footprint Network–Wikipedia

9. Although there is some value in giving a embodied form to Wackernagle’s metaphor for measuring the regional release of gaseous emissions and carbons in the popular infographic of Stanford Kay’s Information Graphics Studio, intended for the international edition of Newsweek, but popularized in the Atlantic, the foot-shaped bubble map metaphorically removes the “footprint” from measuring environmental impact on the globe.  It seems a playful reference to the measurement of gasseous emissions, able to be perused to note the extent of the problem, but not to communicate the impact of emissions on the world–and hence perhaps of more elegance than either hortatory or monitory value.


Kay’s quite colorful mapping of carbon emissions quite unsurprisingly located the most populous nations as the greatest emitters–China is at the ball of the foot and the United States as its heel.  A complimentary view of per capita emissions instructively altered the picture a bit–suddenly, the Virgin Islands appear at the foot’s ball, and not the populous United States.

Kay Two Feet-  national and per capita

Despite the infographics’ elegance, does there remain a risk that such a statistical distribution of emissions distracts us from the changes that globalization has wrought in our environment, and the drastic degradations of the forests that are themselves the consequence of such elevated levels of consumption?  And does it detract from the degree to which the destruction of biomass and carbon storage provides an equally looming biological danger, of proportions that we have not been able to fully grasp?  Indeed, by revealing the shared nature of what remain common problems of the loss of carbon storage worldwide–and animal habitat–the map departs from a nation-by-nation mapping of dangers, in ways that might seem to inherit nineteenth or twentieth century classifications incommensurate with a problem of truly global proportions of the loss of biomass, by spacing and ordering of uniquely obtained data of forest loss that the viewer can readily grasp, rather than being forced to confront in all its monolithic immensity. The problem is one of organizing data in a suitably readable form.

For such powerfully damning visualizations, while embodying a footprint, often remain quite disembodied from the nature of the losses of resources or generation of waste that they imply, and ask whether the display of data is enough:  the limitations on engaging with the maps suggest that the display of data is so overwhelming to ifrustrate or press against the limits of representation, and discounts the effectiveness of how meaning can concretized in maps that direct attention to the disappearance of resources and the alterations of carbon footprints on the land.  The detail of the Global Forest Watch web map is brilliant in the ability to investigate a uniform global standard for accelerating degradation that help us grasp meaning in all the mess, in ways that almost make one start to think good things about Google Earth, as surprising as that might be.

10.  The image of loss of forested lands–and loss of trees–provides a concise statement of the growth of our collective carbon footprint.  Although one continues to wonder whether data is enough to represent the compromise of the biosphere, or how global footprints can be more crisply visualized than the bubble maps of carbon footprints, the loss of lumber is revealed with indelible accuracy on these maps’ face that make them more readily graspable, their content most cognitively persuasive and suitably compelling in impact to impel viewers to navigate local details in their surface:  the distribution of data in this map is rendered more transparent and uniquely able to preserve a sense of local impact in less disembodied manner.  The below distribution indeed concretizes the local lossses of tree-cover that MODIS has registered over twelve years–or from 2001 to 2012–in ways that remind us of the reduction of tree cover over that decade not only in the American south or shores of Mexico, but in much of California, Washington, and Oregon, and across British Columbia with a texture difficult not to admire. loss:gain north america w:o xGlobal Forest Watch By the insertion of layers, the map’s snapshots of the earth’s surface can be investigated by drop-down menus, allowing one to map tree loss across regions of intact forests or tree cover, to calibrate the nature and consequences within a picture of existing treecover loss in, say, California: tree cover loss california GFW 2001-13Global Forest Watch or to map the targeted intensity of wood losses on the edges of denser woodlands in Central American forests in Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras against regions in Mexico, using data that might otherwise be less often assumed to be interchangeable and equally valid: Deforestation in Central America and Mexico against tree coverGlobal Forest Watch

11.  The huge value of the dynamic cartographic synthesis by Google Earth Engine lies in the comprehensiveness and accuracy with which it allows us to start to comprehend forest loss.  Indeed, elegant search functions allow users to detect, despite some questions that could be raised about the ability of the MODIS satellite to detect lighter forests and brush, rapidly advancing variations in forest-loss worldwide. The visualization allows one to scrutinize the relative extent of the forest cover’s local degradations worldwide and over time:  the amassing of this data on a Google Earth Engine was achieved in several days that offered both a compelling advertisement for its readiness to process geospatial data, and the possibility of modeling the relative intensity of losses of forest land in a brightly vivid dayglo green, creating a compelling graphic that testifies to the depletion of forested lands worldwide that clearly coincides with globalization:  indeed, the comprehensive tracking of the lost of forests in fluorescent green areas from Malaysia and Indonesia to the Congo and Brazil, and from Cambodia to Russia to Central America and northern Canada reveals substantial clearance of forests, independent if linked to forest fires and protected forestland.

The layering of degrees of forest loss moreover creates a compellingly synthetic record of land-use. waterspace in world?World Resource Institute The chromatic variations among our shrinking forests worldwide was remapped to model the loss of tree cover worldwide from 2000-12, courtesy the World Resource Institute, is perhaps more shocking–and more easy to know how to respond to–than global warming.  The illustration of a loss of tree cover since the year 2000, which has doubtless progressed far more extensively since, suggests something like a plague of deforestation, which far outweighs tree cover gain in the same period–over this period, the loss of 2.3 million square kilometers constitutes something like an atrophying of the forestlands worldwide, approximated by the WRI to equal the disappearance of some fifty soccer fields of forest each and every minute of every day, for long over a decade, at the same time as only .8 million square kilometers of forest was replanted.

If by 2005, about 30% of the land on earth was covered by forest, just under four billion hectares, the increasing loss and degradation of forests poses an ongoing challenge. The data reveals what is happening to the world’s forests in a globalized economy.  If the amount of energy expended on clearing forests alone has been estimated to constitute between 12-20% of global greenhouse gas emissions between 2000 and 2012, the storage of carbon in forests–and the forest’s value as a source of economic livelihood–are both threatened by the dangers of deforestation worldwide.  The detailed interactive map that was produced by real-time feeds of a MODIS satellite and synthesized by a Google Earth engine combines sensed layers of forest depletion over time to create a suitably sensitive platform to monitor forested land, using work of Matthew Hansen of the University of Maryland to map forest cover  in that suggests a dramatically new way that we might understand and comprehend the effects of globalization on our concepts of the inhabited world, by toggling back and forth on a sliding bar to reveal the scope and scale of forest depletion from 2000 to 2013. The data is striking–but is it ever enough as an effective embodiment of the scale or varied concentrations of such an expansive loss of biomass?

tres loss 2000-2012Forest Loss World-Wide (Global Forest Watch)

To an extent, the maps of tree loss that were created by the Global Forest Watch, a partner of the University of Maryland, use satellite readings to refine the forest/non-forest global mosaic that the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) assembled from Aperture Radar aboard the Advanced Land Observing Satellite DAICHI.  The composite imaging of an accurate global distributions of forested land, at a resolution within ten meters, called attention to the degree to which forest degradation increased CO2 emissions created for a 2010 summit of the Group on Earth Observation in Beijing that set a new standard in remotely observed calibration of earth cover that starkly foregrounded threatened areas.

20101021_daichi_1 20101021_daichi_3

The unprecedented resolution of these images created a compelling watermark for future forest loss, and directed attention to deforestation that provoked the United Nations to declare 2011 as the Year of the Forests that celebrated heroes of local land management.  The layering of measurements of forest loss over time in the MODIS maps offered a comprehensively view the effects of forest loss  and view tree loss over time. What can explain such a radical augmentation of deforestation, concentrated in relatively specific areas?  Despite the improving curbs on forest loss in Brazil, for example, the deep increases in forest losses in Indonesia, Cambodia, and Malaysia, as well as Paraguay and Bolivia, offset any gains across the earth, and suggest a lack of orientation toward conservation or stewardship, or an economics of sustainability of the sort that is only beginning to be championed–if Paraguay had the highest ration of forest loss to gain, Cambodia and Malaysia among the highest rates of loss and Indonesia the greatest increase in forest loss in the period under study, when the rate of local annual deforestation more than doubled, suggesting the complete lack of any safeguards for sustainable forestry.  And rather than being based on self-reported numbers, as is often the case, the Landsat picture that emerges is effectively able to balance the objective disappearance of forested land in ways that the principal scientists broke down by year, with the aqua and red corresponding to 2013 and 2012 respectively, and orange noting years between 2000 and 2012, and yellow 2000: forest losses 2013 At times, such as in Indonesia and Malaysia, the effects can be particularly dramatic, if not traumatic:

loss of forest over time teee loss legend

The maps suggest the very limited weight carried by notions of forest growth conservation worldwide. To examine the loss of forested land alone, highlighted below by a bright magenta, the drastic diminution of forested lands lost, alone, in North America that occurred was concentrated predominantly in Canada and Alaska, including the Boreal Forest, as well as an unprecedented destruction of forested lands in much of the American South, suggests a huge shift in the human relation to the environment, and was matched with a vigorous and systematic degradation of forested lands in Russia and Scandinavia, to suggest an almost obliviousness to the losses incurred in forested lands and their habitats, as what seems a truly free market eats, rather like mildew, into the forested regions of what have been aptly called the planet’s lungs.  The rather unprecedented decade-plus long expansion into forested areas is not only a displacement of natural habitats, but a severe compromising of tree cover in our lived environment, that undoubtedly contributes to the increase of global temperatures.

Forest losss-forests lost

And to model the impact of tree losses, noted above in magenta, against the layers that mark regions of sanctioned lumber (tan) and forests that are intact (kelly green)–and even introduce layers of areas that are designated focusses of conservation.  The impact of the deep incursions in Alaska’s forests is as striking as the expansion of lumbering in British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, and Saskatchewan of formerly intact forests. Canada forests lumber The isolation of forest loss alone suggests a broadly shifting Eurasian landscape, with the deepest incursions on outlying areas of Scandinavia (Sweden and Finland, to be precise) as well as the expansive forest cover across the far eastern lands of the Russian Federation–regions with forests denser and holding far greater amounts of carbon that other national forests. Eurasia Forests LostGlobal Forest Watch, 2001-13 MODIS information might be placed against intact forests mapped in Russia: intact russian forests diaspora And identify its relative density and biomass: biomass forests Russian Fed within a record of those dispersed protected areas in Russian parks: Forested Russian Parks

The modeling of satellite data amassed at the the University of Maryland‘s Department of Geographical Sciences, with a Google Earth Engine, has led to a far more detailed interactive map to be published by the newly founded Global Forest Watch to document that shrinking lungs of the planet, when one balances the imbalances between contrasting tree cover gain (blue) and loss (pink) from 2001 to 2013 offers a way to register interaction with our environment in stunning local detail, that reveals the extent of the aggressively pockmarked surface of forests in much of northern Canada, in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, inland of Hudson Bay.  Despite a degree of forest gain, the deep incursions of tree cover loss create a grim picture of the future landscape of the continent, and suggest the benefits of layering levels of growth v. loss of forests, and revealing the clear imbalances between the two.  If sustainability is about maintaining a level of balance–and of ecological equilibria–the virtual assault on the forest, that last refuge from urbanized space, increasingly seen as an obstacle to growth, reveals both an abdication of responsibility for environmental impact, and a broad scattering of the extraction of forest growth from the globe:  the scattering of forest loss in remote areas, perhaps subject to less rigorous oversight, makes such a mapping of the global impact of deforestation over time particularly pertinent.

loss:gain Nafta areasGlobal Forest Watch 

For the impact of deforestation, if we might begin from North America, is truly globalized. The concentration of tree loss in the US South is not only pronouncedly accentuated, but seems to have occurred without restraint as “wooden pellets” were gathered, often for exportation across existing wooded areas, removed as a layer of in the first map, but shown in light green below.

Tree Loss in US South

widespread forest losses in South East

The northern regions reveal an even more pronounced targeting of forested areas in northern provinces jut below the Northern Territories. Despite dedicated spots for foresting in Ontario, there seems to have been a much greater expansion of regions of something approaching clear-cutting to the farther north, that tell a story of large-scale licit forest degradation in the particularly pock-marked lands of northern Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, stained with blotches of magenta that record the intensity of forest depletion and sites of local degradation:

Canada clearcutting

The same region where matches the areas of tree cover across North America.

tree cover belt in canada below NT

Layering of areas of conservation reveals how several protected regions closely intersect–and indeed overlap–with the extent of forest loss, in ways that could provide a prompt for investigative journalism, as well–potentially–an illegal wood trade that is quite difficult to control: protected canada The local degradation of forests to the north can be placed in the context of both tan regions denoting zones that are dedicated to lumbering and the kelly green regions of intact forests, often bordering on ocean waters–

intact forest Canada:logging:tree losss

or, thanks again to Global Forest Watch, balanced against the degree of degradation of forests and range of intact forests in the data bank over an eleven year period from 2000: 2000 forest levels The strikingly similar selective inroads into forested areas are evident across Russia–where severe inroads in pockets of the deep forest lands north of Mongolia–seem to suggest the global character of an almost systematic program of deforestation, far exceeding the intense lost of forests in other areas of the country.

Russian incursions

Above Kazakstan and Mongolia

If one is to map the same region against protected forests, the composite revealed of protected areas that are often violated by loss of forests and odd balance between scattered regions of protectionism and deep inroads of forest loss are difficult to reconcile.

protected areas?

Or map the widespread absence of tree cover in relation to the shrinking intact forests of the region:

Russian forests

Or the limited growth of new forests, shown in periwinkle blue, against the lost tree cover and intact forests:

Russian forest cover, blue cover gain

Is the concentrated incursion into forest lands–and resulting loss of forest–a shared condition condition, a result of laissez faire economics, apparent deregulation or lack of coordinated protection of forests, that is a consequence of globalism?  For if globalism entails, as Giddens has it, not only ‘the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa’ but a shift in the understanding of place and localisms with distinct bearing on geographic understanding, the depletion of forest cover in concentrated but widely dispersed regions suggest a new understanding of forest loss.  The years from 1990 has seen a dramatically unprecedented expansion of CO2 emissions, especially in developing nations, that may be closely tied to the depletion of tree-cover worldwide.

12.  The loss of tree-cover quite constructively is mapped against the gain in forests, contrasting losses in bright pink/magenta against blue growth, as a means to track local variations in a spreading environmental catastrophe that suggests a colonization of former forested lands, not only due to deforestation but to the disregard for arboreal habitats, with deep losses in the boreal forest and pacific northwest that will haunt the continent to come–despite some repeatings, leading areas to be colored purple, the acute absences of forests has progressed over the interval of twelve years tracked by the LandSat images to an extent that the local environments may never recover. It may be the case, sad as it seems, that we are actually increasingly tied together and to one another in an age of globalized economies by the disappearance of forests at multiple spots across the globe:  if there is a clear consequence of the 1992 trade agreement that lifted all tariffs between the US, Canada and Mexico known as NAFTA, for example, it is evident in the dispersal of trade in wood pellets and chips–at times a notorious means of smuggling–as previous duties on wood products from Canada of up to 16% on softwood and lumber were eliminated, expanding the amount of hardwood lumber imports to the US, US imports of wood more broadly, and trade of US wood to Canada (including hardwood lumber, veneer, plywood) as their prices lowered or decreased.  The large amounts of oak and hardwood from Mexico to the US in pre-NAFTA days would definitely increase. While the government has encouraged such trade as an economic benefit, the expansion of forest degradation that results–and which the below map tracks–they mask the considerable global problem of greenhouse gas emissions that are due to forestry and land-use change, and the troubling finality of a change in greenhouse gas emissions hat the degradation of forests–and especially old growth or boreal forest–creates.  (Clearing and burning forests creates a fifth of such emissions worldwide; the loss of trees constitutes a deeper damage on the global environment.)

n + c americasGlobal Forest Watch

And purely by mapping loss, and noting the pocking of the northern forests due to inroads of depleted tree cover:

los n and   ameicaGlobal Forest Watch

The relation of the degradation of forests to globalization is perhaps most sharply revealed when moving to the Central America, and the regions of Guatemala and Belize mined for forest wood: targeting central america over 11 years The widespread compromising of local environments can be read through the foregrounding of layers that creates quite compelling narratives about forest-cover even for those who had limited sustained interest in the economics of wood:  despite some densely intact forest landscapes inland in Malaysia, for example, and regions in Indonesia and Thailand, the tree cover loss from 2000-2013 suggests narrative of expanded logging for lumber, oil palm, and wood fibre, indicated by tan, ochre, and brown, in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore and a picture of economic squandering of resources:

despite dense with logging

The degree of loss by forest fire might be isolated, moreover, to determine which sort of loss of regional carbon is described in Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines:

fires vietnam malaysia singapore

Deforestation in central Africa seems more due to a combination of mining and logging, and seems to have grown up surrounding the remaining intact forest landscapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and conceals multiple narratives of commercial sacrifice of landscapes to an international demand for wood, as well as for the monies of other countries, the forests of Western Africa long depleted:

deforestation in Central Africa

The areas of Brazil and South America that constitute the Amazon suggest a growth of compromised forests on the edges of intact forest in 2013, concealing the far greater expanse of tree cover just thirteen years earlier:

intact tree cover amazonia

Intact forests in 2000, noting also tree cover expanse in lighter green:

2000 forest cover  brazil amazonia

Tree cover in 2000:

2000 forest cover  brazil amazonia

One is, in the end, overwhelmed by the range of maps and layovers, in ways that are almost as difficult to process as the data on which they are based.  How to hold onto it, or ascertain the economical exchanges that are, so to speak, lying under these maps?

13.  There has clearly been a pronounced warping since 1990 of local attitudes toward wood and forestry, and a rising appetites for wood:  and despite the value of the time-lapse visualizations of forest growth or loss in a truly world-wide picture, the maps provide a point from which to raise questions about how global markets for wood are hastening the degradation of the untouched forest lands of specific environments, they also remove that data from a larger picture of economic exchange.  A counerpart is offered in how the Worldmapper tool and website valuably reveals regional imabalances and discrepancies through its warped cartograms, highlighting, based on FAO statistics, the disproportional nature of the appetite for wood, and the increased reliance on international markets that concentrate the decimation of existing forests in an ever more disparate trade of woods from China, Indonesia, Scandinavia and Brazil–as well as Canada, Malaysia, and the United States.  (Indeed, the specific imbalances of areas like China, which is known to buy up wood from neighboring regions and then resell wood products to the United States and Japan, offers evidence of the degree to which economies of wood are removed from woodcover questions, although wood purchases often originate form nearby areas Malaysia or, in the case of the United States, Honduras, Canada, or Belize.)

The compromising of local forests is not only due to professional farming of wood or “forestry” production of “farmed” wood, which has been nicely plotted for the year 2011 by Worldmapper in the form of a cartogram which reveals a large and flourishing industry of forest growing, using data from the FAO, in a warping of nations’ relative sizes that reflects the large-scale outsized business in forestry in China, Japan, and Indonesia, where wood seems plentiful, and across much of Scandinavia and the United States.

who produces forests?Worldmapper

If the process of globalization has been pegged as convincingly as elsewhere to the consciousness of climate change around the summer of 1988–and the first collective calls to cut greenhouse gas emissions–the process of deforestation is a nice cast of the the impact of what Anthony Giddens aptly and succinctly described characterized as ‘the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa.’  It reveals distinct change in how we experience localness and place, and indeed a distinct change in the absence of attention to the devastating local effects of the consumption of wood–and entitlement to continued access to a perpetual availability of wood products–in an increasingly globalized economy of natural resources.  Although the Worldmapper maps have the unfortunate effect of warping countries to erase place, the maps that were designed to show global imbalances in forest production, consumption, and growth provide a regional context in which to understand the losses of trees in many regions of the world, and the deforestation of particular places.

Whereas the statistics don’t include the considerable illegal wood trade, the limited nature of forest growth worldwide–nil in Canada or Russia, slim in Central America or Brazil, and significant only in some regions like the US or Vietnam where wood is an important cash crop. The production of forests in different lands seems proportionally concentrated in China, doubtless to meet local markets for wood, and is reflected in the mapping of forest growth from 1990-2005–a time over which the range of forests in much of Brazil and Mexico was rarely augmented to great extent, despite the heavy loss of forests in those regions, and a pronounced lack of the sustainability of forests in Indonesia:


The scale of planting forests surely respond to deep differences in the consumption of forests, outsized in industrialized nations, no doubt for tastes in consumption, and particularly bloated in Japan, Germany, England and the United States as well as Brazil, each of which–particularly England, Japan, and the US–seems to outstrip its production considerably; Canada clearly destines most of its produced wood for export, but China was using an outsized share of wood worldwide –given the near absence of extensive forests in its territory, after the destruction of much of the forests in the South:

Forest Consumption--2005

The consequent degradation of existing forests worldwide might be nicely visualized, in a map generated also by the University of Maryland, this time with Greenpeace, by situating the areas of marked degradation against forests lands as of 2013, against the spectre of those forests that are now no longer intact–against which we can orient ourselves and imagine the scope and scale of the loss of woods–and no doubt the economy and ways of live that the woods provide, as much as their role as lungs of the planet that allow for its very habitation.


The issue of wood exports is clearly an issue of sensitive proportions for the hypertrophied regions of Southeast Asia, as well as North America, and one that suggests particularly pronounced effects of globalization on the wood market in both Sweden, Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as Korea, which suggests the distorted nature of the market of legal trade in wood that motivates the degradation of the forests in those countries–and to some extent in Brazil:


The effects of the loss of forest-cover seems among the most prominent–if rarely discussed–aspects of the arrival of the anthropocene, in which the subtraction of forested lands has explicitly altered the nature of the environment.  Hennig was quick enough–as well as ever-industrious–to create a range of a stunning cartogram warped by the relative depletion of forests  of the loss of forested environments between 1990 and 2005, which was not offset by the growth of forests in the same years.  The cartogram is particularly stunning for how it depicts the disproportionate nature of the depletion of forest lands across the southern hemisphere, especially in Southeast Asia, Mexico and Brazil as well as central America and Central Africa, whose disproportional distribution amounted to a loss of 7.3 million hectares over those fifteen years alone.

forest lossesAmount of Forested Land Lost in Each Country of the World, 1990-2005

At the same time, few forests grew in the southern hemisphere in that same period of fifteen years:


But the most convincing map of the global disparities that arose in the last twenty-five years is what is evident in the most distorted of cartograms showing the relative depletion of the resource of forested lands, based on the irresponsible felling of trees without provision for future growth:  for the world doesn’t exactly fold in half, in this map, but the pronounced lack of responsibly sustainable growth in Guatemala and parts of Central America and much of Malaysia, India, Pakistan, and Central Africa and Ethiopia, reveals a world where poorer countries seem the largest losers, less habituated to practices of sustainability as they are, and more driven by market forces against their own interests–or at least against the interest that the cameralist Hans Carl von Carlowitz would be able to recognize.

Hennig maps forest depletionWorldmapper/Benjamin Hennig

A compelling Worldmapper cartogram maps tree cover against local population is particularly powerful in the suggestion of how disproportionately the survival of forests is endangered by high areas of population–the very areas with an elevated populations, if not necessarily “global footprint,” are among the least forested areas of the world.  And the spread of globalization often threatens precisely those increasingly isolated areas of intact forest marked in light green, revealing the relative lack of forested regions in the most popular areas–and the low concentration of intact forests in the Amazon, Central Africa, and parts of Russia.


