We can all too easily lose sight of the centrality of seaweed plays in coastal habitat–even in Northern California, where seaweed washes up regularly in clumps and beds along the shore. Bull kelp and other marine plants on the sandy beaches of northern California seem otherworldly representatives of a removed marine world, but their proximity is revealed in remote mapping that promises to remap the role of seaweed in coastal ecosystems, and offer a picture of the terrifying prospects of ocean warming and climate change.
The relatively recent contraction of kelp forests across much of the offshore where they long provided such dense habitats may soon start to contract in ways never before experienced. The remapping of kelp forests, and the problems of their contraction of treasured habitat, reveal how much coastal waters demand to be seen not as so separate from the land, but part of a complex ecotone–a region where land and sea interact. Underwater species impact a large ecosystem that provides atmospheric oxygen, integral to coastal biodiversity that imparts a specific character to the California coast, and a sense of where we are–as well as makes it a destination for countless Pacific pelagic, shorebirds, and insects, as well as shellfish and fish. But the decimation of kelp forests, tied to an absence of predators to urchins, but more broadly to the ocean warming of coastal waters, as well as potentially an unprecedented increase in coastal pollution, makes both the mapping of the shrinking of kelp forests and the deciphering of that shrinking pressing problems of mapping, destined to impact a large variety of ocean and land-dwelling species.
The need for such mapping underscores all of our relation to the vital ecosystem of the shores and coastal ocean–even if we too often bracket it from our daily lives. While beached kelp may be present before our eyes, the problems of mapping of kelp forests with any fixity complicates how we process the disappearance of offshore kelp beds in an amazingly rapid timeframe. And the failure of creating an actual image capture registering the extent of kelp forests poses limits our awareness of their diminution off coastal waters. The observations of the shrinking of coastal spread of bull kelp is based on local aerial surveys, over a relatively small span of time, the accelerated roll-back of a once-vital region of biodiversity is both global, and demands to be placed in a long-term historical perspective of the way we have removed the underwater and undersea from our notion of coastal environments and of a biosphere.
What was first registered in the plummeting of abalone, and the wasting disease of sea stars, afflicting stars from Baja to Alaska in 2013, suggest a condensation of a radical change in near-coastal environments of global proportions, paralleled by the arrival of warm waters that are not conducive to kelp growth, even before El Nino, and before the the arrival of purple urchins whose levels stars controlled, as if the result of cascading effects of a tipping point atmospheric change.
The quite sudden growth on the ocean floor of “sea urchin barrens,” where the near coastal waters are cleared of seaweeds and kelp, is a global problem. As global oceans absorb warmth of increased global warming, near-shore environments are particularly susceptible to species changes that create large disequilibria–from the bloom of phytoplankton to the rise of purple sea urchins and the dearth of shellfish–that stand to change coastal oceans. Yet the same creatures are often ones that fall of outside of our maps, even if the presence and scale of massive kelp beds and submerged forests are hard to map. And even if we see a shrinking of the large undersea submerged beds of kelp off coastal California, it is hard to have clear metrics of their shrinking over time or past extent–or of intervening in their reduction, which we seem forced to watch as inland spectators.
Indeed, if the presence of coastal seaweed, and the distinctive kelp forest of California’s coastal ocean seems the distinguishing feature of its rich coastal ecology, the holdfasts of kelp forests that are grazed down by sea urchins and other predators are poorly mapped as solely underwater–they are part of the rich set of biological exchanges between the ecotone of where land meets sea, and ocean life is fed by sediment discharge and polluted by coastal communities, as much as they should be mapped as lying offshore, at a remove from the land. Yet the death of beds of kelp that is occurring globally underwater is cause for global alarm.
For from Norway to Japan to but the decline of natural predators of urchins in California has made a rapid rise of urchins on the seafloor along the coast have contributed to a shrinking of once-abundant kelp forests that produce so much of our global atmospheric oxygen. And these hidden underwater changes seem destined to rewrite our globe, as much as climate change, and threaten to change its habitability. Even as large clumps of seaweed are removed by powerful waves, that deposit piles of offshore forests ripped from holdfasts on beaches in northern California, the narrative of large coastal kelp deposits, their relation to climate change and coastal environment demands to be better mapped, as the transition of kelp to barrens afflicts so much of the coastal waters of the Atlantic and Pacific, at so many different latitudes and across such a variety of local cold water ecologies.
While the decline of kelp forests seems as radical as the clear-cutting of redwoods, it is both far more rapid and far more environmentally disruptive, if far less visible to the human eye.For in recent decades, increasingly warming waters and out of whack ecosystems have led to a massive decline of seaweed, decimated by a rise in the sea urchin population to by 10,000 percent off the California coast over only last five years, shrinking kelp forests that stand to catapult us to a future for which we have no map. The long-term decline in sea otters and sea stars, natural predators of the urchins, have removed constraints on urchin growth, which warming waters has encouraged, reducing a historical abundance of kelp in the near coastal waters across California.
This has perhaps been difficult to register due to the problems of mapping seaweed, and indeed registering kelp forests’ decline. The advance of sea urchin populations that have created barrens in coastal waters stands to disrupt and overturn some of the most abundant ecological niches in the global oceans. How has this happened under our eyes, so close tho shore and lying just undersea? We have few real maps of seaweed or kelp, lurking underwater, rather than above land, and leave out kelp from most of our maps, which largely privilege land. But the abundance of kelp that produce most of the global oxygen supply live in underwater ecotones–sensitive places between land and sea, in-between areas of shallow water, abundant sunlight, and blending of land and sea–an intersection, properly understood, between biomes, on which different biological communities depend.
Looking at the offshore seaweed near Santa Cruz, CA, I wondered if the predominantly passive registration of location–onshore registration of sites remotely by satellites, familiar from the harrowing images of the spread of fires, provided a basis to register our states of emergencies that was spectacularly unsuited to the contraction of coastal kelp, despite the huge advances of mapping techniques, and left us without a map to their contraction, or to register the subtle if radical consequences of kelp loss, and the almost as devastatingly rapid progress of their advance as populations of urchins have mowed down underseas kelp beds. For even as we strike alarms for the the decline of global kelp populations and seaweed forests as a result of the warming of offshore temperatures that place the near offshore regions at special risk of atmospheric warming–
–we lack maps of the place of seaweed and kelp beds in their ecotone, and indeed have no adequate maps of seaweed populations under threat.
There is almost no trace of the human, or of the extreme overurbanization of the Texas coast, in most of the maps that were created of the extreme flooding and intense winter rains that hit Galveston and Houston TX with the windfall of Hurricane Harvey. While maps serve to orient humans to the world–and orient us to human processes and events in a “human world,” as J.B. Harley and David Woodward put it, the confused nature of relations between the human and natural world, is increasingly in danger of being mipmapped. Data visualizations of extreme weather that erase the modification of coastal environments provide a particularly challenging means of orientation, as news maps are suspended between registering the shock of actual events–and trying to contain the natural emergencies that events of extreme weather create–and the demand for graphics that register natural calamities and the ethics of showing such calamities as “natural”–or even what the category of the natural is in coastal regions that so heavily modified to modify actual weather events.
The ethics of orienting viewers to the rainfall levels that fell in Houston after the landfall Hurricane Harvey Part of the huge difficulties lies in adequately orienting viewers in ways that register a changing natural world–how we are mapping rainfall, for example, or the approach of hurricanes, or are rather mapping the new relation of rain to built surfaces and landcover change that lack permeability for water, facilitating flooding by storms whose potency is changed by the greater atmospheric content of a warming Gulf of Mexico, which the ground cover of Houston, Galveston, and the Texas shore are less able to absorb and return to the Gulf. The area is, itself, something of an epicenter of the increased number of hemispheric tropical cyclones–which demand warm water temperatures above 80 80°F / 27°C and a cooling atmosphere and low wind shear–often led to the Gulf coast.
