Tag Archives: NOAA

Mapping Our Shrinking Shores

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Alternate Scenarios

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

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


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


or, indeed, in Mumbai–


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

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

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


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

Lower Manhattan Island?

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

lopped off lower Manhattan

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

ACS 2005?

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

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

Eastern Parkway and Atlantic Avenue above the seas

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


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

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 8.20.11 PM

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

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

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

Truncated NJ and absent upper East side

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


Radical Cartography (2006)

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

Two Inches in Lower Manhattan

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

Mapping NYC by Sarah

Sarah Levine Maps Manhattan

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

Sarah's Lower Manhattan

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

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

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

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

Around the World in Submarine Internet Cable

As we attempt to navigate the ever-expanding seas of data in the information economy, we can overlook the extent to which data streams run underneath the world’s seas to create a quite concrete sense of the interlinked.  For such cables underlie the increasing notion of geographical proximity we experience daily, from the world of big finance to mundane online transactions.  The spans of privately funded fiber optic undersea cables that have been lain across oceans floors, some stretching over 28,000 kilometers, provide an image of global circumnavigation as well as offering the most massive engineering feat on earth that is hidden to human sight.  And the rapidity with which further cable is being lain to link the world’s data flows along faster and more secure lines of communication provides a telling model of interconnectedness–suggesting new senses of connectivity and warping past concepts of proximity, and unifying the differently owned cables as if a coherent and open information highway.

The antiquated format of charting used in the above map suggests the increasing interconnectivity of the Information Age, as well as it coyly reveals the ways that TeleGeography, a global telecom, has pioneered ways to channel information across seas–and done so by familiarizing viewers with a distinctly concept of space.  Rather than naturalize an image of high-speed connections, the clever choice to rehabilitate a slightly romanticized earlier mapping of oceanic expanse suggests the new space of online data.  And it takes the notion of the electronic frontier seriously, by seeking to orient viewers to the new mental space that such sunken data lines create.  If the map of the bridging of oceanic by sunken internet cables domesticizes the transcendence of distance through the increasing interconnectedness of information flows.  It also reveals the actual distances that the physical substrate of the World Wide Web inhabits in so doing, and suggests that we would do well to remember the physical substrate by which the global financial economy is interlinked.

The appealing charting of the hidden network of submarine cables designed by TeleGeography didn’t only borrow the antiquated iconography of marine charts from an Age of Discovery in order to promote the expanding spread of submarine fiber-optic cables in amusing ways.  For the image served to suggest the shifts in spatial connectedness that such increasingly rapid data flows have allowed, and to suggest a map that, in focussing on the seas–and the overlooked areas of marine space–returned to an interesting if somewhat overlooked spatial metaphor to consider and visualize the extent to which global financial networks and information systems move in particularly flexible ways across the permeable boundaries of nations, if not the degree to which national units have ceased to be the confines that matter, as cross-border flows are increasingly the primary sorts of traffic that matter to be mapped.


Phone Calls in 2012


A more familiar global remapping of phone calls,constructed on a study by students of business, Pankaj Ghemawat and Steven A. Altman, partly funded by the logistics firm DHL, an approximate quantification of globalization was made by the metrics of cross-border telephone calls in 2012 worldwide, in which the thickness corresponds to the minutes spent on the phone–and presumably the closeness of connections, if filtered through the relative costs of calls and the ability to pay them.

In a sense, the chart featured by TeleGeography openly incorporates less data, while noting the varied speeds of connections, in an image of interconnectedness, and positions itself less as a cutting edge snapshot of globalization or globalized than at the dawn of the possibilities of future interconnectedness that the laying of fiber-optic cables of greater speed can promote.  If the map of telephone calls raises questions of information flows, some 41 percent originating in what the authors identified as “advanced economies” to “emerging economies,” and only a small fraction (9%) originating in an “emerging economy,” the technology may also illustrate the precise demographic that continue to adopt telephony:  the authors observe that the dominant “calling patterns” reflect “interactions due to immigrants,” with most international calls being placed from the United States to Mexico and India, countries of first-generation immigrants–rather than reflecting actual information flows.

TeleGeography seems decidedly optimistic about the possibilities for global circumnavigation fibre-optic cables can promote.  In place of offering a map of actual flows of data, or a revealing look at where cables lie, the adoption of an aestheticized image and iconography of the nautical chart to map the ever-expanding web of cables that connect the world advances an argument about the sorts of ties cables facilitate, in order to illustrate and promote the ever-increasing multiplicity of ways information can travel across the globe without regard for the bounds of the nation-state.  Even as we bemoan NAFTA, or raise concerns about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the networks of cables that currently span the terrestrial sphere divide into 285 separate privately owned segments show a coherent network has rapidly grown–its extent more than doubling in length over the past three years–and seems poised to only grow in coming years, to render national protectionism a thing of the past:  the map leaves viewers only to imagine its benefits.  While not seeking to quantify actual data flows, the scope of the map seems to be to naturalize the broad range of traffic lying such cables allows, if it is also jumps backwards over the many traditions of oceanogapahical mapping to show a seafloor that is not marked by drifting continental plates and scars of underwater earthquake activity–




–but a smooth surface of cables that seem to be lain without ever encountering natural obstructions or topographical variations in the ocean floor.

The submarine network now totals upwards of 550,000 miles.  Although it is never seen above ground, and lies concealed beneath the seas, it now seems to animate most international commerce.  There is a pleasant irony in adopting the decorative aspects of marine charts to map a contemporary image of global circumnavigation, since they gesture to deep shifts in the seas of information, but also evoke the marvel of rendering visible what is all but unseen.  The exact locations of such cables are not displayed, of course, but the stylized presence suggests a decidedly early modern form of boastfulness–“according to the best Authorities [and] with all the latest Discoveries to the PRESENT PERIOD,” the extent to which the infrastructure of the Information Age spans the seas.  What once was a site of marvels revealed by the officer turned conservationist Jacques Cousteau is a field for information carriers, even if monsters inhabit its depths.



The “New Map” updates the recent rapid exponential expansion of the network fiber optic cables in recent years as a sort of corporate promotion, rehabilitating the marine chart to naturalize the submarine network that now carries a large share of global financial and administrative information worldwide.  Retrospectively mapping the expansion of this exoskeleton of the anthropocene ignores the technologies on which such mapping suggest, recalling the abilities to technologically harness steam, wind, and power to recreate the romance and adventure of global circumnavigation in an updating of the 1873 romance and fast-paced adventure Jules Verne told of a race against the mechanized clock by a constellation of transit networks.


Verne en 80 Jours

For much as Verne offered a quickly paced adventure mildly disguised celebration of technological unification of the globe, the retrograde if glorious map masking as an engraved superimposing high-fibre cables on image of the ocean as understood in days gone conceals the clear corporate interests or material technology that underpin the Information Age.

