Environmental Geography

Middle Path Environmentalism

Dear Readers,

I have posted two essays on environmental philosophy and politics under the “Featured Essays” drop-down menu located above and to the right of this post. They were initially designed to be the introduction and first chapter of a book that would be called Middle Path Environmentalism: Taking Climate Change and Other Environmental Problems Seriously without Crushing the Working Class and Undermining Rural Life. But after circulating these essays among a group of friends and colleagues and receiving almost no encouragement [1], I decided to put the project on indefinite hold. Written from a perspective best deemed radical centrism [2], Middle Path Environmentalism has proved distasteful for readers with strongly partisan views. In the academic environment that I inhabit, almost everyone I know is an ardent Democrat – and those who aren’t are radical leftists. From their perspectives, my centrist arguments are seen as potentially providing fodder for a Republican opposition that they consider extremely dangerous.

Ironically, most of the positions found in these essays would have been considered solidly left-liberal not long ago. But liberalism, as formally defined [3], was roundly rejected by the Marxian New Left in the late 1960s. Their views gradually spread across the political left, accelerating after the 2016 election. Today, such cornerstones of liberalism as individual rights and freedom of speech are viewed with suspicion by most leftists. But what constitutes the “political left” has also come into to question. The standard definition [4] focuses on the left’s desire to reduce economic inequality and social hierarchy by upholding the interest of the working and middle classes – positions that I strongly endorse. Today, however, identity politics override class politics over most of the self-proclaimed left. As a result, working-class support for the Democratic Party is plummeting, partially replaced by support from affluent, suburban professionals who formerly favored Republican candidates. To be sure, the Democrats still count many leftists and even radical leftists among their ranks, but the party’s center of gravity is now solidly establishmentarian. Both main parties now represent cross-class alliances – but in the end both primarily uphold elite interests.

In my own controversial view, national healing requires a middle path between establishmentarianism and populism, as well as between modernism and traditionalism. Such a path, I believe, must be strongly democratic, which by its very nature inclines to the political center while steadfastly opposing oligarchy. Although unpopular in my own professional circles, this stance does have growing support among the electorate at large. But in our hyper-polarized political environment, I have reluctantly concluded that championing it is a futile effort. As a result, I have decided to abandon the “Middle Path Environmentalism” project, at least for the time being.

Dropping this project will allow me to focus on the much more rewarding and enjoyable endeavor of non-political educational outreach. I am currently planning a series of geography and history lecture courses, which will be freely available on this website and on YouTube. Information on these prospective courses will be posted on this website soon.

  1. The only person who encouraged me to continue working on this project is Ryder Wooten, a well-informed Mendocino-county cannabis grower noted for his devotion to carbon-neutral, regenerative farming (see this High Times article). A number of my current political positions have been derived through extended conversations with Wooten.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radical_centrism
  2. According to Wikipedia’s serviceable definition, “Liberalism is a political and moral philosophy based on the rights of the individual, liberty, consent of the governed, political equality, right to private property, and equality before the law. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberalism
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left-wing_politics

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Air-Conditioning Needs and Cartographic Failure at the Washington Post

The Washington Post recently ran an article entitled “Addicted to Cool: How the Dream of Air Conditioning Turned into the Dark Future of Climate Change,” which features three maps of “Summer Days Requiring AC” in the U.S. at different periods of time (1981-200, 2001-2002, and 2060). As expected, the region needing air conditioning is projected to expand. Determining how many days actually “require” air conditioning is, however, an impossible task, as different people vary significantly in their cooling desires and demands, while housing design and shade considerations make big differences as well. Understandably bypassing such complexities, the newspaper used the heat index, a measurement of temperature and humidity, as a proxy. Unsurprisingly, their maps show that a large area of the country already needs summer air conditioning, and that in the decades to come the need for cooling will geographically expand.

The maps included in the article, however, are not impressive, to put it mildly. Their problems are particularly severe regarding California. As can be seen on the map detail of Southern California posted below, the Post’s mapping accurately shows the eastern deserts and the inland western regions as needing air conditioning on most if not all summer days. It also accurately depicts the highest elevation areas as rarely requiring it. But the same map also portrays the coastal zone as AC-dependent. This is not true. Downtown San Diego, for example, has an average July high temperature of 75 degrees Fahrenheit and an average July low of 66 (over the 1991-2020 period). Further north, in Rancho Palos Verdes, similar conditions prevail. According to Weather Spark, “The hottest month of the year in Rancho Palos Verdes is August, with an average high of 76°F and low of 64°F.” The same site also notes that “Over the course of the year, the temperature typically varies from 51°F to 76°F and is rarely below 46°F or above 84°F.” This is climate that very rarely calls for cooling.

The map is equally inaccurate in its depiction of Northern California. As can be seen on the map detail posted below, it does capture the cool summers characteristic of the coastal regions in and around San Francisco and Monterey bays. It completely misses the fact, however, that other coastal regions also have mild summers. The average July high and low temperatures in Point Arena, Santa Cruz, and Carmel are, respectively 65 and 50 degrees F.; 74 and 54; and 70 and 53 (all based on the climatological data found in the Wikipedia articles on these towns). In Point Arena, one is more likely to want heating than air conditioning in June and July, yet the map indicates that cooling is needed on most summer days.

Other odd features mar the map. As can be seen, the city of San Francisco is mislocated in the bay and on its eastern shore.  The national map also features a faint white line that traces part of San Francisco Bay and would appear to indicate the actual coastline, at least in some areas.  Was one map imprecisely overlaid on another?

Although these problems are serious enough, it is the map of projected air-conditioning needs in the year 2060 that truly fails. This can be seen easily on the paired maps showing current and projected AC requirements in California. Here much of the currently cool Big Sur coastal zone is projected to have much reduced air-conditioning needs by 2060. This region of projected cooling is bizarrely shown as extending over the Santa Lucia Range into the southern Salinas Valley, an area that now experiences warm summers (King City has an average July high of 85 degrees F.). Similarly, the currently warm inland area north of Santa Barbara is shown as being expected to have much cooler summers in 2060 than it does today, while with the rest of Southern California is projected to warm.

One can only wonder whether the cartographers in question actually examined these maps before publication, or, if they did, whether they have much of an understanding of the geography of climate. It often seems that journalists use maps as mere ornaments or, alternatively, to have the appearance of spatial precision without the substance. The maps in this article do little more than make the trite point that “more of us will need air conditioning as the climate warms.” Readers deserve better, especially from a once-great paper that is owned by the third richest person in the world.

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What Is the Black Sea? (Part 1)

The Wikipedia article on the Black Sea begins by asserting that “The Black Sea is a marginal mediterranean sea of the Atlantic Ocean lying between Europe and Asia…” This definition is not helpful, as it obscures more than it reveals.

Let us begin with the assertion that the Black Sea is a marginal sea. Wikipedia defines a “marginal sea” as follows: “A marginal sea is a division of an ocean, partially enclosed by islands, archipelagos, or peninsulas adjacent to or widely open to the open ocean at the surface, and/or bounded by submarine ridges on the sea floor.” The Black Sea, however, is not even remotely “widely open to the open ocean”: the distance from Istanbul, near the entrance to the Black Sea, to Gibraltar, near the opening to the “open ocean,” is 1,871 miles, or 3,011 kilometers. In the map posted below, I “erased” the Mediterranean Sea to illustrate the separation of the Black Sea from the ocean. Classifying the Black Sea as part of the Atlantic Ocean strains credulity. The very concept of “marginal sea,” moreover, is itself strained. As the second map below shows, many bodies of water that are officially classified as marginal seas are not “partially enclosed by islands, archipelagos, or peninsulas.” None of the officially delimited Antarctic seas have any real degree of surface enclosure. Nor are they divided from the open ocean by “submarine ridges on the sea floor.”

The definition of a “mediterranean sea” (note the lower-case “m”), unlike that of a “marginal sea,” is clearly formulated and technical. According to Wikipedia, “A mediterranean sea is, in oceanography, a mostly enclosed sea that has limited exchange of water with outer oceans and whose water circulation is dominated by salinity and temperature differences rather than by winds or tides.” The same article lists eight “mediterranean seas,” which I have mapped (see below). It also divides this kind of sea into two categories: “concentration basins,” which are saltier than the open ocean, and “dilution basins,” which are less salty (see the second map below). Note that the Mediterranean is itself split on this basis, with the Adriatic forming a dilution basin and the rest of its waters a concentration basin. As these two different forms of “mediterranean sea” are situated on opposite sides of the open ocean regarding salinity, it might be more accurate to label a dilution basis an “anti-mediterranean sea.”

One thing that is clear is about the Black Sea is that it is not part of the Mediterranean Sea. The Wikipedia cited above, however, implies that it is: “The Eurafrican Mediterranean Sea is also a concentration basin as a whole, but the Black Sea and the Adriatic Sea are dilution basins …”  Elsewhere in the article the Black Sea is classified as part of a plural entity dubbed the “Mediterranean Seas”: “The namesake Mediterranean Seas, including the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov, …” Evidently, a certain degree of confusion clouds these categories.

In geo-historical terms, the Black Sea belongs in a category of its own, as will be explored in the next GeoCurrentspost.

