Tag Archives: Satellite maps

The Built World

Walking the streets in my now apparently abandoned neighborhood for an errand after a few weeks of sheltering in place in Oakland, I had the eery experience of navigating and inhabiting empty city. While I knew the pavement, I almost felt no longer familiar with the streets that afternoon. There was the sense that no one knew the state of affairs about reopening, and many were just puzzled about how to proceed: as a few young kids skateboarded up Shattuck Avenue, profiting from the lack of cars, some odd improvised bicyclists were on the sidewalk. The absence of interaction was a weird pause indeed, giving an eery sense of the timelessness of space, as if the time/space fabric by which I had long seen the neighborhood was suddenly out of whack. While no visible destruction had happened or occurred, the disembodied nature of the inhabited world was drained, even as it was filled with sunlight and birds, giving me the eery sense I had had when I looked at the machine-read maps of building footprints, “Every Building in the United States,” whose section situating Bay Area buildings hung on our refrigerator wall, like a scary map of the archeological ruins of a future Baedecker Guide to the ruins of San Francsico.

Had the designers of te interactive webmap of machine-readable imagery Microsoft had assembled intended the eery effect of describing the inhabited world as a ghostly ruin of lived life? The relegation to place-names to a very secondary status in the image of the overbuilt landscape seems to lie on the edges of the black blocks of built space that is was the basis for the AI map distilled from aerial photographs, and parsed as black and white data. If its form seems oddly ghostly, the reduction of the monochrome paper map reveals shades of grey that fade into rare open spaces, where one’s visual attention seems at first drawn, before one returns, with hopes for some sense of recognition, to the built spaces that one knows, and the congestion of black that marks urban agglomerations. The black boxes of settlement reveals the crowding of our coasts, the density of much urban housing and indeed of the area of the East Bay where I live, but is also an eerily image of an inhabited landscape selectively organized to omit any sign of living presence–either of “wilderness” or habitat, but anthropocentrically maps the anthropogenic world as if for posterity. For is not the black boxes of building footprints something like a record of the anthropogenic imprint on the world, by now extended across the globe. The building footprint map derived from AI is a rewriting of the ancient notion of the ecumene–the “habitable” more than “inhabited world”–or οἰκουμένη, which sought to encapsulate the inhabited regions as the ones that entered human comprehension: is it a removal of the humanist object of the map, now mediated through machine learning?

If the ancient geographers discussed the οἰκουμένη as the “habitable world” from the frozen north to the scalding sub-equatorial lands that seemed to “balance” the inhabited regions, as if what merited human attention and contemplation was that region that permitted settlement: the turn to a record of imperial administration in the Roman Empire–and of religious unity in a ‘civilized’ world–introduced the governmentality of the control over the inhabited world, that by the Renaissance had become an enticing image of national incorporation and political ties, that became intellectually articulated in the post-Cold War as a global ecumene of imperial cultural dominance and integration incarnated in European inheritance of political institutions, science, technology, and economic forms as a world system: the association of a global integration whose exponent in historical texts was perhaps William McNeill’s Rise of the West (1963) had withered away by the time of the data-driven map of inhabitation, as we have become increasingly aware of mapping the human impact on the world–an image in which the building footprint map might be placed.

It is hard to discuss intentions in a map that was organized by AI, but the ledger size newsprint that covered almost a full side of the refrigerator, hanging on magnets, assembled a flyover of the ruins of a future world, a snapshot of each and every building in the area. The result is a poor excuse for a “wall-map” of the region of Northern California. It seems more of a memento mori of the prosperity Silicon Valley once enjoyed from a future world, registering the intense economic growth that fueled the housing bubble along the San Francisco Bay, in an unintentional snapshot of the explosion of paved space and housing across the coastal margins of what was once one of the more “edgy” areas of the United States: entertaining the imagined future might have created the perverse pleasure of hanging it in my kitchen, long before COVID-19 struck, a celebratory if slightly morose record of the world in which we once lived.

But the sidewalks were empty and sun intense; storefronts often boarded up. The streets were no longer places for salutation or recognition, even if I greeted a familiar mailman on my way home: as if no time for social niceties remained I walked down the sidewalks and into empty streets, rarely negotiating margins of safety, or distancing with a few folks on foot, noticing with a cringe the large number of homeless who stood out against the stark streets, closed storefronts, and empty stores.

They were, as it were, always there. I had been cutting myself off from the surroundings, as I never thought I would. As I had been sheltering, thoughts going global as I was following updates about the pandemic, this was a stone’s through from my home, so many had none. Looking down Adeline Street, at the still tents of homeless encampments that may have multiplied, I felt new distance gaping between us, as the very streets I had walked down regularly seemed to have been forgotten while sheltering indoors, the stores now empty, their windows recently boarded, few driving in the streets where one might walk without danger. The eery absence of population was a scene from The Last Man, momentarily interrupted by an isolated airplane, the first seen in days, flew overhead: I felt like I was on a filmset, more than where I lived, a tracing of life past.