The map of the oceanic unknown celebrates the laying of a material web of the world wide web as if it were another oceanographical detail, but masks the unseen nature of the cables that were lain in hidden fashion underneath the seas:  indeed, rather than the slightly earlier Verne-ian classic of 1870 with which it is often paired, the map doesn’t heaven to futuristic science, but sublimated a similar story of submarine itineraries.  Indeed, the map offers a picturesque recuperation of an aesthetics of global unity that serves to reframe the newly prominent submarine network that ships recently strung across the ocean floor.  It conceals the labor and mechanical drudgery of doing so–both the engineering or the fragility of the fibre-optic network, and the material basis of an electromagnetic carrier lurking deep under the seas.  In the Cable Map Greg Mahlknecht coded, the spans of current cables already connect hubs of communication across oceans at varied but increasing speeds,

Greg's Active

but the planned additions to the network, in part enabled by warming waters, are poised to greatly expand:

Greg's Transatlantic

Greg’s Cable Map

The work that the map modeled after an engraving of global seas does is serious, for it integrates the growing network of fiber-optic cable at the ocean’s floor into the seascape that nautical charts showed as a light blue watery expanse.  For as the price for fiber-optic cables precipitously dropped since 2000, this material infrastructure of global financial markets has not only grown, but kept up with the rapid improvement in network communication along a growing network of 250,000 km of submarine cable most folks have limited knowledge, and whose public image is in need of PR.

The addition of such fairly florid decorative detail from nautical charts to invest the routes of hidden submarine cables’ with an aesthetic that both caused it to be named one of the best maps of 2015 and exemplifies how to lie with maps.



The 2015 map, published online, but emulating the paper map, seems to conceal the extent of work that went into not only laying the cable, but ensuring that it was not disrupted, but blended seamlessly into the surrounding submarine landscape.  FLAG–the Fiberoptic Link Around the Globe–after all offered a sort of modern updating of the boast of Jules Verne’s Phineas Fogg.  For Fogg wagered £20,000 that the speed of the combination of trains and steamboats would allow him to travel around the globe so that he could return to the very same seat he occupied in the Reform Club in London in only eighty days–a boast based on his trust in the speed of modern conveyances of steam travel.  For Fogg’s image of interconnectedness was realized in the copper cables that conducted telegraphy traffic.

These telegraphy cables lain under the Atlantic by the 1880s by the Eastern Telegraph Company across the Atlantic and Pacific, which by 1901 linked England to North America, India and Malay in a network of communications that offers a vision of corporate interconnection spanning the expanse of the British Empire and providing it with an efficient communications system that was its administrative and commercial underpinning.

british-empire-cablesEastern Telegraph Company (1901), planned cables shown by dotted lines–Wikimedia

But rather than perform the feat of circumnavigation, the matrix of underwater internet cables is based on the creation of a submarine matrix to carry any message anywhere all the time–when it can be linked to an on-land cable–save, that is, in Antarctica, where the frigid waters, for now, would freeze the cable and disable it.  Fogg staked his wager after noticing a map showing the construction of British rail exchanges that allowed long-distance transit across India, believing in his ability to achieve global circumnavigation on a network of carriers, based on his trust as a passenger and subject of the British Empire–and the infrastructure the enabled news, commerce, and administrative connections to travel with velocity, leading twenty-four of the thirty ships capable of laying cable-laying to be owned by British firms by 1896.  The framed cartouche in the upper right of the 2015 Submarine Cable Map echoes the triumphalism of the “present day” in boasting of the achievements by which, since “the first intercontinental telephony submarine cable system TAT-1 connected North America to Europe in 1958 with an initial capacity of 640 Kbps, . . . . transatlantic cable capacity has compounded 38% per year to 27 Tbps in 2013,” as US-Latin American capacity has nearly quadrupled.

The map, revealing the material network to what most of us perceive as coursing through the air, less effectively places the course of cables in evidence than depicts their now naturalized course.  The seascape of the Information Age seems, indeed, to demand the naturalizing of the courses of submarine cables, shown as so many shipping lines, running across the Atlantic and to the Caribbean, around the coast of Africa, from India to Singapore and to Hong Kong and Japan, before coursing across the Pacific.  Is its quaint cartographical pastoralization of the courses of communication under the oceans, we see a reverse rendering of a materialized image of globalization, disguised by a faux nostalgia for the mapping of the as yet unknown world that will be revealed by the impending nature of an even greater increase of data flows.  Indeed, the breakneck speeds of data transport are noted prominently in some of the cartouches framed at the base of the map, which suggest the two-fold subject of the map itself:  both the routes of cables that were laid on the ocean floor, and the speed of data transport their different latency allowed.  The cartouche is a nice rendering of the corporate promise of delivering data that TeleGeography presumably makes to its customers, despite the different ownership of many of the stretches of cable that exist, and the lack of harmony, proportionality or geometric design in how the cables are in fact lain.

Latency of cables

That the network of submarine cable retains a curious focus on relays in England that is a telling relic of the nineteenth century.

The internet’s network still seems to start in England in Porthcurno, moving to Spain and through the Strait of Gibraltar, across the Mediterranean to Alexandria and then turn down the Gulf of Suez through the Red Sea, and around the Arabian Peninsula to Dubai, before moving across the Indian Ocean to Bombay and on to Malaysia and through the South China Sea to Hong Kong and up the coast of China, it creates an even more expansive set of exchanges and relays than Fogg faced.  For while Fogg was dependent on rail to traverse the United States as well as much of Europe, where he could pass through the Suez Canal to reach a steamer engine, and then cross India by train, before getting a ship at Calcutta to Hong Kong and Yokohama, the multiplicity of connections and switches that the submarine cables create disrupt any sense of linearity and carry information at unheard of speed–fiber-optic cables carry information at a velocity that satellite transmission cannot approach or rival.


Voyage of Phineas Fogg by rail, steamship, and boat–Wikimedia

The relays of paired cables now enable the instantaneous transmission of information between continents realize a nineteenth century fantasy of an interlinked world in ways that expanded beyond contemplation, the possibility of visiting the countries that FLAG traces are actually verges on impossibility–if only since the network offers multiple pathways of simultaneous transit.

The ambitions of those earlier Telegraph cables in connecting the world far transcends Fogg’s plan to create a path by which he could move between transit hubs.  His plans are dwarfed by the ambitions of modernity of the range of active and future underwater cable revealed in Greg’s Cable Map in ways that suggest the ambitions of creating an ever-more intensely interlinked world, where increasing number cables have been laid to fashion the actual physical infrastructure of the internet.

Greg's Cable Map

Greg’s Cable Map (click here for detail on each lines)

We often render the “hidden world” of privately owned transatlantic and other cables as a separate underseas world of cables lying on the seabed, able to be disrupted at its nodes, but removed from alike the shoreline and terrestrial world.

Underseas World

In strong distinction from such an image, the recuperation of something like nautical engraving by TeleGeography makes the clever point of naturalizing the greatest infrastructure of the Information Age–one that sometimes seems to have outweighed investment in the visible infrastructures of our cities and roads–within the currents of our seas, and as colored by the very hues by which the land is mapped as if to show the seamlessness of the communicative bridges that they create.

Given the extreme overload of data that these maps reveal–and the eeriness of a world created by the extent of cable laid–It’s in fact quite apt that the telecom firm TeleGeography showcased the interconnected nature of global communications this year by adopting the style of nineteenth-century cartographical tools.  It’s probably not at all a coincidence that in this age of big data, there’s a deep romance in the symbolic reclaiming of the crisply engraved lines of nineteenth-century cartography that folks like Nathan C. Yau of FlowingData pioneered in the online publication of a Statistical Atlas of the United Sates with New Data, refiguring information of the 2010 Census and 2013 American Community Survey.  Although designed in bits, the maps emulate the engraved delineations created for Francis Amasa Walker’s first Atlas:  Yau announced he had done out of some disgust that budget cuts prevented the Bureau of the Census from creating the atlas displaying its data in a Census Atlas–despite its success in accumulating so much data.