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The East/West Divide in the Republic of Georgia

The Republic of Georgia exhibits a marked east/west division. This divide is especially notable in physical geography. As can be seen on the first map posted below, western Georgia is dominated but a sizable coastal lowland, with its rivers draining into the Black Sea, whereas eastern Georgia is more elevated and drains into the Caspian Sea. As is also evident on this map, the breakaway Russian client statelet of South Ossetia extends across much of north-central Georgia, partially separating the country’s two macro-regions. As the satellite-based map of Georgia reveals, a band of forested land also marks the divide between the two halves of the country. And as can be seen in the third map posted below shows, the area in which most people speak Georgian and related Kartvelian languages as their mother-tongue is almost bifurcated into eastern and western segments by a band of rough topography that is mostly occupied by non-Georgian-speaking peoples.


Eastern and western Georgia are also climatically differentiated. The west experiences heavy year-round precipitation, with its coastal areas approaching a humid subtropical climate. Eastern Georgia, in contrast, is subhumid, with parts of its eastern extremity verging on semi-arid status. In the east, rainfall is concentrated in the late spring and early summer, as can be seen in the precipitation table posted below.

The division between western and eastern Georgia is also found in the historical and cultural spheres. Through much of the ancient period, western Georgia was dominated by the Kingdom of Colchis, whereas eastern Georgia was dominated by the Kingdom of Iberia. In the 10th and 11th centuries, Georgia was united into a single kingdom that became a powerful empire in the 12th and early 13th centuries. In the post-medieval period, however, Georgia was split into several competing kingdoms, and in the sixteenth century the western half of the country came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire while the eastern half came under the rule of the Safavid (Persian) Empire. In the early 19th century, both halves of the country were annexed by the Russian Empire. Independence as a single state did not come until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Western and eastern Georgia are also differentiated on cultural grounds.  Most notably, western Georgia is characterized by a deeper level of cultural diversity. As the map below shows, the northwest has its own distinctive languages, Mingrelian and Svan. Although these tongues are related to Georgian, they broke from the common ancestral language many centuries ago. Today, however, Mingrelian and Svan are declining and are considered endangered, as local people increasingly switch to Georgian. The breakaway statelet of Abkhazia in the far northwest is characterized by pronounced ethnolinguistic diversity, although its diversity was significantly reduced when most of the local Georgian population was expelled after the break-up of the Soviet Union. In the southwest, the Adjara region is noted for its distinctive dialect of Georgian and for the prevalence of Sunni Islam rather than Orthodox Christianity in most rural areas. Owning to such cultural distinctiveness, Adjara is officially classified as an autonomous region. (As will be explored in a later post, Shia Islam is dominant across much of south-central Georgia.)

Despite such differences between western and eastern Georgia, the country is characterized by a strong sense of national cohesion, with muted regional divisions. Georgia’s deeply rooted national identity will be explored in more detail in later posts. For the time being, I would only note that it may be of minor significance that the demographic core of western Georgia is offset to the east (in the Imereti region), while that of eastern Georgia is offset to the west (in the Tbilisi region). This pattern is clearly visible in the population cartogram posted below.

It might seem surprising that the core area of western Georgia is not located in the Black Sea coastal lowlands. The historical disease environment helps explain this pattern. Until recently, the humid and flat lands of far western Georgia had a high incidence of malaria, reducing its population and marginalized its political and economic position. Malaria was finally eliminated in the 1970s, but it returned after the collapse of the Soviet Union and was not fully extirpated until around 2010.

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The (Temporary) Rebirth of California’s Once-Huge Tulare Lake?

The southern half of California’s vast San Joaquin Valley is almost never depicted as a desert nor is it officially classified as one. But it clearly is a desert by climatological criteria. Most of the San Joaquin Valley gets less than 10 inches of precipitation a year, with much of the southern valley receiving less than seven, and it has an extremely high rate of evaporation from late spring through early autumn. But with abundant water flowing from the adjacent Sierra Nevada range, the southern San Joaquin Valley is a verdant, intensely cultivated land. Before the late 1800s, it was the site of the third largest freshwater lake entirely within the United States (as measured by surface area). But when the rivers that formerly flowed into Tulare Lake were diverted into canals to irrigate crops, the huge lake disappeared. Today, the former lakebed is highly productive farmland with only a few small seasonal wetlands providing natural habitat.

As the paired maps posted below indicates, the extent of Tulare Lake varies greatly in different cartographic depictions. This is because the lake itself varied significantly in size on both a seasonal and multi-year basis. As Tulare Lake did not drain in most years, it would expand in winter and spring and then contract through summer and early fall. It would also grow to an especially large size in wet years and shrink dramatically in dry ones. In particularly wet years, the lake would rise high enough to drain to the sea through the San Joaquin River, thus flushing out any accumulated salt and ensuring that its water remained fresh.

A shallow and nutrient-rich lake, Tulare was extremely productive. The Yokuts people who lived around its shores were reputed to have had one of the highest levels of population density of any indigenous American ethnic group. For several decades after the gold rush, Tulare’s aquatic resources from were shipped in huge quantities to San Francisco. As the Wikipedia article on the lake notes:

Even well after California became a state, Tulare Lake and its extensive marshes supported an important fishery: In 1888, in one three-month period, 73,500 pounds of fish were shipped through Hanford to San Francisco. It was also the source of a regional favorite, western pod turtles, which were relished as terrapin soup in San Francisco and elsewhere.

Turtles in Tulare Lake were so abundant that they were even fed to hogs. Today the western pond turtle is classified as a vulnerable species, suffering from competition with invasive exotic turtle species and undermined by the loss of habitat.

Environmentalists occasionally dream about bringing back Tulare Lake, emphasizing the vital habitat that it once provided and contending that its revival would be a relatively easy way for California to store excess runoff. Such a scenario, however, is extremely unlikely. Not only is the former lakebed highly productive farmland, but it also contains the city of Corcoran, home to some 22,000 residents.

But regardless of human plans and desires, Tulare Lake will probably reappear this spring, if only for a short period, owing to the extremely heavy precipitation that has been experienced this winter in the southern Sierra. Tulare County has already seen levee-breaks and the flooding of several towns, and water is now beginning to accumulate in the old lakebed. Local flooding could easily persist as snowmelt begins in April or May. Noting such factors, a recent article by Dan Walters claims that “It’s almost certain that Tulare Lake will once again spring to life.” Walters concludes by arguing that, “the probability is generating some hopeful, if unrealistic, speculation that state and or federal governments could buy up the lakebeds fields and bring back to Tulare lake permanently.”

This season’s reborn Tulare Lake will probably evaporate over the course of the summer, which will almost certainly be hot and bone dry – as is always is in the San Joaquin Valley. But if California enters a multiyear wet cycle, which is possible although not probable, winter and spring drainage could become a big problem for the farms and towns of the Tulare Basin. The city of Corcoran well known for its continual subsidence, dropping in elevation by about two feet a year due to the overuse of groundwater. Subsidence has already created major headaches for Corcoran. As noted in The Science Times,

The town levee had to be reconstructed for $10 million after the casings of drinking-water wells were crushed, flood areas changed, and the town levee had to be rebuilt. The situation has increased homeowners’ property tax bills by around $200 a year for three years.

Another powerful storm is slated to slam into California on Tuesday, March 21. Like most of this year’s major storms, it will be most pronounced in central and southern California, largely missing the normally much-wetter northern third of the state. More than 48 inches of additional snow is expected in the southern Sierra, which drains into the Tulare Basin. Thus far this winter, the southern Sierra has received an astounding 268 percent of average annual snowfall.

As can be seen on the map posted above, the northern and central parts of the Sierra have also received much higher-than-average amounts of snow this winter, but not to the same extent as the south. This pattern is highly unusual and was not expected. Until recently, the eastern Pacific was under La Niña conditions, which usually means a drier than average wet season, especially in Southern California. By winter 2024, El Niño conditions may assert themselves, which usually means a wetter than average winter for southern and central California. If so, Tulare Lake might fill up yet again.

The (Temporary) Rebirth of California’s Once-Huge Tulare Lake? Read More »

Mapping the Extraordinary Cost of Homes in California

California Median Home Price MapAs promised in late 2015, GeoCurrents be will continuing its policy of giving away easily customizable base maps made with simple presentation software (Keynote and PowerPoint). Today’s base map, which depicts the counties of California, can be downloaded at the links at the bottom of the page. (As before, several maps are included in each set, each one with slightly different feature.)

Whenever I finish such a base map, I feel compelled to use it for some sort of thematic illustration. In the case of California, my first inclination was to map a topic of local obsession: the cost of homes. Housing prices in parts of California have reached a level so astronomical as to provoke widespread despair (coupled, however, with a certain degree of concealed glee among the beneficiaries). The geography of housing costs can be easily grasped by juxtaposing a map of median home prices in USA Home Price MapCalifornia with a similar map showing all of the United States. As can be seen on the first map, extraordinary expense is primarily a feature of the San Francisco Bay Area, particularly the string of counties that runs from Marin in the north to Santa Clara (“Silicon Valley”) in the south. Elsewhere in the state, homes are relatively inexpensive. “Relatively,” however, is the key word. The median list price in Sacramento County ($270,000) may seem like a bargain compared to that of San Mateo County ($974,000), but in national terms it is still high. As can be seen in the Trulia real-estate map of the United States, relatively few counties in the entire Midwest fall into the same category of expense as Sacramento County.