If we were sheltering, what was place, anyways?, I wondered with the footprint map in mind. Empty streets looked like nothing more than an apocalyptic reimagining of the neighborhood, drained of inhabitants, save the apparently increasing cluster of homeless tents, looking far more embattled, and more survivalist than ever. If the building footprint map was restricted to spaces where people lived and work, the ghostly anthropogenic substrate seemed to have an eery counterpart in the homeless encampments near my house. The survivalism was evident in the homeless settlement that had in recent years overflowed, expanding to fill in the island of trees where how Steve Gillman’s 2011 public sculpture marked the interurban divide. The public sculpture elegantly if snidely punned on the allegedly dismissive pity saying ascribed to an icon of modernity about her native home–“There’s no There there“–as an entertainment for motorists, or BART passengers, as much as a public art for pedestrian passersby–by broadcasting a literary reference in greenery.

The two words marked the Oakland-Berkeley border by two words, now rusted fifteen years later, as relics of an earlier epoch themselves: the homeless encampment blurred both sides of the dividing line between the cities which had long since melded indistinguishably in the increasingly gentrifying area where I had lived for twenty-odd years.

The erasure of a sense of “here” that was promoted by the public sculpture seemed erased in the AI map, that reduced space to built houses, even as the homeless were the only residents in sight as I walked around the tensely empty neighborhood. I’d long appreciated, if a bit begrudgingly, how the Gateway_Project defined the edge of Berkeley CA took Gertrude Stein’s saying and liberalized it in hight-foot tall powder-coated steel letters, where the BART tracks go underground, intended as “a literary and whimsical welcoming to Berkeley,” where they supposedly read not only Stein’s poetry, but where so many poets had lived–and was a “here” worth commemorating by sculptured letters, a new Fons et origo of the Beat Generation, perhaps, or a dynasty of mid-twentieth century poets–Kenneth Rexroth; Czeslaw Milosz; Allen Ginsberg; Gary Snyder; Frank Whalen; Thom Gunn; Robert Hass–by 2002 recognized as a literary patrimony. Designed primarily for passing motorists, as if few could be imagined to walk nearby, the site built to commemorate a “sense of place” had become a cluster of encampments, as if that was the only place that existed at a time when all remained shuttered indoors–if in 2010, just ten years ago, one letter was covered, by a group of Oakland knitters, to transform it to “HERE/HERE,” peacefully protesting the work as barely concealing an agenda of gentrification.

Jill Posener, on Jill Rants and Raves/June 1, 2010

The collective of knitters who had covered the “T” as if to object to the tired trope with which Oakland was long saddled was the result of a. relatively calm tussle, cast as a border war against gentrification. But the global pandemic had subsumed any distinction of “here” and “there” in a new global: the AI map seemed to be indeed a snapshot of the scale of habitation before the pandemic, a ghostly picture of an earlier time.

As I walked through it, at least, the same North Oakland neighborhood was suddenly, if maybe temporary, rendered ghostly: the built landscape that I was inhabiting was the same world, with fewer inhabitants, and less secure attachment to palce–as if the artificial interruption of indoors life shifted my relation to built space, made it harder to navigate, and shifted the security of place, and indeed removed any sense of recognizability from the built landscape, almost to ask what the civilization was that led to the building of all this paved space.

The unmooring from physical presence was like being dropped, I imagined in a flight of fantasy, to that Microsoft map, so akin as a snapshot to the sort of map of archeological ruins future generations might trace as guidelines of orientation to a lost past, when what was the greatest “here” of antiquity–the city of Rome–was etched by nineteenth century archeologists and antiquarians by the physical plant of what once stood on the site of the ancient Roman forum, only perceptible to the eyes of tourists if they had trained themselves on the map to imagine the ghost-like presence of architectural monuments that had once affirmed the place of Rome at the center of the world at a far earlier time.

Where was here, now, on the AI map? Was the tie I was drawing between the map and the uninhabited neighborhood only the depressive meanderings of a middle-aged crisis? Or was it a global one? West Berkeley and North Oakland had been certainly rendered quite a different place, quite suddenly, and not a comfortable one–still inhabited by ghosts. Stripped of my points of reference or familiarity with my neighborhood, a few dispossessed in the sidewalks, of what wasn’t a nice area of town, I was reminded rather urgently of ongoing part of urban life no longer framed by sounds of traffic, public transport, open businesses and pedestrian sounds, that continued while I was indoors. The degree zero of urban life reminded me of the empty landscape of building footprints that, in a detailed satellite overview that recalled nothing more than the outline of an archeological dig of ancient city, as if drained of motion, and filled with apprehension, in a damn eery way. Was this a pause or a new landscape?

I had only recently been navigating the 2018 building footprint map, “Every Building in the United States,” and aout a year ago, hung the section of the houses of the Bay Area onto our refrigerator wall. The creation of Microsoft that was removed as one might imagine from the ancient notion of an “inhabited world,” comprised of building outlines, a distanced description of the world a declination of mapping human settlements, mediated through what seemed the iconography of an archeological map of a removed time, rather than the actual lay of the land–or, better yet, it seemed to exist in two planes more than ever, and both as a historical record of a snapshot of built space across America, and of actuality. The interactive website of the machine-readable result of aerial imagery that invites one to zoom closely not on landscapes, but a black and white rendering of built space, recalled nothing more than a flyover of the ruins of a future world.