A quite clever graphic designer, Yau has posted sequences of  detailed non-dynamic maps that evoke the lithographic detail and crisp objectivity with which Walker created multiple legible embodiments as the Director of the US Census from 1870, when his interest in data processing led a set of new maps of the nation to be printed in Harpers Magazine, and the Census to grow to 22 volumes.  So well are we trained in grasping information via elegant visual forms that Yau bemoaned the absence of a similarly set of stately maps by evoking the project Walker envisioned as a form of mapping serving the public good:  and his online images embody data lying in the repository of Census data, from geological records to the distribution of human populations–and digest data to recognizable form, whose individual snapshots seem a nostalgic embodiment of data available from the American Community Survey.


FlowingData, “Map Showing the Area of Land Cover for Forests within the Territory of the Coterminous United States” (2015) from data compiled by American Community Survey (2013)


Flowing Data, “Map Showing Five Degrees of Density, the Distribution of Population” (2015) from American Community Survey (2013)

It is somewhat less expected that the format of an engraved or traditional map be showcased to reveal the system of submarine cables lying on the ocean’s floor:  few would consider the invisible network with nostalgia for the medium of the paper map.

To be sure, the very subject of internet cables are more appropriately rendered in an appropriately futuristic mode that habituates us to its ambitions by expanding the colors of a public transit map to reveal an image of an interlinked world–


The decision to “go retro” breaks conspicuously with such a choice for the futuristic design, and accommodates the multiplying extent of fiber optic cables that have been laid across the world’s waters so as to network the globe.  Only in 2014, TeleGeography issued a staggering map of the improvements in linkages of relays in submarine cable systems, suggesting the extent of the interlinked world to which we have become familiar not only thanks to Edward Snowden, but to our reliance on global data flows that increasingly enable financial markets worldwide, surpassing material constraints.

2014 TelegeographyTeleGeography (2014)

Such a map is overly schematic, indeed, since many of the cables’ paths are not openly disclosed.  From the land, we cannot see the landing sites where such fiber-optic cables go underwater, as Trevor Paglen has recently reminded us, in a series of diptychs that contrast the cables barely concealed in NOAA maps and the otherwise placid landscapes of the beaches beneath which they run; few realize the extent to which the information that travels on them is likely to be monitored as a form of mass surveillance, which we are far more likely to associate with satellites or surveillance.

But the complexity of the how information is carried along such cables is as boggling to the mind as the awesomeness of its ambitions.  Perhaps recognizing the sense of overwhelming its readers with data overloads in its maps, the 2015 map of submarine cables from Telegeography updated the format of an engraved map, and put in online in a fully zoomable form, to allow one to examine its lovingly rendered detail in a map that harkens back to charts of nautical discoveries but celebrates the rapidity of delivering information in an updated version of the corporate triumphalism of the Eastern Telegraph Company.  That map, which boasts in evocative language to be revised “according to the best Authorities with all the latest Discoveries,” foregrounds the multiple linkages of fiber optic cables that carry the vast majority of communications–of which “oversea” satellites link but a fraction–so efficiently they at first carried upwards of a thousandfold as much data compared to the older copper cables that lay below the sea recently–280 Mbps of data per pair–and moved 100 Gbps across the Atlantic by 2012–and the prediction 39 Tbsp is even feared to barely satisfy demand.  For transatlantic cable have come to carry some 95% of international voice and data traffic, and are viewed as a fundamental–if unseen–part of our global infrastructure, potentially vulnerable to disastrous interruption or disruption.

The familiarity of the “New Map of the Submarine Cables connecting the World” is not only charming; it is a somewhat subtle naturalization of the  new materiality of information flows so that they are regarded as a part of our new lived environment.  To be sure, the paths of cables are highly stylized, as if they fit within the oceans’ currents, although they sacrifice accuracy even though they suggest their private ownership and considerable density.


The open-ness of this mapping of submarine cables has been rare until recently–as recently as 2009, the location of the cable that arrives in the UK at Cornwall Beach was kept secret even on military maps, although commercial fishing trawlers and other boats are provided with access to them, somewhat paradoxically but unsurprisingly, lest they run across and damage the undersea cables that relay so many vital data flows across the globe under the seas, and whose severing could potentially come at a cost of as much as $1.5 million per hour.

America to three continents

The actual density of such cables laid at the bottom of the sea is not displayed on the above map, of course, which conceals their precise locations or the complexity of their routes, which are tantamount to secrets of state and off most maps.

interactive Map 2013-04-20_093527

The map designed by TeleGeography is indeed a romanticized vision of the pathways that information courses around the world, undersea, in an information age; the recuperation of the iconography more familiar from a printed map of the seas than the layers of a web map or data visualization naturalize the presence of such submarine cables in an odd exercise of familiarization.  We might be more suspect of the cartographical tricks of rendering, naturalizing the courses that submarine cables take when we examine the definitive maps of actual submarine cables or study the extent of such offshore cables in an interactive map and more carefully scrutinize their actual expanse.  (Such maps are not actual renderings of their situation on the seabed, if the stark layers that chart these cables are decidedly less harmoniously balanced with the light shades of the mock-engraving, Submarine Cables Connecting the World.)

Decidedly fanciful if naturalistic sea monsters could denote the limits of the known world or the boundaries of secure navigation in many early modern charts, the inclusion of this most pictorial of cartographical iconographies familiar from early engraved maps are aptly appropriated to suggest the absence or gaps in the interlinked nature of space and of what passes as our sense of continuity in 2015–as well, on a not so subliminal level, to evoke the dangers of their disruption.


So naturalized is its cartographical iconography that the map suggests the new environment of internet cables in which we live.  This naturalization might be nowhere more evident than in the exotic appearances of marine creatures included in its seas.  A longstanding historical association exists between sea monsters with the North Sea, after monsters were first rendered as crowding its overflowing oceans in glorious detail by the bishop-geographer Olaus Magnus in his 1539 map of the land and waters around Scandinavia, who seems to have borrowed from bestiaries to illustrate the dangers that sailors would face in its waters, and to delight his readers and attest to the variety of the created world.

bJames Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota

A strikingly similar sort of horned seal and spouting fish quite appropriately make an appearance in the 2015 Submarine Cable Map of  TeleGeography within the North Sea and Arctic Ocean, as if to suggest the frigid waters that restrict the services such cables deliver–the spouting animals and seal lifted from Olaus Magnus’ Marine Chart frolic just beyond the regions that are currently covered by the cables’ crowded course.

Is this a hidden representation of what actual spatial limits constrain where countries are able to lie further submarine cable?