–those that come ashore at Galveston hit a seashore that is eminently unprepared to accommodate an influx of water that the paved surface has rendered all but impermeable. If the problem of global cyclones that can become hurricanes is truly global–
–the intersection between cyclones and areas of paved ground cover is problematic to the southwestern states, and most of all to Texas, Louisiana, and Florida, where water absorption has been anthropogenically reduced in recent decades. At the same time, few other areas of the inhabited world are so widely “tracked” as the destination of tropical cyclone formation..
The problem is partly evident in the choice of new color ramps that transcend the rainbow spectrum of measuring the intensity of rainfall in the recent arrival or ground fall of Hurricane Harvey, which condenses the great difficulty of using old cartographical categories and conventions in order to capture or communicate increasingly extreme weather conditions. in an era of climate change. But the cartographic problem goes farther: for it lies in the difficulty of registering the changes in relations f how rain dropped meets the ground, mapping relations between complex processes of warming and atmospheric warmth that lead to greater humidity across the gulf region to ground cover permeability that leaves regions increasingly exposed to flooding.
The relentless logic of data visualizations based on and deriving primarily from remote sensing are striking for rendering less of a human world than the threat of allegedly “natural” processes to that world. Perhaps because of the recent season of extreme weather we have experienced, weather maps may be among the most widely consulted visualizations in our over-mediated world, if they were already widely viewed as the essential forms of orientation. But the pointillist logic of weather maps may fail to orient us well to extreme events as the hurricane that dumped a huge amount of water on overbuilt areas to include the human–or the human world–seem a tacit denial of the role of humans in the complex phenemona of global warming that have, with the warming waters of the Gulf of Mexico and ever-increasing ozone over much of the overbuilt southeastern Texas shore, created a perfect storm for their arrival.
This failure to include this role haunts the limited content of the weather map; including the role of humans in maps of extreme weather events indeed remains among the most important challenges of weather maps and data visualization, with the human experience of the disasters we still call natural. And although the subject is daunting, in the spirit of this blog, we will both look at the communicative dilemmas and difficulties of eye-catching color ramps and their deceptiveness, and poetic difficulties of orienting oneself to shores. For as the disaster of Harvey is depressing, it compels raising questions of the orientation to the shifting shore, around the national epicenter of Galveston, where the landfall of Hurricane Harvey focussed our attention on August 27, 2017–
–and the meaning of place in an saturated shoreline, where the sea is somehow part of the land, and the land-sea divide blurs with a specificity that seems as if it may well be increasingly true in an approaching era of climate change. And as we depend on the ready generation of maps based on remote sensing whose relentless logic is based on points, we risk looking sight of the role of place in determining the relations of rainfall to shoreline in maps of coastal flooding that remove remote observations from the built environment that flooding so drastically changes, challenges and affects, in ways that may elide specificities of place.
At a time when we are having and will be destined to have increased problems in orienting ourselves to our shores through digital maps of rainfall, the unclear shorelines of Galveston sent me to the bearings that a poet of an earlier age took her bearings on the mapped shorelines of the place where she had been born, and how she was struck by a bathymetric map to gauge her personal relation to place, and saw place in how the changing shoreline of the northern Atlantic were mapped in the maritimes, in a retrograde form of print mapping in a time of war. For the way the mapped shore became a means by which Elizabeth Bishop gained bearings on shores through a printed map of coastal bathymetry to access the spatiality of the shore–how “land lies in water” and the blurred relation of land and water that the bathymetric map charts–in an age when the materiality of the map was changing, with the introduction of aerial composite maps from the early 1930s, as the rise of aerial composite maps removed the hand of the mapmaker from the map in an early instance of remote sensing–
–in a medium of aerial photography that focussed on land to the exclusion of water, and that all but erased the relation between water and shore just a few years after Bishop quickly wrote her poem in Christmas 1935 about coastal “edges” of land and sea. Ryker, who developed techniques of aerial photography used in the mapping of the shores of Puerto Rico for the Fairchild Aerial Camera Company, as well as photographs of the devastating Berkeley Fire of 1923, went into business in 1938–the year of his map–as a map publisher, with a patent for the stereoscope used to interpret aerial imagery, and must have performed the massively detailed mapping of San Francisco in one hundred and sixty for images taken from airplanes from 1937-38 as a sort of calling card, soon after Bishop wrote her poem, before manufacturing a range of stereoscopes of pocket and desktop versions for military ends that were widely used in World War II by the US Army.
Before war broke out, but in ways that anticipated the coming war, the printed bathymetric map must have resonated as a new reflection on the impersonality of the aerial view; Bishop was suddenly struck when she encountered the materiality of a print map on Christmas 1938 as the art of cartography was already changing, responding to the drawn map under glass of the Atlantic as a way to recuperate the personal impact of place. Her poem powerfully examined the logic of drawn maps utterly absent from the digitized space of rainfall maps of a flood plain, deriving from data at the cost of human inhabitation of place–and in envisioning data to come to terms with the catastrophic event of flooding distancing or removing the craft of mapmaking from the observer in dangerously deceptive ways. And so after wrestling with the problems of cartographic representation using remote sensing, while recognizing the value of these readily produced maps of rainfall and the disasters they create,
1. For weather maps are also among the most misleading points to orient oneself to global warming and climate change, as they privilege the individual moment, removed from a broader context of long-term change or the human alteration of landscape. They provide endless fascination by synthesizing an encapsulated view of weather conditions, but also suggest a confounding form of media to orient audiences to long-term change or to the cascading relations of the complex phenomenon of climate change and our relation to the environment, as they privilege a moment in isolation from any broader context, and a sense of nature removed from either landscape modification or human intervention in the environment, in an area were atmospheric warming has shifted sea-surface temperatures. The effects on the coast is presented in data visualizations that trace the hurricane’s “impact” as if its arrival were quite isolated from external events, and from the effects of human habitations on the coast. The image of extreme flooding is recorded as a layer atop a map, removing the catastrophic effects of the flooding from the overpaved land of the megacities of southeastern Texas, and the rapid paving over of local landcover of its shores.
Such visualizations preserve a clear line between land and sea, but treat the arrival of the rains on land as isolated from the Consuming such events of global warming in color-spectrum maps. The data of rainfall translate data into somewhat goofy designs represents a deep alienation from the environment, distancing viewers in dangerous ways from the very complexity of global warming that Gulf coast states encountered.
Such data visualizations seem dangerously removed notion of how we have changed our own environment, by describing a notion of “nature” that is immediately legible, as if it were removed from any human trace or of the impact of modification of the land, and by imaging events in isolation from one another–often showing a background in terrain view as if it has no relation to the events that the map describes. Although weather maps and AccuWeather forecasts are sources of continual fascination, and indeed orientation, they are are also among the most confounding media to orient viewers to the world’s rapidly changing climate–and perhaps among the most compromised. For they imply a remove of the viewer from space-and from the man-made nature of the environment or the effects of human activity form the weather systems whose changes we increasingly register. By reifying weather data as a record of an actuality removed from human presence at one place in time, they present a status quo which it is necessary to try to peel off layers, and excavate a deeper dynamic, and indeed excavate the effects of human presence in the landscape or geography that is shown in the map. We are drawn to tracking and interpret visualizations of data from satellite feeds in such weather maps–or by what is known as “remote sensing,” placed at an increased remove from the human habitation of a region, and indeed in a dangerously disembodied manner.