The aerial snapshot of each and every building in its current position had a sci-fi aspect of a record of space drained of nature, biodiversity, non-anthropogenic environments, and life–distilling selectively the extent of built spaces across an otherwise quiet and otherwise uninhabited world: as if the perfect document of the anthropocene, this was the built landscape, removed from and detached from a natural world. This was the built landscape of the region, divorced from the lay of the land, as if a perfection of the GPS contents of street view, without any street traffic or greenspace at all. The stark interactive map of 2018 seemed to be newly present to the space I was negotiating in my mind, even more stripped to its bare bones and evacuate of inhabitants.

The vertiginously uninhabited interactive map peered at onscreen allowed one to look at the nation and soon to whatever spot on the map, suddenly panning and focussing into crisp detail, but lacking all sign of inhabitants, save the names on each street or place. The sense of exploring a neighborhood I once knew may have been an accelerated arrival in late middle age. But the spatially empty landscape of building footprints encountered I opened in 2018, “Map of Every Building in the United States,”was filled with a sense of dread and of testing my own geographical knowledge, scanning to familiar neighborhoods and structure, and matching abilities to recognize the flattened forms against the material structures with which they correlate.  There is no sense of the amount of chemical waste and diesel pollutants in the nation’s largest port, Long Beach, pictured in the header to this post, where pollution has caused ongoing health problem for residents.  

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Filed under Bay Area, data visualization, interactive maps, satellite surveillance, virtual space

Mapping the Presence of Rome’s Pasts: from Piranesi to Freud and Back

We now map mega-regions that extend along highways far beyond the former boundaries of cities, along roads and through suburbs increasingly lack clear bounds.  The extent of such cities seem oddly appropriate for forms of mapping that seem to lack respect for physical markers of bounds.  These maps reflect the experience of their environments as networks more than sites, to be sure.  It may be surprising to see the mapping of the ancient world as a similar network, and to try to understand the mobility of the ancient world and Mediterranean in terms of modern tools of mapping travel: tracing the extension of extra-urban areas along distended networks of inhabited paved space, indeed, suggests the morphing of cities from the past, and almost removes them from historical time or erase the familiar palimpsestic relation to known space, or the city as a space for walking.

We may be compelled to apply the same data driven images to ancient Rome, driven due to our own continuing and increased disorientation on the proliferating data maps.  But does their logic maintain the complexity of time, space, and place in the ancient world, or how might it better attract interest, by casting the map as a site of investigating not only space, but time? Despite the limitations of their coverage of space, and the limited benefits of imagining the ability to measure times of travel or distances to monuments as a record of ancient space or Roman life, it is tempting to be satisfied with placing it in a network. For to do so offers a way of envisioning ancient Rome as a mega city and hub of transit.  But the erasure that this brings in humanistic experience of the map is striking.  

mobility fingerprint ROme

The risk of a loss of materiality is steep: for we seem to lose a sense of the presence of the map of the city, visualizing the distances of travel, costs of economic transit, and time of travel in a web of commercial exchange we both project back our own sense of disorientation.  When we use modern notions such as that of the urban mobility fingerprint as Moovel labs did in concretely visualizing the medieval saying that “all roads lead to Rome” in its  project of mapping distances from the ancient city, we run the risk of insisting on the transparency of data, reducing maps and the patttern of mapping to a substrate of spatial relations sufficient in an almost ahistorical sense, and risk asserting the authority of an app over material processes of building and mapping Rome across time.  

In doing so, we may be trying to find mooring in the mapping of the past.  We avoid the problem of mapping the presence of the ancient form of the city so long returned to be mapped, as a key to presence of the ancient city in the city, in ways that Rome was so long understood. The reipscription of the authority of Rome in the map–or from those classic images of the nineteenth century imagination, the Baedecker Guide, may posit mobility as fons et origo. And while we do want to illustrate or understand flows from the city, and the location of Rome in a broader Mediterranean and European space–by privileging flow, we wonder–

Flow from Rome

is there some loss of the materiality of the ancient world? For rather than show the city of Rome, so often refigured in almost encomiastic terms, by asserting its pride of place in a network, and celebrating the construction of its almost vegetal organic network of modernized roads in order to bring it closer to the viewer, there is a visual trick of transferring a dataset to a schematic rendering that flattens the complex human patterns of the past, and does so by obscuring the deeply humanistic layered nature of the map and of the past, so clearly preserved in the famous bifolium image of Rome, that old imperial city, in the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle, based on a lost chorographic encomiastic of its buildings’ magnificence.

Nuremberg Chronicle, “Roma,” (1493), leaves LVII-LVIII

If we might consider the imperial schema of travel as a more exact map of space, the enhanced topographic rendering that calls attention to its place in a network, alters the intense interest that the mapping of the city’s place has held, so aptly illustrated back when the physician Hartman Schedel returned to his native Nuremberg, with woodcuts by Francesco Roselli and other Italians in hand, to assemble a new genealogy of the place of Germans on the outskirts of the Roman Empire, and to map the cities of Swabia as the heirs of Roman imperial claims. The symbolic authority of the city, long taken as akin ago a vessel of memory, gained broad symbolic authority as it was encoded in maps.  In ways that are in danger of erasure by the generic symbology of a map that sizes vector files to suggest flow in an organic or unobstructed fashion, the material practices of mapping Rome have their own history, neglected in data visualizations’ relatively flat space,–not to mention the sense of a space removed from history that they create.