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Filed under data visualization, globalization, information economy, oceans, World Wide Web

Our Globalized Maps of Ocean Temperatures

Classical terrestrial world maps–either the detailed terrestrial world projections that associated with the atlas-makers Mercator and Abraham Ortelius or those terrestrial planispheres noting cities and ancient monuments of Ptolemaic design–were based on a need to find a solution to how to transfer the curved surface of the world to a flat surface.  When we are talking about global events–from warming to El Niño–we need to synthesize global variations in a spectrum of a set of surface temperatures that only a satellite can assemble, and to read them as inscribed on a global surface.  The virtual image of weather changes depend on information  removed from actual landscape, or inhabited land–but rests on the persuasive power of a compelling image of the earth’s curved surface in the synthesis of a coherent image of ocean temperatures over a continuous expanse of the earth’s surface:  although undoubtedly provoked by the world’s inhabitants, and a revealing record of the anthopocene, the mapping of oceanic temperature is something of a record of climatological impact and of the increasing need to come to comprehend shifting temperatures of the word’s oceans in truly globalized terms.

Is this map more powerful because it recalls a familiar globe, and because it promises to mediate record of the ocean’s equator that would be otherwise totally unable to be visualized in a coherent visual form?  The global visualization creates a compelling record to understand the odd embodiment of a shifting pattern of climate prediction, even if the synthesis lacks reference to a cartographical model or a set of scribal practices.  The map provides a way of detecting (and indeed predicting) unusually warm ocean temperatures that create El Niño, in ways that trace the preconditions to create a cascade of climactic changes provoked ocean surface topography through a visual syntax akin to a weather map:  the virtual globe deploys digital media to map movement across and motion through oceans, tracing shifts in subsurface ocean temperatures over space that would be otherwise concealed from sight:  the silhouettes of  the continental masses not only displace attention from the land, but subordinate land weather patterns to the irregularities changes in atmospheric pressure and sea temperatures that they foreground in a strikingly technicolor map whose hues mirror heat-sensitive readings, rather than areas of settlement.  (Continents are only present as ghostly images in these maps that direct our attention and interest to the phenomena sensed in ocean waters.)




The satellite thermal map of the swelling of seawater around the equator, generated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, tracks the temperatures beneath the swelling of oceanic waters to forecast El Niño oscillations this summer and fall.  By tracking significant sea surface temperature anomalies, they trace changes to gauge the possibilities of potential future major weather disruption of the globe, and to try to comprehend the shifts in temperature that might change weather systems in so drastic a way to impact food chains, agricultural economies, and climactic experiences in similarly out of the ordinary ways, exposing the otherwise hidden shifts in ocean temperatures by catchy chromatic spectrum of colors around the equator.


Jet Streams


Rather than only trace migrations, the map marks pronounced sea surface temperature rise across the Pacific is suggested by the surface’s deep crimson reds, extending from the islands off Singapore.  The Google Earth satellite view contrast to the arboreal distribution of the topography more evident, as if to embody the threat that it poses to the landmasses that are the usual focus of world atlases.


latest_sst.jpg   SST Anomalies


The spread of warm waters across the Pacific indicated in such maps echo the famous charting of sea-temperature anomalies of 1997-98 El Niño, which La Niña followed, when the end of trade winds led warm waters to slosh Eastward, pushing cooler water down from the surface, and interrupting the feeding habitats of fish and aquatic environments and interrupting the local marine food web.  The map traces shifts in surface temperatures by tracking of anomalies in the below video to suggest an advancing augmenting of surface temperatures across the equatorial Pacific.


The anomaly of equatorial sea-temperatures across the Pacific is most easily pictured by mapping the greatest warmth in red:  the visualization of global variations across the ocean surface suggests sustained pattens of temperature rise, mapping not only temperatures but their divergence the form the median, and tracing patterns in their variability over time–far more meaningful in the global ecosystem than the relations between surface temperatures tout court.

The result is a new globalist map, tracking not countries and border lines or borderlands, but that “other ecumene”–that other inhabited world–of oceans and ocean life:



At least the hope is to start to direct attention to it, and to an area of the world’s temperatures that are not often mapped.  The above visualization rests on an ability to synthesize a coherent constellation of multiple factors–prepared in a cogently digested form–but proves a guide to local imbalances and deviations, in the hope that we can grasp the global impact of these increases in the collective image that results, offering considering subtlety to register local shifts across space that help reveal the whirls, eddies, flows and sloshes across the ocean seas, even if it might require far more learning to interpret in its consequences than the more familiar sorts of weather maps that we are used to access on line.  While not a globe or a sphere that earlier globe-makers might recognize, the elegantly articulated silhouetted continents suggest contre-jour qualities of the map, as if demanding that we start to try to pay attention to the deeper temperature changes in the seas that will reveal how shifts in atmospheric pressure create temperature shifts that will lead to a redistribution of nutrients in the ocean created by the consequent shift in upwelling and alter rainfall patterns worldwide or create droughts or typhoons as the result of an unusual warming of waters just below the ocean’s surface.

The dazzling image of the surrounding medium that conditions and prepares the climactic variations of the unmapped land to which they are so deeply linked, create an image of a global weather system we are only slightly prepared to come to understand.  The map’s comprehensive coverage of ocean temperatures is a shocker of a visualization, employing a rainbow of gradations of color to striking effect that combines both the exactitude of pinpoint images and the tools of digital visualization.  It is a sort of learning experience or primer on the immensity of global climate change, creating several deeply intractable pockets of climate change all closely located offshore, scarily noting the surprising relative proximity of the warmest areas to those regions, shown in white, which designate the remaining regions of polar ice, at the same time as the change in temperature seems embodied at an odd remove from the viewer or the surrounding shores.  Similarly generated maps created from remote sensing constitute some of the greatest emblems of the environmental disasters of our time.  Other options used by NOAA to chart the swell in temperatures in the upper 300 meters of the Pacific ocean in 2014 track a growing swell of something like an oceanic monster that grows in swells beneath its surface, evoking something of a large-scale sea monster that gradually began to reach across the Pacific toward the shores of South America, against the easterly winds that usually send surface water west across the Pacific.

The progress of waters beneath the ocean’s surface seem to track an animated entity in this set of subsurface charts, which capture the progress of the slosh of water magnifying the subsurface temperatures across the Pacific out of actual proportions to increase the visibility of temperature changes that seem to flow as if they were submerged underwater almost biomorphic forms resembling monstrous worms or undersea tornadoes that channel currents of churning heat that span the pacific, deep below the ocean’s surface:


Feb 19 slosh,jpgmid-February, 2014


Feb 19 slosh,jpg March 16 sloshmid-March, 2014   March 16 sloshmid-April, 2014


In  a Kelvin wave, pushing from the warm waters of Indonesia to South America, the slosh of ocean waters can prompt the cascade of atmospheric events.  The bounded parameters of the visualization are limited to the ocean, but are meant to provoke a similar imagining of the potential events that such a swell might trigger, and provided one of the first indications of a probability of possible climactic shifts over the months to come. Despite the specificity of readings that it can coherently synthesize, the chromatic blending of these measurements in a real ‘heat map’ of ocean temperatures create a false demarcation of categories, by removing the temperature changes from their effects in magnifying their deviation from the norm.  Mapping the ocean as a surface of travel or site of navigation has long challenged the categories of visualization employed in land maps, if only because of the fact that the notion of oceanic space challenged the categories that were developed to visualize surface topographies.