To be sure, the scale of the radical reduction of global tree cover in a similar transformation are far withdrawn from centers of economic growth, but the remove of forests at an even greater degree from the equator constitutes a dilemma of global consequence. treecover population hennig It is striking, after a somewhat exhausting world tour of the disproportionately skewed nature of forest loss and arboreal compromise, to return to the United States, that remaining densely forested areas in the continent mirrored the striking distribution of the recent map modeling the spread of highly audible levels of anthropogenic sounds across the country, based on data released by the National Park Service, and offer a telling sign of how we inhabit the land in which we live.

green areas on map

USA sound map in decibels

The relative rarity of areas of dense tree cover that remain today in the United States–together with the significant loss of wooded areas in just the past decade, and the marked degradation of forest–suggest a clear record of environmental compromise, if not an evacuation of what might be called the nation’s living landscape–even if the map indicating tree cover noted below it suggests a further diffusion of greenspace in the lower forty-eight:

intact tree cover US

tree cover US

The loss of tree cover in a sense stands out most prominently in the context of what degree of tree cover exists–for the spread of a loss of trees across the deep south, especially notable on the eastern seaboard and in much of Louisiana, as well as outside Denver, in Idaho, and parts of California and Oregon–suggests a loss of the local landscape that may well come back to haunt us.  The spread of forest degradation is not so visibly pronounced in the US, but the extent to which the region is haunted by the specter of long-lost healthy forests or “non-intact” forests surely is–the modeling of our current forest cover is being eroded less by a rapacious economy for wood products than it is concentrated in fairly specific sites of large-scale clearing.  But non-intact forests seem in clear danger of greater compromise.


14.  It is striking that although the origins of the word “sustainability”–Nachhaltigkeit–and the concept of sustainability have often been traced only to recent years, expressing ideas linked to the 1969 US National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and for some was first coined in 1972 in Blueprint for Survival as a concept that related to man’s future. But when it was introduced in the Enlightenment, the Saxon nobleman Hans Carl von Carlowitz employed Nahhatligkeit in an illustration of his cameralist thought as a matter of good sense back in 1713.

Von Carlowitz apparently coined the ethical charge of sustainability in the context of sustained-yield forestry, Sylvicultura Oeconomica, a monument cameralist thought in forestry affirming responsible stewardship of forests.  If responded to deep fears on the continuing ability to derive a sustainable economic value unless one refrained from over-forestation and depletion of lumber stocks.  If written out of deep concern as a civil servant and mining inspector who sought forest ordinances in the Electoral Saxony to conserve resources for the common good, von Carlowitz deliberated the forest ordinances in theElectorate of Saxony where he served as Chief Inspector of Mining, introducing an ethics of economic conservation of nature that preceded the Tharandt Forest Academy in 1811; in calling for conservation of forests for lieben Posterität, he communicated a powerful notion of bequeathing a world undisturbed by unwisely aggressive or opportunistic interventions. Von Carlowitz’s message framed the concept of mitigating human intrusiveness on the landscape as a “sustained forest yield” around his native Saxon lands, Ulrich Grober has observed, with an intentional of the present’s responsibility to future generations, and as a reasoned reaction to the shock created by wood shortages after the Thirty Years’ War.  The war created a contempoorary crisis in the availability of wood prompted assuaging of fears to ensure that the “great wood shortage . . . be pre-empted,” and awareness that “more wood was felled than grew over many ages” that were more reasoned than the deep-seated apocalyptic fears of the humanist Melanchthon’s prediction that in  “the end of time, man will suffer great need for wood [am Ende der Welt man an Holtz grosse Noth leiden werde].”  It is likely, Grober suggested, that von Carlowitz wrote with knowledge of John Evelyn’s hope to manage England’s forests in Sylva or a Discourse of Forest Trees and the Propagation of Timber, where he advocating the need to coordinate replanting forests to secure future ships for the navy, the “wooden bulwarks of the kingdom.”  Evelyn cautioned that”Men should be perpetually planting, that so Posterity might have Trees fit for their service,” but did not do a map to chart the losses of trees that had occurred; Evelyn however articulately feared lest “we thus continue to destroy our Woods, without this providential planting in their stead, . . . felling what we do cut down with great indiscretion, and regard to the future.”  These dire warnings shortly preceded how Colbert initiated a similar program for protecting forests for shipbuilding in France to calm fears about wood shortages, leading him to be cited by von Carlowitz as a model for responsible conservation.  But von Carlowitz’s cameralism went farther in calling wood “essential for the conservation of mankind [daß das Holtz zur conservation des Menschen unentbehrlich sey, (p. 372)],” and constraining consumption in relation to the resources forests could support, and intentionally managing a forest’s limited resources as an incumbent responsibility and an ethics of good stewardship.


US Forest Service

The importance of continued responsible stewardship is no longer only based on academic expertise for the common economic benefit, and transcends the concerns or training in administrative expertise.  Indeed, the maps of global losses in biomass are both more shocking than the fears of an impending lack of supply for wood markets, since they reveal the steep consequences of the disappearance of tropical rainforests and subtropical biomes to meet the needs of a growing global population–both by wood extraction and the conversion of forested land to pasture.  

But they provide an effective embodiment of the ongoing loss of forests that go far beyond the needs of an individual state.  Even though the United Nations only used the world in a document in 1978, according to Charles Kidd, and “ecological footprint” entered public policy papers as a sort of benchmark and measurement in later years and perhaps widespread usage only after 1987 in the UN World Commission on Economic Development, the lack of a common metric of sustainability no doubt led William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel to advocate the importance of an “ecological footprint” as an ethical imperative, and its adoption as a criteria for the responsible harvesting and planting of trees (as well as, of course, in the economics of forestry).

If we have been increasingly blinded to the sense of such a footprint–even despite the continued ability to map its occurrence for decades–the rise of disproportionate deforestation of the subtropical biomes in the globalized economy finds a counterpart in the measurements of a MODIS satellite–an instrument more widely associated with surveillance and spying, to be sure–to preserve an eerily unimpeachable public record of environmental loss.  Although the loss of wood is not effectively embodied in the above maps, the concept of sustainability and sustainable practices demands comparable efforts of mapping, as is partially suggested by the degree to which we risk warping the use of our resources, lacking much sense of the language of sustainability or biocapacities, absent a clear visualization of the extent of forest degradation worldwide–and an awareness of the intense over-foresting of areas of critical habitat, as well as of forests critical in their storage of carbon.

15. Those remaining areas of intact forest landscapes has receded outside many of the areas of the habited world, as the cartograms designed by the Sheffield group and Worldmapper that map forest growth against population on an equal projection reveal, suggesting how astronomical levels of population growth occur at considerable remove from forested lands in much of the world–in ways that have large consequences for the lived environments transmitted to future generations extremely significant in the maps of the future we might imagine.   (It is far more difficult to visualize or imagine the loss of forests on a local level, so tremendous are they in scope.  One must consider, however, the loss of forest around the areas so severely afflicted by the recent outbreak of Ebola virus, however, to start to do so.) The naming of 2013 as the Year of Intact Forest Landscapes sought to direct important attention not to the conservation of forests, but the need for the protection of the increasingly isolated islands of intact forests across the world–an image that becomes especially scary if one thinks of forests as the world’s lungs.


It is particularly worthy and jarring to remember the relatively recent date of many losses of formerly intact forest, as we consider how to use maps to start to think–or to try to start to learn how to think about–as well refamilairize ourselves with and recognize where the greatest continuous areas of tree cover in the world are located–both in the band of tropical forests along the equatorial regions of Brazil, Central Africa, and Indonesia, as well as the Russian plains and large stretches Canada above the central wheat fields and south of the Northwest Territories.  These tend to be the same areas where an uneasy balance is occurring between loss and gain of forests, and the losses of of specific regions have been strikingly surpassing gains since 2000.

forest loss since 2000

Leave a comment

Filed under data visualization, forest cover, forest degradation, forests, sustainability

The New Separatism and the Gas-Tax Latitudinal Divide: Tracking the After-Images of Secession across the United States (Part III)

Mapping the nation gained wide currency as a way of performing national identity with the rise of the readily printed maps.  Outfits such as the U.S. Election Map Co. that were founded in the mid to late nineteenth century to provide readers a legible record of the nation.  Scribners was fortunate to be able to invest money in their appearance and legibility continued them in works such as the maps of presidential elections in Scribner’s Statistical Atlas in spectacularly modern form– including such maps as the masterful county-by-county survey that clarified results of the highly contested presidential election of 1880, where Republicans and Democrats divided around the contested question of the continuation of Reconstruction.  These images echo the statistical maps that applied the principles Francis Amasa Walker first developed in the 1874 Statistical Atlas to visualize varied spatial distributions from population density to wealth to ethnicities for the U.S. Government–“clothing the dry bones of statistics in flesh and blood,” so that, in Gannett’s words, “their study becomes a delight rather than a task.”


Statistical Atlas


The volume dedicated to Walker showed itself particularly sensitive to the possibilities of the visual delight of arranging information for viewers in data visualizations, using graphic tools developed with the German immigrant mapmaker Edwin Hergesheimer to wax poetical about the scope of visualize geographic variations as aids by which “not only the statistician and political theorist, but the masses of the people, who make public sentiment and shape public policy, may acquire that knowledge of the country . . . which is essential to intelligent and successful government.”  These sentiments–continuing those of Walker, but announcing the new purview of the info-graphic in a culture where maps had become, in Martin Bruckner‘s words, a new form of performing the nation that built upon increased geographic literacy to narrate national identity but one that extended dramatically beyond the role printed maps played in the eighteenth century.  In the aftermath of Civil War, the body of maps that Gannett and Hewes assembled provided nothing less than a new way to embody the nation in visual form.

Good government was the final endpoint of showing the deep divide in national consensus within the popular vote in his 1883 mapping the geographic distribution as a two-color breakdown or divide, and not suggesting the conundrum that the government must faced–or a sign of the lack of legitimacy of the government, and impossibility of governing well.  In showing a historical survey of not only the “physical features of the country” but “the succession of [political] parties and the ideas for which they existed,” Walker knew that Gannett’s map suggested the different divides revealed, and his pre-Tufteian precept that “simpler methods of illustration are, as a rule, more effective” to summarize and bring together the “leading facts” was done with “care . . . taken to avoid over-elaboration,” so that “by different shades of color, the maps are made to present a bird’s eye view of the various classes of facts, as related to area or population,” including political economy, church membership, mineral deposits, and electoral returns.  The notion that the reification of electoral returns constituted a map provided a new way of envisioning the polity that Walker saw as particularly profitable for mass-readership.  We’re now often the readers of info-graphics of far greater historical poverty, far more used to parse the political electorate of the country in ways that cast the viewer as the spectator to something approaching the naturalization of insurmountable divides.


1880 popular vote for HGLibrary of Congress


The new flatness of the divide is disquieting, if not false.  The maps in the Scribners’ innovative Statistical Atlas were the product of the adventurous tastes of newspaper and magazine editors who worked with new confidence to reach new numbers of readers, investing in graphics to appeal to a new eye and a new desire to envision the nation, in ways we have only begun to reach in the far flatter visualizations that we distribute online and even in print.  In the lavishly produced periodicals of post-Civil War America, multi-colored maps raised questions about the legibility of a unified national space.  They suggested fragility in the union from the government’s point of view.  But they challenged viewers to find how that unity might be read in a particularly engaging ways–as well as being preserved, and provide far more subtle texts–and statistical knives–than the pared-down infographics that appear so often on our handhelds and screens today.  In ways that suggest a new standard for the historical depth of the infographic, the map used statistical “facts” to embody the nation so that one can almost zoom in on its specific regions, in a manner that prefigure the apparently modern versatility the medium Google Maps, but that do so by exploiting its folio-sized dimensions as a canvas to read the nation’s populations.

In ways that graphically processed the tabulation of the popular vote that it lay at the reader’s fingertips, the map’s author, Henry Gannet, delved into the question of how clearly the divide between north and south actually mapped out onto the clear enclaves and redoubts of Republican partisanship that are located in Baton Rouge and the South Carolina coast, and much of Virginia and Texas, that challenged the dichotomic division between “northern” and “southern” states.  An antecedent to GIS, in Walker’s designs for the maps, the striking color scheme presented pockets of Democratic resistance with a clarity that made them pop out and immediately strike viewers’ eyes as a way to grasp the political topography of the country in especially modern ways, as if to map the meaning of its Republican consensus.  The map represents the heights of good design that the New York newspaper industry had pioneered after the Civil War, enriched by advertising and graphic design, even if it was designed by the statistician who helmed the United States Census in Washington.  Its pointed argument on the difficulty of taking the electoral map that resulted–shown as an inset–as a reflection of an actual divide raises questions about the current tendency to naturalize “Red” states versus “Blue” states, if it seems devised to answer questions about how the national fabric was rent by opposed divides during Reconstruction.

How the map, very much in the manner of contemporary graphics, came to synthesize political history in legible form by embodying them–Walker’s “flesh and blood”–seem premonitions of contemporary market for info-graphics.  But they were removed from the increasingly unavoidable divides that recent info-graphics suggest but seem designed to perpetuate, or the readily improvised graphics of the short-term that are consumed in made-for-television maps viewed largely in living rooms on television screens.  If the unified color blocks of much data visualization is sadly designed to discourage reading or interpretation, in ways that almost seem destined to limit our political vision for the future of the country, the opportunities that Gannett’s map allows to delve into the palimpsest of the popular vote might help to remove what seem blinders on our shared sense of the political process.  The market for the new info-graphic is quite distinct, and designed not for an Encyclopedia, but created for the short-term–and indeed valued as a short-term image of the contemporary with its own expiry date.

The needs of mapping an image national continuity were quite distinct, and might be profitably historicized in ways that would be foreign from the current market for or demand that info-graphics fill.  For the rationale for creating such a visualization of the popular vote’s distribution, if contemporary to a range of new maps for visualizing and processing the nation, gained pressing value after the Hayes-Tilden contest–as it would after the recent defining Presidential contest between Bush and Gore, or for the race between Obama and Romney–for their critical explanatory role to resolve the nation’s symbolic coherence.

The resemblance in the divide revealed in info graphics seems far deeper than political partisan allegiance, and the culture of this divide difficult to pinpoint–although the anti-Republican sentiment of the South was fierce in the election of 1880 seems a likely point to begin to map the local resistance to the continued presence of federal troops.  The divide between north and south echoes the division redrawn on Wikipedia between slave-states and free states circa 1849, and  enshrined in a latitudinal divide across the southwest of America in the so-called “Missouri Compromise”to permit slave-holding in the south and prevent its expansion to the north at the same time the country expanded–



Wikipedia Commons

–and seems to continue, almost but only somewhat humorously, in the  confidence with which the ex-KGB operative Igor Panarin in 1998 forecast the future fragmenting of the United States circa 2010 into four Divided States, in a somewhat silly graphic that transposed the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 to the other side of the Atlantic.  Panarin’s image has gained currency as a meme of failed unwelcome futurology, describing the “Texas Republic” whose northern boundary recuperated the same latitudinal divide, and gained a new readership, ironically, among readers of the internet eager for new infographics to compress living history to paradigms, but suggest his own study of nineteenth-century history, as much as futurology:




And it raises questions about how we have begun to use and disseminate maps on the internet to stand as symbolic surrogates of the political divisions about which we’ve become increasingly concerned because of the worries they create about the continued smooth institutional functioning of representational democracy, and of the images we retain of how the popular vote can continue to translate into an effective Congress, rather than one dominated by gridlock.  (The ex-KGB agent’s prediction generated considerable interest in mapping the fracturing of the Republic along analogous regional divides in our own country, as the common practice of remapping cross-pollinated with GIS software and the rise of attention-getting maps.)


1.  GIS offers new modes to visualize statistical distributions and modeling national divides in the electorate, often warping actual geographical divides, in ways that have encouraged the increased role of the info graphic as a speech act.  The increased authority of picturing the nation in electoral maps have spun out from the night-time coverage of elections to remain burned in many of our cortices as evidence of a divided nation. As much as these colors have come to accentuate national divides, they create a differentiated landscape that the format of mapping seems to naturalize, and become a site that occasioned repeated glossing and interpretation for the evidence of national divisions that they appear to encode.  (Indeed, the sharing of two-color projections to forecast the outcome of the 2014 elections was both a cottage industry or diversion, so widespread was interest in adapting tools of forecasting to provide “flesh and blood” for making potentially compelling political predictions by slicing up the nation in different ways.)  Often seeming to evade the sort of issues that indeed continue to divide the United States, the widespread currency of such practices often perpetuate the very notion of a chasm of colored blocks as the best visual metaphor for the nation, in ways Walker and Gannett would find a remarkably different notion of a map.

Compelling translation of the popular to the electoral votes invoke the red v. blue divide in particularly graphic terms, and filled with a growth of a number of purple states that make the oppositional divide between Republicans and Democrats much less clean than it once was. (While the Republican party had long assumed the color blue in the nineteenth century, as the party of Lincoln, and blue was used to designate regions voting Republican the newscaster Tim Russert is credited with having first used the color-coding of the electoral choropleth to describe the prominence of the electoral divide in the United States presidential election of 2000 on a single episode of the Today show on October 30, 2000–although he denies having introduced the term as an opposition, and colored maps were long used to depict voter preferences in states.)  Back in the days of the innocence of 2000, the hues took hold to parse the nation with urgency during reporting about the results of that presidential election–and entered common parlance after the conclusion of the fourth presidential election in which the victor failed to win a plurality of the popular vote.

The apparent cleavage of the nation into two regions–more populace blue states with large electoral votes, and many red states with fewer, save Texas and the contested Florida, whose electors may have been erroneously awarded to Bush–and the map of a division of the states into what seemed a red “heartland” and blue periphery expressed a somewhat paradoxical national divide that appeared two different nations–or one nation of continuous red, framed by something of more densely populated blue.


Bush v. Gore
The far more broader expanse of a sheet of uniform red, the color specific to the Republican party by 2000, drew a clear dichotomy drawn between Blue States versus Red States, that appeared less an emblem of sovereignty than of a deeply running national divide in a country whose political process had almost lost familiar geographical moorings: the familiar geographic map was warped by the outsized role of certain states in the electorate, and the consequent often disproportionate tussling over winning their electoral votes of “swing states.”

Unlike Henry Gannett’s statistical map, the image of a contiguous region of “Red States” in the above infographic seems to divide the union, as much as offering clues and cues to get one’s mind around a divided electorate. The below cartogram of the 2004 election warps the national territory to reflect the distribution of electoral votes in each state–and the mosaic of victory that the “red” states constituted in total electoral votes revealed several divides in the nation, or the hiving off of the northeast, west, and Great Lakes states from the majority–or, alternatively, the concentration of Democratic votes in dense pockets of urban areas–that reveals two republics, all the more evident from the continuity of the U-shaped red stretch of disquieting uniformity that emerged when the popular votes is translated to a map of electoral votes.






We have become especially accustomed to interpreting the contours of such national divides in the electorate with strategic urgency in the age of Obama, although the battle for electoral victory were more likely to be resolved in cartograms than the finely-grained county by county distributions that Gannett had devised. The appeal of cartograms lies in part in how they offered an apparent opportunity to gain clarity by the almost compulsive remapping of electoral votes to decode the alliance of victory in the 2010 election in two-color cartograms: warping the divide to suggest the dissonance of terrestrial continuity with electoral votes or money spent per voter, to suggest both an accentuation of its divides, as if to pose questions about the existence of continuity among the nation’s regions and states, and a deep divide that lay in the areas where campaigns devoted the greatest attention–and ask whether this skewing deriving from distorting electoral stakes bodes well for the democratic process.

The geographical distortions of infographics seem to clarify how electoral results run against the continuity of a terrestrial maps in similar terms. The representation of current electoral division have continued to aggravate the country’s continuity long after Obama’s two presidential elections: both electoral results have been often parsed across the country to explain the divide between red and blue states, especially in the 2012 election, as if to try to discover continuity a country that seems divided into blue states and stretches of bright red: and if, until 2000, both Time magazine and the Washington Post colored Democratic majorities in red, the opposing colors of red and blue have become an image of contested sovereignty, and of articulating regions’ political differences and divides. Rather than suggest generational continuities in political allegiance over space, the divide within the country reads more clearly in Gannett’s county-by-county census, but the proliferation of cartograms respond most effectively to the problem that “these maps lie,” morphing the fifty states into rescaled distributions.

Adam Cole doesn’t claim to argue that this reflects a bit of a crisis in democratic institutions, but one can’t but consider how the current gridlock in government may stem from its failure to adequately reflect the demographics of the country, or at least the economics of the Presidential election.  Despite increasing attention to the mobility of individuals outside “blue” states to other, formerly “red”-state regions, the divide was increasingly focussed on a diminution of red states, but a concentration of Republican majorities in the central regions of the country, lying largely below the Gas-Tax Latitudinal Divide–with some notable exceptions. Even if much of the country seems happily purple, the intensity of two triads of red states strikes one’s eyes immediately.


The United States, with state sized based on electoral votes.Adam Cole/NPR


(Such maps, of course, in their interest to provide info graphics that involve “purple” shadings of a mixture of blue and red may not take into account the neurological disposition of the eye to more readily read a purple state surrounded by a sea of red as red, and fail to distinguish the degrees of purple of a region as an intensity not independent from the spectrum of the colors of nearby states:  the interest in providing a more complexly qualified picture of variations in this map, introducing shades of “purple” to a map, if constructive in the abstract, according to Lawrence Weru creates misleading interpretations that rather than profit from such proportional blendings lead the purple region to appeal more blue or more red depending on the chromatic context where it appears.)


2.  The compelling nature of such cartograms no doubt the maps that express the views of political parties, and provide a basis for imagining the continuity in how campaigns dedicate attention to the nation. Despite their explicit warping of continuity, cartograms help get one’s mind around the nature of the apparent lack of continuity across the country, and understand the depth of electoral divides and to explain the country’s composition than the mapping of electoral votes onto spatial divisions on a map, if not to project the results in far more dynamic ways of translating the “map” to practices of political representation, as much as territorial manipulation. The cartogram seems to translate spatial divides into a system of political representation that fits imperfectly on a uniform mapped space or rendering of territorial expanse, and seems particularly compelling to analyze the way that the electoral process translates the nation’s geography into institutional terms.

