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Germany’s Electoral Regionalization

As noted in the previous post, Germany’s electoral geography exhibits a stark division between former East Germany and former West Germany. Otherwise, its political distinctions are relatively muted, with most parties receiving somewhat similar shares of the vote in each state. But the southern portion of the former West is more center-right oriented than the northern portion, which, in contrast, inclines a bit more to the center-left. As a result, Germany can be said to be divided into three electoral macro-regions.

Germany’s three-fold political division reflects differences in economic productivity at the state level, at least if one excludes the three city-states (Berlin, Hamburg, and Bremen), which are not representative of the larger regions in which they are located. As the per capita gross regional product (GRP) map posted below show, former East German has a less productive economy than former West Germany, while in the former West, the north is a bit less productive than the south. The small western rustbelt state of Saarland, however, is an exception, as it groups between the East and the West on this indicator. It is also the most religious and the most Catholic state in Germany.

Map of Germany showing per capita gross domestic product by state in 2022
Germany per capita GRP by State 2022 Map

The rest of this post examines state-level maps showing the performance of each seat-winning German political party in the 2024 EU parliamentary election. The order of presentation is based on support level, starting with the party that received the most votes in this election.

As the first map shows, the center-right (combined) Christian Democratic Union did particularly well in Bavaria, Germany’s most economically productive “area state” (non-city-state, or Flächenländer). This party had a particularly poor showing, however, in the city-state of Hamburg, Germany’s most economically productive state. It did not do much better in the city-state of Bremen, Germany’s second most economically productive state. Such voting disparities among Germany’s richest states reflects both the north/south divide and the political differences between area states and the more left-leaning city-states.

map of Germany's 2024 EU election showing the vote percentage of the combined Christian Democratic parties by state
Germany 2024 EU election CDU vote by state map

The map (below) of the rightwing, or far-right, Alternative for Germany (AfD) clearly reveals the political divide between former East Germany and former West Germany. Intriguingly, AfD’s level of support was relatively uniform across the West, except for the region’s two city-states.

Map of Germany's 2024 EU election showing the Alternative for Germany vote by state
Germany 2024 EU election AfD vote by state map

Intriguingly, the divide between former East Germany and former West Germany does not appear on the map showing the vote percentage of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). One can, however, discern on this map the distinction between the more center-right south and the more center-left north of the former West Germany. Also of note is the relatively high level of support for the SPD in western Germany’s poorest state, Saarland, and in Germany’s second wealthiest state, Bremen.

Map showing Germany's 2024 EU election vote for the Social Democratic Party by state
Germany 2024 EU election SPD vote by state map

The next map, that of the Greens, shows a relatively high level of support in the three city-states and a low level of support in the former East. On this map rust-belt Saarland groups more closely with the East rather than the West. Otherwise, levels of support for the Greens were relatively uniform across former West Germany.

Map showing Germany's 2024 EU election vote for the Greens by state
Germany 2024 EU election Green vote by state map

The upstart left-populist BSW party (Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht) unsurprisingly found most of its support in former East Germany. Support levels were relatively low and uniform across the West, although again Saarland stands out for its more “eastern” voting pattern.

Map of Germany's 2024 EU election showing the BSW vote by state
Germany 2024 EU election BSW vote by state map

The map showing of the “classically liberal” center-right or centrist Free Democratic Party shows a different version of the east/west split, with wealthy Bavaria grouping more with former East Germany than with the rest of the former West, although the differences are not large. This unusual pattern perhaps indicates the somewhat more socially conservative attitudes found in both Bavaria and the East.

Map of Germany's 2024 EU election showing the Free Democratic Party vote by state
Germany 2024 EU election FDP vote by state map

The map of The Left Party – not surprisingly, the most left-leaning of Germany major parties, shows a national north/south division, with the northern half of former West Germany grouping a bit more closely with former East Germany than with the southern half of former West Germany. The city-state unsurprisingly gave slightly higher percentages of their votes to The Left than did the area states. But again, these differences are relatively minor.