The synthesis of mapping temperatures at different depths track migrations of water in the medium of the ocean is perforce removed from the specificities of place transcribed and tried to be pinpointed in earlier engraved maps,  that tried to render legible the currents, routes, currents and eddies of the sea, or to record the variations in the underlying ocean floor.  The globalist maps of the ocean’s temperatures that result offer something more like an animated graphic, instead of an objective form, because they lack clear contour lines or fixity that were the basis by which so many earlier ocean maps tried to calibrate currents, negotiate sea-routes, track winds, or map the topography of the ocean’s floor.

The embodiment of the expanding biomorphic swell in subsurface temperatures, mapped as extending across the Pacific, renders the shift in temperature as gliding contra corrente. They offer a major change in the claims and abilities of totalistic mapping of the oceans, and in the attribution of embodied characteristics to the ocean–which emerges now, if in ways that seem metaphorically misleading, as somewhat organic, as if it were something of a separate living entity from the land, which almost gained its own context, rather than appearing as either a surface for viewing nautical travel–


North America with the Opposite CoastsRumsey Associates


–or the result of an array of bathymetric bearings of submarine topographies by collating depth-soundings taken by sailors on weighted lines.


SF Bay


Of course, the topic of the maps–global climate change–is itself removed from the precision to mapping nautical location to calibrate calculated routes, path, or place as marked by means of a line, and understand risks of nautical travel, and a concept of travel rooted to the ocean’s superficies.  The maps of oceanic temperatures not only reflect the transferral of maps from paper to the far more heavily pixellated medium of the screen, but a search for visual formats of embodying shifting temperatures that were often elusive as subjects of global mapping in earlier charting traditions.

As such, they suggest, in the rhetoric of uncovering hidden changes detected by satellite, both the need to try to process global shifts in temperature in tactile terms, an eery remove at which the changes in oceanic temperature lie from the viewer, hinting ominously and only by extension about the likely possibility of future risks of global climate change to which the world’s inhabitants are now, as if suddenly, finding themselves to be subject.

The new premium on taking stock of mapping temperature change is about learning to visualize the migration of ocean temperatures as if by analogy to a weather chart–and indeed the resemblance to the images of cold fronts on the Weather Channel seems striking–but in ways that take into consideration how these movements in temperature migrate in currents and swells through and across the ocean’s own watery medium, and cannot only be considered in the localized perspectives of the individual points of a depth-charge.  For the mapping of oceanic temperatures are not only a way of mapping the communication of heat, or the rising temperatures of the world and its atmosphere, but the newly inter-related concept of what it means to be warm.

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Filed under global weather mapping, mapping abnormal sea temperatures, mapping global climate change, mapping ocean swells, NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, Weather Channel, weather maps

Map-Inspired Madness: Reading Maps in the Solitude of Ahab’s Cabin

‘It is not down in any map; true places never are,’ wrote Herman Melville famously about the origins of the wild native Queequeg in Moby Dick.  The search for “true places”–the encounter with the whale or the site of whale spawning in the South Seas–is a theme in Melville’s novel about a ship at sea, and the trust that some of its characters place in maps and charts is predictably misleading.  Captain Ahab’s obsessive consultation of nautical charts and maps feed his compulsion for tracking sperm whales in Moby Dick.  His famous obsession mirrors the cartographical project of Matthew Fontaine Maury, the nineteenth-century Virginian polymath and early hero of “open data”, who ambitiously sought to map migratory routes of Sperm and Right whales in 1851 for the benefit of the whaling economy. 

Ahab’s obsessive hope to track the course of the great white whale Moby Dick in the ship the Pequod may mirror the scope and ambition of M.F. Maury’s project–a project that led to one of the odder maps of marine population and migration that appears below, but which is one of the monuments of open data.   For Melville, however, Ahab’s mania seems driven by the hope the map carried for being  able to track  the course of the great white whale that his prey, and to arrive at the moment of confrontation that will in fact, as readers know, never be on the map.  For unlike the observations Maury collated, the specificity of Ahab’s tie to Moby Dick is not on the map at all.


Whale Chart 1851Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

The compulsively obsessive Ahab’s self-imposed sequestering on the voyage of the Pequod in his cabin, surrounded by a variety of charts, seems emblematic of his single-minded obsession to track the elusive Moby Dick.  It is emblematic of a uniquely obsessive sort of map-reading emblematic of his particular sort of hubris:  as he will never know the true path of the majestic whale, his study of the map symbolizes a contest between the mapping abilities of man and whale.  The consultation of the map reveals the sharp contrast between the whale as an innate cartographer who migrated across seas and the knowledge of routes inscribed in lifeless nautical charts, and the inability to plot or plan the intense longing for his confrontation with Moby Dick within the range of observations of all whales by traveling whale ships.  But it is also an amazing fantasia of the reading of nautical maps as if they were guides to habitation, and a reflection on the nature of map-reading and the comprehensive claims of encompassing known space within engraved maps, and specifically of the colored charts of sea routes, whaling and sighted whales that Matthew Fontaine Maury produced in the 1850s from the compilation of nautical logs.

We have little sense of the amassing of data in Ahab’s cabin, so much as the intense relation that the captain develops to his charts.  Melville describes how Ahab retires to his cabin to open “large wrinkled roll of yellowish sea charts, spread them before him on his screwed-down table,” ready to set himself to “intently study the various lines and shadings which there met his eye,” and escape into the paths that they trace.  The memorable episode in Ahab’s own cabin focusses attention on how the captain’s obsessive consultation of the maps, as a sort of emblem of his search to capture the whale in them.   Ahab processed information in the map as best he could, and “with slow but steady pencil trace additional courses over spaces that before were blank,” while consulting log-books of previous voyages and noted sightings of sperm whales in a desperate attempt to locate the migratory path of the white sperm whale Moby Dick–whose own route he so obsessively seeks to understand and on which he fixates so obstinately. The reading activity is isolated and isolation, because the map is essentially mute, a second order of spatial knowledge with which he has no literal traffic or exchange, but becomes a way to wrap himself in further isolation from the mammal that communes with the productive fecund waters of the sea.  “While he himself was marking outlines and courses on the wrinkled charts, some invisible pencil was also tracing lines and courses upon the deeply marked chart of his forehead,” as every night, “in the solitude of his cabin, Ahab thus pondered over his charts, . . . threading a maze of currents and eddys, with a view to the more certain accomplishment of that monomaniac thought of his soul.”

Such a collective map of the sightings of whales is both the focus and talisman of Ahab’s monomaniacal will:  both as the transcription of the paths of hidden submarine itineraries, “with the charts of all four oceans before him,” and the hubris of understanding the concealed migratory course of that noble whale with which he is so obsessed and that has long evaded his search.  For Melville confides that “it might seem an absurdly hopeless task thus to seek out one solitary creature in the unhooped oceans of this planet” to many; “But not so did it seem to Ahab, who knew the set of all tides and currents; thereby calculating the driftings of the sperm whale’s food, which whales were imagined to follow; and, also, calling to mind the regular, ascertained seasons for hunting him in particular latitudes; could arrive at reasonable surmises, almost approaching to certainties, concerning the timeliest day to be upon this or that ground in search of his prey.”

