Guest Posts

On this page you will find valuable posts written outside the main GeoCurrents framework, by guest bloggers.

Japan: An Egalitarian Society?

Income of Japan's Prefectures

Income of Japan's Prefectures
Income of Japan’s Prefectures

Japan is commonly perceived as an egalitarian society. It is a well-developed country commonly thought to have limited poverty; and as such, Japan is often grouped with the egalitarian Nordic countries. For example, in The Spirit Level: Why Equality Makes Societies Stronger, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson* argue that equal societies are better for all citizens, using Japan as an important example. In actuality, inequality in Japan runs deep. Japan may be more egalitarian than the United Statues, but it is still beset by many layers of inequality.

Proportion of Population Living on Welfare

My previous blog entry explored three distinct layers of geographic inequality, focused on China, which all apply to Japan: regional disparities, the rural/urban divide, and the existence of an urban underclass. The map posted here shows the percentage of the population defined as living on welfare. The prefecture with the greatest proportion of welfare households is Osaka, with 4.35 of every 100 people in this category (colored red in the map).  However, throughout Japan, more families live under the poverty line than live off welfare, as nearly one in six lives on less than $1,830 a month for a four-person family. The map highlights significant regional inequalities across Japan. In general, the north and the south (including the island of Okinawa) are poorer, whereas the center of Japan is better off. In particular, the area between Tokyo and Osaka has the lowest rates of households living on welfare.

Like most other countries, Japan also has a significant rural/urban divide. Cities have a much higher levels of development and economic vitality. This economic divide manifests itself in several forms, particularly education. The cities tend to have more student funding and are able to provide better educational opportunities, especially in regard to English language instruction. Although cities are generally better off than rural areas, there is a significant poor urban population across Japan, even in the wealthiest cities such as Tokyo. As seen in the map of households receiving welfare, the highest rates tend to be in large metropolitan areas.

Another form of inequality significant for Japan is the gender disparity. Among well-developed countries, Japan’s gender inequality is pronounced, as measured by several different indices. Although Japan is often compared to the Nordic countries, it has comparatively much higher levels of gender inequality. Opportunities for Japanese women may be better than those found in less-developed countries, however,  Japan’s gender disparity is unique for its level of development.

In many regards, Japanese culture tends to value humble and reserved behavior. This tendency directly relates to perceptions of economic disparity across Japan. Although many people live below the poverty line, such poverty is often hidden. As poorer people are often ashamed about their socio-economic status, they commonly work hard to “keep face” by seeming to be better off than they actually are. Such behavior makes economic inequality in Japan particularly easy to overlook. Furthermore, reserved attitudes make it difficult for the poorer population, as Japanese society as a whole is against inserting themselves in other’s lives, and hence often refrain from helping others economically. In contrast to many other countries, Japan tends to keep poverty out of sight and mind (the victims of the recent tsunami are an exception here.) Japanese culture is conducive to maintaining an illusion of greater equality than what actually exists.

Another major difference between Japan and most other countries is that the Japanese tend to not discuss or identify with a particular “social class.” Although people often know who is “binbo” (poor) and who is “okane-mochi” (money-holding, rich), politics are generally not based around such distinctions. As a result, the government’s ability to pursue class-based policies is limited, leaving poorer citizens’ interests neglected.

Percentage of Children in Poverty

A 2006 OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) report on inequality in Japan provides insight on inequality in Japan. It shows that inequality has been increasing recently, linked to the stagnation of the Japanese economy. The report demonstrates that in some ways, Japan may actually have a less equal distribution of wealth than the OECD average. Although income disparities in Japan are lower than in most OECD countries, taxes and transfers do not always benefit those in need. In particular, the system of financial reallocation has been slightly regressive; as a result, the percentage of children living in poverty in Japan has increased since the 1980s if one takes into account taxes and transfers. In fact, Japan now clearly is above the OECD average in terms of percentage of children living in poverty. As this demonstrates, Japan is characterized by many significant hidden elements of economic inequality.

Note: Maps are taken from this map database. Also, special thanks to Tyler Mantaring for his insight.

* The Spirit Level: Why Equality Makes Societies Stronger, Bloomsbury Press, April 2010, by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson

Japan: An Egalitarian Society? Read More »

Global Inequality: Where is it Found?

Poverty and inequality are contentious topics whose geography is often oversimplified. When many people think of extreme poverty and aid, they often focus on Sub-Saharan Africa, but global inequality and poverty are much more complex issues. Overall, it is increasingly apparent that a country-based framework that generalizes levels of income over entire national territories is inadequate, as inequality exists in at a variety of spatial scales. In many parts of the world, inequality is increasingly experienced at local levels.