Map of Germany's 2024 EU election showing The Left vote by state
Germany 2024 EU election The Left vote by state map

The map of the locally and regionally oriented Free Voters Party, which inclines in a conservative direction, reveals some significant regional differences. This party found negligible support in the city-states and performed only slightly better across the north. It had its best showing in Bavaria, arguably Germany’s most culturally and politically distinctive state, and one that has long harbored secessionist sentiments.

Map of Germany's 2024 EU election showing the Free Voters vote by state
Germany 2024 EU election Free Voters vote by state

The map of the pragmatic, reformist, pro-EU Volt Party nicely reflects the East/West division. But again, Saarland appears as an outlier, grouping more closely with the East.

Map of Germany's 2024 EU election showing the  Volt vote by state
Germany 2024 EU election Volt vote by state

The vote pattern for the satirical, leftwing The Party was unusually uniform, showing only minor differences from state to state.

Map of Germany's 2024 EU election showing The PARTY vote by state
Germany 2024 EU election The PARTY vote by state

Even more uniform is the map of the single-issue Animal Protection Party. I would have expected this party to have received a higher level of support in the city-states and a lower level of support in the former East. At the ideological margins, however, regional differences sometimes vanish.

Map of Germany's 2024 EU election showing the Animal Protection Party vote by state
Germany 2024 EU election Animal Protection Party vote by state

The rightwing environmental ÖDP had its best showing in the south, with Bavaria again standing out. In contrast, the rightwing familialist Family Part found its highest level of support in the former East Germany, where, counter-intuitively, birthrates are slightly lower than the national average.

Map of Germany's 2024 EU election showing ODP vote by state
Germany 2024 EU election ODP vote by state

Map of Germany 2024 EU election showing Family Party vote by state
Germany 2024 EU election Family Party vote by state

Finally, the map of the new center-left Party of Progress shows almost uniformly low levels of support across the county, with no significant regional patterns.

Map of Germany 2024 EU election showing Party of Progress vote by state
Germany 2024 EU election Party of Progress vote by state

Germany’s Electoral Regionalization Read More »

Germany’s 2024 EU Parliamentary Election: Populist Surge, But the Center Holds (at Least in the West)

The 2024 EU parliamentary election in Germany has been generally interpreted as a major victory for the political right and a defeat for the left – and for good reasons. To illustrate the electoral shift from 2019 EU election, I have modified a German graphic and translated it into English (see the figure posted below). As can be seen, the center-right “Union Party” (Christian Democratic Union combined with the Christian Social Union of Bavaria) made modest gains while the rightwing (or far-right), Alternative for Germany (AfD) made major gains. In contrast, the center-left Social Democratic Party suffered modest losses while the environmental-left Greens suffered major losses. The leftwing (or far-left) Left Party suffered an even larger proportional loss, with many of its voters shifting to the new Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW). Although BSW takes mostly leftwing positions, it has veered in a decidedly populist-nationalist direction that is usually associated with the far-right. BSW is especially critical of the Green Party, which it blames for the recent decline in living standards of the German working class. The only party on the broadly defined left to see major gains was Volt Germany, a pro-EU, socially liberal, pragmatic party that “claims to have an evidence-based, scientific approach.”

Graph of the 2024 German EU Election by Parties Vote
2024 German EU Election Parties Vote Graph

The most striking geographical feature of this election is the stark differentiation of former West Germany from former East Germany. This distinction appears on every German electoral map, but in this election it was particularly pronounced. As the first map posted below shows, the right-populist Alternative for Germany won a plurality of votes in almost every electoral district in the former East whereas the center-leaning, moderately conservative (combined) Christian Union Party won a plurality of votes in a sizable majority of districts in the former West. I have indicated the exceptions on the map, which in all cases voted further to the left than did surrounding districts. Other than Postdam-Mittelmark southwest of Berlin, all these exceptional areas are urban based, being either “city-states” (state-level cities: Berlin, Hamburg, and two-part Bremen) or “district-free cities” (Kreisfreie Städte) that sit outside the regular districts (Kreise) into which German states are divided. This leftward shift in urban areas is to be expected, but in this election it was particularly pronounced. Intriguingly, in the former East German state of Saxony, both Dresden and Leipzig – historically highly cultured major cities – gave plurality support to the rightwing AfD, although not to the same extent as nearby rural districts. In the neighboring former East German state of Thuringia, in contrast, Jena, Weimar, and Erfurt all gave plurality support to the more centrist (combined) Christian Union Party.