The map serves not as a nautical chart, to plan one’s voyage to a geographical destination or actual port, but rather puported  to locate the individual location of the whale on predict its migration.  In Moby Dick, the maps seem to chart the food supplies that Moby Dick will follow, holding value not deriving from its own cartographical accuracy or precision, but the functions of probability that will allow him to track the whale:  “So assured, indeed, is the fact concerning the periodic migration of sperm whales to specific mating grounds, that many hunters believe that, could he be closely observed and studied throughout the world; were the logs for one voyage of the entire whale fleet carefully collated, then the migrations of the sperm whale would be found to correspond in invariability to those of the herring-shoals or the flights of swallows.  On this hint, attempts have been made to construct elaborate migratory charts of the sperm whale.”  Such a scheme of mapping the paths of the leviathans fit with the larger plans of Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury, the Superintendent of the Naval Observatory and founder of modern oceanographical mapping both of famous wind and current charts in the 1840s and a comprehensive map of the ocean floor in 1855, who had sorted data from sailors’ “actual observations” into isothermal charts of ocean temperatures and currents, into a comprehensive map of its floor that tracked the physical geography of the sea “as the main spring of a watch; its waters, and its currents, and its salts, and its inhabitants, with their adaptations, as balance-wheels, and cogs, and pinions and tools” (Physical Geography of the Sea (1855), 54).  Maury’s bridging of natural history and physical geography in his pioneering treatise comes close to treating the ocean’s depths as its own living form–that would facilitate the very sort of human interactions with oceans to which Melville also returned.


MauryM.F. Maury, “Bathymetric Map of the Atlantic,” Physical Geography of the Ocean (1855)


As a sailor and writer, Melville must have reacted in part to the huge collation of shipping routes and the observations of whaling ships, one of the largest and most ambitious open data projects of the late nineteenth century.  When in April of 1851 Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-73) announced his fabrication of a chart designed for charting migrating whales he served as the Superintendent of the United States Navy’s Department of Charts and Instruments, and was one of the best-known oceanographers and cartographers in the nation. Maury issued the map when he worked at the Naval Observatory, and his cartographical productivity and activity has led him to be championed as hero of open data on the order of Charles Babbage.  Maury’s monumental charting of safe routes of navigation had focussed on winds and currents, allowing sailors to chart the most convenient shipping routes, in an attempt to lend a cartographical legibility to the seas in works such as his Wind and Current Charts, to make legible opportune paths of oceanic transit, as in this map of voyages to the coast of Africa from 1847.  Maury collated the available records stored in thousands of ships’ logs and charts to plot winds and currents issued form the US Hydrographic Office so as to determine the most advantageous routes of sea travel, and also to derive the general “laws” that he believed governed transit across oceans, by preparing a map whose surface would create “the field for observing the operations of the general laws which govern the movements of the great aerial ocean,” effectively embodying meteorological data from notations kept on trade-winds, pilot charts, and thermal charts in readily constable form for commercial use, to record of “a system of oceanic circulation” for pilots to consult.

Maury would subsequently come to construct the map of whale migration that Herman Melville attributed him from nautical logs, synoptic oceanographic data, and charts, collated by retired whaling captains.  He announced plans to publish a whaling just six months before the publication of Moby Dick, which appeared the following year, and Melville acknowledged its appearance in a relatively small “Author’s Note.”  But Maury’s earlier maps from the 1840s already stood as monuments of the description of oceanic travel and sea-going, mediating collective accounts of winds–if not sightings of whales–that served to condense data from nautical logs in ways that not only captured the tacit knowledge of seamen but synthesized their collective observations in thick descriptions of nautical experience in collections of “open data” that he took as a summation of the expansion of shipping routes.

Maury took advantage of the medium of color charts to trace a record of the observations of individual ships, by their respective ports of call.  His accumulation of a collective content stands at a considerable remove the experience of navigating the choppy seas, which he collated through the start of the Civil War, was animated by a deep desire to map what he believed was the “uniform character” of the surface of the Great Ocean, treating its natural observations as revealing a set of absolute rules of the circulation of the force of trade-winds and currents, seasonal variations, horse latitudes and equatorial calms, as if a coherent picture of their variations could appear from the synthesis of collective observations of almost mathematical harmony:


Maury maps trade windsMaury, “The Winds” (1858)


The mapping of “wind and current” charts were based on the mapping of collective observations along shipping routes, through the synthesis of data observed along shipping routes from 1785 to 1860, the courses of each of which he recorded in multicolored lines corresponding to their ports of leave, in ways that served to distill something like a residue of tacit knowledge in graphical form of collective itineraries:


US Hydrographic Office


The amassing of individual logs of specific ships was placed in clear evidence for consultation in color charts, which amassed individually dated voyages, color-coding each dated and identified voyage in correspondence with individual ships’ ports of call, in a manner he would continue to use to transpose individual findings of mariners to give his subsequent maps of whale-sightings a readable form:


dated voyages1847 map; courtesy Barry Lawrence Ruderman, Rare Maps


The project for mapping the seas was analogous to a monument of modern description design for principally economic ends.  Maury’s ambitious announcement, Favorite Haunts, included a preliminary chart that was later expanded to a Whale Chart of the World, provided an unprecedented mapping of the open seas.  The map was a sort of extension of his belief in the benefits of publishing open data in print.  Herman Melville praised how Maury’s map divided the world’s oceans by five degrees of latitude and five degrees of longitude, and charting the number of days that whales spend in each region in each of the twelve months, and to note the number of days that sperm or right whales seen in the course of the year.  (The incident occurred the same year Melville published Moby Dick).  But the motivation for charting the courses of ships and the paths of whales constituted two halves of a deep concern–or obsession–that motivated Maury’s work, provoked in part by the evocation in scriptures, in Psalm 8, of “the paths of the seas,” which inspired the deeply religious Maury’s hope to delineate currents, track winds, and indeed track ocean-living mammals in their paths across the ocean’s expanse to ken the pathways he attributed to divine design.  His hopes to transcribe such a record provoked the intensive tracking of ocean voyages in the South Seas, off Western Australia, by 1852, immediately before his 1857 monumental Physical Geography of the Seas (Washington), amassing individual measurements of American and non-American ships, an area of intense whale hunting and spice routes:


1852 Western AustraliaBarry Lawrence Ruderman, Rare Maps


The notion of being able to preserve a legible geography of oceanic pathways, currents, winds, and indeed tracks of whale-migration suggested a trust in statistics to provide an almost alchemical attribution of a “physical geography” to ocean waters, which he believed to be–as the currents–a creation of God rather than Nature, and for that very reason supremely legible.

The project of data collection was monumentally ambitious in its own right.  The striking enjambment of the Maury’s ambitious act of data-collation and the perverse reading that Ahab makes of it to trace not one breed of whale, but to find one specific whale in it, is a sort of mania of map-reading, rooted in a magnificent imaginative leap of the sort that maps provoke, in which one looks for a single voter in a data distribution, or find one’s building in a city view, as if searching for a needle in a haystack but compelled almost by the map’s comprehensive claims to continue in the belief that it can be found:  the White Whale has assumed so great centrality in Ahab’s imagination that he is convinced it will appear, and that he can find it, in Maury’s map, which positioned sightings for observers, designated below by icons of individual whales, on a rectilinear grid, to guide the whaling ships on the cusp of a significant depletion of whales from the ocean waters.