In The New Geography of Global Income Inequality, Glenn Firebaugh makes several key claims with regards to global trends in income disparity. He focuses on two components of income inequality: between-country inequality, and within-country inequality. I previously explored the challenges of measuring income disparity, but Firebaugh uses different statistical methods to successfully demonstrate that inter-country inequality has declined recently, whereas intra-country inequality has dramatically increased.

Currently, inter-country income inequality accounts for approximately two-thirds of total global inequality. However, this figure is decreasing as many poorer countries are experiencing more rapid economic growth than wealthier countries. This trend leads to gradual convergence and hence less disproportion of wealth between countries. As can be seen from the PPP per capita GDP map above, between-country inequality exhibits distinct world regional patterns, but disparity within regions is also notable.

As The New Geography of Global Income Inequality acknowledges, much of both the decline in inter-country inequality and the increase in intra-country inequality stem from China’s recent economic development and parallel growth in internal wealth variation. With around one sixth of the world’s population, China significantly affects global levels of income inequality. During and immediately after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), China had relatively high levels of income equality: in 1978 its Gini index was even around 0.3. Although China was extremely poor at this time its population was fairly equally impoverished. Due both to China’s large population and its extreme deprivation, its standing at this time significantly heightened inter-nation disparities. With industrialization and the movement to market-based economics, China grew much wealthier, but its newfound riches have not been equally distributed, greatly increasing inequality within the country. China is thus a major factor in, and a great example of, the shift from inter-country inequality to intra-country inequality.

The general trends of inequality in China are similar to those found in many other countries. China has regional divides, rural and urban splits, as well as a significant urban underclass in the cities as well. Geocurrents has previously explored the regional differences within China itself, noting that the coastal provinces are significantly better off than provinces inland. However, it is important to note (as Geocurrents has), that even within the coastal provinces large economic distinction are found between different provinces. The rural/urban divide adds a separate layer of inequality in both coastal and inland provinces. The urban areas, on average, are much wealthier than rural areas, across all provinces. China’s hukou system of laws, moreover, seeks to prevent rural people from moving to cities unless they have official documentation. This system not only contributes to the inequality between urban and rural areas, but it also results in large migrant populations of undocumented rural workers in Chinese cities, generating rapidly increasing inequality and a large urban underclass in cities across China. Even though major Chinese cities have experienced breathtaking growth and are generally much wealthier than rural areas, a large portion of their population remains in severe poverty. The development of China has thus been linked with increasing inequality across the country, and has become a cause for concern within China.

China, as the world’s most populous country, exhibits high levels of economic differentiation, as is explored by this selection of interactive maps from the Economist. China is a good example of how increasing development is leading to greater intra-country disparities across the world. As China continues to economically expand, more areas of the country will become similar to the well-developed regions of Western Europe and the United States, symbolic of decreasing differences between countries. However, there will likely continue to be an increase of inequality within China, visible from multiple viewpoints, from the macro perspective across regions to the micro scale of individual cities and their neighborhoods.

Global Inequality: Where is it Found? Read More »

Difficulties Calculating Inequality and the Gini Coefficient

Gini Index for Countries around the World in 2009

Gini Index for Countries around the World in 2009

Global and local inequality has been a major topic of debate, leading to many attempts to quantify income disparity. The Gini Coefficient is the best-known measure of inequality, but it has its flaws, as do all inequality measurements.

A popular measurement of economic inequality focuses on variations in income among people in a state. Since no country has perfect equality, the question becomes one of calculating how unequal a particular society is. Various formulas have been devised to measure the difference between the average income and the distribution of earnings. At the end, a single number is used to represent a nation’s level of inequality. A good index should take into account several basic rules. For example, the size of the country should not affect the level of inequality. Moreover, the absolute value of income should not change the calculated level of disparity. Finally, if income is transferred from the rich to the poor, the level of inequality should fall.

Numerous challenges are encountered with all proposed formulas. Perhaps the greatest is that of data collection. Average income may be fairly easy to measure, but for any disparity index a detailed data set on income distribution is also required. Such data is often unavailable, especially for poorer countries in which “off the record” transactions are common. As can be noted in the above map, the Gini coefficients of many countries have not been calculated due to the lack of data. Much of sub-Saharan Africa in particular thus remains blank.

A major problem with any index is that of oversimplification. To begin with, absolute and relative levels of inequality are difficult to measure. For example, in most inequality indexes, a hypothetical country with three people with yearly incomes of $750, $1,000, and $20,000 would be counted as having the same level of inequality as a three-person country with incomes of  $75,000, $100,000, and $2 million. In the first case, however, the individuals with incomes of $750 or $1,000 would have little to spend on anything but basic necessities. In contrast, the proportion of income spent on basic necessities in the second country would be relatively low across the board. Although the income variation is encapsulated by the inequality index, effective variation in spending power can be drastically different.