Visualizations resulting from remote observation demand taken as a starting point to be related to from the human remaking of a region’s landscape that has often increasingly left many sites increasingly vulnerable to climate change. But the abstract rendering of their data in isolation from a global picture–or on the ground knowledge of place–may render them quite critically incomplete. The remove of such maps may even suggest a deep sense of alienation form the environment, so removed is the content of the data visualization form human presence, and perhaps from any sense of the ability to change weather-related events, or perceive the devastating nature of their effects on human inhabitants: their stories are about weather, removed form human lives, as they create realities that gain their own identity in images, separate from a man-made world, at a time when weather increasingly intersects with and is changed by human presence. While throwing into relief the areas hit by flooding near to the southeastern Texas shore at multiple scales based on highly accurate geospatial data, much of which is able to be put to useful humanitarian uses–
–the reduction of floods to data points creates a distorted image of space renders their occurrence distant from the perspective of folks on the ground, and places their content at a considerable remove from the complex causality of a warming Gulf of Mexico, or the problems of flood drainage by which Galveston and Houston were beset. Indeed, the multiple images of that report rainfall as an overlay in a rainbow spectrum, at a remove from the reasons for Houston’s vulnerability to flooding and the limits the region faces of flood control, in broadcast Accuweather images of total rainfall in inches advance a metric that conceals the cognitive remove from the dangers of flooding, ora human relation to the landscape that the hurricane so catastrophically affected. Can we peel under the layers of the data visualization, and create better images that appreciate the human level on which the landscape stands to be devastated by hurricane rains, as much as tracking the intensity of the growth of rainfall over time?
Such layers of green, meant to suggest the intensity of rainfall that fell over land, reveal the concentration of water in areas closes to the Gulf of Mexico. Even the most precise geographical records of the dangers of flooding in the floodplain of southeastern Texas with little reference to the historical modification of the region by inhabitants–
–and conceal the extent to which the landscape’s limited ground cover permeability has left the region far more susceptible to flooding, and elevated the risks of the emergency. The problem of reading any signs of human presence into these “images” of precipitation provoke problems of disentangling remote sensing data from knowledge of the region’s recent urban growth and the consequent shift in local landcover.
The perspective of our relation to these events is often as fleeting and as existential as they flood us with data, which we viewers have little perspective or tools to process fully. The onrush of recent remote sensing maps batter us with an array of data, so much as to lead many to throw up their hands at their coherence. Even as we are still trying to calculate the intensity of damages in Puerto Rico–where electricity is so slowly returning that even even after four months, almost a third of its 1.5 million electricity customers still lack power–and the cost of fires in southern California. We look at maps, hoping to piece together evidence of extensive collateral damage of global warming. Yet we’ve still to come to terms with the intensity of rainstorms that hit southeastern Texas–deluging the coast with rainfall surpassing the standard meteorological chromatic scale that so misleadingly seems to offer a transparent record of the catastrophe, but omits and masks the experiences of people on the ground, digesting swaths of remotely sensed data that take the place of their perception and experience, and offering little critical perspective on the hurricane’s origin.
The rapidity with which rain challenged ground cover permeability provides both a challenge for mapping as a symptom of global warming and landscape modification: the mapping of “natural” levels of rainfall blurs the pressing problem of how shifting landcover has created an impermeability to heightened rains, and indeed how the new patterns of habitation challenge the ability of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico to absorb the prospect of increased rain in the face of decreasing groundcover permeability, and the extreme modification of the coastline that increasingly impeded run-off to the Gulf.
2. Across much of southeastern Texas, a region whose growth was fed by the hopes of employment in extractive industries, real estate demand and over-paving have unfortunately intersected with extreme weather in southeastern Texas in ways which dat visualizations have had trouble exposing, but which raise a curtain on the coming crises of a failure of ability to accommodate increased levels of rainfall If the lack of precedent for the intense rainfall in Galveston Bay generated debate about introducing a new color that went beyond the rainbow scale employed in weather charts, what seemed a problem of the cartographic color-spectrum suggested a problem of governability and indeed government response to extreme weather conditions. How to register the dangers of rainfall that goes of the scale or standards of measurement?
One must consider how to orient viewers to the intensity of consequent flooding, and to its consequences and better prepare ourselves for the arrival of deluging rains without falling back on the over-freighted metaphor of rains of biblical scope. How many more hurricanes of increasing intensity can continue to pound the shores, by whipping precipitation from increasingly warming waters and humid air? The cumulative pounding of tropical cyclones in the Gulf stands to create a significantly larger proportion of lands lying underwater–temporarily submerged lands–with radically reduced possibilities of drainage, as hurricanes carry increased amounts of evaporated water from the humid air of the warming gulf across its increasingly overbuilt shores. in ways that have changed how the many tropical cyclones that have crossed the land-sea threshold since NOAA began tracking their transit (in 1851) poses a new threat to the southeastern coast of Texas, and will force us to map the shifting relation between land and water not only in terms of the arrival of hurricanes, or cyclonic storms–
–but the ability of an increasingly overbuilt landscape to lie underwater as the quantity of the Gulf coast rainfall stands to grow, overwhelming the overbuilt nature of the coast.
Most maps that chart the arrival and impact of hurricanes seem a form of climate denial, as much as they account for climate change, locating the hurricanes as aggressive forces outside the climate, against a said backdrop of blue seas, as if they are the disconnect. Months after the hurricane season ended, the damage for hurricanes caused have hardly been assessed in what has been one of the most costly and greatest storm damage since 1980 in the United States,–including the year of Hurricane Katrina–we have only begun to sense the damage of extreme weather stands to bring to the national infrastructure. The comparison to the costs of storm damage in previous years were not even close.
But distracted by the immediacy of data visualizations, and impressed by the urgency of the immediate, we risk being increasingly unable to synthesize the broader patterns of increased sea surface temperatures and hurricane generations, or the relations between extremely destructive weather events, overwhelmed by the excessive destruction of each, and distracted from raising questions about the extremely poor preparation of most overbuilt regions for their arrival, and indeed the extent to which regional over-building that did not take the possibility of extreme weather into account–paving large areas without adequate drainage structures or any areas of arable land–left inhabitants more vulnerable to intense rains. For in expanding the image of the city without bounds, elasticity, or margins for sea-level rise, the increasingly brittle cityscapes of Galveston and much of the southeastern Texas shoreline were left incredibly unprepared for the arrival of hurricanes or intense rains. Despite the buzz of an increased density of hurricanes to have hit the region,
the questions of how to absorb hurricanes of the future, and to absorb the increased probability of rainfall from hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and its shores, suggests questions of risk, danger, and preparation that we have no ability to map. What, indeed, occurs, as hurricanes themselves destroy the very means of transmitting on the ground information and sensing weather, and we rely exclusively on remote sensing?
To characterize or bracket these phenomena as “natural” is, of course, to overlook complex interaction between extreme weather patterns and our increasingly overbuilt environments that have both transformed the nature of the Southeastern Texas coast and have made the region both an area of huge economic growth over time, and have paved over much of the floodplain–as well as elevated the potential risks that are associated with coastal flooding in the Gulf Coast. To be sure, any discussion of the Gulf of Mexico must begin from the increasingly unclear nature of much of our infrastructure across land and sea, evident in the range of pipelines of gas and oil that snake along a once more clearly defined shore charted by ProPublica in 2012, revealed the scope of the manmade environment that has both changed the relation of the coastal communities to the Gulf of Mexico, and has been such a huge spur to ground cover change.