Map of the 2024 EU Parliamentary Election Vote in Germany Showing Exceptional Districts
2024 EU Election Vote Germany Exceptional Districts Map

Map of Saxony and Thuringia in the 2024 EU Parliamentary Election
Saxony and Thuringia 2024 EU Election Map

But it is essential not to exaggerate the victory of the right. Although the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian counterpart, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria, are almost always described “center-right,” such a designation is fitting only in the European context. From the perspective of the United States, the Christian Democratic Union is more centrist than center-right and could be construed as slightly left-of-center. If one looks at this election not in “left/right” terms, but rather in regard to the distinction between establishment-oriented centrist parties and parties with a more radical inclination – whether rightist or leftist – a different picture emerges. In the map below, I have combined the vote percentages of all parties that Wikipedia defines as oriented toward the center. As can be seen, center-oriented parties enjoyed overwhelming support in the West, taking more than 70 percent of the vote in all of its states but Saarland.

Map of the Combined Vote of Center Parties in the 2024 EU Parliamentary Election in Germany
Combined Center Party Vote 2024 EU Election Germany map

The situation in former East Germany is quite different, but even there the election results were mixed. Centrist parties received between 42 and 46 percent of the vote in the former East German states, which was roughly the same vote-share taken by populist-nationalist parties. This can be seen in the map posted below, which combines the vote shares of the right-populist-nationalist AfD and the left-populist-nationalist BSW. Intriguingly, in both the West and East there is relatively little difference from state to state in their support for these two opposed political tendencies.

Map of the 2024 EU Parliamentary Election in Germany Showing the Combined Populist Nationalist Vote
2024 EU Election Germany Populist Nationalist Vote Map

The current electoral situation in the United States as a whole is more similar to that of former East Germany than that of former West Germany. In the U.S., the electorate is relatively evenly split between the establishment-oriented Democratic Party and the Republican Party, which has veered in a populist-nationalist direction under the influence of Donald Trump. But in the U.S., unlike former East Germany, support for these two broad camps varies greatly from state to state.

Germany’s 2024 EU Parliamentary Election: Populist Surge, But the Center Holds (at Least in the West) Read More »

South Africa’s Western Cape Exceptionalism and the Coloured Vote

Western Cape is South Africa’s most politically distinctive region by a wide margin. It is the only province that has never given majority support to the African National Congress (ANC). In 2024, it gave less than 20 percent of its vote to the ANC, awarding 53.4 percent to the centrist, non-racialist Democratic Alliance, which has long dominated the province. As the second map posted below shows, every municipality in Western Cape gave majority or plurality support to the DA in the 2024 national election, whereas only three municipalities in other provinces did the same. Western Cape’s political differentiation is so pronounced that it supports an active independence movement that sometimes polls above 50 percent.

Map of the Democratic Alliance vote by province in South Africa 2024
South Africa 2024 DA Vote by Province Map

Map of the 2024 South African Election Vote by Municipality
2024 South Africa Election Vote by Municipality Map

South Africa’s White community heavily supports the Democratic Alliance, favoring its non-racialist stance. Not surprisingly, Western Cape has South Africa’s largest percentage of White population by a significant margin. But at 16.4 percent, it is still relatively low and as such cannot account for the DA’s success in the province. Instead, most DA voters in Western Cape are members of the mixed-race, Afrikaans-speaking Coloured community. At 42 percent, the Coloured community forms a strong plurality of the population of Western Cape. But the figure is identical in neighboring Northern Cape (see the second map posted below), which gave only 20.9 percent of its vote to the Democratic Alliance and awarded plurality support to the ANC. As it turns out, the two provinces are quite distinctive in other regards. Western Cape has a more productive economy and a higher level of social development. Northern Cape also has a much smaller White population percentage than Western Cape (7.3, as opposed to 16.4) and a significantly larger Black population percentage (50, as opposed to 39).