California Average Home Price MapSeveral people to whom I showed the map of median home prices found it surprising, as they expected to see higher prices in such counties as Monterey and Santa Barbara, which are widely known for their up-scale communities. Both counties, however, also contain extensive agricultural areas characterized by moderate to low levels of income. The exclusivity of the upper end of the market in Monterey and Santa Barbara counties is nicely captured by the map of average list prices for homes. Here Santa Barbara ranks in the third position, with a figure just below 1.5 million dollars.



California Median Income MapThe price of homes in California correlates relatively well with income levels, but with some interesting differences and discrepancies. The most significant is the fact that median household income varies by less than a factor of three, whereas the median price of homes varies by a factor of almost 10. The distinction between California’s two main metropolitan centers is also notable. Housing is relatively affordable, when considered with regard to median household income, in such southern California counties as Orange and Ventura than it is in such Bay Area counties as San Francisco and Alameda. East/west differences also come into play. Placer and El Dorado counties in the east are particularly affordable, characterized by high incomes but relatively modest home prices. Both of these counties are largely rural, but they also include some of Sacramento’s more up-scale suburbs and share as well the amenity-rich Lake Tahoe basin. Mendocino County on the north coast exhibits the opposite pattern, with home prices in the same range as Placer and El Dorado but with a much lower median household income. But Mendocino’s official income figures are unduly low, as they do not factor in the county’s large but mostly underground cannabis economy.

California Unemployment rate mapCalifornia’s unemployment map is also worth examining in the light of the state’s housing crisis. Here we see low unemployment figures for the Bay Area, particularly San Mateo and Marin counties, located just south and north of San Francisco respectively. But many jobs here are difficult to fill owing to the severe shortage of housing and the astronomical levels of rent. The off-the-chart 29.9 percent unemployment figure for rural, agricultural Colusa County is difficult to explain, if indeed it is accurate. Many other farming counties in California also have high unemployment figures, but not nearly to this extent. Only Imperial County in the far southeast comes close.

The cost of homes and levels of rent found in the San Francisco Bay Area provoke a tremendous amount of discussion but generate little in the way of concrete action. Stanford Professor David Palumbo-Liu emphasizes the class dimension of the issue in a recent article in Salon:

The most extreme case of this vast difference in the ability to afford housing may be that of 1950 Cowper Street in Palo Alto, which recently was bought by Google executive Ruth Porat for the sum of $30 million. That’s right, $30 million. For a three-bedroom house of 5,000 square feet. Contrast this with the massive displacement of ordinary working-class people and the diminishing if not evaporated chances of owning a home for what used to be called “the middle-class family.”

Writing from a leftist perspective, Palumbo-Liu would seek to address the crisis by instituting rent control and other forms of tenant protection. Many other authors, in contrast, emphasize instead the lack of new construction, which in turn stems largely from environmental and quality-of-life opposition to development. As Gabriel Metcalf, writing in CityLab (from The Atlantic), argues in regard to the city/county of San Francisco:

Regardless of these realities, most San Francisco progressives chose to stick with their familiar stance of opposing new development, positioning themselves as defenders of the city’s physical character. Instead of forming a pro-growth coalition with business and labor, most of the San Francisco Left made an enduring alliance with home-owning NIMBYs. It became one of the peculiar features of San Francisco that exclusionary housing politics got labeled “progressive.” … Over the years, these anti-development sentiments were translated into restrictive zoning, the most cumbersome planning and building approval process in the country, and all kinds of laws and rules that make it uniquely difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to add housing in San Francisco.

(See also this article by Conor Friedersdor for a similar perspective.)


Bay Area Housing Production MapAlthough Metcalf and Friedersdor focus their discussions on San Francisco, their observations hold just as well—if not better—for the Bay Area’s other cities and towns. Here again we can turn to cartography for clear evidence, thanks to Scott Wiener and his article “Want to Know Why the Bay Area Has a Housing Crisis? Read This Map” (the map in question is from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and is posted here to the left). As can be seen, San Francisco is doing much better in reaching its modest housing-construction goals than most other cities in the region. Oakland, which has experienced skyrocketing rents over the past year, is doing much worse, whereas tony San Rafael in ultra-hip Marin County is apparently adding no new housing whatsoever.


Most young people growing up in Silicon Valley and San Francisco will be forced to leave their communities on reaching adulthood, as they will simply not be able to afford local housing. Could this impending “expulsion from home” contribute to the well-known “stress epidemic” that is plaguing Silicon Valley teens? Over the past few years, the small city of Palo Alto—arguably the heart of the Valley—has been in anguish over two spates of suicides at Henry M. Gunn High School. A recent article in The Atlantic, “The Silicon Valley Suicides: Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves,” has riveted—and angered—much of the community. Most analyses of the problem focus on the pressure felt by Gunn students to excel at academics and everything else that they take on—and to take on a lot. Could some of this pressure stem from a simple desire to remain in their home cities, something that demands a high salary at a young age? My daughter, an 11th grader at Henry M. Gunn, gives this idea some credence.

California Customizable Maps (Keynote, older version)

California Customizable Maps (PowerPoint)



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Argentina’s Controversial Energy Policies

Argentina Oil Natural GasAs noted in the previous post, the most economically productive areas of Argentina depend heavily on the extraction of oil and natural gas. Argentina, however, is not a major fossil-fuel producer, and its reserves of conventional oil and natural gas are modest. Although it still exports some crude oil and until recently sold large quantities of natural gas to Chile, Argentina has been a net importer of both gas and oil since 2011. Its economy is also heavily dependent on fossil fuels, with natural gas alone supplying 55 percent of its total energy supply. Considering Argentina’s high inflation rate and other economic difficulties, this situation generates considerable concern.


Argentina does, however, possess massive quantities of unconventional oil and natural gas. Such deposits are locked up in shale formations and are Shale Gas and Tight Oil by Countryonly economically recoverable through hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). According to most estimates, Argentina’s shale gas reserves are second only to those of China, while its tight oil reserves are the world’s fourth largest. Most of the country’s shale gas and tight oil deposits are found in the Vaca Muerta (“dead cow”) formation, located mostly in Neuquén province. A year ago, optimism ran high in this region, as many experts predicted a boom similar to the one that had had emerged in the Bakken Formation of North Dakota. As noted in The Economist in 2014:

Argentina Vaca Muerta MapNeuquén is readying itself for a boom. Shopping centres have sprung up; so have clean new hotels that boast English-speaking staff and American-style food. Horacio Quiroga, the city’s mayor, compares its residents to expectant diners who have tied on their bibs. Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, is equally hopeful. “I shall no longer call [it] Vaca Muerta,” she said last year. “I shall call it Vaca Viva (‘Living Cow’).”

But at the same time, other observers were urging caution. Shale-gas deposits elsewhere in the world were proving more difficult to tap than those of North America, in part because of local geological particularities but also because of the large amounts of capital and high levels of technical expertise required for successful fracking. In most cases, substantial foreign investment would be necessary. Argentina’s history of fraught relations with overseas-based energy companies, however, has created major investment obstacles.

But despite such problems, significant investments have been made in in the Argentine energy field over the past several years. A recent report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration contends that outside of North America only China and Argentina have produced commercial volumes of gas and oil from fracking. As detailed in the report:

In Argentina, many international companies hold leases and have drilled wells in shale formations. Much of the initial activity has targeted shale oil and natural gas in the Neuquen Basin’s Vaca Muerta shale formation, located in west-central Argentina. National energy company Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales (YPF), the largest shale operator in the country, reported production in April 2015 of 22,900 barrels per day (b/d) of oil and 67 million cubic feet per day (MMcf/d) of natural gas from three joint ventures in Vaca Muerta: one with Chevron at the Loma Campana field, a second one with Dow Chemical at the El Orejano field, and a third joint venture with Petronas at La Amarga Chica field. In addition, China’s national oil company Sinopec and Russia’s national oil company Gazprom have recently signed a memorandum of understanding with YPF to jointly develop shale from the same basin.

Considering its economic difficulties, the Argentine government is not surprisingly eager to frack for natural gas and oil. The steep drop in the global price of oil over the past year, however, threatens the viability of the industry. Argentina has responded, as it often does, by manipulating the market. In particular, its government has fixed the local price of oil at US$ 77 a barrel, a figure almost twice that of the world market. Such policies aid producers, but harm consumers. As explained by Bloomberg Business:

South America’s second-largest* and most enigmatic economy is marching to its own drummer. In most of the developing world, governments subsidize fuel prices. In Argentina, motorists now are subsidizing oil and gas producers.

“This is not sustainable in the long term,” said Agustin Torroba, senior analyst at Montamat & Associates, an energy consulting firm. “It is the most expensive oil in the world.”

The policies of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, whose second four-year term ends in December, are rarely considered conventional. In addition to energy, Argentina’s unusual approach to economic management includes currency and import controls, export taxes, reneging on sovereign debt commitments and general acceptance of 25 percent inflation.


As is true elsewhere, fracking has generated considerable controversy in Argentina, as can clearly be seen in the website ASF Argentina Sin Fracking. Opposition to the process by Pope Francis has gathered considerable attention, both in Argentina and abroad. In eastern Argentina, many communities have instituted fracking bans. As was recently reported in Free Speech Radio News:

The red carpet treatment for foreign energy companies has met resistance in various parts of Argentina.