The map of whale sightings corresponded, no doubt to the huge expansion of whaling routes from the eastern seaboard (and from Nantucket) in the 1850s, which had allowed Maury to compile one of the first repositories of open data, drawing from the largest historical collections of shipping records ever assembled.

The tables were later digitized, apparently in Tianjin, China, between 1993 and 1996, in a set of digitized records Ben Schmidt mapped, preserving the coloration of routes that Maury used to distinguish different ships’  ports of call.  The visualizations captures and maps growing knowledge of the open seas, as both American shipping routes spread in the Atlantic and whaling and other routes in the previously unexplored Pacific and South Seas in ways that put places like Salem, New Bedford, and Nantucket on the global map.




Feb 1845


Dec 1845

May 1841

Feb 1843

March 1844


jan 1846

July 1852



Sept 1851


These visualizations created from Maury’s dataset tell a story of the expanse of American shipping–before they ceased about the time of the Civil War, in part because of his Confederate loyalty, and lack of access to the full dataset he had at his disposal previously, hiring not only old captains but old whaling masters to transpose and copy the results of old log books and observations, not only to map the seas but to determine the best paths for navigational routes and speeds, noting as they did, both current, wind, cloud cover, and directions in a single standardized format and made them readable in printed form as data in ways.  (Schmidt writes that the printed books were so persuasive to encourage European national shipping agencies in London to send log books to him to abstract records of their data by similar distinctions.)

The result is to create an abstracted but legible record of shipping patterns, if one that we are able to visualize digitally in ways that are more successful that Maury’s very useful maps of the directionality of ocean winds could prove to modern eyes, mapping ships by their ports of destination by different colors to display the shifting proportions of shipping boats that set sail from different Atlantic ports in the United States:


may 1852


March 1854

August 1852

Jul 1853

March 1854


Sept 1858

Oct 1861


The charts that Maury prepared of ocean charts were able to reduce times of ocean transit by up to several weeks, or so he boasted:  they provided keys to plan sea travel whose collation of data was intensely popular among trained readers for their ability to imagine advantageous meteorological conditions on the open seas–for which there existed no collections of data, and on which sailors had to rely on individual or collective experience to determine advantageous routes of travel, “reading” the winds from a fixed position, and lacking any communication of weather changes.




Perhaps pressed by commercial reasons, as much as his ambitions to provide a clearer map that would better facilitate sea-commerce, but perhaps captured by hopes for a new sort of nautical omniscience that he believed transposed the concepts of a benevolent Creator, Maury acted as the medium to translate sailor’s first-hand observations to legible form by amassing or “opening” data on whale sightings in the 1850s, in order to refine existing maps of ocean currents.  The preparation of legible records offered an unprecedented conversion of trade secrets to a repository of “open” data on the sightings of whales in the hopes of mapping commerce on seas–if not a dream of the transformation of individual logs to a comprehensive ocean chart.

The publication of Maury’s maps of whales spotted at sea did not in themselves in fact provoke the depletion of whales in the world’s oceans from the 1850s–nor could they have, as they responded to a problem that was already afflicting whalers, and was probably not caused only by over-fishing.  But, as Ben Schmidt noted, Maury’s logs revealed the extent to which whaling provided a seasonal driver that contrasted with fixed routes of commerce:  the distinct rhythm and narrative flow unlike that of shipping routes or the global commerce across the Atlantic.  Indeed, whaling tells a specific tempo of nautical travels Melville whose distinct rhythm Melville sought to narrativize across what he called the “watery prairies,” as if they were a modern extension of westward exploration, based not on fixed commercial routes of travel or trade, but the pursuit of moving targets on large ships destined for expeditions in search of whales–hunts such as those Melville experienced on the Acushnet and Essex, which was the model for the Pequot’s sinking in Moby Dick.  The networks of whaling and shipping can be surveyed at Schmidt’s visualization of US Shipping routes:

Schmidt plotted the courses of two ships on which Melville sailed based on Maury’s mountain of data:


Melville's Voyages on the Acushnet in context


But the charting of whales–and conditions of fine whaling–provided Maury with the far more elusive subject of mapping by transposing log books of Nantucket whalers into a form of open data that would enjoy considerable popularity.  Can one imagine Ahab’s consultation of maps in his cabin as a sort of initial, albeit manic and single-minded, individual confrontation with open data that he believes allows him access to the whale of which he is not able to let go?  Did the comprehensive ambition of mapping two halves of a story–that of whales’ migrations, and the travels of its sailors–open an effective absence of narration that Melville moved to fill, by telling a story not of the currents created by God, but of the ship commanded by human desires?  Is the reading of such currents, collated observations, and open data for Melville a form of something approaching the hubris of over-confidence?

Maury’s chart boasted the ability to collate from the courses of whaling routes the ability of tracking sites of whale populations for ready consultation as if it had acquired the status of fact.  The masterpiece of publishing open data cannot be blamed in itself for the fearful depletion of actual whales by the 1850s in ocean waters,–which led Melville himself to worry “if the Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase” after being pursued so systematically by whalers in the novel Moby Dick.  The map that Maury had crafted, if perhaps slightly more visually legible to modern eyes than his maps of winds at sea, as much as providing a basis for the oceans’  depletion of whales, may have well provided Melville with a model for that of Ahab’s obsessive use of maps to track the whale of which he was in such hot pursuit, and his consultation of maps to guide the Pequod so single-mindedly obsessed.  The map may have even provided a model for the intensity–and map-inspired madness–that drove Ahab’s manic search for Moby Dick, lending credence to Ahab’s perverse hope for tracking a whale across open seas.


hale chart, with quadrantsSmithsonian Institution


What sort of space of possible routes for whaling did the Maury map provide, if not for the near-obsessive observation of whales?  Did its totality evoke the dream not only of the ongoing search for whales in ocean waters, but the prospect of finding and mapping one particularly identifiable whale, based on a similar collation of previous reports of whaling masters, now undertaking by a somewhat crazed captain?

But the relation between the novel and the map, which might have provided Melville with a sort of guide or template to write his novel, have relations that are considerably more complex.  Maury’s subsequent map, of far greater scope, was intended to allow sailors to better locate whales with facility in the course of their migrations, to intersect with them in their own maritime pathways.  He situated the routes and itineraries of whale migration an even more refined grid, as well as color-coded approximate ranges of travel, as if the path of the whale were both predictable and well-known, in ways that would lend some credence to what would otherwise be the somewhat preposterous project of setting out to track one sperm whale across the sea:


Whale Chart 1851Leventhal Map Center in Boston Public Library    

Did the predictive element of Maury’s plans for maps seem a deranged hope for

Maury had hoped to increase the commerce of whaling by tracking the migration of whales across the seas for whalers.  By using extant logs to chart their population of the oceans, his was a rudimentary economic statistical chart of sorts, save that it did not chart commerce or products, save the routes of migration that Melville both mythologizes and ponders as natural mysteries.  Did the 1851 map also give some credence, in an odd way, to the obsession that Ahab is able to develop?  The paths, Melville was quick to point out, were indeed far more precise in their collation of routes, that wind-propelled ships which were brought to different places by oceanic currents, could hope to profit from, and represent the paths of marine mammals that human ships could never hope to replicate.