Detail of Nuremberg Chronicle, leaves LVII-LVIII (1493)

The deep history of the material practices of mapping Rome constitute something of a deep source of meaning and a source of fascination; mapping of the city the remained in the city, negotiating the presence of the antique in the city.  Rather than disembody the routes of motion as defining the city, the images that embodied the material presence of the antique city was the dominant presence in a long history of mapping the city, whose ancient traces were preserved and excavated in the many maps of Rome made since before the Renaissance.  Such maps, viewed in their historical context and continuity, preserve a sense of the form of the antique that provided a form as an actor for visitors to Rome, and a lure for the site of the continued presence of traces of the space of a historical Rome that exists among the modern city’s space.  Indeed, maps may themselves offer the best ways to familiarize oneself to the material traces of orienting oneself to the presence of the antique that continue to inhabit its present. And the prestige that the Baedecker guide long held in the German imagination during the nineteenth century to orient educated travelers who were reprising Schedel’s Reise of cultural formation informed the brazen wartime announcement of the Nazi government that its Luftwaffe would target domestic populations in Britain by the landmarks meriting three stars in “Baedeker Guides” bombing historical cities in “Baedeker Raids”–those military operations designed to hit historic cities Exeter, Bath, York, Norwich and Canterbury. The threat led British and Allied attacks to target over a thousand historic cities of Germany that were themselves reduced to rubble by the end of the war, escalating the scale of human destructiveness, in a theater of destructive energy that was rooted not in aerial technologies alone, but the mateirality of the map–and designed to eliminate the very traces of historical treasures that the American Antiquities Commission hoped to avoid by reducing the list of targeted German cities.

The deeply affective ties to place that led to the escalation of the Baedeker Raids began from a sense of If practices of mapping demand to be placed in their distinct media. While these guides demand a post of their own, this post turns attention to how the media of mapping Rome gained particular sensitivity, as preserving access to the past, and of orienting viewers to a presence no longer present in the present, as most all maps of Rome effectively do.  By considering the mapping of Rome in relation to datamaps, and the sense of presence that they encode, one almost seems obligated to begin from what may be the primary image–if not primal image–of the way that all roads lead to Rome, or were described to.    If all roads lead to Rome in a deeply ahistorical sense in the middle ages, when the statement seems to have first appeared, the possibly medieval rendering of the ancient “Peutinger Map” or Tabula Peutingerianawhich presents Rome at the center of an acient road network–across the empire–and was suggested to be  copied from the form of a large frieze on a building, but survives in a paper copy of distinctively distorted elongated form, reduced oceans to strips to foreground its road network.

1. Routes remain perhaps the oldest maps. Rarely are they understood as networks. The trick of topographic rendering of privileging the disposition of roads and their distances–measured in local units, but spanning the Empire–do not radiate, but extend laterally across mapped space.  The form of the antique led to the eager the recovery of the prized Peutinger map of the peninsula, surviving in the copy of the Tabula Peutingeriana, that preserved, showing east-west routes at greater scale than north-south in dimensions of a marble frieze, more than a sheet of paper; its collapsing of a collection of routes inscribed into a peninsula as a seat of empire, placing the enthroned figure of Rome holding a globe at the head of a cursus publicus–as if to demonstrate how all roads lead Rome-ward or, more accurately, from Rome, emphasizing its legibility by replicating the left-to-right reading of space.

Duvuded ubti Grurds.png

–as if in a comprehensive representation the cursus, where continuity is less present than the network, but the network visualized by making present criteria of measurement embedded in the map itself.

Rather than orienting readers by showing Rome as the center of a web of transit, that has its own life and coherence, the map’s oddly compressed format seems to have the imprint of the material place that it held, fittingly, as a record of the cursus publicus, on a frieze, if so probably etched in marble, showing the prominence of Rome and its port of Ostia not at the center of the peninsula, but in the enthroned figure.  Rome occupies a place at the start and head of its cursus publicus, perhaps as a remnant of a global map prepared in Augustan Rome, which in the surviving thirteenth century copy digests data that may derive from the Agrippa map, but embodies it in the form of a marble frieze.

Transferred and kept on a sheet of paper since when the humanist Conrad Celtis discovered in in France, and presented humanist Konrad Peutinger with the treasured cartographic image in a surviving copy, the map was thought to be a fragment of a global map organized by Roman roads.  It has been attempted to be returned to its material context in many alternative historical settings–hypotheses including Carolingian origins or, a marble frieze, to historicize the audiences it addressed–but in ways that preserve the centrality of its physical medium.  

The problem of seeing the along map of the world, and the curiously elongated image of Italy, have only recently been revised, as ways that re-examine the humanist status of the map as an argument about space.  But if the material form of the map has provoked repeated reflection, as much as the transparent reflection of spatial data by which our own data-driven world is increasingly obsessed, it reminds us of the material basis of the maxim of all roads leading to Rome, which the depiction of the cursus publicus so clearly embodied.