The most telling translation of this political process is revealed in the warping of the nation by disproportionate expenditures per state, reflected by the distortion of electoral politics–and the nature of political divides. Parties have been compelled to devote disproportionate attention to individual states, out of sync with their electoral votes, but as a reflection of the calculus of receiving a majority in the electoral college. A compelling twist to the electoral cartograms parsed political parties’ relative expenditures in the most recent Presidential election as a distribution of funds in dollars spent per voter, grotesquely warping the scale of states in the country according to the political spending in millions of dollars–which keeps a lot of purple states, but suggests that one area of the nation has almost left the attention of either party, as if they were discounted as foregone by both parties–and received but a begrudged smidgen of millions of dollars from the GOP or Republican National Committee, so clearly were their political preferences already decided and minds just made up:


bbstates_custom-e0c6c871e5a185100d0be94271fba73c0a365998-s40-c85Adam Cole/NPR


An even more warped image of the republic is produced by warping the fifty states to reveal the disproportionate number of dollars spent per voter, in a warping which has the effect of shrinking the red states in much of the south and southwest to reveal the extent to which they are simply less the terrain in which recent elections were determined: one learns even more about the deep commitment of many of the voters in the southern states in the below graphic, reflecting the returns that each campaign had on the amount of money invested locally. The map reveals how little Romney even invested in the solid Republican voting base of the south, not seeing the need to disseminate the candidate’s message in states where he held such a clear advantage that they were conceded by the Democrats: it shows the relative inefficiency of Republican expenditures in New Hampshire, Iowa, and Nevada by an off-message candidate, and the balling amount spent on political media in each state from April 10 to October 10, in which many southern states are all but squeezed out of relevance, because their outcome remained–save North Carolina–something of a fait accompli, and absent from the volley of the barrage of ads that have only recently ended with mid-term elections of 2014:




Adam Cole (NPR)/Kantor media data


It can’t be “fair” to absent a good portion of the country below a single line of latitude form the state of national political debate that on-air advertisements have to be considered as forming part. What does this mean for our Republic raises questions: but is this a form of secession itself, coming back to haunt the map of political parties’ distributions of their own expenditures? The cartogrammic shrinkage of the southern “red” states with those west of the Mississippi scarily suggests a region of the country has all but vanished from the contested regions of the electoral map, its electoral votes all but written off as a contest, and Texas shrunk to an unsightly narrow peninsula or appendage off the territories where political parties struggle: the geographic contraction of the areas below the thirty seventh parallel, which defines the “four corners” intersection of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico effectively privilege the more urban areas over the “exurban” southern states that were so much less of a contest or struggle for political attention.

The troubling depth of the division across the United States is less a mirror of the affiliation to different political parties, however, than they reflect different images of America that often reflect urban v. exurban perspectives–as in this topographical projection of peaks of population in the lower forty eight.


Blue v. Red Topo Raised



Presidential elections offer a major rush of disaggregated data that one can assemble in exciting ways, the inflow of data creates a flood of information that make it difficult to select specific criteria to foreground. One might find in the above sufficient grounds to interpret the growing chasm of political divisions in the nation as between states between those with large urban centers, and “exurban” areas of less density. The tendency to group states which tended to vote or lean Democratic–as New York, California, Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Wisconsin, Minnesota–apart from more exurban or rural areas, and to map the distrust of collective government as lying within exurban areas that lie at a spatial remove from social investments that seem compelling to areas of greater disparities of wealth that define cities–and the distance at which these “red” regions feel themselves as lying from urban areas or issues seem rendered compelling against social density.



Blue v. Red Topo Raised


3.  However tempting it is to parse the differences among the electorate’s behavior in the Obama and Romney’s contest as a mirror of deep cultural divides that seem geographically determined, this quite unsatisfactorily poses the question of how likely they can be ever bridged. Such a reinterpretation is compelling precisely because it pays less attention to the “after-image” of secession, and reveals a new political landscape of the nation, rooted in population changes. The divides between the urbanized and unorganized, or “exurban,” also reveal deep attitudes to the nature of national space, and the role of government in space–which this post wants to suggest we examine as an underlying map of voting preferences, but that can’t be revealed by voting preferences and electoral returns.

The differences between voting preferences across the nation lie not only in terms of relative urbanization, but attitudes to the economics of moving through space difficult to quantifiably map, but all to evident on the map. For in ways that define a cultural continuity that is hardly rooted in the physical land, the map embodies a divide, similar to the Gannett map, of the role of government in one’s life, and the presence of the government in economic activities, as well as the prominence of a consensus on social welfare needs.

Parsing the election of 2012 in another way by democratic v. republican gains per county, one might note the  Democratic electoral gains are strikingly concentrated in urban areas, while Republican gains dominate the exurbs that are red–a distinction that clearly correlates to driving practices and willingness to tolerate more highly priced taxes for gas–and the Republican gains group together in clear clusters and runs, predominantly in the inland central southern states and inland northwest.  This data visualization eerily reifies the very divides that Gannett’s almost hundred-and-thirty-year-old visualization of polarized voting preferences first set forth:


Net_Change_MapDavid Jarman/Daily Chose


What can explain this shift across such a firmly defined latitudinal divide, which seems a crease across the country, as well as a refusal to hamper what is taken as the inalienable right to keep low the cost of free access to take a seat behind the wheel?


4. The data used to parse these moderns electoral maps are invested with significance, but may not reveal clear “after-images” of earlier landscapes precisely because the priorities of parties have so dramatically shifted, and the range of issues addressed in the political landscape have left it to be polarized in ways that have far less to do with the polarization over issues such as, say, Reconstruction of the south. Despite the greater amounts of data that presidential elections offer to parse a picture of the country, local legislative institutions provide just as significant a “map” of the traces of autonomy from national standards. The mapping of levels of gas taxes was meant to register the affront of impeding open access to the cheapest mileage. But the map of the distribution of gas taxes in the United States may say much more.

Exxon Mobil’s blogger Ken Cohen boasted that the map “explains a lot”, as a suggests clear division in local variations from the federal gas tax that exist across the country as if to show the inequalities in how local, state, and city taxes collect from forty to sixty cents per gallon–creating an inequality of cost that is itself far beyond the total federal tax imposed of 18.4 cents a gallon, creating unwarranted variations in the costs that drivers payed at the pump across the land able to be examined in greater detail at an interactive version of a map of the United States which displays the relative divisions of taxes by hovering over localities.

The differences in regions’ relative acceptance of gas taxes may indicate less the toleration of government’s invasiveness, but instead a huge shift in attitudes to space extending across exurban areas. The acceptance of a gas tax–or its ‘toleration’–reveals tendencies to reject as invasive the presence of government–and throw into almost topographical relief a considerably deep division within the local legislatures responsible to voters and local opinion. In ways that seems mirrored with surprising clarity in the below distributions of local “toleration” of taxes on gas–a sensitive barometer of regional autonomy, if one hardly comparable to the withdrawal of federal troops–the nation seems starkly divided that reveals difficulties of arriving on national consensus of its own, if on a topic of apparently less dramatic significance. If such taxes can be described as imposed by the government, the tax might be best construed not only on the toleration of taxes, but consensus if not agreement as to its collective benefits of something akin to a value-added tax. Indeed, the political divide in the country seem to have instantiated a divide along roughly the thirty-seventh parallel that reflect distinct national priorities, allowing the American Petroleum Institute to describe the disparities of the taxation on petroleum as if it described an unwarranted degree of government–state or federal–interference in the average American’s access to a full tank of gas.

A surprising divide emerged in this far more simple visualization, whose divides may parse different attitude to the economics of occupying space, based on states’ relative willingness to accept and tolerate taxes on gasoline, as much as chart the unfair nature of differences in how costs are deferred to drivers at the pump. The admittedly interested map makes its point about the uneven national “gas tax burden” along the thirty-seventh parallel, foregrounding a deep divide in refusing the role of local or regional government in daily life. Rather than reflect a distribution of draconian levels of taxation on gas, the map charts consensus to accept levels of an additional gas tax. While it does not perfectly translate into electoral preferences, it reveals a deep divide across the country that seems to fold the populace in ways perhaps not basically political,so much as in the degree to which each state’s populace would accept or suffer additional taxes as a means to meet public needs: it almost seems as if the reluctance to sanction the sort of imposition of taxes at the gas pump was seen as an analogous affront to regional honor.


Gas Tax

gas key


Thanks to the appearance of a map that first appeared on ExxonMobil’s “Perspectives” blog, we have a useful way to parse the spectrum of the country’s attitude to government–and to the involvement of government in regional differences to the economics of moving through space. For the refusal to raise taxes across the southern states-and indeed the apparent rejection of most anyone with a foot below the thirty-seventh parallel, almost carve the country into two halves, with the exception of Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Arkansas. It is striking that a cartoon that carves the country, or lower forty-eight, into a map that approximates the polemic division of wealth in the US by which Susan Ohanian assigned that very same region the 90%.  Her map echoes the divide, her cartographic take on the lower 48 assigning the the lower 90% percent of American wage-earners the region lying below the latitudinal divide, echoing the association of the region with a far less developed social infrastructure than either the east or west coast or to the north–only somewhat subliminally and slightly nastily pointing out the shifting per capital income across the land:



The divide that perpetuates lower gas taxes–or the “tax burden” on how freely gasoline flows at the pump–maps nicely onto a region with markedly less public transportation and transit.  The very same states’ governors, from New Jersey to to Florida, made something of a pact with the Devil to tank interconnected high-speed rail corridors proposed by President Obama, who championed alternative transit routes early in his presidency in hopes to rebuild a decayed infrastructure. If creating such corridors could have both encouraged local job growth and economic stimulus–as well as setting the basis for future economic growth–the refusal of and Scott Walker, that reflect the largely “exurbanite” populations of red states in exurbs. (Low gas prices serve to compensate for poor transit systems, and work to discourage their use, reducing demand:  only one top-ten rated US transit systems lie in the states–Austin–although a ranking meeting local “transit” is unclear, given that transit needs are by definition locally specific, and difficult to quantify.)  They are now a thing of the past, and Exxon-Mobil seems to turn its sights to the gasoline taxes that might enable their construction in the rest of the country–as if the lack of attention to the public good might be the new norm we could all be so fortunate to possess.

The two-color new flatness of the info-graphic seems complicit in how we perpetuate this view.


5.  What appears to perform a regional consensus exists may in fact register the primacy of accessibility to highway driving, or access to ‘automotive freedom’ in a region.  For it seems that the degree to which the individual right to drive through space is accepted as inalienable, or not having any possible contradiction with the public interest, in ways that might have much to do with the tanking of public projects for planned high-speed rail in some coastal corridors, if not an animosity to the project of expanding choices in public transit Obama long ago sought to enact–but whose projected corridors in the south were resisted and never completed.





The absence of transit corridors has led to the growth of private taxi-like shuttles for patients in areas where ambulance carriers cover wide areas without clear transit corridors.




Did the recent resistance to enacting such corridors of transit help to intensify the sort of divide we can witness in Ken Cohen’s Gas-Tax map? The 2009 Stimulus Package was intended to include a planned Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor, designed to change transit’s playing field in the South and Gulf Coast.




Such plans were already, of course, in the works since 2002, in the Bush Administration.  But their defeat, in no small part due to the apparently lesser geographic population density, was encouraged by the perception of a national divide of transit needs.



It prevented greater integration of a North American landbridge in much of the South, to supplement the lack of a crucial lattice of corridors of highway integration.




6.  We can make inferences about the lack of success of such transit programs, in part thanks to the consolidation of local, state, and federal taxes on gasoline provided by the American Petroleum Institute.  If the map derives from varying forms of taxation passed on at the pump, including local costs of fuel-blending that increase the costs of refining, a national divide to throw into relief of tolerating the imposition of an additional gas tax. While the map does not track the prices in taxes paid at the pump, and the cost for gasoline reveals considerable geographic variation by market and supply, the API plotted the total “fuel-tax burden” in a national map that reveals more about a national latitudinal divide than they had intended: the clear color scheme suggests that the 37th parallel creates a cliff in ‘superadded’ gas costs–and augments the sense of this divide by placing Alaska beside Texas–some fifteen cents below the national average in the U.S.  It mirrors the regions worst served by public transit in the US, to judge by the concentration of workers who relied on public transit for their commutes circa 2008.




The missing information from other maps may suggest a quite grounded rationale for the absence of accepting taxes on gasoline:  not only the reluctance to accept taxes, given the reliance on automotive travel as a primary means of transit and transport, but the absence of a network of public transit that would provide an incentive and rationale for the readiness to accept a tax on gasoline in exchange for other public benefits.

Seen another way, one can link the sense of spatial movement in the region of significantly decreased gas taxation on the rise of a single-driver culture of access to roads, rather than public transit–a trend that Streetsblog found to correlate not only to more restricted and curtailed transport choices, with little but circumstantial basis (and in a pretty cheap shot), to national obesity trends across the nation:




7.  Although the flatness of infographics oddly seems to obstruct further inquiry into the distribution it reveals, the differences in how the land is habited suggests divides that are difficult to surmount, and by no means only political in origin.  While it might be seen as leading many to move south for cheaper gas, the consequent lowering of the perceived “fuel-tax burden” to below forty cents per gallon–sometimes by as much as five cents/gallon–across state lines indicates a refusal to let the government interpose themselves between driver and pedal, or pump and tank. It suggests a shifting sense of taxation structures and investment of local priorities of dedicated tax revenue that strikingly mirrors the very regions at the presence of government in local life, but is often tarred as yet another instance of the invasive nature of government’s presence in public life.

The map echoes the more prominent manifestation of local resistance to the apparent federal invasiveness long mandated by the Department of Justice’s “oversight” of enacting changes in local electoral laws, based on historical presence of policies deemed discriminatory, first enacted in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  Under the logic of the autonomy of “states’ rights,” such “pre clearance” was abolished, although an  alternative proposal the issue of “pre clearance” was framed as triggered by successive voting rights violations in four states–Texas; Georgia; Louisiana; and Mississippi–rather than fifteen. The VRA’s original provisions, widely deemed “for half a century the most effective protection of minority voting rights,” or fourth article, was approved as recently as 2006 by the US Congress. But widespread resistance to the federal policy grew with keen regional separatism among many of the same “southern” states, or the configuration of the South–minus Florida, North Carolina and Arkansas, with the addition of Arizona and Alaska–who pushed back against oversight of changes to voting laws as redistricting or Voter ID as undue interference as local policies–even as the ability of entrusting states to develop their own policies of redistricting has been recently open to challenge in Mississippi and, in Alabama, for the rigid use of explicitly racial quotas, echoing early charges of partisan gerrymandering in Texas–but raising questions of how much race or partisanship is at stake.


Areas Covered by VRA-and additionsAreas Covered by VRA-and additions


These coincidence between these maps isn’t entirely coincidental. Indeed, one is struck by the striking “family resemblance” to the infographics we use to represent the nation’s complex composition in a map.


8. How much are we overly habituated to visualize a divide that we seem to have a difficulty looking outside its two-color classification?  It bears remark that the afterimage of secession is rehearsed in quite rhetorical manners to raise the specter of national dissolution–by now imprinted on the collective consciousness–if expanded to include a few ‘swing states’ to suggest the recent expansion of the “old South.”

It’s ironic that the iconic image of secession is rehearsed in maps imagining secession from paper currency, which employ strikingly similar visualizations to forecast a coming shift in monetary policy and practice that would be brought by BitCoin. Although its eye-grabbing vision of secession is deceptive, the below “hoax”-map distributes thirty-six cities in twenty states where one can pay bills in Bitcoin as if they were poised to “dump” paper currency, or abandon the US dollar and withdraw from the closest to a common convention to which all fifty states adhere: the map of secession–perhaps based on states that have accepted applications for exchanges in the digital currency that originated on the Deep Web on the TOR browsing network and on hidden sites of illicit exchange as the Silk Road–is of course not an actual map of secession.  But it is designed to pose as a visualization of “the rebellion [in currency] that quickly spread to main street America” with antecedents in a system of currency devised by Thomas Edison, which would immediately provide financial returns as it replaced the dollar, as if it recaptured the past stability of a lost gold standard in the face of the fluctuation of value of American currency.  Lack of internal differentiation in the below of urban and non-urban areas in the below perpetuates an image of legal secession of states that are shown by big monochrome color blocks that seems to prey on viewers’ eyes by its introduction of a familiar dividing line.

The mapping of monetary secession, launched by Money Morning–Your Daily Map to Financial Freedom and diffused to alarm viewers on sites such as http://www.endofamerica.com, is not really explained carefully, and seems to lack its own legend but was intended to depict a collective rejection of paper money as if the “red states” were wise to a growing financial trend. In this barely disguised desparate push for Bitcoin digital currency–“now accepted by dentists in Finland!”–the map stokes fear in paper money, and can’t help both to echo the notion of a dismantling of the United States based on the rejection of a federal currency–echoing a language of states’ rights in its rather preposterous design of a fanciful future national fracturing as some states dispense altogether with paper money: the states divided by the tragedy of the institution of slavery now seem divided by farce. (How maps mislead: California is colored red, due to the fact that one city, Menlo Park, has moved in such a direction, not the entire state–and cities elided with states.)




The afterimage of secession is here, rather improbably, immediately recognizable, but raises a recognizable specter in monetary terms, stoking fears of a new national disillusion that has emerged along sharp lines. One doesn’t usually imagine the digital divide to include the majority of states in the deep South–if in ways that address the viewer who is tried to be wooed to Bitcoin, rather than an offer an image of the nations health. But if the map is a bit of a hoax, the use of something like a secessionary map to depict the rejection of paper money that the U.S. Government has unwisely continued to sanction cannot be much of a coincidence. The cities that push for the ejection of paper money were not by all means concentrated in the southern states, according to the map–which stages a hoax, but one that also reveals the country as broken into two halves by the abandoning of paper money which actually maps the sites of companies that will pay salaries in non-paper Bitcoin.

The recurrence of the very same fold across the nation’s center, roughly along a latitudinal divide to scare viewers–with California added in for good measure, based on the city of Menlo Park.


US broken by Bitcoin


Although a hoax, the “map” of the impending abandonment of paper currency shows a fracturing of the nation along the lines of the adoption of Bitcoin.  If it echoes the abandonment of the gold standard as a monetary system–or the amount of silver used in dollar coins and actual currency, the map is most striking for breaking down the divisions in the  nation in a state-by-state way that has particular power as it is so often used in political visualizations of electoral returns.  What else might explain the persuasive power of this meme of national division?  The status of Oklahoma, a familiar icon of frontier freedom, shows it has  recently moved to move away from paper currency to accept, with bipartisan support, gold and silver as currency.  The rejection of a common federal paper currency seems the ultimate standard of secession, echoing the dismay at the abandonment of the gold standard or the withdrawal from a cash-based economy.

An eery footnote to this atlas of symbolizing the nation is the proximity with which the map mirrors (or maybe recycles) the Democratic vote in 1880–although it stretches some credibility to imagine the former constellation of seceding states on the cutting edge of accepting Bitcoin.  It is tempting to universalize or essential the latitudinal divide that recurs in these maps, but makes sense to cast the region’s apparent distancing from majoritarian consensus as not only something of a different economic culture, but a different culture of moving through and occupying space.  The confounding of that culture with independence within the states’ rights movement–and deep distrust of federal government–existed long before Obama’s election.

Viewed through special lenses, alert to the after-image of secession, each of the maps define variations in the continuity of a cultural divide phrased as a reaction to the absence of continuity that was registered in Gannett’s earlier 1883 info-graphic–but that now seems to be replayed both as tragedy and a farce.  The question that this set of posts pose, perhaps, is how we can create more engaging info-graphics of the nation whose visual consumption would sustain and drive further attention and exploration of local variations–or at least not reduce us to a stupor of oversimplification that is an excuse for orienting us to the oppositional tactics of political debate through the pretense of showing us the actual lay of the land.  What compelling mapping of local variations might better command attention as a record of divides worthy of our attention?

Leave a comment

Filed under American Petroleum Institute, data visualization, Gore v. Bush, infographics, Obama v. Romney

The New Separatism and the Gas-Tax Latitudinal Divide: Tracking the After-Images of Secession across the United States (Part II)

The fetishization of infographics in television news has spread not only to print, but to our ability to map collectives and process data across media.  The fetishization reflects the readiness to imbue infographics authority as a communicative form, perhaps depending as much on the reduction of news teams and shift to computer-assisted reporting as it does to the greater certainty of GIS.  The readiness to sell information and the premium on winning audiences–or offering viewers splendid click-bait–has led publications to cultivate the infographic in ways that reflect how data visualizations indeed seem to be supplanting the authority of maps.

The infographic and mapping of political preference and opinion has gained the status of a speech act of particular synthetic power that has paralleled the growth of political analysis, although that analysis has often assumed the level of glossing the distribution of opinions, preferences, and employment on a map–as if in a perpetual search to find some coherence, or indeed to search for the possiblity of consensus in them.  The  hegemony with which computer-assisted reporting and news graphics that sectorize space with color-coded abandon may be deeply embedded in how the medium is the message, however, as much as being a by-product of Geographic Information Systems or computer-based analysis.  For the images are, to put it simply, user-friendly, and designed for surface reading–as if they processed a complex political process through snapshots or thin condensations of the status quo.

Given the growing symbolic authority of infographics, for reasons ranging from the downsizing of newsrooms to the contraction of attention of the consumers of news to the reduction of politics to an oppositional contest, the historian Susan Schulten is right to call attention to how Henry Gannett compellingly synthesized the divided vote of the 1880 presidential election, and the clarity that his  county-by-county coloration of the United States measured the division of the country after two polarizing Presidential elections.  After the confusion of the results of the division of national consensus in 1876, when Samuel Tilden’s victory of the popular vote was overturned in Congress by a Historical Compromise, the need to resolve the distribution of votes in 1880 emphasized the legibility of how voting translated into the electoral college.  It also mapped the survival of anti-abolitionist sentiment across the Southern states, and the difficulty of ever enacting the policies that would enfranchise African-American voters in those seats or strongholds of the anti-Reconstruction Democratic party in the South.  The Garfield presidency was not able to implement the promise of Reconstruction, to be sure, but along the coasts and midwest, particularly in the north, assembled an irrefutable consensus that Henry Gannett took great pains to embody in this 1883 map, in ways that recall his tenure as Supervisor of the U.S. Census.

3_scribners_1883_625_0Library of Congress

The embodiment of the United States that Gannett provided has long been with us, and has oddly continued to persist in some form–if with perhaps less clearly drawn and delimited lines, to be sure–to the continued image of a dichotomous divide within the Gas Tax Latitudinal Divide that has recently returned, ostensibly to trace the inequities of taxes that residents of different states are asked to bear–California first and foremost, but closely followed by New York, Connecticut, and Hawaii.


API-US-MapExxon Mobil Perspectives


What sort of embodiment of the nation does this map offer, if not one that is destined to evoke the unduly regressive interference of states outside of the Deep South?

In ways that measure the collective memories of secessionist sentiments, the map seems an after-image of the survival of anti-Union sentiment, or at least rejection of the program of Reconstruction that Republicans supported, and saw as the logical outcome of the Civil War.  But while quelling the actuality of Southern Secession, The dichotomous distribution of contrasting shades coloring the continent in counties shaded by two alternate primary colors both recorded the transition to a shifting society after emancipation–when privilege remained restricted to whites, effectively, and the deep difficulties overcoming of division between north and south.

Rather than show the nation divided, his map of the country celebrated the new basis of political union, even if its striking distribution of the popular vote provided an early data map of a politics of polarized public opinion eerily familiar to the  divisive politics dividing the country–echoing a map by which cotton was grown across Southern States, which undergird deeply felt economic divisions.  But the map of the country that takes its spin and meaning from the historical moment of the memory of southern secession is quite distinct from the political snapshots of the present-day, and their emphasis of the shifting physiognomy of the nation’s mosaic of political opinion.