Authorities in around 50 municipalities have enacted local fracking bans in response to public pressure. This has, in turn, created a power struggle between national and local officials over what steps communities can take to prevent energy projects.

“We want to have the right to protect our water from pollution, to keep living in our hometowns,” says Ignacio Zabaleta with the Assembly of Fracking-Free Territories, a network of groups opposed to the extraction technique. “It’s a response to the sidelining of the will of the people. It’s about people who have lived in certain areas for centuries being displaced for the benefit of two or three corporations and for the benefit of corrupt and immoral officials.”

Most of the municipalities that have rejected fracking are in the province of Entre Rios, home to part of the Guaraní Aquifer — one of the world’s largest underground bodies of freshwater. The aquifer spans the borders of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay.


Argentina will be holding a presidential election in late October of this year. Some observers think that the outcome could significantly influence the country’s economic and energy policies. A recent Stratfor report, however, argues to the contrary. Its forecast runs as follows:

  • Regardless of election outcomes in October, Argentina’s next government will begin liberalizing its economy, potentially loosening restrictions on the repatriation of funds, reducing the enforcement of price controls and reducing subsidies.

  • Despite slight changes to Argentina’s regulatory framework, the government will continue to bar some investment and businesses to stem capital flight and to maintain a positive trade balance.

  • Though the next administration may begin laying the groundwork to attract greater energy investments, the country’s barriers are unlikely to be completely lifted during the next presidential term.

* This assertion is questionable. Although most data assembled by international economic organizations place the Argentine economy above that of Colombia in both nominal and purchasing-power-parity terms, a 2014 International Business Times article came to a different conclusion:

Argentina, once the third-strongest economy in the western hemisphere, extended its decades-long decline by ceding the No. 3 spot among Latin American economies to Colombia later this year — thanks to the second-weakest currency in the region, soaring inflation, weak economic growth and chronic political problems, Capital Economics said on Monday. Brazil and Mexico remain No. 1 and No 2, respectively.


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Oil, Coal, and Economic Development in Colombia

Although Colombia is not usually classified as a major oil-producer, it ranks 19th in the world according to the Wikipedia, turning out more than a million barrels a day in late 2014. Although this figure was well below that of Venezuela (2.5 million barrels a day), it surpassed those of such well-known oil exporters as Oman and Azerbaijan. It is no surprise, therefore, that Colombia has taken an economic hit from the recent decline in the price of oil. Compounding Colombia’s woes are the continuing strikes on its oil infrastructure by leftist rebels. According to a recent Financial Times article, “rebel attacks on pipelines cost state-controlled oil company Ecopetrol $430m in lost output last year.” As a result of such problems, the “Colombian peso [is] one of the weakest freely-traded currencies in the world, rivalling the rouble and the Brazilian real by falling 36 per cent over the past 12 months.”

Colombia exports treemapBut as another Financial Times article notes, Colombia has been able to weather the recent economic storm better than most oil exporters. The Colombian economy is buffered by its broad production of other goods. As its currency has fallen, exports such as coffee, flowers, car parts, and textiles have surged ahead. Columbia is particularly competitive in swimwear and Venezuela Exports Treemapunderwear; in 2013, its international sales in these categories brought in some US$ 133 million. As the export treemaps posted here show, Colombia is much less dependent on oil than Venezuela, its neighbor and rival. (Tensions between these two countries have intensified in recent weeks, as Venezuela has closed the border and deported hundreds of Colombians.)

Colombia GDP per capita mapBut despite the profitability of some of Colombia’s other exports, oil still looms large. Its significance is readily apparent in the map of per capita GDP posted to the left. As the map shows, the value of goods and services produced per person in Colombia’s 32 departments varies by more than an order of magnitude. The Colombia oil mapmost economically productive departments, Meta, Arauca, and Casanare, form the heartland of the Colombian oil industry. All are relatively lightly populated Colombia GDP per capita map 2lowland departments; Casanare, for example, has only around 350,000 inhabitants. Their economic productivity runs counter to the more general Colombian pattern, as the country’s elevated plateaus tend to be more prosperous than its lowlands. This pattern is apparent on the next map, in which the highland zone is outlined within dark black lines.

Per capita GDP figures, however, do not necessarily tell us much about the actual economic conditions found in particular places. At the sub-national level, wealth from extractive industries in peripheral areas often flows to more politically powerful regions. Unfortunately, more economically revealing statistics on such measures as average household income are not readily available for Colombia. Colombia Reports, however, has posted a Colombia poverty mappoverty-distribution map, which unfortunately lacks a key and excludes Arauca, Casanare and other eastern departments. As can be seen, oil-rich Meta has a relatively low poverty rate, but not to the extent that one might expect based on its raw economic output. Meta’s per capita GDP figure is roughly three times that of Cundinamarca, yet Cundinamarca, located near the capital city of Bogotá, has a lower poverty rate. Poverty is most pronounced in the distressed Pacific coastal department of Chocó, moreover, even though Chocó is more economically productive on a per capita basis than such departments as Nariño and Sucre.

Colombia kidnapping mapIn some respects, Colombia’s oil-rich departments are more troubled than many much less economically productive areas. The oil industry apparently attracts not just attacks on infrastructure by rebels, but also other forms of crime and violence. As the Colombia Reports kidnapping map shows, Meta, Arauca, and Casanare rank at the top of this unfortunate indicator. Kidnapping in Chocó, a department noted for drug smuggling and corruption, is also elevated.

Colombia’s oil industry is associated with a significant amount of environmental degradation, although its severity is much debated. Many locals even attributed a severe drought that hit Casanare Department in 2014 to oil extraction. Although oil drilling itself has no influence on precipitation, it is possible that a variety of oil-extraction activities reduce dry-season stream flow. Informed observers, however, are more inclined to blame such problems on deforestation in the headwater areas located in the Cocuy Highlands. More recently, however, the problem has been one of excess rain, as floods in early and mid-August 2015 forced many people in Casanare to flee to higher ground.

Colombia coal graphOil is by no means Columbia’s only major source of energy. The country has a fair amount of natural gas and significant hydroelectric potential. Coal is even more important. Colombia ranks 11th in the world in coal production, and its standing in terms of coal reserves is similar. Colombia’s reserves are almost entirely composed of high-quality anthracite and bituminous coal. Colombia coal mapAs a consequence, both production and exports have surged ahead in recent years. Colombia’s largest coal mines are located in the northern departments of La Guajira and Cesar, but deposits are widely scattered across the northwestern half of the country.

Global coal prices have dropped significantly, and the use of the fuel is of course increasingly opposed due to concerns about climate change. Some coal producers operating in Colombia, however, remain committed to expansion. As was recently reported in BloomburgBusiness:

Murray Energy Corp. plans to increase output at the Colombian coal mines it bought from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. this month, betting it can lower costs enough to withstand the prospect of several more years of low prices.

The U.S. coal producer founded by Robert E. Murray intends to push up the annual output rate at the La Francia mine in northern Colombia to 3 million tons by the end of the year from about 2.5 million tons now, Murray said in a telephone interview Monday from his headquarters in St. Clairsville, Ohio.

The industry is in a “very distressed and dangerous condition,” with low prices set to last through the end of 2017, he said. “Murray Energy has done its planning to contend with and compete in this depressed market.”

Local activists, not surprisingly, have leveled harsh criticisms against foreign-based coal producers operating in Colombia. Glencore PCL in particular has been accused of “whisking profits out of the country, while causing environmental and labor issues.”



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Short GeoCurrents Break, But First a Seemingly Impossible Rainfall Map

(Note to readers: GeoCurrents will soon be taking a short summer break. Regular posting will resume in mid-August. But before the pause begins, I have one more post, which discusses the possibility of a seemingly impossible map. )

California July 2015 RainfallThe map posted to the left appears to be bogus, as it depicts patterns that would seemingly not be found in nature. It shows precipitation over a specific 30-day period (from late June to late July, 2015) in California, mapped as a percentage of average precipitation, recorded over many years, during the same one-month span. Over a large swath of the central part of the state, colored dark red, rainfall is shown as having been extremely meager, less than five percent of what would normally be expected. Yet just to the northwest, northeast, and south of this region, large areas are depicted as having been extremely wet during this same period, with more than 600 percent of average rainfall. (This map, and the next three maps in this post, are found here.)

At first glance, such a pattern might appear highly unlikely but not actually impossible. What seems truly absurd is rather the lack of intermediate gradations. Along the “A-B” line that I have inserted only one intermediate color is encountered between the dark red of “less than five percent” and the hot pink of “more than 600 percent.” Such mapping seems to contradict the continuous nature of natural phenomena such as rainfall, and therefore appears impossible. Would not one have to pass through all of the color categories on the map when moving from a place with the highest value to a place with the lowest value? Yet as it so happens, that is not the case in this instance.

The most basic problem here is one of scale. Intermediate categories are present but cover areas too small to appear on the map. They would be present, in other words, if the map had been made at a much larger scale. Such a map, however, would be much too large to depict all of California on a single computer screen.

More interesting issues are encountered when we consider the specific features of California’s climate along with the unusual weather that the state experienced in mid July 2015 that led to such an bizarre map.