Map of South Africa's White Population by Province
South Africa White Population by Province Map

Map of South Africa's Coloured, or mixed-race, population by province
South Africa Coloured Population map

But racial identity is not the only factor in determining voting patterns, and none of South Africa’s racial communities votes monolithically. In the 2024 election, many Coloured voters swung to Patriotic Alliance, which was formed in 2013 to favor the interests of their community. As can be seen in the map posted below, Patriotic Alliance took a healthy 7.8 percent of the vote in Western Cape and 8.6 percent in Northern Cape. As its support comes mostly from the Coloured community, its vote-count elsewhere in the country ranged from small to negligible. Nationwide, it took 330,425 votes, a huge increase from the 6,660 votes it received in 2019.

Map of the vote share of South Africa's Patriotic Alliance in the 2024 Election by province
South Africa 2024 Election Patriotic Alliance Vote Map

Wikipedia describes Patriotic Alliance (PA) as a rightwing party, as its name might suggest. But the same article notes that PA’s economic stance is generally centrist. Some of its social policies, moreover, including those on housing and healthcare, tilt to the left. It also aims to reduce South Africa’s wide wealth and income disparities, which is generally viewed as a left-leaning position. But Patriotic Alliance is skeptical of immigration, takes a hardline stance on corruption, wants to reinstate the death penalty, and favors more socially conservative policies. It has also expressed solidarity with Israel in its struggle with Hamas, which is not a popular stance in South Africa’s Black community. Critics of Patriotic Alliance accuse the party of “gangsterism,” noting that its two founders are convicted criminals and contending that party leaders have worked with criminal organizations in an effort to reduce violent crime. Patriotic Alliance leaders have also advocated using veterans of the former Cape Corps, which had been a Coloured military organization, to help control gang violence.

Overall, it is difficult to classify the political position of Patriotic Alliance. It is not alone in this regard. Over much of the world, parties that defy the traditional left/right division are gaining support. A good example is Germany’s new political party Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht (BSW), which emerged from the far-left but now takes an anti-immigration, populist, and nationalist stance. In the 2024 European Parliamentary election in Germany, BSW took 6.2 percent of the vote, whereas Die Linke (The Left), the party from which it emerged, took only 2.7 percent. Political realignment seems to be rapidly gaining strength in many countries.

South Africa’s Western Cape Exceptionalism and the Coloured Vote Read More »

Socio-Economic and Demographic Factors in the 2024 Vote for the African National Congress in South Africa

As noted in the previous GeoCurrents post, South Africa’s leading political party, the African National Congress (ANC), suffered major losses in the 2024 general election, although it still significantly outperformed all other parties. Today’s post briefly examines the geographical patterns of the ANC’s 2024 showing, looking for correlations with socio-economic and demographic variables.

ANC vote share 2024 South Africa Election

As comparing the map posted above with the  first map posted below shows, at the provincial level the ANC won higher-than-average levels of support in regions with lower-than-average per capita GDP. It did best in Limpopo and Eastern Cape, the two provinces with the country’s lowest levels of economic output per person. Intriguingly, this pattern is not found with South Africa’s most leftist major party, the communist-oriented Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). EFF’s vote-share was relatively evenly distributed across the country, although it fared poorly in the country’s two most electorally aberrant provinces, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Intriguingly, EFF had its highest vote share in North West Province, which has a relatively high level of per capita economic output.

Map of South Africa 'sPer Capita GDP in 2022
South Africa Per Capita GDP 2022 Map

Map showing the vote share of the Economic Freedom Fighters in South Africa's General Election of 2024
Vote of EEF South African General Election 2024 map

Per capita GDP, however, can be a misleading indicator, as it does not necessarily capture differences in basic economic wellbeing. The somewhat elevated GDP figure of South Africa’s North West province, for example, largely reflects its productive mining operations rather than its basic economy. In the more revealing Human Development Index (HDI), North West province falls into South Africa’s lowest category, along with Eastern Cape. In contrast, Western Cape has South Africa’s highest HDI figure – and also had the second lowest level of support for the ANC. At the local level as well, the more prosperous parts of the country tended to vote against the ANC and for its most important rival, the Democratic Alliance. This pattern also has a strong racial component, as we will see in a forthcoming post on the Democratic Alliance party.