Cotton bales and population increase

Gannett’s use of the format of mapping as a means to display his data attests to the level of trust accorded to the statistical map as offering a legible image of that provides something of model for our own info graphics, but also the historical importance of a time when national fracturing loomed larger in public consciousness than it ever had. Although it is less interested in the divides that separated the nation than the ability for their reconciliation by an electoral system, and less dedicated to depicting a national fracturing than a crafting of consensus, and evoking the diminished resistance to eliminating race-based distinctions, it also provides a striking map of their survival.  For in providing a statistical record of the vote, Gannett and Lewes divided the country in ways that were distinct from the recent national maps arranging of ethnic populations, slave populations, African-American presence, geological surveys, income distributions or population density, but presented a pressing portrait of the nation.  Yet rather than offer a single declaration of the current division of the country, the map seeks to sketch a changing national canvas in relation to the deepest debates which divided the nation, and to chart the emergence of a status quo in detailed fashion.

Rather than echo the sorts of political divides familiar from political infographics today, Gannett’s map inescapably referred to the specific temporality of the moment of secession and its overcoming–and the scars that the traumatic historical experience of Secession and Civil War on the nation, at the same time as their supersession.  But the complexion that the statistical map embodied bore not only traces of those scars, but of its quite recent supercession.  The statistical “facts” on which these maps were based chart an after-image of an acceptance of the place of Reconstruction in the nation’s political life, rather than seeking to naturalize the divide for readers, and it gained meaning for viewers in relation to the divide of the Civil War.  The lithograph that he prepared for the 1883 Scribners Historical Atlas returned to the recent division of the nation among a range of mapping activities that sought to embody the nation’s coherence in new ways, and takes its meaning in no small part in relation to the performance of national identity.  Readers of Gannett’s map could not avoid reading the distribution in relation to the historical event of secession and its aftermath, and the current campaign for Reconstruction across the southern states that the Republican party advocated.  The map encoded a deep dissonance between visions of the country.



1.  Printed maps constituted the nation in powerful new ways by 1860, casting it with new power in terms that stretched from coast to coast–and which they allowed to be read, by 1895 in a beauteous landscape that stretched “from sea to shining sea.”  The map individuated the somewhat troubled nature of the new nation.

Gannett’s map indicated an unmediated representation of the country’s political complexion, whose authority lay in both the image it offered of the nation and the diminution of the after-image it presented of the secession of southern states.  The coloration of the each country suggests an image that partly mirror the line of southern secession of eleven states in 1860-1, varied shades of pink, carmine and scarlet distinguishing counties where the vote tended increasingly Democratic, and sky blue, azure and deep blue those tending increasingly Republican, in ways that track the “afterimage” of secession, that almost fall along a line of latitude, where the most carmine seem clustered, below Missouri, itself distinguished by several pockets of blue, at the latitudinal parallel 36°30′ forms part of the boundary between Tennessee and Kentucky, but red also extends far northwards, covering an area whose expanse almost obscures the victory of Republican James Garfield’s decisive victory in the face of the “solid South’s attempt to overthrow the Government,” as the Bismark Tribune put in repairing the election’s results on November 5, with a victory of 213 to 147 electoral votes.  To understand the victory’s scope, however, we must look both at the great intensity of some blues, especially in Western territories, and at the distribution of the electoral vote map, inset, which neatly suggests the current containment of southern separatism.

1880 popular vote for HGLibrary of Congress

Rather than show the archetype of a north-south divide, the map–unlike the inset distribution of the electoral college–reveals pockets of varied intensity, as if to question the definitiveness of a geographic break in the “solid south” to which mappers would return determine challenges to envisioning national unity, and which very recently has returned to haunt the divide of recent data visualizations of the 2014 midterms.  But rather than create a national divide, the 1880 election saw what was, for the period, a decisive result:  “the country is spared the anxiety and uncertain which would have followed an indecisive result,” reported the St. Johnsbury Caledonian in the state of Vermont, “the question of Democratic or Republican supremacy . . . settled at the polls, and the settlement will not be contested,” as it had been in 1876. “No uncertain voice had echoed in the country “from shore to shore,” as if to echo the convergence of the westward expansion of the union and the traumatic closure of the Civil War–despite the persistence of a deep divide evident in the southern states.

No Uncertain VoiceLibrary of Congress

The triumph of arriving at consensus was the central take-away from Gannett’s map, as well, rather than the persistence of political division across the land.  The balance between the survival of a clear dividing line and the arrival of consensus is however the central story that underlies the map of the 1880 Popular Vote:  for the continuance geographic break that Gannett’s pioneering statistical map revealed undeniably charted the presence of resistance to Reconstruction–and the trauma of restoration of voting rights and the attempted erasure race-distinction–in the area of seceding states, but unavoidably resonates with today’s polarized political climate for reasons not entirely clear to define, though they seem to respond to the deep level of personal animosity toward the current U.S. President, Barack Obama.  Recent infographics focus on such divisions as a “red surge” across southern states evoking data distributions that parse populations to understand their bases, the projects of the cartographical consolidation of the nation in post-Civil War years celebrated its symbolic unity and conceal the specter of fracture-lines on which current visualizations harp.

The map Gannett devised showed the containment of the memory of Southern secession in ways that affirmed the nation’s unity, and showed a historical depth that our current infographics rarely allow.

2.  The considerably impressive local detail of Gannett’s 1883 infographic–its local sensitivity–contrasts with the finality of the on-demand infographics that news outlets readily present of a divided nation.  Gannett’s map seems to register the opening of a divide between regions that cut the United States into two, in the aftermath of the Civil War and Secession, that intimates the infographics that forecast recent American midterm elections, or those repeatedly diffused in subsequent visualizations of the distribution of senate seats, described in part in my previous post, it also celebrates the nation’s continued unity in ways that would inform his career as the “father” of government map making in subsequent years: the project and dynamics of “mapping the nation” was raised in Gannett’s attempt to reconcile the after-image of the south’s secession with a definitive image the republic’s unity makes it particularly valuable to examine, recoloring the populations of individual counties previously synthesized in the 1863 Lloyd’s Map of the Southern States as the votes of citizens in the larger body of the United States abutting “Indian Territory.”

Map of the southern States 1863


The map of the divides the Confederate States of America within the continent imprinted a latitudinal divide in the cartographical symbolization of space as it was compiled by the US Government c. 1895, in which broad generalities barely legible spread across regions to designate open expanse (“Northwest,” “Trans-Mississippi,” “Northern”)–representationally concretized into red-line bounded states.


Map of America NortheastDetail of “Map of the United States of America showing the boundaries of the Union and Confederate geographical divisions and departments, Dec. 31, 1864.” (1891-1895) (Courtesy Rumsey Associates)

legend of boundaries union confederate

–though a manuscript map that figured secession, “showing territorial extent of the rebellion in different epochs during the war for its suppression” oscillated around the latitudinal divide, in ways that later maps of the popular vote would implicitly address or come to terms, even while they ostensibly map current events.

Map Showing Territories of the Rebellion

But the persistence of the latitudinal line, a state boundary that, rather than the Mason-Dixon line, seemed to define the boundary of resisting the end of the legalization of slavery, created the clearest temporal sign of trauma during the hindsight of Reconstruction, when the attempted enforcement of equality and erasure of boundaries based on the construction of race were for the first time addressed, albeit in ways not easily resolved.

Gannett defined a data-map colored to indicate different percentages of the vote by varied intensity in ways that uncover a historical depth of reluctance to support the program of Reconstruction advocated in the Republicans platform, providing a new way to dive into the local details of the entities that had been described on the surfaces of previous maps, as if to trace an after-image of the survival of the Confederate States of America.


Minolta DSC


3.  The strange conceptual space of the infographic is just beginning to be examined in ways that place its broad brush-strokes of colors in the context of a new way to imagine the nation.  In part, the consolidation of a mass of data in a graphic artifact replicates the problems of processing overwhelming amounts of data in a clearly legible form, distilling the shifting population of the nation into terms that can be comprehended at a glance that makes reduced demands on its readers.  It offers little opportunity to examine the relative “thickness” of these changes, or to try to unpack the surface all too often represented in a clear chromatic divide.

To meet the charge to process data flows by redistributing them in different visual forms, as if refracting the nation through a glass, the data visualization implies a nation that is always riven by fracture lines.  Such an image was perpetuated by focus groups, demographers, and television commentators, eager to continue discussion about the numbers pollsters parsed from exiting voters, to fill up the drama of the denouement that follows the closing of the polls, but also offer strategic insight into the activities of each campaign–and judge the campaign’s strategic effectiveness in messaging, as much as its message.  The demand of such infographics is to put viewers in charge of a broad range of data that they materialize, blending cvs files into divisions of high-contrast color, materializing by a set of keystrokes a  correlation similar to that which Gannett had earlier labored so hard to achieve in order to give the map a degree of accuracy that might best confirm the results of the 1880 presidential election.

The role infographics offer  to orient viewers to the nation’s divides was felt for the first time in the aftermath of 1880, when the collating of unity and cartographical consolidation of the mapping of nation raised questions of what divides were readily able to be surpassed.  The question of how current infographics swallow up the local in the regional–or subsume it in the administrative region in which the local is situated–provide a new way to orient one to a political expanse.  Contemporary infographics resist excavation by presenting images that allegedly record objective national divides.  But the far more complicated story about the nation early statistical presents make them particularly compelling.  The very blindness to the past in data visualization claiming to create a snapshot of a present political status quo alone make one turn to these earlier embodiments of the nation’s electorate, both to ask if they are really echoed so strikingly in our own division between “red” and “blue” states–though we now use an inverted color choice, using red to designate Republicans, and not blue as in the map in this post’s header–or what such colors now embody.  The nation is embodied in Gannett’s map for viewers to explore, as if  a palimpsest of the retention of Confederate collective memories.

Despite the insistence of newscasters to present up-to-date images of fractured political preferences, this post seeks to look under info-graphics’ surface, and unpack the image of a divided nation that infographics which the recent Senate elections perpetuate, creating a record of the short-term that ripped from historical context.  For in describing the results as condensations only of the preferences of the American people, info-graphics like those of the 2014 midterm elections offer a deeply impoverished sense of their historical background.  Using the format of the map to increase the symbolic divisions of the nation as if to naturalize the varied rifts they allegedly expose, trying to convince their viewers of their relevance–divides embodied in far more complex and nuanced ways in earlier statistical maps.

Denis Wood has suggested that the historical lifespan of the map lasts but five to six hundred years, and that the function of the map to embody the state may have already been eclipsed by our current fixation to use GIS to materialize conceptual objects we otherwise lack the terms to discuss.  Wood meant that the power of embodying the state–or the link of the map to the state–has changed in ways that have since eroded.  But the persuasive power of older maps provide to parse the country haunts data visualizations in interesting ways, as their own echoes of the unity and coherence of the nation reappear in them, even if they sere as less persuasive forms of embodiment.  The function of symbolizing the coherence of the nation informs Gannett’s mapping of the popular vote, even as it offers new forms of embodying the nation that depart, for one of the first times, from a record of its physical geography or landmarks.  While an antecedent to the bleached nature of info-graphics, where panels of colors replace a palpable nation, they tease us with the notion of embodiment, using the map to describe the fragmentation that afflicts our political system in ways that are both far less easy to read and less satisfying as texts–and frustrating as intentionally incomplete images.

Blindness toward the past that is so characteristic of most infographics spurs one to investigate the resonant divides of the earliest data maps of the breakdown of the Presidential vote of 1880–a map made at the culmination of the creation of exact statistical maps designed that created legible records designed to persuade viewers of the nation’s continued unity.  This statistical survey charted the distribution of the popular vote with exquisite care in the wake of a polarizing break in the electorate among the issue of Reconstruction in those post-Civil War years.  Gannett realized the historical import of the electoral data as a way to create something of a composite portrait of the nation–following the Francis Amasa Walker’s detailed distributions of the country’s population and racial composition–with the realization of the benefits that the vote could be graphically tabulated in ways that would break down along similar divides.  The result was not one he might have thought would both so stubbornly persist or be accepted as an unchangeable fact–and be naturalized as part of the nation–but provided an after-image of the reactions to Reconstruction across the South.

If Gannett mapped the popular vote’s distribution to suggest the diminishing of the after-image of secession in many Southern states, the notion of political polarization that has seized the media and political coverage exploit the ways that maps constitute an image of the nation’s coherence in potentially pernicious ways, by painting a politics of division, rather than consensus, that prey on the anxiety of intractable differences and evoke specters of a divided country that echo how the country was embodied in earlier maps.  But the recent decline of the power of maps in how we symbolize the nation or understand it makes info-graphics weak after-images of the divides that were, in the past, so deeply felt.


4.  The level of accuracy with which county-by-county data allowed Gannett to parse the polarization of voting patterns across the United States helped visualize lingering divides betwixt northern and southern states.  The divide  told a story of the weight with which the recent historical past sharply divided into two hues, opening local variations for the viewer to explore that have expanded far beyond what Gannet’s original scope may have been:   for to modern eyes, Gannett’s visualization revealed an after-image of resistance to Reconstruction across the reputedly gracious South–one which should not demonize the region, but raise questions about the persistence of economic inequalities and inequalities of citizenship and education that Reconstruction partly sought to remediate.

The effect of mapping is less of performing a history of a nation, in the manner of most printed maps of the nation that were posted in public places and classrooms of nineteenth-century America,  than of opening a breach that not only haunts the nation today, and mapping a scar which almost irrevocably threatens to disrupt the continuity of our political space.  Gannett’s maps make us ask about the ability of mapping as a way of telling a story about the persistence of memories across the land as registered in the genre of infographics, in order, a bit perversely, to interrogate the extreme superficiality of most info-graphics’ historical depth.  Mapping the popular vote in 1880 framed both the memory of the trauma not of the South’s defeat, but of resistance to Reconstruction within the Republican party’s platform–and a hope to surpass a political divide of opposition–by producing an image of national consensus to which many urbanized areas of the South contributed, rather than reflecting the continuation of Southern separatism across the land.

In ways that predate the post-Tufteian elimination of “chart-junk” and elegance of graphical economy of tools of data visualization, Gannett insisted in modern ways on the primacy of the visual as a means of displaying and grasping the deep divide across the nation that the aftermath of Southern secession had wrought, and had recently played out at the ballot box.  Unintentionally, however, the deepest aftereffects that his complexional map reveal among counties across the growing United States was to delineate a divide whose after-image continues to haunt our current political economy in ways we have not fully understood.  For Gannett’s early elegant visualization  is a telling snapshot of the lines of difference that continue to haunt the practice of representative democracy in the purportedly United States, as well as a model of facing the disparities in voting preferences that data visualizations can best hope to record.  The degree of current tacit acceptance or naturalization of this divide among the recent midterm Senate races is particularly troubling, because it suggests a tendency to allow it to persist.

Gannet took advantage of the increasingly better tabulation of the popular vote to chart its distribution with attentive care through shades of coloring provide one of the first attempts to geographically define the distribution of the vote–and measure the persistence of a deeply-runing divide.  Although less based on polls that would forecast the election or tools of current events, than a historical map of a significant election, the map raised questions about the future unity of the country for readers in pointed ways.  To be sure, Gannett’s map offered less a snapshot of an ever-receding past, of course, than a record of the steep demands to heal the divided Republic, but it is something that we can’t but regard with a twinge of recognition:   his map of the break within the 1880 popular vote traced a crisp “after-image” of the experience of the secession of Southern states from the union, providing a counterpoint to secession, whose many after-images also understandably haunts how the electorate divides today in ways difficult to fully process.

Gannett’s inset map visually translated the popular vote’s distribution to electoral votes.  The result was particularly striking, and engaged the increasing role that maps gained in the later nineteenth century as tools and symbols that embody the coherence of the nation.  It perform a story or narrative of national unity that contrasted with the division of the popular vote, and seemed to explain the representational institutions of the Presidential election.  If the symbolic disruption of  national unity was the shocker of Gannett’s map, it also traced a specter similar to that which we face in confronting and trying to mine information from info-graphics of the distribution of voting preferences across the United States in the previous weeks.  The very power of the story of national unity that maps had come to perform in public spaces threatened to unravel, dislodge, or be shaken in ways that the possibility of a post-Civil War fragmentation demanded viewers to confront–but, sadly, persist today and pose steep national challenges.



Gannett would surely have been quite surprised to know how the after-image he traced continued to haunt the electorate almost a century and a half after the fact.  But he would surely have been pleased to note that the breakdown of the vote he statistically mapped continued to offer a point of reference to understand and apprehend the legibility of the historical persistence of the split in the nation’s politics he measured.

For Gannett’s map is striking; historian Susan Schulten has perceptively realized it’s import as a precursor to our own interest in how info-graphics offer an image of national divides that might be overcome–or might haunt us.  In an age when and the dangers of the loss of the VRA have created something of a crisis in voting protections, and at a time when census blocks comprising  75% or more people of color are clustered in contiguous blocks to minimize their electoral presence and impact, the sense of a trust in an image of the nation seems especially important.  The transparency with which Gannett rendered the national divide of the 1880 election is indeed haunting, not because of the ingrained nature of political preferences or the lower geographic mobility in a region over a hundred and thirty-five years, but the problems of embodying political representation the map of the 1880 Popular Vote itself records.

1880 popular vote for HGLibrary of Congress

To be sure, the divides in current maps do not clearly reflect the clear carmine pockets of red of anti-Republican opposition.  But the steep economic inequalities underly the relevance with which Gannett’s 1880 map continues to embody breakages of national unity.  A map of Gini coefficients of income distributions in the United States today reflects in the distribution of persistent income inequalities, to be sure, a divide that is reinforced by low median incomes, populations living below the poverty line and low levels of education:



This 2000-2004 map dates but from a decade ago, but itself preserves another eery after-image of the divide Gannett already mapped, and which is only partly continued in a mapping of the number of “active hate groups” that the Southern Poverty Law center found in 2013 persisted below the latitudinal divide of 36°30′–despite the over one thousand active such groups found in the country.


Hate Map spL



If the divide in the map between North and South suggest a political polarization we thought only existed in recent time, the rejection of most southern counties to vote Republican–and participate in the project of Reconstruction–is oddly echoed in the refusal to raise local taxes on gasoline consumption as my last post suggested.  (This contrasts to the more vague Twitter map of hatred, which suggests a more angry nation, or a divide in the open expression of race-based anger–




–but clearly reflects the actual manifestation of institutional acceptance for asocial virulence.)

A 2004 map using data from the Southern Poverty Law Center charted the density of the distribution of such groups however reveals a distinct weighting to the Deep South:

Hate Group Denisty

And in the confetti of antipathy that cluttered in specific cities, in another visualization from the Southern Poverty Group, a cluttering centers in the Deep South.

Hate Groups in Cities

The widespread confetti of hate-groups distributed in 2004 across the nation lay across the nation’s cities; but when read against regions of such groups’ specific local and regional densities, it, strikingly, clearly continues to privilege the very same trapezoidal structure lying below the latitudinal divide.



5.  Gannett’s 1883 map celebrated the refusal of the South to successfully secede from the Republic–and to obstruct the election of a single President–the divide it documents records the deep scar lines that existed in the country for several presidential terms after Lincoln’s death.  It testified to the deep hope in how statistical maps would provide a new image of a united nation.  More than measure or encode territory, Gannett distributed electoral data in ways that help us judge or measure our own distance and temporal remove from it, and, as it were, orient one’s sense of bearings on the divides of national unity it reflected, as well as divides in political preferences that the recent proliferation of infographics that parse “red” and “blue” states with different signifiers attached to each.  This raises questions about the continued embrace of a divide along lines of Secession as a future model of politics increasingly naturalized in our national landscape.

Contemporary national maps with which Gannett’s must be contextualized emphasize the performance of the nation’s symbolic unity unlike many earlier maps, and reveal the possibilities of printing maps for a large audience of readers and students, many of whom would read the map not only as a way to orient themselves to the nation but to naturalize the composition of the continental span of the United States’ continental expanse.


In the wake of the 1880 election, Gannett created a conscious self-portrait of the nation for the Scribners encyclopedia of statistical maps that uncoincidentally sought to measure and explicate the possibilities of coherence that the election revealed, allowing the data to speak to readers at an unprecedented county-by-county granularity that exploited the new currency of the publicly displayed map as an image of the nation.  The Gannett map’s division of the country into counties reflects those images increasingly publicly displayed for didactic and pedagogic ends in schools, offices, train stations, and city halls replete with topographic signs and transportation routes–although it was evacuated of them, and replaced them with a tally of the vote to map  a symbolic digest of political institutions rather than a guide for spatial travel–disrupting a symbolic form of national unity that prominently featured in the typical rural schoolroom circa 1873, if one can trust the Universal Exhibition held that year in Vienna–though the display of worldliness was partly designed, no doubt, to impress continental viewers by such conspicuous placement of emblems of geographic instruction.



Indeed, the shift in consuming maps after the civil war–when newspaper readers had tracked the progress of Union armies across the south, read and commemorated different battles, and received correspondences from loved ones in a landscape destroyed by war would have  rendered even the divided electoral map that Gannett drew deeply pacified, and a tacit agreement to resolve the distribution of dissent by other means.  Gannett indeed seems to have mapped such a divide between northern and southern states in its county-by-county distribution in ways that illustrate the dramatically increase in literacy in maps as accurately mediating the national vote.  While Gannett’s map showed pockets of Republican voting in the southern cities during Reconstruction in considerable detail, to be sure, but also suggested a national divide that could still be preserved, if not to create the unity of the United States preserved in national maps like that of Augustus Mitchell, showing the regions beyond the Mississippi the Union created in the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Utah in an attempt to enlarge by legislative fiat the number of non-seceding states.




The divide would continue to persist, of course, long after the 1880 election.  In ways viewers would readily detect, the 1883 map revealed the cultural memory of collective affront at the continued presence of federal troops to ensure the policies of Reconstruction and the , beyond a simple record of spatial relationships–an issue that had already led to the passage in 1878 of the Posse Comitatus Act, designed to prohibit armed forces from acting as a police force inside the country–but where the army’s role in enforcing civil rights clearly remained contentious.  Gannett’s map revealed an oppositional divide in the electoral distribution which seems eerily familiar to our own political division–it renders the extent of a  story of the affront perceived across the southern states far more dynamically textured than the rather generic templates of much contemporary digital map design.  in ways displaced from its original intent of describing the translation of the distribution of the vote it delineated a clear reluctance to support a Republican platform across the southern states.


6.  Gannett’s mapping of the reluctance to adopt the Republican platform of Reconstruction is sharply unlike the divide between gasoline taxation across of the country that was popularized on the blog disseminated by the folks at Exxon-Mobil to suggest reasons for gas’s uneven price, but that image–for all its dependence on fact–clearly depends on a familiarity with map readership of the separate polity of the south, and the unconscious image of a divided nation that defined southern secession.  For all its insistence on an uneven distribution of taxes, the uneven distribution it reveals has gained traction as an icon of tax disparity on account of these associations, no doubt, even if rather than being rooted in relation to an actual historical divide, the graphic suggests only the independence of select states–New Hampshire, Missouri, and an expanded version of the Old South–that compel us to wonder about the apparent latitudinal divide on the imposition of gas taxes as if it were something of a new Mason-Dixon line along the 37th parallel.