California July Rainfall 2015 Map 3Over the lowlands and hills of central and southern California, July precipitation is essentially nil, as can be seen on the next map. Only over the highest mountains does average rainfall in this period reach 0.5 inches (12 mm). In the lowlands, most years see no rainfall during this time of the year. But every decade or so a rare rain event occurs, generating average rainfall totals of a couple hundredths of an inch. In Sacramento, for example, July precipitation averages 0.04 inches, but in most years the actual figure is absolutely nothing. As a result, the dark-red areas on the map that appear abnormally dry during this period actually experienced typical conditions.

California’s extreme summer drought can make an area that received a California July 2015 Rainfall Map 2meager shower seem quite wet on a map such as this. The location near Sacramento labeled “C “is shown as receiving more than 200 percent of average rainfall on the fist map, but as the next map shows, all that it got was around 0.1 of an inch (2.5 mm).

The most striking feature of the initial map is the vast area that received more than 600 percent of average precipitation. Due to the hyper-aridity of California’s summer, some of these areas received only about a quarter of an inch. Other places, however, got more than two inches (50 mm), and one small area recorded over five inches (127 mm), staggeringly high figures for mid-summer in California. Most of this rain resulted from an unusual influx of moisture in the middle of the month from the so-called Arizona monsoon. The rainfall associated with this event pushed northward about halfway up the state and then abruptly terminated, giving rise to the extraordinarily sharp gradient along the “A-B” line in the first map. (In northwestern California, the relatively high precipitation figures for this period also reflect the unusual passage of an upper-level low-pressure center earlier in the month.)

California 2015 Rainfall MapThe rain that did fall in California this summer did very little to alleviate the state’s on-going, multi-year drought. As can be seen in the map posted to the left, almost all parts of the state are well below average for the period extending back to October 1, 2014. Oddly, however, there are a few specks of green and even of blue on this map, indicating higher than average rainfall. Palo Alto, where I live, is on the edge of one of these small zones, as it received unusually heavy rain during two December 2014 storms.

Climate Prediction MapDrought-weary Californians are hoping that the El Niño conditions that have emerged over the eastern Pacific presage a wet winter. Climate prediction maps, however, indicate a good chance of a heavier than normal precipitation only in the southern two-thirds of the state. California’s vast water delivery system, however, relies mostly on precipitation that falls in the northern third of the state.



Short GeoCurrents Break, But First a Seemingly Impossible Rainfall Map Read More »

Aysén Chile in Comparative Context

Chile North America Map ComparisonTo understand the physical geography and scale of Chile, it is useful to compare it to its North American counterpart, a region that extends in the north-south direction from southeastern Alaska to Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula, and which is bounded to the east by highland crests. As I was not able to find any maps that made this comparison explicitly, I constructed my own in a somewhat crude manner using Google Earth images. I inverted the resulting map of Chile to keep each region in the same perspective, with the poleward extremity on the top and the equator-facing extremity on the bottom.

As can be seen, the resemblance is rather extraordinary. To be sure, some major differences exist. Chile’s desert region in the lower part of the map, for example, is much drier than that of Baja California. Corresponding climate belts are in general displaced somewhat toward the equator in Chile, as can be seen in the relative positions of the 30° latitude line on the two maps. Valdivia, Chile at latitude 39°, for example, has a climate similar to “the windward side of the Olympic Mountains in the Pacific Northwest region of North America” (according to its Wikipedia article), which is situated at around 47°.

Aisen Chile MapChile’s Aysén (or Aisén) Region is situated in the same general latitude range as the states of Oregon and Washington in the United States, but is climate, vegetation, and landforms are much more similar to those of western British Columbia or southeastern Alaska. A little larger than Iceland, Aysén has only 94,271 inhabitants, fewer than live in Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital, giving it an extraordinarily low population density. Excluding indigenous inhabitants, it was also very recently settled. Its main port, Puerto Aysén was established in 1914 and not recognized as a city until 1928. (I find it intriguing that “Aysén” exists at four separate levels of Chile’s official spatial hierarchy, as can be seen in the map posted to the left.)

Aysen Region ChileThe terrain in western Aysén Region is not particularly conducive to heavy human settlement, given its steep slopes and intricate mixture of mountains and waterways. More favorable areas are found further to the east, especially around Coihaique, the region’s capital city (population 54,000). Coihaique is even younger than Puerto Aysén, having been founded in 1929. As the Wikipedia article puts it, “Until the twentieth century, Chile showed little interest in exploiting the remote Aisén region.”

The Lonely Planet description of Coihaique is interesting in regard its depiction of both the town’s appearance and its problems:

The cow town that kept growing, Coyhaique is the regional hub of rural Aisén, urbane enough to house the latest techie trends, mall fashions and discos. All this is plopped in the middle of an undulating range, with rocky humpback peaks and snowy mountains in the backdrop. For the visitor, it’s the launch pad for far-flung adventures, be it fly-fishing, trekking the ice cap or rambling the Carretera Austral to its end at Villa O’Higgins.

For those fresh from the rainforest wilderness of northern Aisén, it can be a jarring relapse into the world of semi trucks and subdivisions. Rural workers come to join the timber or salmon industries and add to the growing urban mass. In February 2012, massive citizen protests shut down the region and highlighted problems with poor public services and the high cost of living in Patagonia. The movement, known as Fuerza Aysén, expressed a growing frustration with the central government that remains unresolved.


Chile Patagonian Steppe MapWhat I find most intriguing about Coihaique is its mere location on the east side of the Andes. I had always assumed that the Patagonian border between Chile and Argentina generally followed the Andean spine, with Chile occupying the wet west and Argentina the dry east. In actuality, Chilean Coyhaique Satellite Mapterritory in several parts of Aysén Region extends well into the semi-arid steppe zone. The town of Chico Chile, for example, receives only 296 millimeters (11.6 inches) of rain a year. In Puerto Aysén the figure is 2,647 millimeters (104 inches). The Coihaique area, however, occupies an intermediate position, with annual rainfall of just under 1,000 millimeters, or 40 inches. Glasgow, Scotland makes a fairly close Chile Coyhaique Climateclimatic analogue of Coihaique, as can be seen in the paired Wikipedia climate tables posted here.

Aysén Chile in Comparative Context Read More »

Troubled Socotra – the “World’s Most Alien Place” – Seeks Autonomy

Socotra mapYemen’s Socotra Archipelago, dominated by the main island of the same name, is best known for its unique flora, with almost 700 species found nowhere else. Some of its plants have gained fame for their unusual forms, such as the dragon blood tree and the cucumber tree. Socotra’s millions of years of isolation, its complex geology, and its harsh climate have contributed to the evolution of its vegetational oddities. Owing to such plant life, the Dragon Blood Treeisland is often described as the “most alien place on Earth” (see also here). It has also been famed since antiquity as a place of magic. Marco Polo supposedly claimed that, “The people of this island are the most expert enchanters in the world.”

Cucumber TreeA relatively arid land, most of the island receives only about 250 millimeters (10 inches) of rain annually, fairly evenly distributed across the year. The Haghier Mountains in the center-northeast, which reach 1,500 meters (almost 5,000 feet), are considerably wetter and cooler than the rest of the island. Catching both the southwest and northeast monsoon winds, Socotra Satellite Imagethese highlands experience frequent seasonal fog. As a recent meteorological study concluded, “Preliminary measurements suggest that at higher altitudes, fog-derived moisture may constitute up to two-thirds of total moisture, amounting up to 800 mm.” Fog drip is vital for dragon blood tree, which in turn provides shade necessary for the survival of many other species. The tree itself is widely regarded as something of a wonder, as its red resin provides a wide array of products. According to the Wikipedia, it is used as a stimulant, abortifacient, astringent, toothpaste, breath freshener, lipstick, wound dressing, coagulant, varnish (especially for violins), and treatment for rheumatism, diarrhea, dysentery, fever, and ulcers.

Unfortunately, Socotra is currently a troubled place, and even its iconic dragon blood tree is in some danger. Socotra’s problems are mostly not of its own doing, but rather stem from the fact that it is part of Yemen. As Al Jazeera recently reported:

The current power vacuum in Yemen has left Socotra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in a precarious situation. Concerned about the rise in food, fuel and gas prices, islanders have scrambled to purchase goods in the island’s capital, Hadibo. Budgets for infrastructure and recreation have also dropped amid the turmoil, island residents say – and because all flights to Socotra require a stopover on the mainland, tourism has also taken a hit.