The paths or “ocean-lines along which whales travelled” were, Melville tells us in his text, of “such undeviating exactitude, that no ship ever sailed her course, by any chart, with one tithe of such marvellous precision,” but Ahab trusts, hubristically, in the charts he has gathered, even though “the direction taken by any one whale be straight as a surveyor’s parallel,” as a guide to “place and time himself on his way” that allowed him to hatch “his delirious but still methodical scheme.”  As the projection of the desire to track whales, this maps itself combines something similar to Ahab’s method and madness, by which “crossing the widest expanses of water between [separate feeding] grounds, could Ahab hope to encounter his prey.” The map becomes something of a topos for a contest between nature and culture, or the limits of human comprehension of the magnificence of the wild. On the map, Ahab had noted with his customary obsessive care all sightings of the whale, and, most meaningfully of all, perhaps, because in it lay the root of all his madness of mapping Moby Dick:   his own intersection with Moby Dick’s path at “that tragic spot where the monomaniac old man had found the awful motive to his vengeance,” and lost one of his legs to the cunning Leviathan and with is the place from which the narrative of Melville’s novel essentially takes its spin and motive energy, and which unlocks the secrets that Ishmael only comes to perceive.  (Grim Ahab was particularly effected after “he found himself hard by the very latitude and longitude where his tormenting wound had been inflicted” in Chapter CXXX.)  This absent center, which will be matched at the end of the book by the drowning of the ship Pequod, and of Ahab’s death, remains a mystery to us, but was the site of the creation of Ahab’s crazed drive, which the expansive narrative of the novel weaves itself around.

Such maps are the imaginary fields in which Ahab isolated himself and maddeningly withdrew from his crew.  They created the very space and field “with which Ahab threw his brooding soul into this unfaltering hunt” from which he would not permit himself to rest, giving a semblance of meaning to the pursuit of “the scheming, unappeasedly steadfast hunter of the white whale” in a crazed act of willfulness that perpetuates itself with unhinged obsessiveness.  Having charted the waters, he grew obsessed with his hope track the great whale in its course, as if the charts allowed him to materialize the elusive whale itself.  This cartographical fantasy of omniscient knowledge may lie at the root of Ahab’s madness, Melville suggests, if it is not analogous to it:  “God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates.”  Starbuck later finds Ahab, in his cabin, as the Pequod approached Japan, “with a general chart of the oriental archipelagoes spread before him; and another separate one representing the long eastern coasts of the Japanese islands–Niphon, Mastmai, and Sikoke,” studying them obsessively “with his snow-white new ivory leg braced against the screwed leg of his table, . . . wrinkling his brown, and tracing his old courses again” (Chapter CIX).  This is the very moment when he obsessively refuses to turn back from his chase of the whale, even on hearing dangerous indications of a leakage among the oil in the ship’s hold, and the first mate counsels returning to Nantucket–who is not say that he is not possessed of the fantasy of a map?

Maury Title Page Cartouche


That demonic searching of Moby Dick seems partly born of the map.  The polymath Maury, like Melville, was a southerner who had circumnavigated the globe, and in his work as an astronomer, educator, geologist, cartographer, author, and astronomer was in odd ways far more a public citizen than Melville in the mid-nineteenth century.  Maury’s career (and perhaps ambitions) came to an odd end as he joined the Confederacy to serve his native Virginia in the Civil War, as Chief of Sea Coast, River, and Harbor Defense–and ended up traveling Europe in search of naval materials for the Southern states, and hoping that European intervention could resolve the Civil War’s devastation. This odd projected voyage to secure international help for the Confederate fleet was in its own way Ahab-like in its obsession and pursuit:   Virginia benefitted little from secession, although his introduction of naval mines wrecked detestation for the Union and commercial shipping routes, and Maury, after waging unsuccessful campaigns in the newspapers and public speeches, retired after the war to Lexington, Virginia, a steadfast friend of Robert E Lee and professor at the Virginia Military Institute.  He served both as Lee’s pall-bearer and he set for himself a future burial plot in Lexington directly across from that of his former comrade in arms Stonewall Jackson.

The marine maps that offered such comprehensive coverage of oceanic expanse provided little road map to his own career, and he remained based in Lexington until his death, sort of–though Melville could not have predicted–Ahab consulting maps in his cabin in the Pequod.  Maury had dedicated himself to writing a monumental physical geography of his native Virginia in the hopes to revive a local economy war had so devastated by means of a map for regional geological prospecting.




Herman Melville had of course detailed with grimmer precision how Ahab descended into madness in the hopes of chasing and finding the white whale that he had long pursued.  In a particularly desperate moment, Ahab seems to throw a final gauntlet at  the very project of mapping the locations of whales that Maury had optimistically sketched in the proposal that Melville well knew:  just after Ahab “calculated at what latitude he might be at this precise instant,” he fell into a “reverie” he looked up to the sun and in what might be better described as a moment of rage was murmuring to himself, just before the chase for Moby Dick–addressing the sun in the sky as he held the quadrant in hand. “Thou tellest me truly where I am–but canst thou cast the least hint where I shall be?  Or canst thou tell me where some other thing besides me is this moment living?  Where is Moby Dick?  This instant thou must be eyeing him.”

It is not a coincidence that for his first mate Starbuck, Ahab’s madness is most revealed by his haughty dismissal of nautical instruments “in his fatal pride”:  “gazing at his quadrant,” Melville wrote, “and handling, one after the other, its numerous cabalistical contrivances, he pondered again, and muttered:  “Foolish toy!  babies’ plaything of haughty Admirals, and Commodores, and Captains; the world brags of thee, of they cunning and might; but what after all canst thou do, but tell the poor, pitiful point, where thou thyself happenest to be on this wide planet, and the hand that holds thee:  no! not one jot more!  Thou canst not tell where one drop of water or one grain of sand will be to-morrow noon; and yet with they impotence thou insultest the sun!  Science!  . . . Curse thee,thou vain toy; and cursed be all the things that cast man’s eyes aloft to that heaven . . . .  Curse thee, thou quadrant!’ dashing it to the deck, “no longer will I guide my earthly ways by thee; the level ship’s compass, and the level dead-reckoning, by log and by line; these shall conduct me and show me my place on the sea.'”  Melville later described how “For a space the old man walked the deck in rolling reveries,” and when “he saw the crushed copper sight-tubes of the quadrant he had only the day before dashed to the deck” would crow that ‘Ahab is lord over the level loadstone yet.’ (CXVIII)     Starbuck worried:  “‘Has he not dashed his heavenly quadrant?  and in these same perilous seas, gropes he not, his way by mere dead reckoning of the error-abounding log?'” (CXXIII) Maury’s own chart mapped the courses of whales similarly derived from logs and sightings, and provided something of a model for Ahab’s own obsessions of predicting the White Whale’s course.  Maury’s own particular obsessiveness with charting the paths of whales was something of the mad genius of the south–from where Melville of course saw himself as hailing–and a model of militaristic advocacy of secession so unlike Melville’s own path.


Filed under Marine mapping, Moby Dick, nautical mapping, US Navy, whaling routes