The divide in the popular vote’s distribution Gannett revealed in the 1880 presidential vote reflected historically specific political responses to Reconstruction.  But its divide is nonetheless interestingly echoed in a quite contemporary map as a way to document in detail the disparity in taxes on the price of gasoline.  For the Gas-Tax Divide, if generic in its features, seems inhabited by national divides of over a century ago.  If the American Petroleum Institute intended to depict local resistance to impeding access to fill one’s tank at the lowest possible cost, and document the local variations in the price of gas that were instituted by local tax policies, the latitudinal division  reflects the priorities of individual counties, far more than an artifact of the surveying of the boundary lines of States, and mapped less an image of separate sovereignty than a suspicion of curbs on unfettered consumption of gas below the 37th parallel.


Gas Tax


The light ochre monolith below the latitudinal divide?  If it echoes the distribution of the Popular Vote in Gannett’s map of the 1880 election, and falls along a clear line of latitude, the break offers an unclear a record of political affiliations.


7.  The “informational graphic” seems to recycle the conceit of dividing “red” states from “blue” states both in recent parsing of senatorial races and in the tabulation of Presidential races–in ways that crystallized during the aftermath of the election of 2000.  Whereas Gannet, adopting the colors of the American flag, connoted not just opposite ends of the spectrum, but the coherence of the nation, the connotation of fragmentation and opposition was invested in the bicolor map when “blue” was cast as the color of liberalism during the reporting of results of the 2000 American presidential election.   The choice of “blue” as the color-choice to designate the Democratic party was not only decided by the NBC graphics department–David Letterman famously gave broad currency to the notion of such an opposition when he tried to resolve heightened anxiety at the uncertain results of the election when he somewhat Solomonically (in hindsight, optimistically) suggested that the US Congress “make George W. Bush president of the red states and Al Gore head of the blue ones.”

The history of divides between “Red” states and “Blue” states perhaps respond to a need for meaning our chorographical collective, as much as they essentialize the attributes of any region or location as distinct.  But they tellingly employ the patriotic hues from the primary colors–red and blue–not only to visualize  either end of the spectrum, but to suggest the continued coherence of the data visualization in a map.  There is less intensity strong enough to generate such perceptual after-images in a map, or presume after-images might be expected to exist, given the shifting political landscape of polarization, which suggest something like a search for narratives of differences that is mediated through political institutions process a political space.

For Gannett, the choice of hues employed to elucidate the bitterly contested election rendered the abstraction of party affiliation at a time that the divide between platforms  around the Republican platform of retaining the federal military in the southern states during Reconstruction, creating a fierce anti-Republican divide across the South who voted strongly Democratic as a result.

1880 popular vote for HGLibrary of Congress


The analogy between electoral divides across such spreads of time suggests moments of alternate embodiments of the nation–with which Gannett, as Supervisor of the U.S. Census, was no doubt particularly sensitive.


8.  All maps tell complex stories about continuities in a national landscape that the individual map rarely explicitly describes, but which are often suddenly apprehended with a shock of recognition as the familiarity of their distribution embody seems so eerily familiar.  Although we look at the matter of maps as temporally removed, rather than remaining rooted in an inaccessible past, the landscapes maps create can throw into relief the actual divides that they seek to describe in accessible ways.  Even as artifacts of striking authorship, maps offer templates by which to trace trajectories in space that, rather than being inherently bound to the region they describe, and might be read as revealing a collective regional cultural memory or unconscious.   Reading such maps for after-images offers points of comparison and departure to read their spatial distributions–and offer indispensable points of reference and comparison to read meaning into later maps, as well as a basis for interpreting their terrain.  The non-physical topographical markers and divides in current maps such as that of gas tax levels in the United States demand a degree of historical depth to remove them from the admittedly polemical roles that groups as the American Petroleum Institute intended.  For in registering distinct landscapes of populations, even after a century, north-south cultural divides emerge, mapped in the below distribution between “red” and “blue” counties that Gannett sketched eerily mirror our attraction to mapping red and blue states that dramatize the divide in far more muted hues.  Its statistical basis seems eerily familiar as a synthesis of a gaping divide that challenges its viewers to wonder how that divide might ever be bridged.

Gannett sought to refine existing cartographical techniques and lithographic tools of representation to define the historical distributions of local populations and ethnicities over time in the United States in elegantly artistic if didactic ways, coloring regions in ways that blend aesthetics and cartographical to frame a complex narrative that measure the intangibles of national unity from the data available on its inhabitants.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the story implicit in his mapping of the political divide that was inherited from the Civil War resonates not only with present distributions of lower taxes on petroleum in compelling ways.  It offers evidence of a continuity in problems of concluding a national consensus that continue a century later:   Gannett elegantly converted the data of the presidential election of 1880 in a particularly appealing way designed to forge unity by capturing its divides in the delicate balance of color-schemes on a map’s face, and created a striking image that seems to haunt shifting attitudes to accepting a tax on gas from which it stands at a remove of almost a century-and-a-half.

By examining disparities among political preference for parties at an unprecedented visualizations of variations across the country of considerably fine grain for the 1883 Scribners’ Encyclopedia, Gannett clearly mapped a strikingly stark political polarization in the United States which bore deep scars of civil war.  It has gained attention for its eerily familiar family resemblance of mapping the current gulf between red and blue states.  It seems to recapitualite a contested narrative it seeks to resolve as well as inventively retell.  In ways that have continued to sculpt a political landscape of the new century, and the elections of 2004 and 2008, the elegantly synthetic two-color info-graphic that Gannett devised imaged the continued divisions of the country as a form of political consensus, if of a fairly fragile sort we turn to maps to recreate across space.

In the wake of the secession of Southern states from the Union, statistical visualizations of the states served to explain the distribution of electoral votes as a decisive factor in the designs of printed maps of the country  to render the dissonance among the geographic size of regions respectively won by Republican Tilden and Democrat Hayes, Susan Schulten observed, in an omen for the nation’s centenary:  deep distrust over the continued presence of federal troops in the south to enforce Reconstruction Republicans advocated is registered in the anti-Republican vote across the south.  The division in the popular vote was troubling in 1876, because Tilden’s majority was preserved in the electoral college–in ways that led engravers as Henry Clay Donnell, Henry Kowalski, and Charles S. Israel to devise for the U.S. Election Map Co. an image that mapped the electoral college across presidential elections as states were mapped from 1789 to 1876, in parallel to Gannett’s own efforts, in a nineteenth-century version of Sparks’ minute-long video:



The chronological sequence of maps of the voting distributions over the first twenty-three presidential elections responded to growing interest in the wake of the divisive election in which the US Congress overturned the popular vote to historicize the apportionment of electoral votes and voting results, revealing a recent statistical familiarity with tabulating results that was perhaps particularly pronounced by 1880.  Such a sequence sought to affirm the consensus arrived between different regions, in order to process the political shifts of the expanding nation in cartographical terms.

The cartographical sequence of electoral apportionment is an argument for the nature of representational democracy, and a historical reaffirmation of  the institution of the electoral college, as much as a digest of past presidential elections.  After Republicans had cast themselves as the party of saving the union in 1876, Census Superintendent Gannett devised the idea of a detailed county-by-county account of the distribution of the national popular vote of 1880 whose publication was designed to overcome a vision of division by showing the local depth of Democratic votes for the Republican candidate, Garfield, that made his victory–as narrow as that of his predecessor, Rutherford B. Hayes, which had been only resolved by the electoral college–a form of crafting consensus and affirming the electoral system as well as well as a persuasive statistical synthesis of big data, on of the first of continued efforts to pioneer statistical geography he devised to chart and affirm the nation’s continuity as much as document a national divide.

In the above expansion of the tools and techniques Gannett used in the 1883 Statistical Atlas of the United States, Donell, Kowalski, and Israel mobilized the forms of maps created a visual record of how counties leaned Democratic and Republican across the nation that its viewers could readily interpret and analyze, defining an electoral divides to describe not only spatial relationships in a fixed distribution, but embodied distinct voting preferences across counties by differently hued shades of blue and red to represent the entire electorate and election’s outcome–in something of a precedent to Sparks’ compelling animated video of the shifting political divides between the electorate which have only recently crystallized into a firm red v blue divide.

By tabulating the vote in spatial terms, Gannett achieved a  sense of continuity and regional identity that has continued significance in the after-image it creates of war.  By defining local variations as if they themselves constituted an actual terrain–employing a recognized geographic apparatus to describe the processes of representative government–he quite compellingly register deep divides that still starkly divide the nation a decade after the Civil War, even if off of the battlefield.  He would have been impressed by the continued reluctance of a similar region to refuse the imposition of local gasoline taxes, and by the continued resilience of the opposition revealed in his own earlier info-graphic to have gained such rhetorical prominence during the Obama’s two presidential campaigns.

9.  Gannett resolved an astounding geographic specificity to chart the legitimacy of Garfield’s victory after a bitterly contested election in 1876, when the electoral vote had in the end famously revised the outcome of the popular vote.  For Tilden could claim a majority of the popular vote, but the pro-business New York Governor had lost the electoral college.   That election’s results had been sent to Congress, where a 15-member Electoral Commission sought to determine the validity of the contested popular vote and its translation into electoral counts and gave the victory to Hayes in the Compromise of 1877–or Corrupt Bargain–which ended the federal involvement in local southern elections during Reconstruction by the Republican party, and, despite Tilden’s victory in the 1876 popular vote over Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, modified the Republican platform for federal supervision of the civil reforms that would be part of Reconstruction.  Despite Hayes’ previous strong support of protecting the civil rights of newly freed slaves in the south, he continued his earlier promise that the Southern states to no longer be occupied by US federal troops to enforce civil rights in his administration but rather, as Hayes put it, enjoy “the blessings of honest and capable local government,” despite the clear continuation of measures explicitly designed to obstruct universal suffrage from poll taxes to intimidation.

The presence of federal troops across the south had been rejected in the Southern vote, and as part of the compromise that guaranteed Hayes’ victory, the Republican allowed Southern autonomy, gaining the misreported electoral votes of southern states in order to capsize Tilden’s majority vote, given his broad support not only in the Northeast, midwest, and West, but the most populated regions of the south, including along the Mississippi and Carolina coast.

Election of 1876


Tilden’s over-ready acquiescence to the electoral configuration after Hayes’ challenged the electors from South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana–in spite his having gained a plurality of the popular vote by the then-quite-considerable margin of over 300,000 votes–sadly sealed the end of his political career.  But the heavily contested nature of the election, and, no doubt, the difficulty of the narrative that it posed about the nation, also mandated the more detailed county-by-county remapping of the election of 1880–and which the modern reproduction of a county-by-county count revisits to show the limited votes for Tilden across Southern states.


In the face of the building bitterness of the Southern states over the program of Reconstruction Republicans had advocated in their platform, Rutherford B. Hayes had earlier promised for the Southern states to no longer be occupied by US federal troops to enforce civil rights, but to rather, as Hayes put it himself, enjoy “the blessings of honest and capable local government,” despite the clear continuation of multiple measures that were explicitly designed to obstruct a universal franchise across the South and southern states–from poll taxes to intimidation, helped him reach significant support across South Carolina and along the Mississippi, often from newly enfranchised voters, although the majority of southerners had voted against Hayes.  The Gannett projection avoided the drawn-out sense of political stalemate that had haunted the 1876 election and its injury to a democratic process.


The stinging victory of the Republican left considerable bitterness of dissatisfaction in the outcome for the Democratic party, however, in the face of much suppression of the vote, and deep scars across the land that the election of 1880 did not erase.  The relative independence of what often appears as a distinct enclave in the south did not only depend on the memory of the Civil War, often framed as resistance to Reconstruction.  Even as the presence of federal troops across the south had been rejected, as part of the compromise that guaranteed Hayes’ victory, in ways that the Voting Rights Act would replace by the oversight of the Dept. of Justice on changes to voting practices in order to ensure greater national uniformity of access to the ballot box.  The image of the rejection of Reconstruction, refusing the incursions of armed forces to teach a culture of equality, echoed in the reversal of returning federal troops to ensure the integration of Little Rock Central High School or Representative John Lewis’ vigorous call for martial law in Ferguson, Missouri after the tragic shooting of the 18 year old Michael Brown, and a similar need to federalize the Missouri National Guard “to fight the fires of frustration and discontent” across America–and the federalization of the national guard in Montgomery, Alabama during civil rights struggles of the early 1960s that Lewis knows so well.  (The recent expansion of a “no-fly zone” over Ferguson that was approved by the FAA to contain media coverage by creating a blanket of some thirty-seven square miles seemed to exclude police actions from public media attention, and subtract it from news coverage–a troubling violation of the First Amendment rights–was designed to subtract the police’s relation to protesters in the St. Louis suburb from national debate.

The local response to the riots in Ferguson suggest a militia-style intervention in the demonstrations that attracted uncomprehending and aghast global coverage.  Indeed, the local expenditure in the St. Louis county police to replenish their stock of needed “civil disobedience equipment”–including riot helmets and related gear, tear gas, pepper balls, plastic handcuffs and grenades–has approached $175,000 since the reaction to the riots following Michael Brown’s killing by local police, including “LiveX” brand pepper balls that boast themselves to be ten times hotter.  Amnesty International  recently noted the danger of “Equipping officers in a manner more appropriate for a battlefield may put them in the mindset that confrontation and conflict is inevitable rather than possible, escalating tensions between protesters and police.”

10.  The results of the 1876 popular vote  belied their geographic distribution in ways that are visible in the above recreation, where the majority of the land seems colored Yellow, and created new challenges for .  As a result, Gannett sought to educate viewers in the translation of the vote to electors, and no doubt to conclusively persuade of the decisiveness of the bitterly contested presidential election, by documenting the extent to which, despite the strength of anti-Republican sentiment throughout the south left, Garfield conclusively won the presidency.  Gannett’s map, while registering the suppression of African American vote in much of the south, responded to a pressing problem of the need to map the nation’s continued unity within the popular vote–as much as register its political divide around those pockets that revealed clear clusters of Republican votes in this reconstruction for schoolroom teaching about the distribution of the vote from 1932 that provided the regional breakdown within states that Gannett’s statistical mapping would allow on a county by county level.

Gannett’s visual explanation of mapped the distribution of the popular vote into electoral votes, tracing the complex distribution of pockets of counties of voting, and transferring the distribution of the popular vote to the electoral votes far more effectively than the less refined or elegant distributions that were engraved of the country to explain the outcome of the vote in 1876–when the matter had, after all, been resolved by committee–after two alternative sets of electoral returns were submitted by the southern states of Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida, in ways that left the outcome of the election in balance–and demanding a greater proof of electoral returns in 1880–even if the cartoonist Thomas Nast had used the electoral map to predict the Republicans would carry the nation from California to Maine.


A far more variegated map of the distribution of votes was required to tell the story of Republican victory for James Garfield that was understood across the nation as a referendum on Reconstruction–partly explaining the fear that the vote would result in a division of the country that replayed a secessionist divide of the Missouri Compromise.   The story was particularly complicated of how the Republicans continued to carry the nation, but demanded, by 1883, the results of the 1880 election to be commemorated by a far more detailed map for viewers to scrutinize.  The zones of deepest carmine red in counties in Louisiana, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Alabama, and South Carolina create a canvas of deep distrust and map something of a dissonance in the nation in reaction to policies of Reconstruction and an agitation for strongest shifts in sovereignty.  The multicolored map allowed one to read the balance of popular and electoral votes in the country, and was clearly prepared for an audience eager to visualize the continued integrity of the Republic and construe relations between popular and electoral votes, reflect on operations of political sovereignty, and, indeed, to try to visualize and fashion consensus from the contentious elections results in peaceful fashion, where dense pockets of republicanism across the south, particularly along the Mississippi and around New Orleans, as well as South Carolina, seem to testify to the presence of the votes of enfranchised former slaves.

Continuous Crimson

The electoral division turned on the issue of the continued autonomy of the South, and effectively continued the dispute of the Civil War off the battlefield:  the north-south divide migrated from the battlefields to the ballot-box.  The county-by-county mapping distributed the popular vote and beside a translation of the election to electoral votes represented something of a conclusive resolution for the bitterly contested election.   The map registered almost palpable opposition to continued presence of federal troops, reacting to the feelings of infringement on local liberty from federal military oversight of the South during Reconstruction in the election whose traces can be seen in  cultural memory when federal troops much later allowed the Little Rock Nine to attend an integrated High School in 1957, if seems to have been remembered by few when Representative John Lewis responded to the deep distrust occasioned by local police’s August 9 shooting of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown in 2014 by requesting that President Obama declare martial law in the small St. Louis, Mo. suburb of Ferguson after violence erupted in the streets:  it seemed the proper reaction given mutual miscomprehension about the still unexplained ten to eleven pistol shots–an act that only led to an almost informal late-September apology from the local police chief.

Missouri and Arkansas contained particularly deep regions of crimson as former slave-holding states, where memories are strong.  (Missouri still lies on the other side of the gasoline-tax divide, if it is geographically located above the parallel that sets off most states in the American Petroleum Institute’s map.)  Is it unfair to note that as Gannett mapped a divide that reacted to the infringement of using  federal troops to ensure civil liberties across the South, he transcribed a cultural memory that echoes even a century off, and generates its own after-images of resentment at civil liberties?  Missouri is, of course, seen as a less reliable “red” state than it was in 2000–when it went for Bush over Gore–but remains, interestingly, on one side of the Gas-Tax divide, even if it lies mostly entirely above the most prominent meridian’s divide.

11.  Gannett’s infographic parsed county-by-county voting tallies of the election, years later, to clarify the impact of Hayes’ victory; the economy of the inset map of the electoral college succinctly symbolized Garfield’s Republican victory in an icon of national unity.  The cartographical image might now raise questions for some about the distribution of electoral votes that it records, and the heavy number of electors from the southern states, but it used the map to bind the continued coherence of the states in the republic at that time, explaining how the affirmation of Colorado’s statehood effectively tilted the balance of the electoral count.  But given the prominence of the issue of autonomy of the formerly seceding states in the union, it’s striking for the density of deep crimson in multiple blotches below the thirty-seventh parallel: their intensity holds the viewer’s eye , despite the lightness of the light blue shading in northern and midwestern states.

The dividing line served as a basis to articulate deep desire for autonomy and the withdrawal of federal presence oddly continued in current politics, and reflects a line that the US government had as recently as 1875 contracted the surveyor Chandler Robbins to find as a boundary line between Arizona and New Mexico, running along the 37th parallel from the four corners monument–the very same line separated the greatest concentration of anti-republican votes, and would encourage the growth of Southern Democrats, and the latitude seems a fold along which the nation divided into two just a generation after the wake of the Civil War, but although Utah, Arizona and New Mexico did not yet have electoral votes in the Presidential elections as other states, Gannett revealed a clear divide on the latitudinal line between the rosy pink states north of Tennessee and Virginia, and the deeper red reserved for the Deep South.

37th Parllel



The infographic effectively summarized the historical and sociological divide in deeply symbolic ways.  It affirmed a resolution before the expansion of the United States that relayed the future expansion along the lines decided by the Missouri Compromise:  unlike the simple geographic distribution of the popular vote in the election would suggest, the particularly contentious election was only resolved in a decisive manner by confirmation of statehood for Colorado its one electoral vote tipped the scales to Hayes and handing him the presidency.

The image suggests the increased expectations of cartographical literacy to read and interpret, that seems to mask over the deep divide between North and South which would repeat the division of the Civil War itself:  the reader of the map would note with surprise the considerable number of electoral votes assigned Minnesota, Kansas and Nebraska, which serve as a counterweight to the greater electoral votes of Southern states, that uniform swath of red  encompassing a considerable share of nation’s geographical territory.   Hayes’ presidency rested on midwestern states as Ohio, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas but also masked a division in the country parsed in the first data-maps and demographic infographics:  the map is also startling since it reflects political divides from recent elections:  the color-scheme almost holds, irrespective of shifts in political affiliation over one hundred and twenty-five years.  The dextrous distribution of the popular vote Gannett mapped was reprinted in Scribner’s Statistical Atlas (1883), for viewers to scrutinize local variations in the distribution of election returns at fine grain on the county level.


3_scribners_1883_625_0Library of Congress


The lithograph was designed as a cogent explanation of a national divide, something of a counterpart to the famous chloropleth lithograph of slave-holding states which Alexander Dallas Bache devised based on the 1860 Census with the recent German immigrant Edwin Hergesheimer (1835-89), or the instructional wall maps like the so-called “Washington Map” Matthew Fontaine Maury mapped from the Census–“States Marked thus * Claim to have seceded from the United States,” the legend of the latter reads, presenting itself as an explicit performance of the continued claims to national sovereignty of the United States.  On the eve of the US Civil War (1861-65), Maury, then Southern Secretary of the US Navy, mapped a Republic in ways that silenced clear fracturing, following a county-by-county cartographical practice but intentionally omitting the geographical divide that would open like a chasm in maps such as Gannett’s in later years.

All are, in a sense, evidence of a turn to the resolution of crises of national representation and the dramatically increasing “map literacy” of the late nineteenth century American reading public, or map-mindedness, that suggest the extent to which thinking with and through maps provided new forms of symbolizing and understanding national unity in readily reproducible form.



Yet we are also, for reasons it demands to be explored, both less attracted by attention to the complicated nature of divisions, and perhaps, given the amount of data by which we are increasingly overwhelmed, more eager to resolve disparities into monochrome voting blocks.  The divides we seem to imagine always existed or only increasingly solidified emerged as something like a means to heal how the performance of the unity in the map had been torn asunder in the Civil War, but was in fact able to heal, rather than to ossify or be accepted as an inevitable and insurmountable divide that so often seems to continue to cut across the land.

Leave a comment

Filed under data visualization, Henry Gannett, infographic, Persistent Income Inequalities, Red States vs. Blue States, Susan Schulten

Mapping Ebola’s Recent Spread–While Barely Containing Our Widespread Fears

Tracking the progressive advance of Ebola virus in West Africa in an animated HealthMap projection created an eery sense of inevitability of the virus’ unprecedentedly rapid diffusion.  But the mapping on a Google Maps platform so removes the virulent spread of the virus from any context, noting suspected and confirmed infections and fatalities in a bubble map, to poorly embody the scale and scope of its threat of its contagion.  Omitting the distinct terrain over which the strain has expanded from rural areas to urban slums, and the complex vectors of the new strain’s transmission almost conceal the reasons why this outbreak has been so hard to contain adequately, and leave one raising perhaps unanswerable questions about the delay of an orchestrated or more effective response to contain or try to control its now-exponential spread.

The rapidity with which microbes from the very rainforest allows the virus spread to highly vulnerable populations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as, recently, both Nigeria and Senegal–populations particularly vulnerable to the current strain–foregrounded in a time-lapse sequence of those infected with the deadly virus uses a Google Maps platform and template to map the spread, but might be taken as something of a challenge to better map the virus by refining our image of the virus’ transmission and catastrophic spread.  If such widely circulated maps provide a basis for describing the challenge of containing the virus’ spread, they also present a challenge for better mapping the transmission of Ebola virus and reviewing reasons for slow response, perhaps as we hoped the contagion would not emerge to be so virulent as it has become.  Were we confident in the containment of the disease, or were we not mapping the multiplication of pathways of its transmission?  What sort of maps can we now make to better understand the specific distribution of the disease?  Did our own reliance and use of apparently exacting maps, which were only as good as the data that they were fed, conceal a delay in broadcasting early warning signs to the world?