The expansive armature of lines that snake from the region across the nation–
-and whose tangle of oil pipelines that extend from the very site of Galveston to the Louisiana coast is almost unable to be defined as “offshore” save as a fiction, so highly constructed is much of the national waters in submerged lands in the Gulf of Mexico–
They indeed seem something of an extension of the land, and a redefinition of the shore, and reveal a huge investment of the offshore extractive industries that stand to change much of the risk that hurricanes pose to the region, as well as the complex relation of our energy industries to the warming seas. Yet weather maps, ostensibly made for the public good, rarely reveal the overbuilt nature of these submerged lands or of the Gulf’s waters.
Despite the dangers that such an extensive network of hazardous liquid lines along the Gulf of Mexico, the confusion between mapping a defined line between land and water, and visualizing relations of extreme weather disturbances as hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and local infrastructure haunts the extremely thin nature of the sort of data visualizations that are generated about the dangers of hurricanes and their landfall in the region. For all too often, they presume a stable land/sea divide, removed from the experience of inhabitants of the region and how we have remade the shore.
3. How can we better integrate both a human perspective on weather changes, and the role of human-caused conditions in maps of extreme weather? How can we do better by going beneath the data visualizations of record-breaking rainfall, to map the human impact of such storms? How could we do better to chart the infrastructural stresses and the extent to which we are ill-prepared for such extreme weather systems whose impact multiplies because of the increased impermeability of the land, unable to absorb excessive rainfall, and beds of lakes and reservoirs that cannot accommodate increased accumulation of rainfall that stand to become the new normal? The current spate of news maps that provoke panic by visualizing the extremes of individual cases may only inspire a sort of data vis-induced ADD, distracting from infrastructural inadequacies to the effects of global warming–and leaving us at a loss to guarantee the best structures of governability and environmental readiness.
Indeed, the absence of accurately mapping the impact and relation between landcover, storm intensity, rainfall, flooding, and drainage abilities increases the dangers of lack of good governance. There need not be any need for a reminder of how quickly inadequate mapping of coastal disasters turns into an emblem of bad governance. There is the danger that, overwhelmed by the existential relation to each storm, we fail to put them together with one another; compelled to follow patterns of extreme weather, we risk being distracted from not only the costs but the human-generated nature of such shifts in seasons between extremes of hot and cold. For as we focus on each event, we fail to integrate a more persuasive image of how rising temperatures stand to create an ever-shifting relation between water and land.
Provoked by the rhetoric of emergency, we may need to learn to distance ourselves better from the aerial views that synthesize intense precipitation, tally hurricane impacts, or snowfall levels, and view them less as individual “strikes” or events and better orient ourselves to a broader picture which put us in a less existential relation to extreme weather.
The Weather Channel
We surely need to establish distance to process syntheses of data in staggering aerial views on cloud swirl, intense precipitation, and snowfall, and work to peel back their striking colors and bright shades of rainbow spectra, to force ourselves to focus not only on their human costs, or their costs of human life, but their relation to a warming planet, and the role of extreme of weather in a rapidly changing global climate, as much as track the “direct strikes” of hurricanes of individual names, as if they were marauders of our shores: their creation is as much tied to the changing nature of our shores and warming sea-surface temperatures, and in trying to create a striking visualization, we deprive ourselves from detecting broader patterns offering better purchase on weather changes.
The Weather Channel
If patterns of weather maps epitomized by Accuweather forecast and projections suggest an exhilaratingly Apollonian view on global and regional weather patterns, they also shift attention form a broader human perspective in quite deeply pernicious ways. Such maps provided the only format for grasping the impact of what happened as the hurricane made landfall, but provided little sense of the scale of inundations that shifted, blurred and threatened the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. They provide a format for viewing floods that are disjoined from victims, and seem to naturalize the quite unnatural occurrence of extreme weather systems. Given the huge interest in grasping the transformation of Hurricane Harvey from a tropical storm to a Category Four hurricane, and the huge impact a spate of Category Four hurricanes have created in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s no surprise that the adequacy of the maps of Hurricane Harvey have been interrogated as hieroglyphs or runes of a huge weather change: we sift through them for a human story which often left opaque behind bright neon overlays, whose intensity offer only an inkling of a personal perspective of the space or scale of their destruction on the ground: while data maps provide a snapshot of the intensity of rain-levels or wind strength at specific sites, it is difficult if important to remember that their concentration on sites provide a limited picture of causation or complexity.
All too often, such maps fail to offer an adequately coherent image of disasters and their consequences, and indeed to parse the human contributions to their occurrence. This post might be defined into multiple subsections. The first actions suggest the problems of mapping hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico in relation to flooding in data visualizations of the weather and the overbuilt region; the middle of the post turns to an earlier poetic model for considering the relation between land and sea that visualizations all too easily obscure, and the meaning that the poet Elizabeth Bishop found in viewing relations between land and sea in a printed map of the Atlantic; after returning to the question of the overbuilt shore compounds problems of visualizing the Texas coast, the final section, perhaps its most provocative, returns to Bishop’s reading of a map of the Atlantic coast.
What such new weather maps would look like is a huge concern. Indeed, as we depend on weather maps to orient us to place ourselves in the inter-relations of climate change, sea-level, surface temperatures, and rain, whether maps cease to orient us to place, but when best constructed help to describe the changing texture of weather patterns in ways that can help familiarize us not only to weather conditions, but needed responses to climate change. For three months after the hurricanes of the Gulf of Mexico caused such destruction and panic on the ground, it is striking not only that few funds have arrived to cover costs of rebuilding or insurance claims, but the judgement or understanding of the chances for future flooding have almost left our radar–perhaps pushed rightly aside by the firestorms of northern and southern California, but in ways that troublingly seem to forget to assess or fail to assess the extent of floods and groundwater impermeability along the Texas and Louisiana coast. The problems that preparation for future coastal hurricanes off the Gulf of Mexico raise problems of hurricane control and disaster response that seem linked to problems of mapping their arrival–amd framing the response to the increasing rains that are dumped along the entire Gulf Coast.
Indeed, the chromatic foregrounding of place in such rainbow color ramps based on GPS obscure other maps. Satellite data of rainfall are removed from local conditions, and serve to help erase complex relations between land and water or the experience of flooding on the ground–by suggesting a clear border between land and sea, and indeed mapping the Gulf of Mexico as a surface as if it were unrelated to the increased flooding around Houston, in maps prepared from satellite imagery, despite the uneasy echoes of anthropogenic causes for the arrival of ten hurricanes in ten weeks, in ways that suggest how warming waters contributed to the extreme inundation of the Gulf Coast. Despite NOAA predictions of a 45% likelihood of ‘above-normal’ activity for the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, with, a 70% likelihood of storms that could transform into hurricanes, the images of inundated lands seem both apocalyptic and carefully removed from the anthropogenic changes either to the ocean or land that intensified their occurrence so dramatically on the ground.
Is it possible to recuperate the loss of individual experience in such data maps, or at least acknowledge their limitations as records of the complexity of a changing climate and the consequences of more frequent storm surges and such inundations of rainfall? As we seek better to understand the disaster relief efforts through real-time maps of effects of Hurricane Harvey as it moved inland from the Gulf of Mexico, shifting from Category 4 Hurricane from a tropical storm, we tried to grasp levels of rainfall that spun out of 115-mile-an-hour winds across southeastern Texas that damaged crops, flooded fields, ruined houses, and submerged cars, we scan stories in hope of clues to assess our position in relation to increasingly dangerous weather systems whose occurrence they may well forebode. At a time of increased attention to extreme weather has long developed, the gross negligence of climate change denial is increasingly evident: it recalls the earlier denial of any relation between hurricanes and climate change, when increased hurricanes were cast as “the cycle of nature,” rather than as consequences whose effects have in fact been broadly intensified by human activity.