But the image of all roads leading to–or from–Rome is not, perhaps, the map that best expresses the place that the city has held in the humanist imagination.  If the Tabula Peutingeriana offers an interrupted record of all roads leading to Rome continues to captivate, the presence of the ancient in Rome suggested a deeper problem of temporal mapping that data cannot capture, in part because it so relentlessly adopts and employs a present-day form of mapping to chart an elusive past.  

The history with which the presence of maps that continued to process the antique in Rome certainly led to the fascination of uncovering the road network of the city.  The presence of the elusive but ever-present antique in the city laid a basis for curiosity of times of travel in mapping the Empire, the maps of travel times on its system of roads is only one level of the building of Rome.  Although the city’s status at the center of the empire provided a source of fascination, and a promise of classical recovery, to the humanist collector, the presence of ancient roadworks in the Tabula mirror the continued fascination with mapping presence of the antique in Rome, that have been a longstanding subject of fascination.  While Rome remained the center of the Tabula, on the far left of the three strip maps of the peninsula compressed to a single sheet, the rendering of the peninsula’s network of roads omits the deep presence of the city’s ruins–the “city within the city”–in Rome, and the extent to which the mapping of that presence contributed to how Rome was seen.

Is deeper excavation of the spatial perception of those roads, and indeed of the inhabitation of the twelve via that radiate from Rome’s walls in such a symmetrical manner–the via Salaria, via Nomentana, via Tyburtina, via Latina, via Appia–even an adequate record of one’s attachment to its pasts?


Rather than viewing Rome as a center of transit, a humanist mapping of the city might entail map the sense of presence of the antique by which the city has long been appreciated and understood.  The mapping of the presence of the past in Rome runs against the grain of data-driven visualizations, but might bring us to define the compelling presence of the antique in the city, challenging the notion of its primacy in a network of communication, to trace the place of the antique in the imagination of the city, as much as treating its sense of its place being impermanent.  

Indeed, the presence of the city on any map must begin from the presence of the antique in the city, and the manner that maps of Rome shape our experience of the city–and serve to shape our sense of the distinction of Rome as a site within our imagination, and our sense of space. If the conceit that all roads lead to Rome has long and continues to occupy a significant space in our mental imaginary, as well as the European highway system–


Roads to Rome

–traveling or journeying to Rome offers a limited orientation to the rich humanist history of the mapping of its space, or even of the space of the Roman Empire, if the mapping of Rome omits any traces of its historical inhabitation, or the palpable presence of its ruins.  These ruins, and their surviving remnants, drew many to Rome since the Renaissance, and has provided one of the most basic–if primal–forms of mapping the historical past, and of seeing evidence of the living presence of the concrete.  Attracted by the multiple presences that seem to coexist within Rome’s space, in ways an archeological map cannot do complete justice, as knows any visitor challenged to grasp and orient themselves to the abundance of its underlying pasts present in its ruins.  

2. Was the psychic proximity that Sigmund Freud described to Rome–a site whose attraction he was tempted to see as a site of attraction to death–indeed informed not by his visits to the city, but rather his own close attraction to the maps of the ancient city’s archeological ruins?  Such maps would have provided the very horizon of expectations through which he oriented himself to the modern city, even before he had visited it for the first time.  Freud repeatedly deferred a personal visit to Rome in his life,–when he was left explaining its disappointment “as all such fulfillments are when one has waited for them too long,” even though, in his previous writings on dreams and on the dream-life, he recorded five dreams of visiting Rome.  If he held the city as a seat of Christendom, however, he must have experience its historical wealth primarily in maps.

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Filed under ancient Rome, antiquity, data visualizations, digital humanities, humanities

Mapping the Wobbliness of the Polar Vortex

Since we use the conventions of map making to endow solidity, or reify, even the most abstract ideas, it is interesting to examine how the ‘Polar Vortex’ has spread across the mass media as both a meme and icon of the current weather patterns of the new millennium.  Rather than map place by a matrix of fixed locations alone, maps of the Vortex offer a visualization of temperature variants that reveal an anomalous weather conditions that track the Vortex as it moves, intersecting with place, across the stratosphere into our own latitudes, tracking not only a “cold front” but, globally, the disruption of the path of the circumpolar winds, or splitting of the vortex from the north pole.  We are most likely to “see” the Vortex as an incursion into our own map, effectively dividing the country (yet again?) this summer into regions of cold and heat.  The currency of visualizations of the Vortex reveals not only a meme, but a model for encoding multi-causational weather maps.  Indeed, the mapping of the divergence from usual temperature range reveals the anomaly of a north-south weather front with the solidity of a national divide, raising deep questions of its forecast of extreme weather throughout the year more than offering something like a “poor man’s vortex.”