If this is the case, it makes sense to ask if an unwarranted trust in the metrics of mapping has contributed to a lack of clear understanding or reporting on how the disease has spread.  The outbreak that has outpaced previous outbreaks of the virus in central Africa challenge our models for mapping Ebola the spread of the deadly virus–whose mortality rate has at times been estimated as high as 90%.  Even notwithstanding the low resistance of the populations of West Africa, and its location in a region of recent urbanization–unlike the rural areas of Central Africa where outbreaks had been previously confined–the unprecedented levels of human-to-human transmission challenge us to map the contagion we seek to control in ways that can best process the very rapid transmission of the virus and its advance across six countries with varying rapidity.


Ebola Climbs


The numbers noting rate of mortality in the above map threatens to overwhelm our sense about the virus’s spread by privileging the rapidity of its contagion and not examining causes for its diffusion or vectors of its virulence.  The HealthMap announcements have become the recognizable image of its spread.  But despite the apparent authoritative HealthMap graphics as mapping the disease’s first appearance on March 19, a full “nine days before the World Health Organization formally announced the epidemic,” notwithstanding the considerably large investment in Health Map of the US government’s Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), rather than standing at the forefront of health reporting and surveillance, the first maps HealthMap issued in fact antedate the first news conference of the Guinea’s Department of Health of the Ebola outbreak, reported in the first news articles on a “hemorrhagic fever” which summarized the news conference of the Director of Disease Prevention, Dr. Sakoba Keita.  While we have focussed on the HealthMap graphics for the authoritative clarity with which they mapped the virulent disease’s outbreak, forecasting systems played little role in detecting the virus–and little advanced news of the outbreak beyond traditional news sources.

The rhetoric of the map has masked the lag that occurred in the first diffusion of news reports of the hemorrhagic disease.  The unfolding of the maps of the disease’s spread display a similar reluctance to listen or observe on the ground, but rather to synthesize data in what has become something like a proxy for direct observation or reporting.  The limited spatial context for the generic Google Maps platform used on HealthMap especially obscures, on account of its lack of spatial precision, the complexity of new vectors and sources of transmission that differentiate this outbreak from Ebola outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the past fourteen years.  For it maps the disease only by registering numbers in vague national conglomerates–often using incomplete numbers reported by local agencies.  While the first cases appear to the Guinean forest, the spread infection to urban areas and slums offers a powerful chart of the outbreak that–unlike earlier outbreaks of Ebola in central Africa–gained a virulence that challenged both public health authorities and residents who had little exposure to the animal-born disease.

The crowding of states with tan and brown bubbles to designate human suspected or confirmed infections obscure the dynamics and dangers of Ebola’s transmission to a rapidly urbanizing landscape, and are silent on the dangers of confronting the wide range of potential pathways of its transmission that we seek–and indeed are ethically obliged–to contain.  Maps provide forms for embodying as well as tracking diseases, practices of mapping can both communicate the exponential expansion of fatalities of infected victims across space, and suggest potential future strategies for their containment.  Were we only hoping that, as earlier outbreaks in the Central African Republic or DRC, the West African outbreak would be contained, without considering the multiplication of vectors by for its contagion, or the new terrain and new populations to which it had spread?  Or did we fail to map its dangers as quickly as we could have done?




1.  The lack of qualitative or specific details in these maps treat them as registers of the exponential expansion of epidemiological updates. Whereas no previous outbreak of a strain of the diseases has produced more than several hundred cases, the virulence of the specific strain of Ebola, previous confined to rural areas, may rest in the multiple vectors of its transmission and the difficulty containing new vectors for the transmission of Ebola, easily communicated through contact with bodily fluids or blood, leading to a far greater expansion of human-to-human transmission of the disease than occurred in recent history.  Shock at its spread displaces   the vectors of contagion by which Ebola has so rapidly and virulently spread.  Indeed, the current reproductive rate of the disease suggests its expansion will continue most dramatically.

When epidemiologist Michael T. Osterholm warns “the Ebola epidemic in West Africa has the potential to alter history as much as any plague has ever done,” the comparison may illustrate both its extreme danger and potential significance, and a need to reconsider how we have charted the contagion’s spread.  Plague was, of course, misunderstood as a miasma and not examined as being transmitted from the bacteria carried on fleas resident in rats.  While we don’t still know the natural reservoir of the virus, or the relations between different strains of Ebola virus, the pathways of its contagion challenge our ability to map the vectors of viral transmission–and the mapping tools we might better use to contextualize its virulent spread from its epicenter in the Guinean forests.  Despite repeated warnings of the dangers that the consumption of infected carcasses as bush meat constituted a neglected source of its transmission, the expansion of human-to-human transmission has obscured its animal-born origins.  The continued possibilities for infection from the meat of carcasses of animals infected with the virus moreover creates new problems as the WHO works to contain the spread of microbes dwelling in the very rainforest that spread to vulnerable populations in Guinea to recur in Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as Senegal and Nigeria–whose populations seem particularly vulnerable to the current strain.

The need for a map that charts the spatial transmission of the disease, which has itself proceeded jump borders and region divides with ease.  Such boundary lines name the different public health authorities that are forced to face the ravages of Ebola, which may offer a haphazard barometer to calibrate the global danger of the danger, but might obscure the ways humans were infected by the virus in recent months. Already by March 23, cases of the virus were suspected near where it claimed its first victims:


By march 23 ebolaHealthMap/Boston Children’s Hospital


The first documented documented cross-border spread of the disease, according to tropical medicine specialist Dr. Estrella Lasry, occurred in late March–about the time that the outbreak was first reported by Guinean authorities to the WHO.  In over just a month, by April 20, the distribution of suspected cases had dramatically grown, in ways that would have already suggested the substantial threat of its growing incidence of what had been confined to inland areas, and had not been associated with the region:  the migration of the disease from forested and rural areas to cities marked the first time urban occurrence of hemorrhagic fevers in urban slums, in crowded areas where it dramatically spreadoverwhelming health care workers whom it affected in great numbers, and the fear of its international spread prompted  military-enforced cordon sanitaire at border areas, as more affluent areas trusted in their access to superior health care protected them from the growing diffusion of the infectious disease even as it spread.


April 20 EbolaHealthMap/Boston Children’s Hospital


The concentration of infections seem relatively concentrated, but had taken on particular virulence on in Liberia–a country with limited health care facilities or health-care workers.  And by July 8, the area of those infected by disease had grown broader and deeper in density, and any hopes that the outbreak would stay in a concentrated area disappeared, although international attention was only gained as the virus arrived in Nigeria in later that month.


Ebola July 8HealthMap/Boston Children’s Hospital


And on August 5, as the contagious virus decisively multiplied in Nigeria, which, one would think, eyebrows were first raised:


ht_ebola_outbreak_map_august_4_jc_140805_16x9_992HealthMap/Boston Children’s Hospital


The number of confirmed cases not only had grown, but the number of confirmed cases in Guinea and Liberia indicated that the disease was spreading both toward the Côte d’Ivoire.  As of September 16, the virus had grown to new proportions and scarp, an epidemiological emergency only partly intimated by the crowded bubbles that hint at the changed profile of the infection even as they offer frustratingly few tools to process it:


Ebola Sept. 16HealthMap/Boston Children’s Hospital


Providing a means of grasping the spread of a disease and the dangers that it poses is an inherent property of the map, but the obstinacy of not reading the disease’s widespread infection is difficult to explain fully.  Could it be that the multiplication of the vectors for the disease’s transmission were inadequately mapped?

Yet plotting confirmed incidence of Ebola tells only part of the story of the expanding risks of infection in the sub-Saharan continent, and the silences of the HealthMap graphic compromise its informative value.  Recent predictions that the spread of infection by Ebola across West Africa will continue for twelve to eighteen months have confirm, if this was needed, the global scope of the health disaster, as the cascading influence of the spreading contagion for which we have no vaccine challenge the region’s food security.  The expected spread of Ebola virus in new areas will continue to raise compelling questions of the ethics of care–and of the availability of provisional vaccines that will be developed as they are tested–as more than 70,000 people in much of sub-Saharan Africa seem to lie at risk–according to the fifty-two received alerts for Ebola in just a week in mid-September.


52 Alerts in Last WeekHealthMap/Boston Children’s Hospital


How did it travel so quickly after being apparently contained so long?  How safe can it even be to remain, at this time, in Liberia, or to send medical doctors and workers, needed nurses, and temporary hospitals there?

This post focusses attention on the ethics of how we have mapped the virulent disease both at a remove from the landscape and surroundings where it has occurred, and the sense it makes to continue to tabulate confirmed or suspected cases of infection.  For we have charted the current spread of Ebola virus spread to at risk populations, suppressing panic at its exponentially expanding scope, as we try to imagine how the infections might be contained by charting the number of humans infected, omitting the virus’ relation to vectors of transmission or hosts that may warp the dangers faced by people who might become infected in coming months.  Although there is the danger that the current strain may mutate to an air-born virus, as some fear, tracking its human-to-human transmission might be placed into better relief by considering both the paths by which the virus migrated into urban areas and jumped to humans from animal hosts.

A chief difficulty of continuing to map Ebola against a base map of national frontiers and boundaries is that it contains the virus lies in locating it within fixed boundaries and perimeters–and misleadingly suggest a controlled outbreak.  Maps of the region foreground numbers of dead and infected along a blank topography, moreover, in ways that conceal the potential for a qualitatively rich map of the virus’ spread from the Guinean forests, where the recurrence of the highly contagious disease first broke out in humans.  Such projections of the virus ignore important questions of how the vectors or courses of transmission the outbreak have made it so difficult to contain:  for we often read the maps for the possibility for human-to-human contagion, although the spread of the virus seems to mirror the possibility of several sources of Ebola’s transmission to humans from its animal hosts.

Indeed, the spread of the virus mirrors the fragility of the broadleaf forests that run from Guinea to Sierra Leone in the West and the Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Nigeria and Togo to the East, mapped below–an ecosystem that is an environmental “hot-spot” whose diversity is so endangered by slash-and-burn agriculture and irresponsible mining to be among the most “critically fragmented regions” in the world.   The terrain reflects the contours of  regions in which Ebola has spread from the very bats and primates from whom we believe the highly contagious strains of Ebola jumped.  We neglect at our peril possibilities of recurrent transmission from animal hosts as we seek to map the spread of contagion at a remove from the continued consumption of such animal host as “bush meats.”   The widespread contacts with meats of monkeys, rat, and bats–all affected by the virus–from the fragmented forest may have contributed to its spread to more heavily populated regions where we are now struggling to contain its transmission.


Guinean Forests


The coincidence of these regions suggests the need to map distributions of animal inhabitants as we chart Ebola’s dramatic spread across areas it rarely occurred previously–beyond the transmission of the virus by human hosts.  The spread of the disease has occurred without proper precautions or an establishment of best medical practices.  The worst Ebola outbreak ever  confronted by doctors and medical staff was regularly met without necessary protective gear in many West African hospitals for much of the summer.  As if in a terrifying apotheosis of Ivan Illich’s argument of the abundance of “iatrogenic” diseases whose transmission grows in hospital settings, we face descriptions of the frequency with which hospital beds and rooms covered with smeared feces, urine, or blood–the very prime vectors for contracting the virus–were the norm.

The inadequacy of facilities to control or treat the highly infectious disease’s spread has been facilitated not only by health-care breakdowns but an inadequate understanding or mapping of its epidemiological causes, masked in the above graphic, leading President Obama to propose the contribution of multiple mobile hospitals in order to bolster local health-care.  As we brace for waves of panic, challenges to food security with a far more limited harvest, and rising food prices, map-makers will be challenged to chart the waves of multiple impact of the simple virus across the continent.

Have we understood the best models for mapping a disease that has been imagined as specific to humans, but which has not only infected as it has jumped to humans from the animal population, but seems to have jumped from rain forest populations of fruit bats, antelope, great apes, and chimpanzees through local food supplies?  Although once the virus has migrated to humans, further pathways of infection will be human-borne, the continued danger of Ebola’s spread through meats and contact with animals’ blood suggest a proliferation of the virus’ impact we need to assess in order to contain most effectively.  Controlling the transmission of the virus’ transmission, which can occur through contact with the effusion of blood or bodily fluids from infected bodies, or spread from contact with cadavers, is now feared to spread to up to fifteen nations–of which some 22 million people stand to be at risk.  The maps of the risk of the infection have, indeed, displaced maps of actual infections or local mortality rates as the focus of international news–as what was at first a West African phenomenon has been replaced by a startling “heat map” of the broader populations at risk for virulent disease, whose infection of which is shown as spreading like an unstoppable cancer across Central Africa toward the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi.

The eye-catching graphic in the Daily Mirror used data of at-risk populations across Africa to create a graphic of the disease boring a radioactive hole in the continent’s interior.  But the numerous absences and silences in this attention-getting infographic–as the Google projections of confirmed cases and deaths from Ebola in this post’s header–distort its communication by the remove at which they lie from the local landscape.



Ebola mapDaily Mirror; Sunday, September 14


Is this eye-grabbing graphic most informative guide to the progress of the devastating disease, if it tracks the range or human infection by Ebola alone?  And could one better understand the multiple “populations at risk” that it illuminates, not only in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Ivory Coast, but Togo, Angola, Uganda, Cameroon, the CAR, DRC, and Burundi by the migration of the virus and  the local transmission of viral infection?  Would this offer a better base map to chart the containment of successive waves of infection?  How would this change our notion of the best practices for the effective containment of the disease?


2.  The World Health Organization hoped last month to control the outbreak of Ebola over nine months to only 20,000 human infections.  But difficulties of controlling numerous vectors of the transmission of the disease through contact with bodily fluids now suggests the reality of soon facing 20,000 cases in one month  that will be increasingly difficult to contain.

Ebola’s spread raises questions of the best practices of mapping the devastating outbreak, and of communicating Ebola virus’s transmission:  so physically devastating and gruesome is the virus, which is notoriously difficult to contain with success, or even to treat by intravenous replenishment, that viewing the virus outside the lens of human-to-human transmission is difficult.  But the huge risks of transmission compels we consider what criteria to adopt to map to best  process the disease’s spread and contagion.  National maps of the distribution of illness make little sense in communicating that spread.  The rapidity with which  microbes focussed in the very rainforest that seem to have spread to vulnerable populations in Guinea to recur in Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as Senegal–whose populations seem particularly vulnerable to the current strain.  The outbreak at first concentrated in these three countries was no doubt encouraged by their increasingly urbanized and interconnected populations, especially among the high levels of poor who live in dense slums, whose populations who depend on the foraging of “bush meats”–the term for local animals in surrounding rain forests on which many depends.  Such animals not only seem the hosts from which Ebola “jumped” to humans, but have themselves, due to deforestation, suffered from shrinking forest land, moreover, in ways that have restricted their regional habitat (and that of the virus)–augmenting the risk of a “spillover” of Ebola across species in these regions that it is deeply unethical not to map.

The silences of the info graphic conceals deep changes, including the expansion of a network of roads that have multiplied routes of contact of meats from rural areas to urban slums, that have shifted the ecosystem of the Ebola virus itself.  As we consider turning our attention to mapping the location of the virus and its varied hosts, we stand to gain much from what might be called  a “deep map” of Ebola both less widely discussed and understood, for all the emphasis on the dangers of eating bush meats, and better communicate what underlies the disease’s dramatic distribution.


FAO World's Forests 2000FAO


Absences of endangered forests are by no means the only silences of info graphics depicting the virus’s spread.  The most prevalent way of mapping Ebola’s incidence by national boundaries and human habitation presents a striking contrast with the extent to which its hosts have been bats and other animals as rats and monkeys–whose consumed flesh is known as “bush meats.”  The meats constitute a prevalent form of nutrition among poor in a region without traditions of husbandry.  As much as the virus might be easily contracted by person-to-person contact, we may have focussed on contact of infected bodies, given both the horrors of hemorrhaging and bleeding in an uncontrolled manner so horrible watch and humiliating to experience, and our belief in familiar microbial transmission of influenza or other microbial diseases.  This concentration on hand-to-hand contact may however have perhaps led us to focus on the bodily fluids of the infected as a vector of the transmission of the disease.  Although such meats are now publicly prohibited from consumption by several governments, animals such as bats seem frequent hosts of the virus, although few mappings of the incidence of bat colonies have been attempted to determine the possibilities or potential for the virus’ geographical spread.  Could one map not only the presence of disease in populations of fruit bats, a common for of bush meat, and the routes of their harvesting and transport for sale to urban markets?

Such a practice of mapping is recognized by Oxford researcher Nick Golding as necessary to offer “the first step towards understanding where outbreaks of the disease might occur in the future,” as well as help “prepare for future outbreaks and to deal with the current one we need to understand how human movements cause the disease to spread once it has entered the human population.”  Indeed, while the disease is found in animals over a broad territory, the outbreaks of disease among these animals are rare, and the ability to detect infections in animals militate against the ease of such mapping, the ability to synthesize a variety of social and environmental factors where Ebola might be transmitted to people from host animals might be mapped in order to be correlated with the past occurrence of human infection from Ebola.

The mapping of such possible animal hosts of Ebola is not new or unavailable.  But a mapping of the simple distributions of animals who serve as hosts for Ebola–from fruit bats to chimpanzees to cane rats–provides a basis to examine the entrance of Ebola virus into local food chains.



BrainerdDispatch, based on data from WWF and WHO



Wikipedia Commons


–and maps onto the range of populations mapped as being at risk:


1410462125569_700Catholic Online


To do so would present a compelling alternative mode to track spread of the virus from the first epicenter in Guinea to Liberia and Sierra Leone ,where it has been particularly virulent, and to Nigeria, and illuminate links that exist from the surrounding forests from urban centers on which health authorities have concentrated attention.  To process the alarming spread of Ebola virus across West Africa, our use of maps to track the illness poses unique questions of how a virus judged to be hosted by animals (fruit bats or great apes or chimpanzees) in the continent’s interior has rapidly spread along its coastal populations as well as rural regions, that demand more advanced tools of mapping to track adequately.

As we synthesize increased data about the precise location of Ebola’s initial outbreak, its pathways of infection, as well as its future risks, it makes sense to increasingly adopt such models to process the virus’ geographic distribution.


3.  The recent closure of national borders follows the logic of quarantines for those infected with the virus, and reflecting the maps that specify nations whose citizens have been infected with the virus–rather than of controlling the vectors of its transmission.  Might pathways of the handling and consumption of meats be mapped against the spread of Ebola, to create a more complex map of the virus’ diffusion as we work to contain its spread most effectively?  Examining other pathways for the transmission and contraction of Ebola might lead to a more effective attempts to contain its spread, to be sure, even as we focus on rates of suspected or confirmed infections that are reported by national agencies or available to the World Health Organization and CDC, and at least complicate the picture maps might offer of its containment.  As it is, the progress of Ebola from rainforest environments is often labeled a “social problem” difficult to contain due to “deep-seated beliefs and cultural practices” as well as inadequate health care, and not mapped on the ground.  One stares at the progress of figures of mortality and infection in maps, questioning if they even display the full range of the infected, hoping to contain their future spread across the continent, without describing the range of narratives or social processes that have facilitated the contagious disease that they purportedly track.

We have most often mapped the outbreaks and incidence of Ebola across West Africa by tallying infections and mortality in bubble maps that show sovereign frontiers, but might better map to trace the complex narratives by tracking so viciously contagious a virus against the changed landscapes where it has spread to understand the climates and environments in which it has appeared as we seek to contain the over 4,366 cases of infection so far confirmed.  Despite valuable charts and tables that “map” the spread of Ebola virus across West Africa from March 2014, the tally of infections hardly begin to process the shock of the dramatic levels of mortality but both barely chart the striking process of the disease, at the same time as their alarmist tone effectively heightens our deepest fears of contagion.

The recent proliferation of web-based maps chart the unfolding of the incidence of a virus previously successfully contained in remote areas in the African continent, but long feared to spread beyond its shores, as we picture terrifying screens for scenarios of a global health crisis caused by the tendril-like threads that seem to move from hosts with such ease as to complicate their vectors of transmission and confound the idea of what it would be to map the disease’s spread:  as we come to conceive of Ebola as able to move from contact with an infected individual’s bodily fluids, mapping the spread of the virus seems the only way to grasp the meaning of its reappearance and difficulties of its containment.  (The complication for West African food security as the virus has both increasingly claimed lives of rural populations and spread to the interior of the continent.)  The microbe’s spread is poised to create a devastating web of indirect risks of global proportions, where risks of transmission have grown, despite a widespread ramping up of clinical trials by GlaxoSmithKline.

By tracking the virus as if it were transmitted has spread only by human-to-human contact, and by excluding the transmission of the different strains of the virus from animals, we may be short-sighted in perpetuating only a part of the picture of Ebola’s rapid spread.  Alternate scenarios for viral containment among local populations forecast situations where the possible numbers of individuals infected by rates Ebola virus could range from 20,000, if conditions stay roughly the same, to as high as 60,000 if conditions worsen–and, should conditions for treatment and containment improve, or a vaccine developed for humans, below 20,000.  Although the geographic migration of the deadly disease is challenging to track, the maps we make of its incidence raise as many questions as they do red flags and suggest the importance of dedicating attention to Ebola’s spread.

The ways in which we map the virus raises questions of what sort of story we want to tell about the rapid spread of Ebola virus.  Ebola is transmitted by contact with the blood or liquids of the infected.  But the spread of the virulent strain is due not only to human-to-human contact–as suggested in many of the maps or the most inflammatory prognostications of possible avenues of its future global spread–but also in the body fluids or tissue of other hosts, such as animals, whose distribution are for more difficult to map.  As we contemplate the litany encoded in the distribution of over 2,400 deaths caused by the virus and over 4,700 infected, according to recent metrics of its fearsome spread, and a huge future fatality rate, given the absence of any vaccine; notwithstanding several promises to start testing a vaccine for humans, limited successes have been reached for individual treatment, despite the recovery of two Americans flown to Atlanta.  The pathways of the virus need to be mapped both from its first confirmed cases in March 2014 and from the case suspected in Guinea in December, 2013:  but difficulties to chart multiple possible vectors of transmission complicate the effect or informative nature of a tally of those infected, or afflicted.  (While we do not have a vaccine, the tremendous gravity of the situation is evident in the WHO’s recent acceptance of that experimental drugs to treat Ebola patients would indeed be ethical so long as it involves patients’ consent.)