According to the BBC, tourist arrivals dropped from around 4,000 in 2010 to some 1,400 in 2013, delivering a devastating blow to the nascent business. But tourism on Socotra seems to be adapting, and direct flights from Dubai now available weekly for $650. The drop in fuel subsidies, however, continues to generate discomfort. According to a recent article in Yemen Times, “the island’s pristine nature and rare plant life has come under threat from a domestic fuel crisis that has left locals without gas or electricity, forcing many to begin cutting down the rare trees to collect firewood”

Socotra has faced other perils in recent years. In 2011, reports claimed that Somali pirates were using the archipelago as a refueling hub. More recently, rumors have been circulating that the United States and Yemen are planning “to build a military prison — a ‘new Guantánamo’ — on the remote island of Socotra.” A less likely threat comes from the government of Somalia, which has “claimed that the islands of Yemeni Socotra Archipelago are part of it, requesting the United Nations to determine the status of the archipelago…” Considering Somalia’s inability to control its own territory, such claims hardly seem realistic. They would also be vehemently rejected by the majority of Socotra’s inhabitants, whose cultural and historical affinities are with the Al Mahrah region of eastern Yemen, not Somalia. (The marginalized

Greater Somalia MapSocotran minority of African descent, however, might feel otherwise.) Still, in newspaper discussion forums, some commentators claim that Socotra is rightfully part of Somalia. Here I find the comments of one Hassan Adam to be particularly pertinent: “In the good old days of greater Somalia we were taught in the school that Socotra is part of Somalia — but no more.  I guess Somaliland or Djibouti could claim better. Today its part and parcel of Yemen and the people are more Yeminate in their Arabic than Somali. Let us conserve for all.”

Although, as Hassan Adam notes, Arabic is widely spoken on Socotra, it is not the first language of the island’s indigenous inhabitants. The people of Socotra, some 50,000 strong, speak Soqotri, a South Arabian Languages Mapmodern South Arabian language most closely related to Mehri of Yemen’s Al Mahrah Governorate. Soqotri, however, is quite distinctive. As noted in the Wikipedia, “the isolation of the island of Socotra has led to the Soqotri language independently developing certain phonetic characteristics absent in even the closely related languages of the mainland.” As Marie-Claude Simeone-Senelle noted in a 2003 study, Soqotri is characterized by a high level of dialectal diversity. She expressed concern, however, that many of its dialects are disappearing. She also claimed that the language itself is under some threat from the spread of Arabic:

The influence of Arabic is noticeable in the numeration system: seven years ago, Soqotri people, from the inland or remote places, used the Soqotri system of numeration from one to ten in commercial transactions with other Soqotri speakers in ˆadibo. But, in 2001 in ˆadibo, even old people used Arabic system, and it was very difficult to obtain the first ten numbers in Soqotri from young people. When they remember Soqotri, the syntax was often incorrect, and copied from Arabic.

Many young people in the town borrow from Arabic, and code-switch with Arabic; they do not remember any piece of literature…

One problem faced by Soqotri is its historical lack of a written form that could be used to preserve the island’s rich poetic traditions. That stumbling block, however, has recently been eliminated, as a Russian team of linguists led by Vitaly Naumkin has devised a writing system for the language. As was recently reported in Al Jazeera:

[Naumkin’s] team also invited Socotri-speaking “informants” to Moscow – where they spent months retelling their mother island’s oral poetry and folk tales, or conjugating verbs for the Socotri grammar tables.

There, in 2010, one of the informants named ‘Isa Gum’an used the Arabic script to write down a story he’d heard from a friend. “It was our major surprise … when one November evening in 2010, ‘Isa Gum’an somewhat timidly revealed to us that, in order to better preserve an interesting story he had heard from a friend a few days earlier, he had decided to put it in writing using Arabic script,” Naumkin wrote in the preface to the 2014 book of Socotran folklore.

The eureka moment prompted the invention of an easily accessible Socotri alphabet based on the Arabic script. To reflect the phonetics of Socotri, Russian linguists decided to add four letters to the Arabic alphabet – using symbols that denote non-Arabic phonemes in the languages of the Indian subcontinent.

But it was not the use of the Arabic script and additional symbols that make the new alphabet matter – it is the comprehensive scientific effort that followed it.

Such Russian interest in Socotra might seem surprising, but Socotra was formerly part of South Yemen, which was a close Soviet ally in the 1970s and ‘80s. For a time, the island even hosted a Soviet military base.

Today, political discontent in Socotra understandably runs high. Dissatisfaction with Yemeni rule, however, may be leading to a revival of the Soqotri language. A 2012 article by Nathalie Peutz provides essential context. As she reports:

For if revolution has reached Socotra, as many young enthusiasts in Hadiboh would claim, it is manifest not merely in the biweekly gatherings of male protesters marching through the dusty market to the familiar slogan, “The people want the fall of the regime.” It is evident also in the way that Socotrans have begun to speak openly and forcefully about their preferences for Socotra’s political future. And it was measurable in the islands’ largest cultural event, a five-day festival during which nine Socotran wordsmiths vied for the title of “poet of the year.” Now in its fourth year, the festival, which began on the eve of 2012, featured poem after poem, in the islanders’ native Suqutri tongue, reflecting on the Arab revolts, the turmoil on the mainland and the fate of the archipelago. Where political discontent long found expression in ruminations on a pastoral past, today it is articulated in contending verses on the prospects for Socotran sovereignty.

Mahra Sultanate MapPeutz also reports that although many Socotrans look back at the period when the island was part of the Mahra Sultanate of central-southern Arabia as a “time of autonomous, sovereign statehood,” they still tend to view the sultanate itself as a foreign, mainland imposition. As a result, many want full autonomy or even independence. Yemen did make Socotra a separate governorate in 2013, but that was not enough to satisfy local aspirations. But as Peutz’s reporting makes clear, Socotran’s are far from united in their vision of the island’s political future:

Many poets wrestled over the future of Socotra, with some calling for “return” to south Yemen (through secession with the former South) and others calling for total independence (or even restoration of the sultanate). Several presented the practical problems of secession; others argued for or against the former Socialist regime and Yemen’s 1990 unification. … Many poets decried the factionalism brewing in Socotra. One warned evocatively that, in such a climate, not even the swollen riverbeds yield pasture, though the streets were not yet stained with the “colors” (blood) of Tunisia or Libya. Another argued against the proposed Socotra Authority. Even the few verses about the sultanate were juxtaposed to the “fires” or “dark rain clouds” of the present.


Troubled Socotra – the “World’s Most Alien Place” – Seeks Autonomy Read More »

Dhofar: The Other Arabia

Arabian PeninsulaThe Arabian Peninsula is a relatively coherent region, tied together by a number of common features. In terms of physical geography, it is noted for its harsh desert landscapes. Even the highlands of Yemen, which receive enough precipitation for rain-fed agriculture, are relatively dry, covered with vegetation that could hardly be described as lush. In terms of cultural geography, the peninsula is the homeland of the Arabic language and hence the Arab people. Most language maps show Arabia as entirely Arabic speaking.

A relatively small area in south-central Arabia, however, differs significantly from the rest of the peninsula on both measures. Designated in a general sense as Dhofar, this distinctive region includes the southwestern portion of Oman’s Dhofar (Ẓufār) Governorate and the southeastern corner of Yemen’s Al Mahrah (Al Mahra) Governorate. Most Dhofar Camels Khareefrural people here speak non-Arabic “Modern South Arabic languages,” although Arabic is more common in the cities and is spoken everywhere as a second language. In the Middle East, the region is most famous for its seasonally humid climate. From late June through August, the Khareef season, the moisture-laden winds of the southwest monsoon catch a limited portion of southern Arabia, turning the landscape a verdant green.

South Arabian Languages MapThe Modern South Arabian Languages are distantly related to Arabic, but they are more closely linked to the Semitic languages of Ethiopia, such as Amharic and Tigrinya. (They were formerly believed to be descendants of the Old South Arabian languages, such as Sabaean, but this is no longer the case). The two most important mainland Modern South Arabian Languages are Mehri, spoken in Arabian Peninsula language mapboth Oman and Yemen, and Shehri (or Jibbali), spoken in southwestern Oman. Mehri has roughly 125,000 speakers and Shehri some 45,000. The other languages in the group are spoken by only a few hundred or a few thousand people, and are thus regarded as severely endangered. Even Mehri may be at some risk, due to pervasive bilingualism and the fact that it has no written form. Locally, these languages are sometimes incorrectly regarded as aberrant dialects of Arabic, and thus of no great significance. The Wikipedia reports, however, that, “Jibbali [Shehri] pride and sense of separateness has contributed to a strengthening of speakers’ attachment to their minority language.” And even if these languages were to disappear, a degree of Arabic Dialects Maplinguistic separation would persist, as the local Dhofari dialect of Arabic is limited to the region and is distinctive enough that it is sometimes regarded as a language in its own right.





Middle East Rainfall MapIntriguingly, the climatic peculiarity of the Dhofar region is not apparent on most climate maps or in most climatological tables. The rainfall map of the Middle East posted here shows it as receiving less than 10 inches (254 mm) annually, the conventional cut-off for a desert climate, whereas the precipitation map of Oman depicts it as extremely arid, getting less than 100 Oman Rainfall Mapmillimeters (3.9 inches) per year. Climate data for Salalah, the largest city in Dhofar, gives a slightly higher figure of 131 millimeters (5.1) inches. But total rainfall is not the only pertinent measurement when it comes to potential vegetation, as such features as seasonality and relatively humidity also play important roles. As can be seen in the Salahla data, rainfall here is concentrated in July and August, a period of extremely highly relatively humidity and very little sunshine. Even so, Salalah remains a dry place, marked by desert vegetation. But if one Climate Table Salalahtravels to the mountainous escarpment just to the north of the city, rainfall totals are significantly higher. In the 2014 Khareef season, one station near Salalah received 499 millimeters or rain (around 20 inches). Although 2014 was a wet year, a sizable strip of land in this area turns a lush green every year, owing to the almost continual light rain and drizzle carried by the southwest monsoon winds.