As the term has gained wide currency as a challenge within data visualization world for throwing weather systems into legible relief, it set a new bar for producing visualizations that are challenging to fully comprehend.  The Polar Vortex is mapped as it moves, as if on its own, across the stratosphere into our own latitudes, condensed in a range of data visualizations of stratospheric or tropospheric low-pressure fronts, in ways that map onto current quandaries of atmospheric and climactic imbalance.   The animated superimposition of weather patterns condensed in a range of data visualizations of stratospheric or tropospheric low-pressure fronts themselves map onto concerns about climate change, and conjure narratives of global atmospheric change and climactic imbalance:  the disruption of the usual harmony of the polar jet stream perhaps maps onto both notable rises in polar temperatures or torrential rains off the coast of Japan, but whether due to a spike in northern pacific offshore typhoons or openings in polar ice cover, the markedly increasing waviness of the vortex has allowed increased amounts of cooler air seep south once again, in an eery echo of last January’s mid-winter chill, that has lead weatherpersons to scramble for clarifying narratives about the return of that green blob.  (To be sure, back in January, the naysayers of climate change parsed weather maps as counter-evidence to global warming, allowing them to indulge in alternate meteorological realities, before they were batted down in two minutes by the President’s Science and Technology Advisor, Dr. John Holdren.)

Weatherman scrambling to gloss


Offering a marvelous array of vowels and pattern of assonance, with a name befitting a Marvel comics super-hero as much as a weather pattern, the Vortex is a touchstone of climate change and a great case of how we have yet to ken the global as intersecting with the local.   But we have unfortunately trended to oscillate, as it were, in our maps between national weather maps, where the Vortex made such a splash as a newsworthy low-pressure pattern, to maps of patterns in global environmental change, that might better direct attention to changing meteorological realities.

Part of the problem is adopting a point of view on the weather that we are tracking–or of viewing the Vortex as a stratospheric phenomenon around the polar regions, or charting a weather pattern forecast as occurring within our nation’s bounds.  The reprise of the spill of northern air into the upper United States returned the Vortex into national news this July has provided a basis of the latter, to judge by this new visualization that projects the cooling temperatures in the northern United States, as a deep wave in the Jet Stream brought colder air to the Northeast.  Even if the cooling air that arrived was not arctic, the pattern of its arrival to the continental US this summer has prompted some significant debate among meteorologists who have glossed the map in alternate ways, almost entirely still focussing, oddly enough, in a reprise of the mid-January news blip on the Vortex, on the unit of weather in the United States in isolation from a global context.  The anomaly of the “Vortex” has become something of shorthand for a southern swing of cold air from north of the Great Lakes, produced by a decreased disparity between polar and sub-polar continental temperatures that lower the latitude of the jet stream, according to some research that has been endorsed by the National Academy of Sciences, and increased its waviness as the Arctic warms.  The maps serve to embody the increasingly newsworthy weather in the Northeast, reaching down to the southern states as if an invading army as much as a meteorological cold front, placing the anomaly of the displacement of cold air against the screen of an iconic national map on which it has been superimposed.


The map recalls a similar dispersion of circumpolar winds from the arctic into the lower forty-eight already called the “most upsetting” data visualization of the winter of 2014.  The drift of circumpolar winds at stratospheric levels offers a compelling means to understand the arrival into the Midwestern states of cold air once more from the north during the mid-summer of 2014.  Rather than only being a meme of the media, or being coined as a manifesto a group of avant-garde modernist meteorologists who found energy in the abstraction of weather forms, the term tracks the dispersion of the circumpolar whirl usually uniformly swirling about the pole offer both a rogue arrival into our national climate and a sort of emblem of an imbalance of circumpolar stratospheric harmony by pushing down the arrival of winds from the Pacific ocean.


The benefits of shifting iconography to the global are immediately apparent if only because they reveal the divergence of the weather system from a meteorological status quo.  The cycle of wind, usually located in the mid- to upper troposphere, has apparently begun to split or splinter from it usual centers above Baffin Island and Siberia as its air warms, and moves below the arctic regions.  The displaced vortex, which migrates below the arctic circle in the stratosphere, reflects the warming of temperatures at the poles, creating currents able to funnel the figurative migration of arctic air currents to sub-arctic latitudes, even if the air in question this July might more likely be northeast Pacific more than arctic in its provenance.

Displaced Vortex-full color windsEarth.com

The local is, however, far more easily digestible for viewers of The Weather Channel, and the Vortex is shown as an intersection of the global with the regional weather map.  Collating data from divergences or temperature anomalies from a database covering local temperatures in 1981-2010, the spectrum of a “heat map” tracks currents of cold across the backdrop of the lower forty-eight in an easily digestible manner that packed so big a punch for folks trying to puzzle over the freezing over of roads, local lakes, or back yards:

Vortex in States

Once more thrown off-balance, it sends cooler air below the lower forty eight and forty-ninth parallel, making it national news as a dramatic aberration that marked the entry of intense cold.  Data visualizations provide new tools of making the meteorological concept legible in ways that gain sudden particular relevance for audiences familiar with weather maps, for whom immediately powerful associations of shifts in the measurements of regional temperatures will pop out at viewers of a forecast or weather map, forcing them to pay attention to the meteorological imbalances they portend.


Recent global maps of the Polar Vortex offer more than an icon of the transcendence of territorial boundary lines systems, by processing and portraying the Vortex as an expansion and  breaking off of cold air outside the restraints of an arctic air system.