Such maps may erase the very vectors and hosts in ways that obstruct a clear understanding or picture of the terrifying process of the disease across the continent–as we risk essentializing the disease or seeing it as a consequence of inadequate health care.  The drastic manner that the virus dissolves linings of the internal organs of the body by hemorrhaging and bleeding, perpetuate images designed doubtless to increase fears of the further spread of disease whose very symptoms–the discharge of blood and bodily fluids from bodily orifices, and, as blood fails to coagulate, something like the dissolution of linings of bodily organs–so horrific to experience so as to obscure other vectors for Ebola’s transmission.  (Practices for treatment by intravenous replenishment of blood and electrolytes pin hopes on the reconstitution of one’s bodily fluids.)  But the practice of mapping the disease’s incidence may tell only partial stories about the incidence of illness, and offer narratives inadequate to translate into health policies:  for they ignore the danger of the transmission of Ebola in animal meat, and the migration of the disease from rural to urban environments.

Has our fear of the transmission or communication of Ebola by contact with bodily fluids led us to focus, as in the case of SARS, only on the bodies of those afflicted with the disease?  Ebola virus was almost only found in Africa since its discovery in 1976, fears of its migration off of the continent have almost subsumed understanding of the contradictions of its apparent localization in central Africa, where the first cases were discovered in Zaire and Sudan, contained on account of their remote locations, but with high fatality rates in all its strains.  The absence of a vaccine or isolated antibody, the basis for much modern medicine, have increased deep fears about human-to-human communication of the viral disease, exploited in such films as Contagion and partly domesticated by the marketing of stuffed Ebola microbes.  The paramount questions of its containment and isolation–the goal of the World Health Organization–and the difficulty of raises questions of how medical supplies, infection control, and treatments can be maintained, and the ethics of medical treatment without tested vaccines, as the geographical spread of the disease across two geographically removed regions faces problems of being contained–especially when its communication is not well understood or studied.  The most recent panic provoked by the arrival of two infected Americans infected with Ebola virus in Atlanta’s Emory University hospital elicited immediate fears of the expansion of the virus and sympathy.

But the existing caseload of Ebola victims in all countries seems likely to surge in coming weeks across West Africa, and its spread difficult if not impossible to contain, despite attempts to do so by quarantine.  The virus’ spread have not been mapped in nearly the sufficiently sophisticated tools to comprehend the nature of its virulence.  We continue to privilege human contact with blood, sweat, bodily fluids, or diarrhea of human victims, so terrifying is the apparent breakdown of bodily structures Ebola provokes.  The difficulty of administrating the intravenous electrolytes to stave of its terrifying spread is all but secure, and the HazMat suits and protective gear mandated to be worn in the presence of cadavers of Ebola’s victims or the infected underscore needs to circumscribe contact with the diseased.  Indeed, the fixation on the confinement of the bodies of the ill in continued disputes over plans to quarantine Ebola victims suggest a difficulty of mapping the disease’s spread by local governments and international health organizations.  For while Doctors Without Borders/Médecins sans frontières doubts the value of quarantines ill in “death houses” to contain the virus–pointing to the number of cases that will go unreported and the risk of lack of food and clean water for those with the virus–even if they have also established isolation houses in hopes to contain the virus from spreading to further states as the Ivory Coast.  But attention to the constraining of bodies may obscure other avenues for outbreaks of the disease

Yet the logic of its spread may have been poorly mapped in relation to the environments where its progress has been most terrifying.  The challenge of how to project the expanse of widespread waves of infection by Ebola virus across much of West Africa are hardly met by a static map of the region in which it has spread–which treats the environment as a passive field against which the viral infection has spread.  As of August 31, the WHO reported over 3,600 confirmed, probable, or suspected cases of Ebola virus in West Africa,–and the number of people affected by the haemorrhagic disease has indeed recently exponentially grown, as reported cases have multiplied by over 50%.  Could a mapping of the sites of outbreak and transmission of the virus offer a way of telling a story about the physically ravaging and highly contagious virus, or even process the sheer information overload of so many infected or deceased?  Mapping the virus’ rapid and terrifying spread, as much charting its incidence from Guinea to Senegal, and beyond Nigeria, through their populations to Sierra Leone or Nigeria since its first appearance risks projecting fears of the danger of communicating the virus to populations worldwide that remove it from any cause, and limit our response.  This post seeks to raise several questions about what shown in the organization of information in these data maps–and if one is not just tallying demographics not readily updated and lacking clear geographic specificity–and how to map the local outbreak as a global health risk.  As we continue to process further information about the vectors of infection and the needs to contain infection among animals as well as humans, we can hope for more effective mapping of the incidence of Ebola, both in relation to urban centers, slums, and rural areas, as well as to areas of forests from which bush meats come.


NG Ebola Map

National Geographic


4.  The problem of charting local emergencies has become one of mapping a health crisis of truly global proportions.  Even if it is now confined to a region in equatorial Africa, mapping the communication of the virus raises question of what it means to track the outbreak of Ebola, its relation to previous outbreaks, and the incubation of the disease that allowed its rapid spread.  The relative lack of epidemiological sophistication by which maps tally reported cases of infection or mortality in bubbles fails to capture how the very geography that facilitated the contagious’ virus rapid spread by treating the base map of the virus’ communication as an oddly static field, and viewing humans either as potential vectors of infection or passive victims.  For most of the maps of Ebola’s rapid spread seem to confirm the scariest fears of “losing the battle to contain” the virus for which there is no known vaccine, and which has previously ravaged the African continent.  Geographic containment of the disease is a priority of the World Health Organization, the data maps of its spread in West Africa have offered a screen on which to project fears and concerns of outpacing efforts to control a disease whose spread through bodily fluids of people or animals–and the possibly placing the virus into broader circulation among humans once again.

This highly infectious variant of previous Ebola outbreaks in the continent appears to have been likely underreported since the possible earliest case last December.  While known vectors of its communication are poised to multiply, the practice of containment is impossible to achieve by quarantine and isolation of patients in sick-houses or containment of traffic between national borders:  while the sealing of national borders in hopes to create barriers that might prevent the cross-country mobility among the possibly infected stands at odds with recent rapid expanding urbanization and geographic mobility in growing cities of this very region:  demographic changes brought by increasing urbanization, deforestation and geographical mobility have transformed West Africa’s living geography in the past decade, effectively bringing the city closer to forests where the epicenters of past Ebola outbreaks.  Yet the specter of confined borders or the creation of confines stands to create undue stress on relations between doctors and local populations to slow the infection’s spread or arrival of medical staff and supplies, if not generate panic and mutual distrust within local populations at the same time as weekly count of infected exceed 500, with many likely to be unreported.

Quarantines have offered somewhat effective means of containing Ebola.  Their prevalence as a tool to combat Ebola echoes attempts to contain plague in seventeenth-century Italian cities, when the isolating the afflicted within cordoned city-state or regions as soon as possible fit new understandings of the transmission of disease by individual bodies.  Quarantines separated people known to carry the plague, segregated by analogy to goods exposed to plague or disease that remained for periods of forty days [quaranta giorni] in order that  miasmatic “pestilential air” could dissipate, and the rapidly growing numbers of those infected with plague be effectively circumscribed.  The practice of quarantine emerged before plague hospitals, and the same sort of isolation once again emerged as a coordinated reaction to unidentified virulent diseases such as the recent outbreak of SARS:  quarantine managed plague with shifting efficacy from 1347-52, as cities instituted quarantines of neighborhoods or goods in the face of a disease against which there was no known or effective medical response–encouraged or facilitated by the drawing of a fixed spatial boundary on terrestrial maps, as in this late seventeenth-century plan of the barriers that would contain the plague in seventeenth-century Bari.

Is this emphasis on the human-to-human transmission of disease the correct strategy to apply to Ebola?  The spatial containment of bodies of the infected and ill–who are often asked to lie in isolation wards that are deemed an effective death sentence for those effectively removed from medical care–oddly mirrors early modern reactions to pestilence despite our more effective concepts of tracking disease:  although effective if they occurred quickly, the scope of Ebola virus in the region suggests a range of factors have shaped true transmission of a disease beyond close contact with bodily fluids, or its human hosts:  are human bodies rightly presumed to be the sole agents in need of containment, and the sole subjects to be confined?


Cordoning Bari

Containing Plague in Bari (1690)


Is an emphasis on the danger of human-to-human transmission, the sort of transmission that quarantines seeks to limit, an adequate response?  Closed national borders have so far followed the logic of quarantines for those infected with the virus–rather than of controlling the vectors of its transmission.  If barriers have contained disease when created quickly, the vectors of Ebola’s transmission are so challenging to map to make analogous quarantines by cordoning off West African regions offer a sort of exemplum of the misleading picture of the pathways of infection that the Ebola virus might exploit.  Fifty thousand people were quite recently forcibly barricaded in Monrovia to isolate the Ebola virus’ spread, limiting access of inhabitants to food or drinkable water and no doubt increasing their desperation, fearfulness and sense of fatality.  The first two Americans reported to be infected with Ebola virus, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebo, have been transported from the continent, and to Atlanta, to recuperate in isolation chambers set up by the CDC in Emory University Hospital, the former recently released after being cured.  Is such a dramatic contrast in understandings of the etiology or response to the disease unconscionable?  With numbers of those affected by the Ebola virus now seem destined to rise exponentially, with some West African countries experiencing an increase of 50% last week, the specter of further quarantines and fears of the airborne transmission of the virus are misplaced.  Although the contact with dead or ill bodies is one clear means of transmission of the disease, its long strands are rooted in the body’s fluids–and its most virulent strain yet encountered seem able to have “jumped” from animal meat to humans, and prove particularly difficult to contain in cases where the disease is advanced.





The initial response of the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention was to issue bulletins restricting non-essential travel to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, in the hopes to create distance between the US and the re-emergence of the disease.  African nations followed suit, terrified by re-emergence of the deadly virus and the lack of any public health response that was deemed effective:  Nigerian airlines cancelled flights to Freetown and Monrovia in an attempt to contain human contact with the infected; Nigerians angrily blamed airplanes for allowing passengers infected with Ebola to enter the country as opening the pathways to transmission of the disease.  But presumption that victims of Ebola constitute the prime subjects needing to be contained, or quarantined, or that the disease could be bound and frozen, kept within the boundaries of states where the virus, not only hamper coordinating medical reactions to Ebola and needed supplies, as well as food, but offer a no-exit strategy that may fail to contain the disease or address the actual vectors and incubators of its rapid geographical spread through several cities across the central Continent.  If trade provides a crucial means for the communication of disease, which is not only particularly aggressive but may mutate in the face of resistance.

Rather than being an isolated instance, historian Tom Koch, who has studied the uses of maps to embody the spatial distribution of diseases from the early modern period to the present, warns that “rapid viral and bacterial evolution brought on by globalization and its trade practices” pose deep challenges to how we contain future outbreaks of disease as well as to our practices of medical protocol and ethics.  The reactions suggest a terrifying widespread return of medical quarantine as we face increasing fears of contagion as unable to be contained.  The need for containment is itself echoed in the mirrors maps manufacture about the disease’s rapid spread, and what better maps might exist in an age when our mapping abilities to track the transmission and probable bearers of the highly infectious virus.


5.  The figure of infected victims of Ebola crossing national borders has become a standard and repeated image of the transmission of disease and the challenges of its containment.  A widely read report of late July described with considerable panic the arrival in an airplane of a man infected with Ebola who collapsed in the airport of Lagos, Nigeria, infected with the Ebola virus.  It provoked increased fears about the very vectors of Ebola’s transmission, including airborne transmission (which is impossible) and exposure to the environments where the bodily fluids of its victims have been present.

The communicative value of even the most accurate epidemiological maps of the virus’ rapid outbreak may have failed their readers–as this powerful visualization from National Geographic–in communicating the nature of its transmission, despite its terrifying suggestion of its spread in West Africa serves to emphasize the global threats that Ebola’s spread pose.  Although disease maps provide clear tools to understand the spread and pathways of communication of a disease, the highly virulent and rapidly moving nature of the virus, whose spreading transmission has multiplied because of both growing density of urban population sizes and the increasingly interconnected nature of populations in the region.  Given the increased health risks that are the result of huge changes in West African urban geography, both the simple tally of cases of Ebola the snapshot-like nature of most distributions by country only skim the surface of the depth of multiple stories–and terrifying fears–about the virus’ rapid spread across the West African coast.  For the story of Ebola is increasingly about the new vectors of transmission that result from the relation of the cities to the interior, in ways obscured by data distributions that collectively group numbers of cases and deaths–mutely enumerating the daunting count of those infected and deceased, but without telling a clear story about its geographical spread across a rapidly urbanizing region.


NG Ebola MapNational Geographic


The spread of Ebola across four nations since April, when it was first reported to have spread from an epicenter in a rural Guinea, is unprecedented in the relative rarity of its geographic spread and the rapid bodily decline of those it has infected raises questions of how medical supplies, infection control, and treatments can be maintained, across two geographically removed regions–as the existing caseload of Ebola will likely surge in coming weeks.  The odd mapping of the incidence of Ebola by nation contrasts with the extent to which the hosts of bats and other animals whose flesh is consumed known as “bush meats”–and not person-to-person contact alone, despite the horrors of hemorrhaging and bleeding in an uncontrolled manner so horrible watch and humiliating to experience.  Although such meats are currently prohibited from consumption, the virus’ rapid spread provokes fears of containing increasingly porous boundaries between nations in West Africa, but such containment and isolation may discount other sources of the bearers of disease at multiple sites, or the over two thousand afflicted with Ebola.  And, if bats are indeed the hosts of the virus, few mapping of the incidence of bat colonies have been attempted to determine the possibilities or potential for the virus’ geographical spread.  Could one map not only the presence of disease in populations of fruit bats, a common for of bush meat, and the routes of their harvesting and transport for sale to urban markets, as a basis for the spread of the virus from the first perceived epicenter in Guinea to Liberia and Sierra Leone where it has been particularly virulent, as well as Nigeria.  Might pathways of the handling and consumption of meats be mapped against the disease?


Ebola Outbreak Poster

Is the danger of the disease’s fatality underestimated in the graphic posted above?


6.  Can we explain the dangers of its communication by maps that do not adequately chart the spread of the virus’ outbreak by a range of vectors?  The effort of humanitarian mappers, using OpenStreetMap mapping templates, readily applied mapping techniques to track the first outbreak of infections from April 2014 occasioned an early attempt to trace the spread of the virus from rural areas, and define its Guinean epicenter and routes of travel to coastal towns from the regions around Gueckedou, as Doctors without Borders requested the OpenStreetMap Humanitarian team to map the outbreak in an effort to define with greater precision the spread and immediate impact of the disease, using Bing’s high-res imagery of the region, and maps from Airbus Defense and Space as well as overlaying satellite images with MapBox Streets/Digital Globe to track incidence with a resolution absent altogether from most large-scale maps.  The collective effort of 200 mappers to locate over 100,000 buildings and some hundreds of miles of roadways supplemented the absence of adequate maps of the region of Guinea, the site of the first hemorrhaging confirmed caused by Ebola virus.  At the same time as worries already began of the spread of the virus to Liberia and Sierra Leone, the mapping helped establish the epicenter in Guinea and radius of the outbreak.  Despite the far greater complexity and geographic range of Ebola’s spread, such maps might be beneficially integrated with other overlays in attempts to try to understand the mechanisms of its rapid spread in an area for which we often lack adequate maps.



HUOSM ebola mapped in March 2014Wired/OSM Humanitarian Team


The level of local detail in such early maps already pinpointed the breadth of its transmission, and raises questions about the role of human-to-human transmission as the sole vector of the virus, which has been argued by the World Health Organization in July to have been transmitted by wild animals, such as bats, but in addition to bush meats from wild animals, in the local pig farms that often play hosts to the bats.

Some of the precision of these maps has been lost in the later maps that seem emphasize occurrences of probable or confirmed and suspected cases in “countries” and regional “districts,” rather than in an inter-related web of the transmission of the disease.  The result of the tracking of cases came to embody the sources and centers of fears of its spread, as the confirmed or probably cases of infection were mapping against the continent as a whole, so that the spread of infections gained a new look on the map as a field of red that demanded to be contained, juxtaposed by the specters of historical sites of infection, as if to augment local fears of its future spread, and to understand the migration from regions of Guinea and Sierra Leone to other ports along the shoreline of West Africa as Dakar, suggesting that the spread of the virus has not only outstripped medical abilities in the area, but that the spread of the disease invaded an entire district which would need to be isolated or quarantined–as requested most recently by Theo Nicol, Sierra Leone’s Minister of Information–and not public health officials–to respond to the spread of the disease into the country, in ways Doctors without Borders (MSF) cautioned were without benefits and in face quite detrimental to medical care, nourishment, or establishing needed trust of medical professionals:  the mapping of confirmed cases as if confined to a given administrative region reflects a reality of public health administration, but a distorting image if one would like to map the vectors of its communication.  (The historical cases of former outbreaks of Ebola in the CDR or South Africa were another strain of the virus, and, while reaching into the collective memory, not related to this outbreak, which began with a similar jump of the virus from animals to humans.)

The spread of Ebola in West Africa in relation to “Historical Cases” magnify its danger, but oddly contain the virus to the African continent’s sub-Saharan regions.


Ebola cases--confirmed, probable, historical



7.  The mapping of “historical cases” of related Ebola virus outbreaks may introduce more than a bit of a red herring.  For although they similarly seem to have begun from similar reservoirs of monkey or bat hosts, relations between the viruses is not clearly understood, despite similarities between the Guinea virus and the Zaire Ebola virus (EBOV) lineage; nor are links between their different reservoir species or hosts and the virus outbreaks understood, although the relations are presumed in the coloration of the above inset map of the African continent.  The vectors of viral transmission may create a map quite distinct from the earlier inland growth of Ebola in both Central and South Africa.  For  outbreaks of Ebola may have all been incubated first within the animal populations in ways not communicated in the above maps.  At the same time, the natural cycle of transmission of Ebola within the forest remains largely unknown, creating problems understanding its transmission–although its appearance in and transmission from animal populations has been clearly identified as the basis for its spread at the forest’s edge in rural Guinea.

The spread of the virus across three countries by late July already made it the deadliest breakout of the contagious virus in the continent as it moved from Guinea to other edges of the forested interior, in ways that the CDC map below does not clearly describe, but explain the odd dispersion of cases reported around the border between Guinea and Sierra Leone.   When Liberia shut most of its border points in late July in an effort to contain the disease and halt the virus, it had already spread across at least four nations, leaving possibilities of its future containment optimistic at best, in an attempt to isolate the migration of infected individuals given deep preoccupations at continued geographic mobility in the region.




The confines created around those districts with suspected or confirmed cases in April, shortly after the spread of the deadly virus had been mapped, misleadingly places the problems of quarantine on each nation–Mali; Guinea; Sierra Leone; Liberia–and not to define the impact of infections on local society or analyze the channels of its transmission, apparently able to have jumped national boundaries with ease in areas.  We perform a far less sophisticated mode of mapping outbreaks by identifying its incidence in isolated districts, without the greater geographic or spatial specificity the OSM map tried to chart–and perhaps have provided a misleading map that raises false hopes for being a ground-plan to its spatial or geographic containment.  But the multiplication of incidence has of course made the process of mapping impossible, and fears of under-reporting widespread.  Such a mapping might be particularly important, however, since the evidence suggests that the combination of increasing human penetration into rain forests, and increased human contact with meats in urban centers–in addition, most significantly, geographical mobility between goods from rainforest areas to growing urban slums, creating channels and microclimates that are increasingly likely to change the patterns of the transmission of Ebola in ways maps might better track in order that the virus could be more effectively contained.  In an era when satellite-based mapping and GIS systems could make questions of human penetration into forests, contact with animals, distribution of bats and other species, and population density in urban slums where Ebola has spread could stand to be mapped in quite potentially significant epidemiological ways.

The recent growth of populations in West Africa that are living in urban slums from the Ivory Coast to Senegal suggest an especially dangerous topography for Ebola’s growth, which is left silent or unspoken in most infographics of the region, despite its significance in understanding the social shifts that magnify the transmission of the deadly virus.





The considerable growth in urban areas and slums in Conakry, Bamako, and Dakar make them terrifying incubators for human hosts, again absent from infographics of Ebola’s current spread.





The distinctions of local distributions are unfortunately erased in flat “impact maps” which highlight danger zones of travel, and not effectively map the virus’ transmission and spread or the environments in which it has grown–the flat colors of data maps, prepared relatively quickly with whatever data is at hand about Ebola, and not the region, seem almost to hide, rather than try to foreground, the dangers of the virus’ spread and the dangers of its migration from rural to urban areas.

At the start of the virus’ spread, attempts to localize its incidence expanded the number of fine-grain maps in circulation–although the mapping of incidence onto the urban and rural environments was rare, as were fears and concerns about the mutation of the virulent disease.   The rapidity with which Ebola spread through Liberia and to Senegal makes the distinction between “confirmed” or “suspected” cases, or indeed an administrative mapping of the topography of Ebola less valuable in understanding its transmission or the possibilities of its potential spread by vectors or the overlap of incidence with even a road map of nations that might track the paths of geographical mobility by which removed outbreaks could be related to one another.  Although fourteen of Liberia’s fifteen counties report cases of Ebola, what does such a spatial distribution tell us about the disease save of the dangers that the administrative response must face?  Data on the large numbers of populations of the slums of Monrovia were not even available to the United Nations in its mapping of slum populations, shown above, from 2009–although the terrifying density of populations in urban slums in growing cities in Sierra Leone, Guinea, or the Cote d’Ivoire are striking, as is the massive urban growth of the city of Dakar (Senegal) or Conakry (Guinea), not to mention the large city of Bamako, which lies terrifyingly near to the suspected cases of Ebola in one district of Mali.  (There seems no data available in the UN map of urbanization about Monrovia.)

If in 1990 there were only some 24 cities in Africa whose population exceeded one million, the number of cities with more than a million inhabitants had doubled by 2011, and has exceeded that proportion by 2014, and many of these urban agglomerations are concentrated in West Africa in ways that have dramatically shifted the landscapes across which Ebola has so far most intensely spread.


West African Urban Agglomerations, 2011


The movement of the virus to these cities was terrifyingly close in April, when it seemed inevitable, or evident, but few measures of adequate containment were articulated or in place as the virus advanced from Guinea to Mali and Liberia.  But the shifts of urbanization that have occurred in the region were oddly absent in most of the maps that describe the disease’s spread in districts of Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Mali–the size of urban populations only become prominently realized in maps of contagion after the virus arrived in Dakar.




8.  Boundaries between states however provide a limited information to allow us to track the disease’s spread or its scope.  The responses to the spread of highly infectious virus by August was to shut the borders crossings and frontiers between nations, in a terrifyingly shortsighted miscalculation of the spatial geography of viral containment, and misplaced allocation of resources, since the virus had already spread to Guinea.  When Liberia shut most of its border points in order to contain the virus’ progress to the south, was the area of infection from Gueckedou already too progressed to rely on national frontiers as a basis to staunch its spread?  Were other possible causes or vectors of disease less addressed?


Confines around Ebola_detail


While the map rightfully suggests the importance of human-to-human transmission, it oddly omits the very animal populations that both suffer from the disease and from whom Ebola is prone or apt to jump.  Closed national borders follows the logic of quarantines for those infected with the virus–rather than of controlling the vectors of its transmission.