Map showing the Human Development Index of South Africa's provinces in  2021
South Africa HDI by Province 2021 Map

The African National Congress is closely associated with South Africa’s majority Black population, and unsurprisingly performed relatively poorly in the two provinces that are not demographically dominated by Blacks, Western Cape and Northern Cape. But the ANC’s performance was middling or poor in several provinces with large Black majorities, as can be seen by comparing the map posted below with the first map posted above. As was noted in the previous GeoCurrents article, ethnic politics help explain the ANC’s low level of support in KwaZulu-Natal.

Map showing the percentage of the Black population in South Africa's provinces
South Africa Black Population by Province Map

By delving down below the province level, we can find an interesting correlation between the ANC’s 2024 vote strength and South Africa’s ethno-linguistic divisions. As the paired maps posted below show, the ANC did very well among two ethnic groups: the Xhosa of the south-central region and the Venda (Tshivenda speakers) of the far northeast. The Xhosa – the country’s second-largest ethnic group, after the Zulu – have long been closely aligned with the ANC. The high level of support among the Venda is linked to the fact that the ANC’s current leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, is of Venda ethnicity, although he has born and reared in Soweto, Johannesburg.

Paired maps showing South Africa's ethnolinguistic geography and the results of its 2024 election
South Africa 2024 Election and Language Maps

Socio-Economic and Demographic Factors in the 2024 Vote for the African National Congress in South Africa Read More »

The Zulu Exception in South Africa’s 2024 General Election

In South Africa’s general election of May 29, 2024, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party received only 40 percent of the vote. This election marked a stunning reversal of the party’s fortune; in 2019 it took 57 percent of the vote, while in 1994, 1999, 2004, 2009, and 2014 it took over 60 percent. Economic problems, persistently high levels of crime, allegations of corruption, and growing opposition to immigration have turned many South Africans against the once-dominant party that brought an end to apartheid and successfully democratized the country.

Despite its relatively poor showing, the ANC still did much better than any other party. The centrist Democratic Alliance (DA) came in a distant second place, with only 21.8 percent of the vote. The previously third-ranking party, the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), took less than 10 percent, losing five seats in the National Assembly. Several new parties gained seats, particularly the left-populist uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party, founded by the disgraced former president and previous ANC leader, Jacob Zuma. Zuma’s MK party took a healthy 14.6 percent of the vote, gaining 58 of the 400 seats in the National Assembly.

The strong showing of the new leftwing MK party coupled with the losses experienced by the African National Congress seem to indicate a profound level of dissatisfaction with the relatively moderate economic policies of the ANC’s current leader, Cyril Ramaphosa. But a geographical analysis of the election reveals a more complicated situation. As the map posted below indicates, MK did not emerge as a new party with national appeal, but rather one whose support is largely limited to the Zulu population. It received 45 percent of the vote in the Zulu heartland (KwaZulu-Natal), 16.8 percent in Mpumalanga, which is 24 percent Zulu-speaking, and 9.8 percent in Gauteng (the country’s core province, containing Johannesburg), which is 23 percent Zulu-speaking. Otherwise, MK’s level of support ranged from small to negligible. Its poor showing among the country’s other ethnic groups is not surprising, as its ideology is based – according to Wikipedia – on “Zulu nationalism” and “Zulu interests.”

South Africa 2024 election MK vote map

uMkhonto weSizwe is not the only South African political party that represents Zulu interest. The long-established Zulu-nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) did relatively well in the 2024 election, taking over 18 percent of the vote in KwaZulu-Natal and gaining three additional National Assembly seats, for a total of 17. A socially conservative, anti-communist organization, the Inkatha Freedom Party finds most of its support in the more traditional north-central region of KwaZulu-Natal, as the paired Wikipedia map posted below show. It performed particularly well in the municipality of Ulundi. The town of Ulundi was once the capital of the Zulu kingdom and later became the seat of the Bantustan (apartheid-era pseudo-country) of KwaZulu. In no other province did the Inkatha Freedom Party exceed one percent of the vote; in the western third of the country it received less than one tenth of one percent.