Humid Areas of Dhofar Map 1I have not been able to find any maps of the seasonally humid lands of Dhofar. But Google Earth does allow crude mapping of this distinctive region, as the local vegetation is so much denser than that of neighboring regions that it clearly stands out in satellite images, even those captured at the end of the long dry season. Photographs attached to the Google Earth site further allow one to visually assess the vegetation, and hence get a rough sense of precipitation. As can be seen from the maps that I made and posted here, one Dhofar Khareefpart of the humid zone is limited to a narrow coastal strip in far southeastern Humid Areas of Dhofar Map3Yemen and the adjacent portion of Oman. A little to the east around Salalah, a drier coastal plain is encountered, with the (seasonally) humid zone found a bit to the north in the uplands and along the mountainous escarpment. Elevation is not the crucial factor, however, as in the loftier heights slightly further to the east the humid zone is attenuated and appears to support scantier Dhofar Khareef2vegetation. What really matters is the existence of uplands situated at the correct angle to catch the saturated winds of the southwest monsoon. But as weather stations are few in this part of the world, it is difficult to make conclusive statements.

Tourists flock to Dhofar to enjoy the green landscapes of the khareef season, and Oman is eager to enhance the flow. As a recent promotional article in the Times of Oman put it, “World-class hotels, villas, furnished apartments and accommodation areas are also ready to receive the growing number of tourists visiting the governorate during the tourist season.” Oman’s government, along with private organizations, are also interested in conserving the region’s unique environment. The Muscat Daily recently reported that the “Environment Society of Oman (ESO) has planted 900 saplings of indigenous species in Dhofar as part of its Native Tree Planting Campaign.” Particular attention is being given to the endemic Dhofar baobab, which has been reduced to some 200 individual trees.

Despite the Khareef rains, Dhofar in general is still a dry region, often beset by water shortages. As a result, plans have been made to collect some of the region’s ample fog drip. As reported in the Muscat Daily in 2013:

To tackle desertification in the governorate of Dhofar, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs (MECA), in cooperation with the Directorate General of Environment and Climate Affairs, is implementing fog collection project.

According to a press release, the directorate on recently received a delegation from Mitusbishi Company, which is implementing the project in the niyabat of Qyroon Hayrty. ‘It is one of the most important projects of the ministry to prevent desertification in Dhofar governorate. The project is being implemented in partnership with several international and regional organisations,’ the release stated.

Under the project, net traps, also called moisture traps, trap fog and condensate to produce water. ‘This water is expected to support the growth of vegetation in nearby areas and recharge groundwater.’


The next post will examine the political evolution of Dhofar and neighboring areas.


Dhofar: The Other Arabia Read More »

Is the Earth Greening? If So, Where and Where Not

Greening Earth Map 1Several important studies, based mostly on remote sensing, indicate that the world is gaining vegetation. According to Jesse H. Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, such “global greening” is “the most important ecological trend on Earth today. The biosphere on land is getting bigger, year by year, by 2 billion tons or even more.”

Such global greening runs counter to common concerns about global warming, which stress the probable increase in drought, as well as the fact that higher temperatures mean increased evapotranspiration, which, all other things being equal, hampers plant growth in arid and semiarid lands. But over the world as a whole, a warmer world will also be also a wetter world, due to increased evaporation over the oceans, resulting in enhanced plant growth in many areas. Higher temperatures in cold-limited arctic and sub-arctic environments can also generate greener conditions. Higher concentrations of carbon dioxide, moreover, can bolster vegetation almost everywhere. As explained in the Wikipedia:

Plants can grow as much as 50 percent faster in concentrations of 1,000 ppm CO2 when compared with ambient conditions, though this assumes no change in climate and no limitation on other nutrients. Elevated CO2 levels cause increased growth reflected in the harvestable yield of crops, with wheat, rice and soybean all showing increases in yield of 12–14% under elevated CO2 in FACE experiments.

Increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations result in fewer stomata developing on plants which leads to reduced water usage and increased water-use efficiency.


Although some writers argue that such global greening means that we need not fear climate change, most specialists take a more cautious stance. At a certain temperature level, any such benefits will be cancelled out. Increasing concentration of carbon dioxide is also linked to ocean acidification, which carries huge dangers of its own.

It is also essential to note that not all parts of the world have seen enhanced plant growth. Maps showing changes in primary production over the past several decades indicate that some areas have instead seen significant vegetative decline. The first map posted here, for example, shows significant “browning” in eastern Mongolia and adjacent parts of northern China, southeastern Australia, much of northwestern India, and especially the Chaco region of Paraguay and Argentina. It is not clear why these areas would run counter to the global norm, although drought is a likely culprit. In the Chaco, land clearing for agriculture might seem a possible factor, but other parts of South America that have seen similar land-use transformations are not mapped as having experienced a drop in primary productivity; agriculture, after all, can be quite productive.

Greening Earth Map 2As I have been intrigued by such maps of the “greening Earth” for some time, I decided to run a simple test by comparing a number of such maps to see if they show the same patterns. My effort here is highly preliminary and certainly not up to scientific standards: all that I had time to do was locate six Greening Earth Map 3such maps by a simple internet search of “greening Earth,” without checking the original sources. These maps are not fully comparable by any means, as they cover slightly different periods of time and are based on somewhat different measurements. But that said, they are still roughly Greening Earth Map 4comparably.

As it turns out, even the simplest comparison of these maps reveals major inconsistencies. Compare, for example, the depiction of south-central Africa Greening Earth Map 5in maps 1 and 6. In Map 1, which covers the period from 1990 to 2011, this area is shown as having experienced some of the world’s most intensive greening. In Map 6, on the other hand, which covers the period from 1980 to 2003, the same areas is shown as having experienced substantial “de-greening.” Hypothetically, the vegetative decline shown in Greening Earth Map 6Map 6 could have occurred in the 1980s, while much of the increase shown in Map 1 could have happened after 2003. Such a scenario, however, seems rather unlikely.

Bowning Earth MapOverall, these six maps depict quite different patterns of greening and browning. To highlight the inconsistencies, I have crudely indicated all the various areas shown as having experienced primary productivity declines on a single map, color-coding them according to the map on which they are so depicted. As can be seen, substantial overlap occurs in only a few parts of the world.

As a result of this little “experiment,” my confidence in the idea that the Earth is generally greening has been shaken. If these measurements are accurate, should not we expect widespread agreement? My own investigation, however, is admittedly crude, conducted over the course of a single afternoon. Perhaps some of these maps are reasonably accurate while others are deeply flawed. Surely further investigation would be warranted.

If the world were to “green” so extensively that large expanses of what are now barren deserts ended up being covered with vegetation, the results would be mixed. Local productivity would soar, but the oceans could suffer – and so too could distant tropical rainforests. Many of the nutrients that fertilize plankton originate from dust storms over the Bodélé DepressionSahara and other extreme deserts. Even the Amazon benefits from Saharan dust. The largest source of such nutrients is the former lakebed in northern Chad called the Bodélé Depression. New research, however, indicates that Lake Chad extended into this depression as recently as 1,000 years ago, raising questions about Amazonian fertilization in earlier times. As was recently reported in ScienceDaily:

“The Amazon tropical forest is like a giant hanging basket,” explains Dr Simon Armitage from the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway. “In a hanging basket, daily watering quickly washes soluble nutrients out of the soil, and these need to be replaced using fertiliser if the plants are to survive. Similarly, heavy washout of soluble minerals from the Amazon basin means that an external source of nutrients must be maintaining soil fertility. As the World’s most vigorous dust source, the Bodélé depression has often been cited as a likely source of these nutrients, but our findings indicate that this can only be true for the last 1,000 years,” he added.


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Cannabis Cultivation, Carbon Budgets, and the Promise of Biochar

(Note: This is the final post in a brief end-of-the-year series on marijuana cultivation. After this series is over, GeoCurrents will take a short break. More conventional posting will resume by the middle of January.)

As is explained in a previous post, most marijuana growing currently carried out in California and neighboring states is environmentally destructive, generating a gargantuan carbon footprint. But it need not be. As I have learned from interviewing small-scale growers in northwestern California, the cultivation of cannabis can be done in an environmentally benign manner. The problem, as these producers see it, is the fact that neither the marijuana market nor the environmental movement gives them any credit for their efforts. They persist nonetheless, with the more devoted among them trying to figure out how to reduce their impact as much as possible.

The purpose of this post is merely to provide the perspective of a small group of individuals engaged in an interesting and legally nebulous* activity, not to advocate on their behalf. My own eco-political viewpoint, it is essential to note, deviates markedly from theirs. I adhere to the philosophy of eco-modernism, which holds that environmental protection is best achieved through continuing economic growth and technological progress, whereas they tend to be eco-romantics, skeptical of—if not hostile toward—both high technology and untrammelled economic development.

It is also important to note that although my interviewees all consider themselves ardent environmentalists, they themselves deviate from conventional green thinking, most importantly by veering toward a form of left-wing libertarianism. As is common among rural property owners, they are not opposed to the notion of property rights, and they generally think that they should be able to do they think is best on their own lands, allowing for reasonable exceptions. As a result, they are not fond of land-use restrictions and permitting regimes, and they are happy that the county in which they live is quite relaxed about such issues. Most of them also own guns, drive trucks, ride all-terrain vehicles, use chainsaws, and do not hesitate to employ heavy earth-moving equipment. Their culture might best be described as an unlikely hippie-redneck synthesis, which is precisely why I find it so fascinating. But unlike either the stereotypical hippie or redneck, these people tend to be well-read and highly intellectually engaged.