Continued consumption of bush meats across much of West Africa suggests a far likely route for the transmission of Ebola than person-to person contact.  The difficulties of preventing the consumption of bush meats that were infected with the disease–including fruit bats, rats and monkeys–though widely suspected to be as the chief bridge between humans and animals in the region.  The transmission of disease in meats–either uncooked or by butchery–can cause itself multiple centers for the transmission of the disease from infected humans, not tracked by the concentration on human incubators of the disease.   Despite the current ban on consuming bush meats, the possibilities of such a transfer of the virus through consumption poses a decisively high risk and is potentially difficult to enforce.  Many villagers openly blame the arrival of medical teams for the virus’ spread, even as fruit bats and antelopes and rats have disappeared from the markets of the main towns, attempts at curbing the consumption of animals that are both plentiful in the forests and provide a prime staple to meet local nutritional needs of urban and rural poor in an area without animal husbandry; such curbs on the butchery and sale of bush meats are however most often met with incredulity among many–“Banning bush meat means a new way of life, which is unrealistic”–in regions without animal husbandry, and the eating of potentially uncooked meats or handling of dead infected animals from the forests effectively multiply the potential for further human-to-human transmission of the disease.  A ban on consuming bush meats–Liberia forbade its consumption and shopkeepers selling bus meats were jailed in attempts to retract its consumption in Nigeria–was less effective in practice, and pushed trade underground.  Bans on the importation of bush meats into London reveals fears of the meats as vectors of transmission that are difficult to control in West Africa, but have gained less attention than they deserve.

Ebola in LiberiaAhmed Jallannzoe, EPA


9.  The policy seems to hope to contain the spread of bodily fluids that are associated with its transmission from those inhabitants infected with Ebola, as if the enforcement of clear boundaries could prevent future transmission in an era when far great border-crossing and dramatically increased interconnectedness of urban populations across West Africa.  Indeed, the mapping of the epicenter of its “outbreak” seem to be beyond the point, if important to register, in dealing with its spread:  the unwarranted closing confines with Sierra Leone and Liberia rests on the conception that human-to-human transmission  constitutes the sole or primary sources of its incubation.  But this inference may be false, according to Mapping the Zoonotic niche of Ebola virus disease in Africa, who suggest that the transmission from infected humans is in fact surprisingly low.  The absence of attention of a topography of the network of transmission of the disease, and of the presence in animals, as well as humans, would offer a far more complete picture of its transmission beyond the numeric tabulation of the dead in datasets.

What could a more dynamic terrestrial mapping of the spread of disease show, beyond the fears for its further expansion?  In what ways does the embodiment of the virus’ spread in maps of the districts of West African nations poorly communicate the nature of its spread–or the relations between Ebola virus’ spread and recently increased connections between large urban centers on the coasts to rainforest areas previously less often penetrated by purveyors of goods for urban food markets.  Indeed, health authorities would do well to monitor then expanded unrestricted or reviewed traffic of foodstuffs and plants from vendors who move with increased access to the deforested rainforest areas on new roads into growing cities, even if the virus is already out of the bag:  for the very roads linking regions that were previously with far less contact with one another create new pathways for rapid transmission of the virus, as much as they might be seen as forms of regional modernization.

Other maps might offer unwarranted alarmist images of the potential pathways of Ebola’s feared future spread.  The justifiably intense fears now emerging about the uncontrolled spread of this hemorrhagic fever have grown after the spotting of several cases in Senegal and seems possible to be transmitted on any flight out of Dakar within the contents of a plane’s shipments.  We map the increased fears of cross-border transmissions of the dread disease in a particularly terrifying fashion, forecasting future distributions of illness by transposing a map of airplane flights from Dakar into a graphic that might be read as one of the exponential growth of the airborne transmission of a disease, in ways that misleadingly label the global health crisis as one of transmitting Ebola out of Africa, rather than trying to contain or understand the mechanics of its rapid spread on the ground trough far greater international aid before the outbreak itself is truly cataclysmic, and no longer possible to be mapped locally:



Mother Jones, September 4 2014

Despite the good intent to emphasize the global nature of the epidemic, the graphic removes attention from the on-the-ground story that the same magazine had been tracking so compellingly.  For all the knowing ways of getting the attention of readers of a progressive magazine, the image of the proliferation of Ebola on airplane flights may even minimize the questions of either its spread on the ground or provoke a rhetoric of quarantine.  The map of airplane flights from Senegal’s capital does suggest the huge changes in human connectivity that have emerged in the past decade, as if they stand to change the transmission of the deadly virus into a focus of global attention.   But the alarmist tenor of the map, which colors potentially affected countries in yellow as if to display how much of the globe could be touched by the bodily fluids from infected passengers leaving Dakar, suggests only potential channels of travel–and is not in facet based on actual reporting of disease.

The map almost seems to advocate the need to pursue a logic of quarantine and containment, so terrifying is the scenario of the virus’ potential spread.  Do the flight pathways tracked by Google Flight Search map potentially expanding pathways of Ebola virus’ communication in ways that play upon our fears, and, even as they ostensibly invite us to consider how the disease might be contained, deflect questions from situation on the ground that we are all too likely to see as if it is far removed?  Or are we already there, given the recent mapping of 140 alerts for the hemorrhagic virus that are already evident worldwide on HealthMap?


Alerts--International significance


In the case of West Africa, might it be prudent, as Pigott, Golding et al. suggest, to monitor the presence of disease in fruit bat populations and Great Ape populations to try to contain the outbreak of a disease whose outbreak is commonly associated with hunting and butchering, as much as contact with infected humans’ bodily fluids?  Despite the risks of contagion from the fluids of the dead, the mapping of diseased populations is often the most fearsome–and least preventative–means to track Ebola’s incubation and chart the virus’ spread.  Do such maps effectively perpetuate ungrounded fears of human-to-human transmission by regarding infected local inhabitants to be exclusive vehicles of contagion, since they are the subjects whose mapped distribution minimize the attention we might pay to the transmission of the disease by animals and especially rodents, monkeys, pigs, and widely ranging populations of fruit bats?

Rather than being a purely human-borne disease, despite the huge multiplication of human-to-human transmission, the transmission of Ebola through animals, uncooked bush meats, including apes, fruit bats, rats, porcupines, and non-human vectors has dramatically grown since from August.  The geographic spread of the virus did not follow regions that were geographically contiguous, but spread from multiple epicenters in the region, in ways perhaps dependent on animal hosts and the possible cross-species jumping of the disease from bats to apes and others.  The maps of local health authorities and treatment centers against the spread of reported instances of Ebola offer images of overwhelmed health institutions which surrounded by the virus’ spread, hampered from reaching inland areas affected: major treatment centers in the region appear to be swallowed in a sea of Ebola infections, themselves overwhelmed by risks of infection they are inadequate to handle.  They exploit justified fear of the virus as a source of infection by displaying the paucity of hospitals  field laboratories to study to the incubators of the virus’ spread or be trusted to staunch it, as well as the deep need for international aid to contain the further spread of the virus and care for its victims.




The map charts the spread of a disease as overwhelming medical capacities which are positioned in a far smaller area than the areas where confirmed case of Ebola have been reported.  Its design of placing the few clusters of treatment centers far removed from the expanse of afflicted almost confirms the decreased trust between healers and patients for a virus which not only lacks commensurate medical response:   treatment centers seem lacking in ways that could stave off the dangers of the virus’ inland spread.

The authoritarian images of control over cities by armed forces, or militias that fumigate streets or men in white HazMat suits, recuperating the body of the dead that were formerly attended by family, suggest an imagery of antibiotics and antiviral spray in Monrovia’s Duwala marketplace,  as if to acknowledge the fatalism of the virus’ spread and the only means of stopping it with antibiotics and law and order–notwithstanding the huge potential risks of panic.  (Indeed, the huge risks of decreased harvests and local food supplies, whose prices are poised to spike to levels never seen in West Africa, have already led the UN and FAO to secure and transport masses of foods from rice to maize and cassava.  Even the recent ban on consuming bush meat may further dry up other needed sources of nutrition.)  The promise for the arrival of American soldiers and military–while a needed reinforcement of personnel–cannot but raise fears and questions about the future multiplication of vectors of transmission of the disease, and of their arrival without coordination of the application of best resources to policy of containment.



enhanced-4535-1406913957-10AP Photo/Abbas Dulleh


10.  The unprecedented intensity of this West African outbreak has moved from Guinea in March 2014 and then Liberia and Sierra Leone, onto Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, reveal a potential multiplication of vectors of infection clearly knowing no national bounds and beyond the mandate of any local authority.  But it does little to provide a causation image of the historical necrology of Ebola it mutely registers, and places so suggestively to the apparently geographically broader, if less virulent, outbreak of Ebola in earlier years:


_77398785_ebola_deaths since 1976BBC News; 28 July 2014


The BBC’s info graphic illustrates the intensity and increased risks that the current outbreak of Ebola poses.  But in projecting the data onto a relatively blank base map, it oddly removes attention from the situation on the ground that it fails to map sufficient detail.  The reluctance to encode further information than that disseminated by WHO and CDC creates a limited view of the transmission of Ebola on the ground, despite the impressive use of intense coloring to focus our attention on the expanse of its recent outbreak.  Despite data from such apparently reliable sources as the WHO and CDC, the map offers few guides for reading its mapping the incidence of outbreaks of and fatalities of Ebola virus by proportional nested circles, and presumes that the variants are Ebola are not different from each other, although it does suggest a broadly focussed geographic incidence in a similar region–and apparently similar ecosystems, putting aside the outlying outbreak in South Africa.  The absence of individual or collective narratives that it tells leaves one confronting the sheer numbers of the outbreaks, but hanging in the air.  Might the mute order of the data distribution be more helpfully placed in overlap with other data, in order to foreground its relation to other potential causes of these viral outbreaks?

Even less helpful, of course, are the maps that redden the entire central band of the continent as a source of infectious viral disease.  The maps that are proliferating online and in the news tell us little  of epidemiological value about Ebola virus’ spread, so much as they reveal the chance of infecting the entire continent, reminding viewers of the multiple sites of the outbreak and recent spread of the virus across the expanse of much of the central continent in alarmist fashion, as if to suggest the danger of neglecting the disease that had previously dedicated the Ivory Coast and CAR.



The African, September 14 2014


To be sure, the detailed country by country regional spread of the illness suggests the benefits and needs of clearer tracking, and a unique topography for the pathways viral transmission has so far taken, raising multiple questions about the relation between human and animal vectors that encouraged the unique topography within which it has most rapidly spread, but also the distinct topography among reported victims of the disease.  Are these counts accurate, one wonders–do they rely on accurate door-to-door screening to tabulate the numbers of those afflicted by Ebola-like illnesses, or depend on the counts of health authorities and hospitals?–and can they forecast its future spread?   When the World Health Organization is now predicting some over 20,000 cases of a disease that has no known cure, the limited areas of exposure seem reassuring, but the map of confirmed cases offer little sense of a road-map to its future cure–even if they misleadingly suggested areas of its containment last July.



Jide-Salu, July 31 2014


11.  The difficulty of establishing a clean dataset on the ground in these regions is, in a sense, compounded by the exclusive mapping of human cases of the transmission of the disease–which has, at the same time as displaying particular virulence in humans, been widely reported across populations of great apes across Africa–including the gorilla and chimpanzee–to an extent which has so far not been mapped or not mapped with nearly the same prominence as human cases and deaths.  Hunting and handling of bush meats appear the most likely causes of outbreaks of the virus, although the dangers of human-to-human transmission are particularly high risk during home care and funerary preparation of infected cadavers.  At the same time, they discount the extent to which the increased urbanization of West Africa–and its own expansive rise of urban populations–create a human density where the disease might be difficult or impossible to contain, and the vectors of its transmission uncontrollably spread.

Much of the mapping of the occurrence of Ebola outbreaks past or current occurs without noting Ebola’s presence in apes or fruit-bat population.  As if significant, they somewhat stubbornly retain the boundaries of the modern sovereign states.  In this late-July chart from the Economist, has the cumulative spread of the virus was mapped against the population of fruit bats who are credible vector of transmission across species throughout the continent, to judge band in this case it is based on a rough mapping of the ecosystem where fruit bats live, rather than the number of bats who are themselves hosts for the disease or, say, infected apes.  (And the result seems equally–if not more–alarmist, since not all fruit bats can be said to carry the virus, and the scientificity of the image that it presents undermines the intensity of this localized outbreak on the Western coast.)


Economist mid-July

The Economist


Reading the map, one imagines its spread was a public health crisis reveals the poor quality of public health in Africa, rather than that most western medicine has been particularly ill-equipped to understand the spread or the vectors of its disease.  But the map oddly conceals the different viruses of Ebola that have appeared in the past fifty years in Africa, and the increased virulence of the current disease.  For although the incidence of Ebola in the Central African Republic now seem to be confirmed as a separate, less virulent strain, the overlap in the map of incidence and the bat population suggest the danger that infected animals transmit the disease in ways not constrained by human-to-human contact.

Meanwhile, the map omits the routes of the transmission of the butchery and migration of uncooked meats to cities and slums on rainforest-to-city roads that seem to be a major route for the disease’s transmission.  The difficulties of reaching rural areas where the dependence on bush meats is particularly intense–and distrust of foreign doctors or medicine has the potential to be considerably stronger–might create a distinct map that foreign aid organizations might approach the growing epidemic.  Local insistence against the danger of consuming bush meats that might be uncooked or handling raw meats and widespread refusal to accept the interpretations of medical aid workers in much of the continent poses a serious health risk–and underscore the importance of confronting this resistance in providing aid to West Africa.  The reasons why a base-map of the habitat of infected fruit bats and bush meat consumption have been less prominent in the mapping of the outbreak suggests the limits of relying on base-maps to understand the spread of the disease.


12.  The recent dependence on the recycling of existing geographic and news maps of West Africa have been less informative of the vectors of transmission or incubation of the deadly virus.  They almost indeed seem to generate the illusion we are able to locate and control the disease whose spread we are still at such pains to try to control by effective quarantine–the three-day country-wide “lockdown” that is proposed in Sierra Leone suggest a desperation at confronting the disease, with the rationale of taking an updated count of mortality rates and number of those afflicted, and may well provoke a deeper erosion of trust between the sick and health-care providers, that would encourage many to disguise the symptoms of illness or not seek out care, at the very time that a better understanding of the basis for its spread need to be understood.

Despite the intentionally misleading opinion of the Nigerian government asserted that the haemorrhagic disease in question was in fact not Ebola virus, but Dengue–though this has few grounds for being true–provided an interesting distribution of this insect-transmitted disease across specific latitudinal parameters might lead us to re-dimension our own ways of mapping Ebola against a variety of base-maps, perhaps focussing less exclusively on human victims–even as we mourn their tragic deaths, and see such deaths as a barometer of the global catastrophe of the virus’ spread–by shifting from the counting of the dead that Ebola has claimed than the animal vectors which communicate the deadly virus, or the changes in human populations from urban population density that have increased the transport of meats and butcher shops that have made it more likely for people to come into contact with the deadly virus.





Filed under disease maps, epidemiology, Humanitarian Open Street Maps, infectious diseases, Mapping Ebola, Mapping Ebola in West Africa, Mapping Ebola's Animal Hosts, mapping the containment of disease, Public Health and Ebola, tracking Ebola

Mapping Fault-Lines in Earthquake Maps

Fracking–it is increasingly feared–invites irreparably contaminating our largest aquifers, and by extension drinking supplies–in Brooklyn, someone formed a group to protect the water of locally sourced beers–as well as devastate prairies and old agricultural lands, where land is cheap, by horizontal drilling.  Recent arguments compellingly link the drilling multiple “injection wells” of wastewater that seem to have activated previously non-active faults in regions that rarely experienced tremors in the past, and where the USGS did not find evidence of registered earthquakes.

As massive amounts of wastewater generated to access for natural gasses are forcefully re-injected into the earth, as if swept under a carpet, opening fissures in underlying beds of Shale or Sandstone.  Horizontal drilling operations have dated to 2008, mining areas by pumping vast amounts of sand into ancient shale formations in prairies and regions of declining agriculture to release methane and natural gasses.  Hydraulic fracking has used tons of water to force trapped gasses out of old rock formations.  Before 2009, in fact, earthquakes were rarely registered in the USGS surveys of lands where seismic activity has accompanied the injection of water into “injection wells”:  in these the shifting weight that the injected water that presses against rocks open old fissures, causing a buckling of underground rock formations, the fear is, as massive amounts of soupy, contaminated wastewater is injected back into the earth.  The “earthquake swarms” monitored nearby injection wells in Arkansas, Montana, Texas, Ohio or Oklahoma that barely registered seismic activity  from 1972 – 2008, has given new significance to–and created new fear around–a set of fault lines unknown to inhabitants, blamed as if active by an industry that rejects the accusations that they created sources for tremors inhabitants fear.   Indeed, the proliferation of earthquakes registered in the state of Oklahoma alone from 2001-15 reveals, according to the data from the Leonard Geophysical Observatory, a persistent increase in the tremor-like disturbances with the rise of underground wastewater dispersal, and a strikingly sharp increase in quakes of magnitude of three or higher in hears after 2010.


QUakes in OK, 2001-15.png


The increase seems closely tied to the absorption of wastewater back into rock layers whose weight is so altered by the injection of fluids, causing quakes that have rocked up to a fifth of the state, but have also increased land values for speculative fracking, in ways that may have concealed some interest in exploring the correlation–especially in a state where, due to geomorphological accident, water injected to reach deep-lying shale deposits send increasing amounts of wastewater underground, often to be absorbed by highly porous limestone that expands, but lies deep underground beside highly stressed layers of rock.  The result seems to create something like a combustive effect akin to the popping of kernels of corn, and has led many state officials to preemptively adopt prohibitions on local bans on regulating oil or gas wells in their jurisdictions, and insistence that the resurgence of quakes in fault zones is more able to be explained as an “act of nature that is nobody’s fault” not effected by human agency; the rejection of a relation to human activity comes from state legislatures fearful of the employment rises brought by gas and oil corporations from being scared away from the state.    But the geological record of apparently induced quakes in Oklahoma and their close proximity to existing injection wells.



The fear of such tremors has a recent prehistory of three or so years.  An early tremor whose epicenter lay near Richmond, Virginia, of 5.8 magnitude, just below 6, but that sent shocks to North Carolina and Canada.  The event raised questions about the role of fracking in 2011 for Tim McDonnell and Aaron Ross, described in an earlier article in Mother Jones that directed attention to fracking’s consequences.  But the persuasive nature of recent USGS time-lapse maps of the same state–

The dangers of fracking echoes Jonathan Franzen’s early if compelling 1992 novel Strong Motion, in which mysteriously recurring earthquakes are pinpointed at the unlikely site of Boston, Massachusetts, a rare location of seismic activity.  But whereas Franzen’s protagonist, Renée Seitcheck, believed “that these earthquakes are the byproduct of industrial drilling” by a  petrochemical firm whose agents attempt to assassinate a beautiful rebel seismologist, for her mining of top-secret data from computers, the causes of the “swarms” seem to lie less in drilling than in injecting waste-water.  Was the novel remarkably prescient in unveiling a concealed impact of post-industrial geocaching?  It surely doesn’t seem so paranoid in its view of an industrial conspiracy to conceal geological findings, or to imagine the role of the rogue geographer in the seismically sensitive landscape that the search for underground sources of oil and gas can create.

But now it’s no longer isolated individuals who research the papers of top-secret labs.  There are upwards of 40,000 disposal wells actually active in the United States, some tunneling 13,000 feet under the earth, and “injection induced seismicity” is now a field, as the pressure exerted by the displacement of water able to move rock layers has provoked widespread academic interest and industrial concern:  “There are faults most everywhere,” noted Cliff Frohlich of the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas-Austin, suggesting how fracking can ‘reactivate’ fault lines which were never known; “Most of them are stuck, because rock on rock is pretty sticky.  But if you pump a fluid in there to reduce the friction, they can slip.”  “Water does not like to be squeezed,” Scott Ausbrooks of the Arkansas Geological Survey put it with some empathy.   And while Franzen’s character pored over reams of secret data to understand the relations of seismic activity to big oil’s search for underground pools of oil, such relations are now the focus of conferences and are amply documented in data maps.

The best known faults the USGS has mapped are well-known.  But, as Mark Zoback, a professor of geophysics at Stanford explained in a recent article by Michael Behar in Mother Jones, echoing Frohlich, “there are faults everywhere, and some are too small to be seen.”  Faults are widely known if often forgotten by those living in California, where fracking may begin, despite growing opposition.  Indeed the range of fault-lines throughout the California-Nevada region are so multiple that the possibility of hydraulic fracking in the region of southern California threatens to  imbalance a rather threatening constellation of seismic activity that already exists in much of the region, and is more widely mapped than the most familiar lines of the San Andreas, Calaveras, or Hayward faults.  The visibility of these fault-lines is available on an up-to-the-minute-map of regional seismic activity, part of a set of maps that record seismic activity by irregular bright red computer-generated lines, often proximate to cities:

California in USGS map of Faultlines

The nervously drawn red lines of seismic activity furrowing the green plains in these maps are ‘underground views’ mapping the range of pressure below the earth’s surface.  A more striking map of seismic activity of the past few weeks and days pieces together a narrative of fault-lines and tectonic plates that accentuate the daily deep divisions that course under the earth of our westernmost states:


The stark legend suggests the huge growth in a magnitude the scale of “6.”  The prominent indexing of fault-lines in another USGS map of seismic activity, with less attention to topographic or climactic variation, shows the volatility of the region’s multiple faults in a similar if starker image of seismic frequency:



More locally, and limited to faults active in the past week of a magnitude above 2.5,
California in USGS map of Faultlines


For more focus on recent seismic occurrence, link your browser to: http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/map/

Despite the evidence of terrifyingly active fault lines, the active movement ‘Stop Fracking in California‘ has its back against the wall, even if they are growing in local Southern California chapters.

Yet the volatility of the region cannot be ignored–take this map of the Simi Valley and Los Angeles area, posted on Saturday, February 16, where fault-lines course unseen beneath the landscape, moving from inland to the coast at multiple points and through metropolitan Los Angeles:

Los Angeles earthquake faults

This interest to frack in California–an oddly post-modern verb–is scariest given maps approximating the future likelihood, as calculated by the USGS, that the regional fault-lines in the Bay Area will experience seismic activity at a magnitude greater than 6.7 before 2036.


By how much would active injection wells multiply increase these already quite sizable odds?  Given the proximity of these lines to expanding urban areas, often growing between the Hayward and San Andreas fault, can fracking in California be a safe investment for the future?

This is not a map that is in the heads of most native Californians or residents.  The readability of these maps offers a base-line for future seismic activity, and grounds for concern about hydraulic fracking in seismically active regions.

It is good news that the USGS has expanded its clickable interactive image of global fault lines, in which the record of seismic activity is updated every minute, and on which viewers can scale in to investigate on their own:

USGS Global Earthquake Map

While the occurrence of faults and tremors will always shock, its legibility not only offers a lesson in continental drift.  Many of these jerky lines reminiscent of an etch-a-sketch lie underwater, but the points of greatest activity–in California, Indonesia, and Central America–cannot be ignored or lost sight of for underground engineers.


Filed under Earthquake Probability, Earthquake swarms, earthquakes, Fracking, Mapping Earthquake Probability