Current attempts to map the toll of record-smashing hurricanes focused almost exclusively on point-based data view rainstorms largely as land-based records; even as they intend to monitor the effects of Harvey’s landfall by microwave censors, they risk seeming to isolate real-time rainfall levels from the mechanics warmer air and sea-surface temperatures which result from human-caused global warming, not relating increased storm surges or inundations to achanges in coastal environments or climate change. To render such changes as natural–or only land-based–is irresponsible in an age of reckless levels of climate denial. Indeed, faced by the proliferation of data visualizations, part of the journalistic difficulty or quandary is to integrate humanistic or individual perspectives on the arrival of storms, rendered in stark colors in the increasingly curtailed ecosystems of newsrooms which seek simplified visualizations of satellite data on the disaster, which fail to note the human contributions to the travails that are often reserved for photographs, which increasingly afford opportunities of disaster tourism in the news, emphasizing the spectator’s position before disasters, by images that underscore the difficulties in processing or interpreting the proliferation of data from MODIS satellite feeds: we can show the ability to measure the arrival of torrential rains, but in offering few legends, save the date and scale, but offering few keys o interpret the scale of the disaster.
The looming portent of human-made climate change, however, underlies the poor predictions that NOAA offered of perhaps 2-4 major hurricanes this Spring, and the lack of a new director for NOAA–on which local and state agencies depend to monitor the nations shores and fisheries–suggested the, from June to September, which left states on their own to make decisions and plan for disaster mitigation programs and better flood maps. (The danger of appointing a newly nominated director, Barry Myers, who is a strong supporter of the privitization of weather maps and an executive at the private Accuweather mapping service, suggests the difficulty of determining the public-private divide in an era of neoliberalism, and a free market of weather maps that were once seen as central to national security and standards of safety.) There are two hidden scales on which we read these opaque maps of global warming and globalization and local inundation are triply frustrating. For all the precision and data richness of such point-maps of largely land-based rainfall, local temperature, or flooding, the biases of such instantaneous measurements seem to fit our current governing atmosphere of climate change denial, and dangerous in erasing how such storms are informed by long-term consequences of man-made climate change. (As the mapping tools of coastal weather seem destined to change, what sort of change in direction for NOAA coastal maps do we want: the appointment suggests the terrifying possibility of a return to the Bush-era proposal nominee Myers supported that prohibiting the agency from producing any maps already available in the private sector then threatened federal weather lines to go dark–lest they literally compete with ad-supported websites private providers–and shift federal information offline?)
For making moves toward the future readability of weather maps may well be at stake in critically important ways. The 2005 proposal that Myers backed would have eliminated the National Weather Service, even while exempting those forecasts needed to preserve “life and property,” would in essence have returned the weather services to a pre-internet era, even as the most active hurricane season including a record breaking fifteen hurricanes and twenty-eight storms began in the gulf coast, including the infamous hurricane Katrina. The proposed bill would have prevented NOAA from posting open data, and not only readily available to researchers and policymakers, in ad-free formats, free of popup screens, but allow them to make their own maps on the fly–ending good practices of posting climate data would work quite dangersously to prevent development of tools of data visualization outside commercial models of rendering storms and hurricanes as if environmentally isolated.
A deeper problem of providing such limited weather maps of tropical storms may be the subtexts about the relation of human causes to weather they convey, and the absence of a greater narrative of the transformation of a global ecology or of the ecology of the Gulf Coast. The curtailed images of “nature” they present by symbolizing rains, winds, floods, or submerged regions in appealing hues as natural–raise questions of the odd simplicity of the absent storylines: cheery colors erase or bracket complex questions of climate change, the human contribution to extreme weather events, or the human experience of suffering on the ground: Rita, Cindy, Katrina, Dennis, and Wilma seem not part of the environment, epiphenomenal interlopers moving across a static deep blue sea, in an apparent dumbing down of the mechanics of hurricane or storm formation in a rainbow spectrum removed from a human-made environment.
All maps stake propositions: as much as embody geographical information, they make arguments about how a landscape is inhabited. But climate change maps that model future scenarios of warming, increasing dryness, sea-level rise, or glacial melting are propositions in a strict sense, as they construct frames of reference that orient us to, in the very ways Wittgenstein described propositions, “a world as it were put together experimentally.” Shoreline change can be mapped in deep historical time, or over the past century, in interactive ways that reveal and allow us to zoom in on individual sites of sensitivity–
–but the processes of mapping such change cannot rely on contour lines drawn on a base map. For to do so is to abstract a static photograph from a global process that they only compel one to try to better visualize and comprehend. The processes of change are extremely complex patterns of causation that exceed most map-viewers competencies, despite the wide diffusion of claims and counter-claims about global warming and climate change in public discourse, which has effectively increasingly threatened to dislodge the preeminence of any position of expertise on the issue, demoting the actuality to a theory and removing many public statements on its existence from the map of coastal change, or the relation of the land to submerged territory. We are in danger of adopting an increasingly terrestrial or land-locked relation to how climate change affects shores, because we map from the boundary of the landform, as if it were fixed rather than a frontier of interchange and exchange, both above an under ground.
Far more than other maps, maps of climate change demand unique training, skills, and education to unpack in their consequences. And when the propositions staked in maps of climate change have increasingly come under attack for political implications, as if the scenarios of climate change are formed by a cabal of data scientists and climate scientists to advance independent agendas, or a poorly articulated and politicized climate research, it seems that the special skills used to interpret them and the training to view them have come under attack for not corresponding to the world.
Real fears of the danger of the delegitimization of science run increasingly high. But attacking the amazingly dense arrays of data that they synthesize seems to suggest an interest in shutting down the very visualizations that allowed us to conceive and come to terms with climate change. The open suggestion that digitized scenarios of climate maps were only designed to terrify audiences and advance interests not only undermines discussion and debate, but seems a technique to destabilize the emergence of any consensus on climate change. Although the fears of an immediate loss of climate data may be overstated for the nation, the loss of a role in preserving a continuous record of global climate data is considerable given fears of reducing space-based remote sensing. Such observation provide one of the only bases to map global climate data, ranging from aridity to water temperature to temperature change over time. The hard-line stances that Trump holds about climate sciences are expressed in terms of the costs they generate–“very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit,”–but extend to denigration of climate scientists as a “glassy-eyed cult” by science advisor William Happer–who in George W Bush’s Dept. of Energy minimized the effect of man-made emissions on climate change.
Both bode poorly for the continued funding of the research agenda of NASA’s earth sciences division. And the need to preserve a more coherent maps of man-made climate change grow, choosing the strategies to do so command increased attention. The dangerous dismissal of climate sciences as yet another instance of “listening to the government lie to them about margarine and climate change” or prioritizing the political impact of their findings to draw attention to global warming and climate change seems to minimize the human impact on climate and recall the censorship of climate science reports from government agencies by governmental agencies and political appointees from a time when de facto gag orders dissuaded use of the term “global warming” over a period of eight years, a period of the harassment and intimidation of climate scientists. The term of “climate change” seemed agnostic of human agency–unlike Al Gore’s conviction that “global warming” was a global emergency. As well as actively destabilizing ties between human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases with global warming, Bush asked government agencies investigate “areas of uncertainty” which his successor tried to clarify through explicit research goals.