The dramatic splitting of the arctic jet, due to atmospheric pressure anomalies, was mapped by NOAA in this data visualization of July 2014, of a splintering of the vortex, in apparent response to the warming of our poles, hastened by the diminishing snowfall and ice-cover that create new chilly islands or microclimates on the ends of a warming pole we often seen as lying so far away:

July Polar Vortex 2014

The disruption that results brings the displacement of arctic winds that most often sit anchored around the polar region.  A “weak” polar vortex, interacting with arctic ice-cover decline and reduced snow cover, was some time go modeled as resulting in a meandering arctic jet stream and occasional detachment of a polar weather systems and consequent decline or weakening of pressure gradients of the vortex, and consequent reconfiguration of the arctic jet stream:


Has something like this occurred?  The dynamic visualization of weather maps in five colors and striking contour lines provide clear tools to visualize its speed and energy, in ways that might even have helped resurrect a term that had languished in meteorological lexicons from at least 1853, when the “continued circular gale” was described as flying “more rapidly and more obliquely . . . carried upward to the regions of the atmosphere above,” as lying in the ambitions of a “great Air Map” but based on the recent 1851 NOAA mapping of “great undulatory beds of the oceans . . . for all practical purposes of navigation.”

great polar vortex

But now we have a recognizable image that can be tracked over a recognizable terrestrial map that concretizes the Vortex in ways that its winds can be understood as extending over a region of truly global expanse.

Tracked in terms of actual temperature anomalies, in the winter of 2014, when newscasters and NOAA (the same agency) mapped the migration of cold air southwards of the pole into our frontiers, far outside the usual path of the jet stream, in a disturbance of the weather systems worthy of national news last January, in a data visualization which tracked a green (or purple) blob whose forced migration of frigid air from the polar regions that disrupted weather patterns with national consequence as it migrated out of Canadian airspace.



Vortex in States

In the dramatically eye-catching graphics of television’s mass-media, as the bulge of purple and magenta of detached low-pressure systems migrate south, crossing the very same borders to which we are increasingly sensitized in our national news media, albeit at tropospheric altitudes no fence or border guards could ever patrol.  Indeed, the map suddenly suggests the increasing vulnerability of our delicate weather systems, echoed by the language with which the Polar Vortex’s “EXTREME COLD” loops invasively southward across our northern border, cutting off Pacific Air:



The apparent incursion of its jet stream into the bounds of our national airspace, as in this image of cold air migrating across the northern border, results in the proliferation of metaphors all too often violent in tone:  Climate Central may have only adopted the robust rhetoric of sportscasters when it described high pressure systems in quite athletic terms that “block the eastward progression of weather systems, like an offensive lineman protecting the quarterback from the other team,” allowing the air that circulates around the arctic to start “spreading tentacles of cold southward into Europe, Asia, and North America.”  Less dynamically interpreted and understood once cast in global terms, rising temperatures at the poles–the very sites where, we should note, global warming is occurring at a rate twice the global average–displaces the previously concentrated flow of a jet stream of cold air from its arctic abode.

Of course, few seem ready to tie this to the diminishing ice-cover of the north pole, which still seem a leap too far to be made logically. Oddly, the meteorological mechanics of the expanding split-off of polar winds is modeled as an incursion of weather patterns echo the metaphorics of a military situation map of fixed borders, a historic hold-over for national weather organizations like NOAA:  the global image of wind velocities around the pole, depicted below, is oddly absent from what is actually a global phenomenon.


But we are all too used to interpret and read weather maps with both a sense of voyeurism for our friends and relatives, but from a subjective lens.Despite the adoption of globalized images from our friends at National Geographic, who used Mass FX Media’s animation to visualize circumpolar air flows, and despite the continued live monitoring of wind-flows at “Earth,” the isolation of the nation in the maws of the vortex is so readily discussed as the “most upsetting map of the winter,” as if the migration of the pool of arctic air into the northern United States were best understood as a disturbance of national temperatures.

The similar narrative about the Vortex in national forecasts stands in contrast to the maps of rising temperatures, but create a visual modeling of a meteorological distribution that almost resembles an invasion.  Even though the distribution and speed of the Vortex in summer is usually slow, the polar air however seems to be arriving from across the border with unstoppable velocity, the below global visualization, also based on a similar distribution of deviations from average temperatures craft a similarly compelling large-scale weather pattern–albeit one occurring some 3,000 feet above the earth’s surface–in which, rather than reveal a lack of equilibrium, arctic air dips south across the forty-ninth parallel and past the Mason-Dixon line, confirming its occurrence as a shift of national consequence.


Because the “most upsetting map of the winter” tracks the pooling of arctic air into the northern United States created a disturbance of national temperatures into the Eastern United States and much of the central region of the country.

Wasn’t it once more reassuring to understand the polar regions, its topography unknown, as somehow removed from the atmospheric currents than being mapped around the world?