2024 South African Election IFP vote map

2024 South African Election KwaZulu-Natal Vote Map

The 2024 election results show that KwaZulu-Natal stands apart from the rest of South Africa, its voters more inclined to support parties that favor Zulu interest than those who focus on national issues. As the paired maps posted below show, the only municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal that did not give plurality support to one the two Zulu nationalist parties are demographically dominated by Xhosa speakers rather than Zulu speakers.

South Africa 2024 election KwaZulu-Natal vote map

But KwaZulu-Natal is not the only South African province that stands politically apart from the rest of the country. As the first map posted below shows, the African National Congress received a relatively low percentage of the vote in three provinces: KwaZulu-Natal, Western Cape, and Gauteng.  Elsewhere, it took a majority or near-majority of the votes cast. As a result, I have divided South Africa into four electorally distinctive regions (see the final map below). Coming Geo-Currents posts will explore these patterns in greater detail.

South Africa 2024 election ANC vote map

South Africa electoral regions map

The Zulu Exception in South Africa’s 2024 General Election Read More »

Another Geo-Quiz

Today’s post is another geo-quiz, which asks the reader to name an important geographical feature. Similar quizzes will be posted later this week. This quiz unfolds gradually, adding lines frame by frame until the feature becomes obvious and is named.

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Another line of the same type is added.

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Many lines of the same type are added and are colored blue.

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Straight east-west and north-south lines are added.

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Another line of the same type as the east-west and north-south lines is added.

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The answer is provided.

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Another Geo-Quiz Read More »

More Sea-Shape Geo-Riddles

The shapes of several water bodies are presented below, with accompanying riddles.  Answers are provided below each shape in the form of a larger, labeled map.  The riddles are explained at the end of the post.

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#1. The riddle refers to the waterlogged Birds Foot Delta of the Mississippi River, which is clearly visible and has the appearance of a finger.

#2. The Caribbean Sea together with the Gulf of Mexico is called the “American Mediterranean Sea.”

#3. The Persian (or Arabian) Gulf region has the world’s largest oil reserves, and the gulf itself has a lot of oil pollution.

#4. The Red Sea is linked to the actively rifting Red Sea Rift:

#5 China’s controversial Nine-Dash Line encloses most of the South China Sea.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nine-dash_line

#6 The East China Sea is north-northeast of the South China Sea, which is #5 in this series.

#7. In the board game “Monopoly,” Baltic Avenue has the second lowest rents.

#8. Japan and Korea – North and South – tussle over the name of the sea that lies between them.

More Sea-Shape Geo-Riddles Read More »

Answers to Sea-Shape Quiz of May 13 – With Geo-Riddles

Today’s post provides labels for the water-body shapes that were posted on May 13. This “answer key” has two parts. First, each shape is replicated along with a hint in the form of a riddle. After each of these “geo-riddles,” the answer is given on a map that provides additional geographical context.

(Riddle 3# is rather obscure; it asked whether is is sound to put south on the top of the map.)

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Answers to Sea-Shape Quiz of May 13 – With Geo-Riddles Read More »

Seeing the Shapes of Seas: One Easy Example and One Extremely Difficult One

The previous GeoCurrents post argued that even geographically informed people have a difficult time recognizing the shapes of seas and other large water bodies, due largely to our intrinsic tendency to prioritize land over water. But this tendency does not always come into play. The Mediterranean Sea, for example, is easily recognizable. But this is because we readily discern the large peninsulas that jut into it, rather than the sea itself. Lacking such peninsulas, the Baltic Sea is less seen (see the second image below).

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The shape of one sea is particularly difficult to identify, even though it is very large  (1,583,000 km2; 611,200 sq mi) and clearly defined. It is also the site of a significant and seemingly unresolvable territorial dispute between two powerful countries. But given its peripheral location for both of those countries, as well as the low population density of the lands that (nearly) surround it, it tends to slip off our conceptual maps. The four final shapes (below) reveal this sea in sequential stages.