Yet the role of maps in making a public case for climate change and its consequences seem to have made the project of climate tracking and earth observation under increased attack, as the project of mapping climate is in danger of being removed once again from scientific conclusions about global temperature rise, subsurface ocean temperature rise, or glacial melting–as the ways that climate change maps embody actual environmental risks is effectively minimized.
When Michel Foucault told a gathering of architects that “the anxiety of our era has fundamentally to do with place” in 1967, he was describing prisons. Foucault’s fierce generalization argued that the growing shift from time to place was a crucial means to understand the attention of governments, but he could not have foreseen the level at which place has become a focus of anxiety in the Global War on Terror–either in the ramped up security at public buildings and in mass transit, or in the targeted assassinations and shootings of individuals. As threats of terrorist strikes seem to respect no battleground, we are consumed with tracking global networks on which we have no geographical orientation. The conflation of such conflict as global, and the elevation of the attacks of 9/11 to a regime of terror instilled fears of where the next possible target of terrorism might be. It has opened a sense of the place-lessness of the War on Terror–described as global, but long increasingly located in Afghanistan and Pakistan–has increasingly disoriented the American public from the world, and left them reeling for a narrative to orient us to its origins, which the convoluted narratives of the television drama “Homeland” takes such particular delight in purporting to unmask.
And the audiences that have emerged around the made-for-television thriller “Homeland,” a psychological drama which crosses multiple boundaries and suggesting the confusion or the problematic status of clear boundaries in its dramatic structure, asks audiences to decide what the nature of patriotism in fact is–and indeed the possibility of mapping places of safety in what increasingly seems a post-cartographical world. For despite the previous security of the mapping of lines of battle and sites of safety that were perpetuated in World War II and its aftermath, as a new era of stability, by a President who looked at its surface from a measured distance–
–the mapping of danger and of sites for surveillance have so proliferated in the Global War on Terror to make any coherent narrative about them seem cognitively challenging to knit, save to affirm the omnipresence of danger in the world. While Homeland provided temporary narrative coherence to this world in ways that were increasingly satisfying to its viewers, in ways that have not been fully understood, the Reality TV figure Donald J. Trump created a sense of an imagined link between security, flows of capital and immigration—claiming to reverse the decline of American centrality and supremacy that was avoided by his opponent, but which increasingly dominated the rallies, public statements, tweets, and rallies that Trump held over the two years of the election. For in the election, Trump provided a sense of the national imaginary that was besieged and looking for moorings that responded to the dislocation that the “Global” War on Terror brought, and that was ramped up in troubling ways by each possible terrorist attack that occurred on “American soil” and which reminded us of national vulnerability.
If the confusion of place, patriotism, and boundaries has in large part contributed to the election of Donald J. Trump–driven not only by economic anxiety, but where economic insecurity became the stand-in on which to displace far deeper fears about the homeland and about national frontiers and belonging–and to respond to a deep feeling of disempowerment not only in the economy, but an emotional satisfaction in an era of particularly acute dislocation.
Vulnerability was the dramatic theme, of course, of Homeland, which questioned the role of patriotism in a country that was infiltrated by hidden networks of terrorists far more than was evident to most. It was an insider’s look at the War on Terror, from a place that we have only imagined to be able to stand. For the status of place as a focus of anxiety has been elevated and transmogrified in the broad generality of a Global War on Terror to lose ny sense of security. In the “Global War on Terror,” there is no clearly defined battlefield, but suspicion and surveillance have been generalized across space in ways that have confounded much of the nation in ways we have rarely seen before. For a society in which the heightened ratcheting up of anxieties about place are difficult to narrate or indeed process, we have perhaps come to seek new figures of collective strength. We have been trying to narrate what the new instability of space, and lack of a harmonious sense of place, has come to mean–or the lack of security of any given location with the confusion of sites of military engagement and sites of fear, and of where exactly the Home Front or the next sites of military engagement and future site of terrorist attack might come be.
The destabilization of place was rife in the 1960s, to be sure. One remembers the instability of the home front during Vietnam that the poet Denise Levertov perceived so acutely: during the Peoples’ Park Riots in Berkeley, CA, Levertov wrote ominously in her diary, “War/comes home to us,” as police and national guards arrived to quell protestors: during the Vietnam War, she voiced a common concern that the circulation of soldiers from its front to nation, as teargas, bayonets, billy clubs and bullets appeared in the park off of Telegraph Avenue. The narration of a deep discomfort with place in HBO’s psychological thriller “Homeland” captures the deep dissonances and uncertainties of place in the Global War on Terror–GWOT–where the act of terrorism makes a fear of violence felt everywhere, and the storyline of a suspected sleeper terrorist introduces us to a broad hidden network of terrorism.
1. The Global War on Terror may be the only possible culmination of the profoundly asymmetrical invasions of Iraq, before minimal resistance, and inuagurating the declaration of war not against a fixed target or country, but an emotion, Rebecca Solnit noted, and the generalization of the emotion became something of a justification for the war. The open-ended notion of a GWOT, without fixed site, has encouraged the expansions of a battlefield less clearly drawn than ever before, confusing categories of “home” and war in ways that the dramatic television series Homeland has dramatically structured over seven seasons. The War on Terror has provided an everywhere war. And as we watch the series drawn by the mirror it provides on how fear of the ineluctable infolding of “war” as a threat to “home.” For the GWOT has provoked such heightened tension about place–and the place of a possible attack–to compel a sense of narrative about place, and the uncertain nature of the front line, or even of where the enemy lies, that the television series on HBO has come to provide on our televisions, where we can watch the narrative that maps the presence of terrorism both on our shores and in our military, and even stage that drama in Syria, Pakistan, and the generic Middle East, from refugee camps to houses and families of suspected terrorists, as if to give palpable stories to the increasing fears of a strike in our homeland that cannot be stopped.
The permeation of anxiety in the nation has in a sense created a captive audience for a drama that unfolds the increasingly complex contours of the a “war” on terror, and map out the sites of contested arenas in ways that they are suddenly materialized and rendered not only as fears, but as something like a clash of civilizations. As sites of engagement on the edge of state sovereignty have engaged the nation in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2000 with particular unease, as if the shock of a narrating a reaction to the attack on American soil has both challenged our sense of place and compelled us to orient ourselves collectively to place, whether to accept a surveillance apparatus to track terrorist organizations with a largely imagined degree of accuracy, or to acknowledge the edges of sovereignty to be effectively redrawn. The pretence of pin-point precision of drones as combat tools seems designed to quell the anxieties of place with which we are increasingly best. The ominous disorientataion of how it is that war now “comes home to us” is thematized in HBO’s dramatic thriller Homeland, as inner lives, and we turn to it to inhabit the changed geography of terror, narrating a changed a collective relation to place through the stores of protagonists whose paths question and trace the margins of state sovereignty.
Place, and the uncertain fear of its obliteration, is questioned from the return of a marine suspected to be a terrorist operative in the first season of Homeland, whose life reveals the presence of terrorist networks across the country, and who in later seasons of the television drama we trace to examinee the rewritten boundaries of state sovereignty with a vertiginous level of anxiety that starts form an increasingly uncertain relation to the map and the opening up of new areas of national vulnerability, as if to offer a parallel escape narrative to the terrorist threat map that he Homeland Security Department regularly generates on its website, as if to tabulate and contain the new threats to national stability at specific sites where sovereignty seems endanger of being undermined.