Environmentally conscientious growers are helped by the fact that cannabis is a hardy plant that is not particularly troubled by insects or other pests. To be sure, in greenhouses and indoor cultivation facilities, some pests can multiply uncontrollably, especially spider mites. But the growers I interviewed claim that in their operations this is almost never a problem. They did mention a few minor issues with leafhoppers and caterpillars of unknown species, but they also maintain OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthat manual removal is adequate to keep their populations in check (small-scale growers typically lavish extraordinary attention on each plant). Their only real problem is bud-mold during the maturation period. Some spray neem oil on their plants during the earlier vegetative stage to reduce mold infestations, but once the buds have started to form the only remedy is manual removal followed by the spraying of alcohol to thwart further spread. Disagreement about the efficacy of this technique, however, is pronounced.

As mentioned in previous posts, one of the major forms of environmental damage associated with outdoor cultivation if the use of rodenticides to control woodrats. My informants again insist that this is not an issue in their operations. Woodrats do not actually eat cannabis plants, Woodratthey told me, but rather use the stems for nest building. One grower admitted that he had had a rat problem in his first year of operation, but after one season of concerted trapping he no longer suffers much damage. Separating gardens from the surrounding woods and meadows with stout redwood fencing, a precaution demanded by the county, also seems to help in this regard. Fencing also prevents harm from feral hogs, which can otherwise be a huge headache. Hogs do not eat the plants, but they do root into the irrigated soil for worms, causing extensive damage.

Although outdoor marijuana growing is vastly less carbon-intensive than indoor cultivation, it is certainly not carbon free. Everyone that I interviewed pumps water from wells, as cannabis is a water-demanding crop and the area in question has a Mediterranean climate with a rainless summer. One grower hopes to install solar panels to operate his pump, and another outlined a scheme for storing runoff during the rainy season, but as it now stands, they all use either grid-delivered electricity or fossil-fuel-powered generators. In the harvest season, the dehumidification of drying rooms is also necessary. In a year such as 2014, when the initial rains were relatively warm, dehumidification can be a major energy drain. During this season, intensive illumination is also required for trimming crews during the evening hours.

cloning2Even larger energy expenses are encountered among those who plant clones rather than seeds. Clones have one huge advantage over seeds, as every plant is guaranteed to be female, and males are worthless. The main problem with clones is that they cannot be grown exclusively under sunlight until late May, which reduces their growing time and therefore limits their size. This restraint stems from the fact that clones are obtained from indoor growers who keep them under light for 18 hours a day; as cannabis flowering is keyed to day length, if a clone is planted when the nights are still relatively long, the plants will prematurely bud. As a result, even outdoor growers sometimes augment the sun with artificial illumination for the first few weeks or even month of the growing season. Even Light Deprivationmore energy-demanding is the greenhouse-based system of light deprivation, which requires especially early planting but allows especially early harvesting, the latter achieved by artificially reducing day-length in the early summer with opaque coverings. But according to the more environmentally fastidious growers, “light dep” is halfway to indoor cultivation and is therefore to be shunned.

Some of those who grow by seed disdain the entire cloning procedure as unnatural. They further argue that clones are often weak, especially if they are derived from old mother-plants, and that even in the best of circumstances they never develop proper taproots. The main problem faced by those who grow from seeds is the fact that roughly half of their plants will be males, which not only must be uprooted and discarded, but which can also contaminate an entire crop if they release pollen before they are detected. Daily vigilance is needed to avoid this potential disaster. To remain within the new-ebb-n-flow+blackjack-clones3-16-10-0301county’s 25-plant limit throughout the season, such growers are therefore restricted to some 12 or 13 plants in the end. Some purchase expensive “feminized seeds” to try to increase the ratio of females to males, but the efficacy of this technique is also much debated.

But if carbon emissions are an unavoidable consequence of the cannabis production process, some growers nevertheless think that their operations can be carbon neutral or even carbon negative in the end. The key procedure here is carbon sequestration, Biochar1accomplished by burying charcoal the soil. Charcoal used in this manner is called biochar, which is defined by the Wikipedia as:

a name for charcoal when it is used for particular purposes, especially as a soil amendment. Like most charcoal, biochar is created by pyrolysis of biomass. Biochar is under investigation as an approach to carbon sequestration to produce negative carbon dioxide emissions. Biochar thus has the potential to help mitigate climate change, via carbon sequestration. Independently, biochar can increase soil fertility of acidic soils (low pH soils), increase agricultural productivity, and provide protection against some foliar and soil-borne diseases. Furthermore, biochar reduces pressure on forests. Biochar is a stable solid, rich in carbon and can endure in soil for thousands of years.

terra pretaAs environmentally diligent growers are quick to note, biochar has been used to enhance soil fertility and texture for thousands of years. It has been revealed as the secret ingredient of the perennially fertile terra preta soils of the Amazon Basin, which formed islands of agricultural productivity in an area otherwise noted for its impoverished soils, almost useless for long-term farming. These anthropogenic soils terra preta mapare discussed in detail in Charles Mann’s best-selling book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, a work well known among these growers. Interestingly, much of Mann’s analysis is rooted in the scholarship of geographers such as William Devevan who had trained in the old Berkeley school of cultural geography, the source of my own graduate education.

Growers who use biochar in hope of neutralizing their carbon budgets are also concerned about soil fertility. Charcoal by itself does not enhance fertility to a significant degree and can even be harmful if used in raw form, but it does allow fertility maintenance by greatly reducing nutrient leaching; it also boosts soil porosity and water retention. Biochar enthusiasts claim to be making investments that will last for thousands of years, permanently improving the quality of their lands. Growers who use biochar also argue that it produces healthier plants than those grown under other conditions. They have not, however, carried out any controlled experiments.

The growers I interviewed produce biochar in a crude manner. They simply burn piles of firewood during the rainy season, and then shovel dirt on the glowing embers after the flames have died down. The resulting charcoal, along with the potassium-rich ash, is then thrown into large hand-dug holes, approximately four feet deep and ten feet across, where it is mixed with manure, compost, and native soil and then allowed to age for months before planting. The growers admit, however, that this process is far from ideal, as it is both wasteful and polluting, generating a great deal of smoke. Much preferable, they contend, would be wood pyrolysis, which would allow them to capture both the flammable gasses and the smoke particles, turning them into useful products. The video pasted in below, produced at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, shows what they regard as an ideal system, one that would produce not only biochar but also wood-gas for home, water, or greenhouse heating, as well as wood tar (creosote); how exactly the wood tar would be used remains unclear**. But despite the enthusiasm of a few growers, no one has yet constructed a pyrolysis apparatus. One problem is that dreams here tend to exceed realities. Whether that results from excess consumption of the crop produced on these micro-farms remains an open question.



Finally, the enthusiasm for biochar extends beyond carbon sequestration and soil improvement to encompass landscape management. A significant amount of wood must be cut every year, they insist, to preserve the existing ecological balance. The area in question supports a vegetational mosaic in which dense redwood and tanoak forests predominate on north- and east-facing slopes, but where south- and west-facing slopes are, or at least were, mostly covered by grass. Rainfall is heavy enough, however, that forests spread everywhere in the absence of human intervention. In earlier times, regular burning maintained the mosaic. Native Americans burned extensively, and the sheep-raising settlers who replaced them intensified the practice. But with fires all but eliminated, grassy slopes are being colonized vigorously by Douglas fir and a few other light-loving tree species. As a result, open-country animals such as jackrabbits (hares, actually) that were formerly abundant have been diminishing in number. Biochar production, its proponents argue, thus helps maintain a higher level of biodiversity than would otherwise be found.

biochar2One grower goes so far as to contend that biochar offers a global solution to almost all problems associated with climate change, energy production, and agricultural productivity. Here my deeply cultivated skepticism kicks in. At the local scale, biochar does seem to offer a number of advantages, but in planetary terms I suspect that its promise is quite limited. But I would certainly like to see more research on the topic.

* As mentioned in the first post in this series, the growers in question all run small-scale operations that are as legal as possible. They cultivate under medical license, remain within the county’s 25-plant limit, and sell their product to official medical dispensaries. According to the federal government of the United States, however, their activities are completely illegal.

**Wood tar does have a wide array of potential uses, the most intriguing of which are medicinal and gustatory. Food preserved by smoking is essentially conserved by tar. According to the Wikipedia,

Tar Liquor SaunaIn Finland, wood tar was once considered a panacea reputed to heal “even those cut in twain through their midriff”. A Finnish proverb states that “if sauna, vodka and tar won’t help, the disease is fatal.” Wood tar is used in traditional Finnish medicine because of its microbicidal properties.


Wood tar is also available diluted as tar water, which has numerous uses:

  • As a flavoring for candies (e.g., Terva Leijona) and alcohol (Terva Viina)

  • As a spice for food, like meat

  • As a scent for saunas. Tar water is mixed into water, which is turned into steam in the sauna

  • As an anti-dandruff agent in shampoo

  • As a component of cosmetics.

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