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Seeing the Shapes of Seas: One Easy Example and One Extremely Difficult One Read More »

Do We See the Shapes of Seas? Test Yourself

The geographical imagination tends to prioritize land over water, which is hardly surprising. Water is generally in the cartographic background, conceptualized as something of a void.  As a result, people have a difficult time recognizing the shapes of seas, bays, gulfs, large lakes, and other major bodies of water, even those located in areas that they know well. This seems to be true even for people with extensive geographical knowledge. To test this proposition, I have traced out the shapes of a number of well-known water bodies and used them as a quiz with a few friends and family members. None of them has done very well. Readers can test themselves with eight of these images posted below. It is important to note that these simple maps are all drawn at different scales.

At the end of the article, a few hints are provided. Answers will be given later this week.

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Hints: All these water bodies are in North America. Straight lines indicate opening to the ocean or some other water body. If you are perplexed, focus on the shapes of islands and coasts rather than that of the water body itself.

Do We See the Shapes of Seas? Test Yourself Read More »

Sorry Michigan, But Your Lower Peninsula Is Smaller Than You Think and Your Upper Peninsula Is a Figment of the Imagination

A peninsula, Wikipedia tells us, “is a landform that extends from a mainland and is surrounded by water on most sides.Any body of water can count, the article claims, including rivers: “A piece of land on a very tight river bend or one between two rivers is sometimes said to form a peninsula. …” In practice, however, the inclusion of rivers occurs only at the local scale; a large extent of land bracketed by rivers is almost never called a peninsula, and for good reasons. Consider, for example, Mesopotamia, which is almost entirely “surrounded” by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Does it “extend from a mainland?” Is it ever depicted as a peninsula? An internet search returned exactly one instance of this usage, an article by Turkish authors on the “Vernacular Domed Houses of Harran, Turkey.” Perhaps they are not familiar with the vernacular definition of the world “peninsula” in English. Following such usage, ChatGPT insists that “Mesopotamia” is not a peninsula.

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ChatGPT 3.5: “Mesopotamia is not a peninsula. It’s actually considered one of the world’s earliest civilizations, located in the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which is in present-day Iraq and parts of Syria, Turkey, and Iran. While it’s bordered by water, it’s not surrounded by water on three sides like a peninsula would be. Instead, it’s known as a river valley civilization due to its location between these two major rivers.

(Unfortunately, the chatbot’s answer is not fully coherent: “Mesopotamia” was the location of “one of the world’s earliest civilizations,” not the civilization itself, and it was definitely “surrounded by water on three sides,” at least if one counts flowing water in the definition of the term.)

But in Great Lakes region straddling the border between the United States and Canada the vernacular English definition of the word “peninsula” vanishes. Three large peninsulas are distinguished in this area: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, and Ontario Peninsula. All three appear prominently on political maps, but this is essentially an artifact of the division between the two countries. A non-political depiction of large water bodies in this region reveals only one large peninsula, the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, and it is not as large as it is conventionally imagined. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Ontario Peninsula are evident only if exaggerates the size of rivers and counts them as water bodies separating peninsulas from mainland areas. But if we were to follow this precedent, we would have to count hundreds of peninsulas that are never given that designation. The term “mainland” would also essentially lose all meaning.

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One can, of course, object to these claims by noting that geographical terms are often based on convention rather that strict definition. As the Infoplease article on peninsulas aptly states, “The definition of a peninsula can be a bit arbitrary, and has as much to do with convention and politics as any geographical rules.” I therefore have no problem with casually referring to northwestern Michigan as the “Upper Peninsula,” and I will continue to do so myself. But it is still important to draw attention to geographical conventions that defy geographical definitions.

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The prime example of a “geographical convention that defies geographical definitions” is portraying Europe as a continent. As Infoplease further notes, “On a map Europe may look like a peninsula that extends westward from the larger landmass of Eurasia, but historians and geographers have treated it as a separate continent for centuries.” Careful geographers and historians, however, no longer regard Europe as a continent. They insist that it is best regarded, like South Asia, as a subcontinent of Eurasia.

Sorry Michigan, But Your Lower Peninsula Is Smaller Than You Think and Your Upper Peninsula Is a Figment of the Imagination Read More »