The rise of the tabulation of “Islamist threats,” of which we are advised that our troops bear the brunt, with law enforcement, are displayed the website of the Dept. of Homeland Security as if to stabilize fears but in ways that destabilize of sense of place, now inundated with an anxiety of future attacks to which we are most everywhere potentially susceptible, in what seems a deeply unethical remapping of unending terror. We mark attacks in hotspots and begging interpretation as if it were the weather, operating by isolines and isotherms, as if we might predict the future sites of vulnerability to terror strikes–or the level of “terror threats,” calibrated for easy comprehension as “high” in the U.S. homeland, which begs the question of place after all, but all the more unsettles us. But what would a “high terror threat” be? Is the map a way of orienting us, or is it a method for disorienting us? What possibility of orientation exists in an age of such sorts of uncertainty that a new set of attacks might occur anywhere?
For we seem to conceal that none of this has any contingent logic, but tracked in the manner of a disease map or a record of local virulence, it is embodied in spatial terms so that we can try to impose logic on and live with deep anxieties of place. Yet, of course, the Daily Terror Threat is unable to be mapped by any “snapshot,” and the analogy of a documentary or diagnostic record is only an illustration of our current addiction to maps to which we turn for better hopes of certainty or stabilize insecurity, but whose function seems to suggest the unseen presence of ISIS in our lives and in the space we know.
And, as the monthly assessment of terror strikes is mapped online, we turn as if for relief to Homeland, in hopes to better gain purchase on a perpetual fear of place the maps as the above, tracking Hatchet attacks that we are assured our troops and law enforcement bear the greatest brunt, placing us in a state of seige unless we can delink, as some aggregated news website warn us of increasingly immanent “main events” on the Homeland as if “Islamic Terrorist Network” is able to be mapped across the majority of the United States.
“Sporadic attacks” seem so recurrent in intelligence assessments that we may forget that right-wing domestic terrorists as “equal to” or “in some cases greater than” foreign-born Islamic terrorists, such as ISIS, and need to generate our own maps of domestic “domestic anti-government terrorist groups”that proliferate in parallel, covering even more of the map, and more than doubling our fears–and having little apparent coherence as well.
2. Homeland seems to orient geography that was begun by the War on Terror, on the margins of the very boundaries of state sovereignty in ways that we never expected to be allowed, and its invitation is extremely compelling because it seems to map the edges of state sovereignty that are increasingly questioned or up for grabs in terrorist attacks. Indeed, the series’ own structure has opened us to the danger of localized destruction by immersing us in an extension of its landscape of fear that has no set battlefield, but where any place can suddenly become a new front of engagement, and its progress cannot be clearly mapped. Much as the fear of terror strikes have justified police raids and surveillance to an unprecedented degree, and opening attacks to new forms of mapping that have placed “place” within a new complex of geospatial control, the dramatic series boasts to orient us to it in ways for which a distinct thirst exists–and it fills the new contours of an everywhere war with recognizable human faces as we follow the protagonists to explore what sort of space for individuality the ongoing and widely distributed “War on Terror” allows. As we move to the edges of state sovereignty where violence is greatest, the series asks us to explore the new topography of a world where straight edges between terror and civil society can’t be so cleanly drawn–and that violence erupts most strongly and fiercely on the edge of civil societies.
For the uncertainties of drone targeting provide a recurrent theme in the episodes of the first four seasons of Homeland, as if to orient viewers to the landscape of the War on Terror, where any place is invested with instability as a site of potential terror attack. We move at the margins of space of sovereignty in the television drama, where any site is both able to struck, and exists in a GPS armature at the limits of sovereign space. With the figure of Carrie Mathison, the heroine and intrepid protagonist who moves on and across these boundaries of sovereignty, moving across actual boundaries between sovereign states–as the publicity for the show so graphically announces in color-contrast–as if moving on the very frontier of state sovereignty and danger.
Will the hashtag #droughtshaming change the public water consumption levels in California? or is it only a manifestation of an all too long-submerged consciousness of evident property differences across most of Southern California–a space where ever-conspicuous consumption has long been made manifest in keeping yard lawns perpetually green? and what of the Wet Prince of Bel Air, who has used an incredible 11.8 million gallons yearly during the drought to maintain the green yards on their southern California estate?
Almost as powerful a portmanteau as “Mansplaining,” the compound currently trending on Twitter presents both a righteous form of indignation, improvising map via social media that suggests our changing sense of our environment may open new arenas of public speech. The creation of a set of zoomable interactive maps from the New York Times of projected water-cuts and current water-usage across the state’s water districts have been recently mapped an uneven balance between water districts statewide, in ways that not only call clear attention to sharp discrepancies of water-usage across the state, not only between how urban and agricultural regions might be affected by mandated reductions in public water usage–
but what might be called the selective yard-drenching in specific regions of the south-lands, according to the same interactive data visualization–
and the notable persistent over-use of water in wealthier areas of LA’s per diem consumption of water this past winter–
The map above offers an approximate reflection of a topography of disposable income, described b UCLA’s California Center for Sustainable Communities. The Center quite recently found not only that “wealthy used more than three times the rate of non-wealthy people,” but wealth was the most conspicuous correlation and predictor of water use–and watering lawns, as we have long known, an increasing sign of conspicuous consumption even in an age of drought.
Is this a decision to spend more on water, or is it, as seems more likely, the conspicuous expenditure of water on yards, perhaps fueled by the cost of letting all that greenspace go dry, or the actual dangers of fire hazards that letting lawns go dry might create? The oft-cited datum that Beverly Hills residents daily “used” some 286 gallons of water during September 2014, at the same time northern and coastal San Diego County consumed some 584 gallons in the Santa Fe Irrigation District, contrast sharply to Compton residents served by the LA Department of Water and Power who restricted themselves to 93 gallons a day and Angelinos in East LA some 48 gallons.
But it bears repeating at a time when Governor Brown wants to mandate across the board 20% reductions in water use as a means of increasing efficiency, if only to ask what some of the best manners of mandating reductions are. By dividing water-usage by census tract, clear patterns in LA County emerge, that make it something of an epicenter, to mix geographic metaphors, with the recent rash of tweets about excessively selfish individual water use at Beverly Hills mansions that include, in some cases, spas and vineyards as well as expansive still-green lawns:
But rather than only call attention to the sociological correlation between water-waste and wealth, this post wants to ask questions about the ethics of the spontaneous sorts of mapping of water-waste that have proliferated in Angelino social media, as if to sharpen critiques of the lack of social responsibility of the wealthy in a city of sharp social divides, in ways that remote sensing is promising new results in a far more detailed manner for select Los Angeles neighborhoods in order to drill more deeply into the extent of watering of lawns, flowers, and trees that underlies such datasets. But human-scale photographs posted on social media via Twitter has been an initial means to assemble immediately available instances of water over-use.
The spontaneous mapping of such inequalities on social-media is a sort of crowd-sourced shaming to redress unspoken social inequities, with offending addresses lain out on twitterfeeds for the public to see, lest anyone be confused about who has the public interest at heart, and who is most concerned with keeping the brown grass at bay, even without looking at the bigger picture, in something approximating collective rage against the overwatered large yard as an exercise of collective shaming, which has gained a real edge given that the state is poised to levy hefty fines on identified water wasters since mid-2014. It’s triggered a geographical awareness of the steep inequities of water use and comes close to socially sanctioned class-consciousness–
–and its effects on the lived landscape ofBeverly Hills lawns:
Such selective outing of levels of outrageously cartoonish disproportionate use of water utilities may run the ethical risk of crowd-sourced surveillance, where aerial photography approaches NSA-style snooping via overhead drones–the regional sustainability manager for Sacramento’s Utilities Department was said to be “pleasantly surprised” at such snitching last summer, when #drougthshaming took off on the Twittersphere. But the current spate of tweeted outrage expressed on social media has also become a venue for expressing suppressed sentiments of a class struggle, very slightly veiling disgust at profligate over-watering lawns indulged by those running automatic sprinklers as if they were draining regional aquifers single-handedly, with little heed for state-wide water shortages, brought to the front in signs posted in public parks that remind users that “Brown is the New Green.”