The wonderfully protean animated map of disequilibria in the harmony of stratospheric currents of cold polar air within the jet stream opens breaches across national boundaries, albeit at considerable elevation, and also offers a way of tugging at one atmospheric phenomenon to unpack a web of inter-related phenomena.  Unlike maps of habitation or land-surface, the map traces a low-pressure system at high altitudes far above the settled or occupied land, but intersecting with it in ways that conjure a failed ability to contain colder air over the polar regions.  (Taking the iconography of weather maps as transparent, the blogosphere has suggested the adoption of charges of circumpolar intoxication.)

The distribution of stratospheric air whose flow is charted in global map as an irregular anomaly of temperatures’ spread, is perhaps most concretely rendered by the iced-over bodies of water it left in our own upper latitudes.  The striking freezing over of the Great Lakes, covering some 88% of the lakes’ surface area by mid-February, a greater proportion of seasonal ice-cover than ever registered, and surpassing the 82% record of 1996, according to Caitlin Kennedy of NOAA, which render the striking concentration of ice in frozen lakes a concrete map of the local effects of truly polar weather.


The material manifestation of the cold on the surfaces of those five lakes–all frozen solid, to appearances, save Lake Ontario, seem as concrete a result of the consequences of climactic change one might have in a chart, by placing the ice-covered lakes in a local landscape.

What seemed the displacement of the frigid polar air to the Great Lakes became something like a confusion of the local and the global in the news media that was played out in weather maps.  Of course, the meteorological mapping of this winter’s Polar Vortex in Canadian outlets seemed more the status quo, with most of the country facing sub-zero temperatures:


The US “low temperature map” used a slightly different temperature spectrum, but preserved a more alarmist image of anomalous weather conditions even in the National Digital Forecast:

temperature spectrum us vortex

The striking visual by far was from a site located exactly on the US-Canada border, an  eye-catching a frozen Niagara Falls, that icon of liminality:


The distributions that charting the mid-July summer chill newly arrived in the Midwest and much of the East coast of the United States from Canada is less striking, even if it will bring dips of twenty to thirty degrees form the normal.  NOAA omits Canada completely from its prognostications of the arrival of the coming cold, as befits its role as a national agency, and restricts its purview to United States coastal territories, even though it would make the graphic far more credible to offer a greater coverage.  It provides something of a summertime counterpart, however, in which the probability of lower temperatures than usual seem to create a ring about the same lakes, radiating almost to the Atlantic coast:


Where is the center of this new system of cold air? With roots in Hudson Bay–where else?–the polar air will be spinning southwards at the upper levels of the atmosphere, spinning southwards toward the United States. There were past migrations of arctic air over Quebec and Maine, back in late January, 1985:


The Detroit Free Press even seized on a recent NOAA projection of a similar displacement of arctic air, that locates the center of cool air migrated toward Michigan, forming a pool of air that had descended into the central United States, as if to cast the event as something like local news, even as it suggests the rise of two weather systems:


The occurrence isn’t strictly polar, or arctic, in its origin.

But the results are the consequence of a sort of distorting decentralization of the polar cold air outbreak that hovers around the arctic circle, running around the pole and allowing or protecting cold air from drifting south, containing cold air or not it its high altitude low-pressure system.  (Of course, the west coast is poised for a dryer and hotter-than-normal week.)  The decline of snow and ice around the Pole, combined with the warming of the wobbly gulf stream, will allow the chilly polar air to spill southwards to the plain states, covering not only Canada but spilling outside the low-pressure system and over to the seaboard, in a sort of nervous breakdown of meteorological model behaviors.

The disturbances of equilibria in our weather maps makes it worthy of more than symbolic note. The increasing variability that the waviness of the outer line of the low-pressure system, or jet stream, related to the declining snow cover in the far north, in the a “warm Arctic-cold continents” pattern, where the compact containment of colder airs was broadly breached.


The lack of equilibrium in the stream of polar winds–distinct from the widening polar ozone hole–opens up more of the terrestrial surface to chilling shifts in temperature. As much as the embodying a low-pressure system, the map is a narrative of the disruption of climactic harmony, and view toward the future of weather systems world-wide.  The results of the wavy polar vortex, joined with rising world temperatures, create a map of bizarre spottiness in average world temperatures that is difficult to conceive or map, precisely because its high-altitude distribution is difficult to transfer from a spherical to a flat surface, and because its distribution unfairly privileges the tracking of cold air in ways that seem, misleadingly, to fly in the face of the maps of our overheating world.  This past January, NOAA crafted a digital globe that displayed the distortion of local temperatures distorted beyond the norm, with cold displaced from its polar resting place, resulting in a cognitively useful modeling of a disjointed jigsaw of cold and warm air, where the warmer deviations of global temperatures spick not only over western Russia and Alaska, but at the polar regions itself.

polarvortex_airtempanom_610NOAA Climate.gov

The result is a jigsaw reveals the breaching of cold air from the cap of winds that encircle the polar cap has a enough of touch of biomomorphism to echo ecofeminism; the forcing of warmer air patterns resembles a blurry sonar image of curled-up embryonic twins resting in a womb as if evoking the shape of future weather systems, offering a biomorphic visual metaphor for something like an eery augur of a future holding limited possibilities for an afterlife–and of the unknown future of our planet’s atmosphere.



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