Tweets are most famous for unleashing wrath against the privileged who are out of touch with the reality of water-needs–
–at the fact that rhythms of daily consumption patterns are so drastically different across a single city by degrees of multipliers. And is it even a surprise that the mansions of three and a half acres we’ve become used to viewing and vicariously living on Reality TV have been most notoriously cautioned by local Municipal Water Districts to cut the their water use drastically? (Both Barbara Streisand and Kim Kardashian have publicly agreed to curtail their water use–“Kim takes this drought seriously;” said a representative; “she has no problem letting her grass go brown.”)
The targeted social criticism is by no means limited to the super-wealthy:
The steep social discrepancies in water-use have thrown into relief the divided economic structures of the city that we’ve long known about from the American Community Survey–Orange County and Palos Verde residents use respectively thee and two times the state-wide per capita daily consumption rates in February 2015–but now suggest that water wastage among the wealthy is actually undermining the public good in a clearly mappable manner. We have long seen larger yards in specific neighborhoods, but watering practices seem to have grown out-of-hand in expropriating the public resource with obliviousness, even while we blame “nature” for a drought that is increasingly evident is indeed largely man-made, and even may as due to human nature as climate change.
During the summer, such deep discrepancies of daily water consumption are of course placed into even further relief in data visualizations of local levels of consumption, reflecting an apparent rationalization of increased water usage as well as the readiness of covering rising water costs, as lower income families responded more rationally to higher water costs.
To be sure, Northern California has done fairly well to reduce consumption from the Spring 2013–
But it is also true that the aerial photographs of the ambient effects of income inequality that sent Google Earth images viral after being posted on persquaremile reveal the grey v. green dichotomy to be by no means limited to the southland–
Such a democratic appropriation of Google Earth may have paved the way for the tweeting of extravagant consumption of water that has become all too evident in some of the larger Beverly Hill yards, that can be linked to specific addresses.
The calls for greater restraint in water usage since March 2013 is far from clear in much of the greater Los Angeles area, as posters on social media have not only realized, but realized that they were able to publicly point out.
Both a more equitable distribution of water access and a rethinking of such deeply-lying assumptions of personal prerogative to wasting water deserve attention as Californians try to curb continued water use in a responsible manner. We will have to tilt swords with some of the deeper espousers of a free market of deregulated water consumption, but at this point, for better or worse, deregulation has its back snugly against the wall.
And despite the reluctance of water utilities to identify wasters of boggling amounts of public water–as the Los Angeles homeowner known only as Wet Prince of Bel Air, a name won for pumping an incredible annual 11.8 million gallons during the recent drought to his estate. The recent news that 100 residents of such wealthy Los Angeles neighborhoods as Westside have been pumping millions of gallons of water apiece has called for more effective means of recourse than twitter revenge, as such outing bears little fruit; in the light of recently passed laws against over-use of water, remote sensing technologies have been used by journalists at Reveal who are eager to even up the score: taking advantage of new fines assessed against excessive water use, the mapping through Digital Globe and others provides a deeper survey of water use than would be released by Los Angeles’ compliant Department of Water & Power. Indeed, the Center for Investigate Reporting has begun to “out” high water-users by remote sensing–and publishing the maps!
Given the limits of Twitter photographs to document public instances of water overuse, the expansive indulgence of overwatering in such somewhat reclusive sites as Bel Air, perhaps inspired by droughtshaming, have used remote sensing provides a means to assess an accurate record of water-use to map the high use of water to estates to out individual culprits of over-watering, tracking the greening of their gardens by Google Earth and Digital Globe and an assessment of exactly how healthy those yards are.
Using remote sensing of the health of plants–by means of a form of remote sensing developed to detect plant health common in agricultural assessment– the Normalized Vegetation Index (NDVI) helps to pinpoint individual culprits of water over-use might be identified whose identity would be otherwise kept hidden by the county, by measuring the living vegetation that has continued its ability to absorb visible light wavelengths of light, the very ones used in photosynthesis, to create a unique dataset of those with the largest living yards in the municipality.
For the primary culprits are be identified by remote sensing of living green vegetation that remain on such sites as the heavily wooded estate that is maintained by move producer Peter Guber, part-owner of the Golden State Warriors, who indulges his wooded estate with over 2.8 million gallons of water each year, while pushing the Warriors to take up a home in San Francisco to boost their revenues. The owner of the 42-room French-style chateau from TV’s “The Beverly Hillbillies,” former Univision CEO Jerrold Perenchio, who uses up to 6.1 million gallons each year to water his plants and gardens. The owner of the 28,000-square-foot “Bellagio House” whose floral gardens suck up over 4.6 million gallons per year. The technology used of combining infrared and near-infrared light by the Normalized Vegetation Index (NDVI). The NDVI has become sufficiently refined from satellite or drone remote observation to parse and better describe water use and its impact in plants with a great precision, as is evident in the MODIS satellite maps of groundwater in the United States, and to present a highly sensitive reading of vegetation health at precise moments in time, and indeed within given parameters of health, by mapping the presence of water in plants–as one would map the presence of water in the ground.
By means of a similar remote sensing with NDVI, one can effectively map lots’ local water saturation at a scale to detect individually owned gardens such as those that Guber indulges on Lausanne Road in Bel Air–outlined below , with relative vegetative health shown in red colors, showing the highest range of the NDVI–as an accurate way to assess the extent of living vegetation, using infrared and near-infrared light to measure the local health of vegetation with amazing sensitivity, much as is familiar from global maps–but is only recently possible at such low scale thanks to Digital Globe–in ways that can not only identify individual culprits of water over-use, but presumably take them to task.
–or the Casa Encantada owned by Garry Winnick–
For unlike the yellowed out areas of most of even the region of Bel Air, the bright red expanses suggest an odd over-nourishment of gardens even in a time of drought that indeed seems quite newsworthy, and is perhaps able to be viewed by Digital Globe alone.
–and can also be mapped, if with less clear-cut results, by soil moisture:
While such remote sensing from satellites had been confined to national regions at specific times of year,
–or used to map global differences in plant health–
–the local assessment of those who over-indulge in caring for their lawns and flowers is both something close to surveillance and perhaps a form of surveillance that recent laws about water use have sanctioned in California during our current drought.
The odd triangles and spots of green that remain in a drying out landscape in which most of the rest of us live (spot the non-arboreal light green track in the tan landscape shown below?) reveal the levels of water waste which demand to be curtailed, and are emblematic of the golf courses and overwatered farms that we’ve just begun to take stock.
We read more maps than ever before, and rely on maps to process and embody information that seems increasingly intangible by nature. But we define coherence in maps all too readily, without the skepticism that might be offered by an ethics of reading maps that we all to readily consult and devour. Paradoxically, the map, which long established a centering means to understand geographical information, has become regarded uncritically. As we rely on maps to organize our changing relation to space, do we need to be more conscious of how they preset information? While it is meant to be entertaining, this blog examines the construction of map as an argument, and proposition, to explore what the ethics of mapping might be. It's a labor of love; any support readers can offer is appreciated!