Other aspects of inequality can be hidden via demographics or government policies. The population distribution by age is not factored into any of the available indexes.  Yet a country with many impecunious college students would show relatively high levels of inequality even though the students can be expected to graduate into higher income brackets. Furthermore, government transfers, such as food stamps and other welfare programs, are usually not taken into account, even though they often have important effects on overall inequality. These are just some examples of the problems with reducing a complex situation to a single number: intricacies are lost and such numbers can be misleading.

Despite such intrinsic problems, there is still a great interest in assessing inequality through the use of a simple index. The global standard for calculating income disparity has become the Gini coefficient. As defined by the CIA Factbook, the Gini coefficient is:

“This index measures the degree of inequality in the distribution of family income in a country. The index is calculated from the Lorenz curve, in which cumulative family income is plotted against the number of families arranged from the poorest to the richest. The index is the ratio of (a) the area between a country’s Lorenz curve and the 45 degree helping line to (b) the entire triangular area under the 45 degree line. The more nearly equal a country’s income distribution, the closer its Lorenz curve to the 45 degree line and the lower its Gini index, e.g., a Scandinavian country with an index of 25. The more unequal a country’s income distribution, the farther its Lorenz curve from the 45 degree line and the higher its Gini index, e.g., a Sub-Saharan country with an index of 50. If income were distributed with perfect equality, the Lorenz curve would coincide with the 45 degree line and the index would be zero; if income were distributed with perfect inequality, the Lorenz curve would coincide with the horizontal axis and the right vertical axis and the index would be 100.”

Despite the flaws of the Gini coefficient, it does provide useful insight into the geography of inequality. For example, Latin America has some of the highest Gini levels of any region, which stems from the large disparities present in many countries, especially those with poorer indigenous populations. This contrasts with much of Europe, which has much lower levels of inequality.  In general, countries that have higher levels of economic development have a lower Gini value, but the United States is an exception to this, signifying the relatively high levels of inequality in the US compared to Europe.

However, comparing countries across disparate regions of the world leads to a realization that the Gini index does not tell the full story. For example, New Zealand and India have similar Gini figures, 36.2 and 36.8 respectively (according to the CIA Factbook), but their circumstances are very different. New Zealand, despite having a significant gap between the indigenous Maoris and the population of European descent, has still managed to create an economy with little pronounced poverty and without the levels of extreme wealth found in the United States. India, with its vast population of malnourished people working in servitude, coupled with its sizable population of servant-dependent elites, certainly appears to vastly higher levels of inequality than New Zealand. One would also expect India’s GINI coefficient to have increased markedly in recent years, given its impressive economic growth rate as well as its persistently high levels of absolute poverty. Yet India has seen a surprisingly steady Gini score, potentially casting doubt either on its economic data or on the index itself. Other countries in the same general Gini range, such as Israel and Ghana, are also marked by different kinds of inequality.  Although the Gini Coefficient –like other inequality measurements—can be used broadly to show varying levels of inequality, it is best used in conjunction with other sources of information to gain a better picture of actual disparities.

Finally, the Gini index is merely one of several indices that measure income inequality. The Theil index provides an extra feature in that it is “decomposable,” meaning the inequality score can be broken down into smaller sections, allowing one to discern regional contributions to the measured inequality. As can be seen on the Theil index map of the United States, counties in red contribute drastically to the level of inequality, whereas counties colored black lower the level of inequality. Although the Theil index will always be positive (a value between 0 and 1), certain areas can contribute negatively to the index, signifying such regions lower the overall level of inequality. Despite the benefit of decomposability, the Theil index is little used, as the Gini index remains the standard.


Difficulties Calculating Inequality and the Gini Coefficient Read More »

National Anthems: Forced National Identity?


When countries adopted their current national anthems

Every country and many non-sovereign states have national anthems. They are an indispensable representation of nations, played from official receptions to sporting events. As described by Wikipedia:

“A national anthem is a generally patriotic musical composition that evokes and eulogizes the history, traditions and struggles of its people, recognized either by a nation’s government as the official national song, or by convention through use by the people.”

The map shown above groups countries by when they adopted their national anthems (all dates are taken from this website, a detailed database of all national anthems). In some instances, the data had to simplified in order to create a single chronology, especially in regards to de facto and de jure anthem recognition. Also, if a country returned at some point to an older national anthem, the date of re-adoption was used. Furthermore, the map charts the adoption of anthem music and not necessarily lyrics, which in some instances came later.

Several regional trends appear on the map, mostly related to dates of independence from colonial powers. In particular, Latin America stands out due to the longevity of its anthems. No other region of the world has quite as many long-standing national songs. Most Latin American countries gained independence in the early 1800s, and many of the anthems date from the middle of the century. In fact, Latin American anthems are so distinctive that they can be grouped together as an “anthem family”:

“Latin American epic anthems: Possibly the easiest to identify, these are found in Latin American (Spanish-speaking Central and South America) countries and tend to be rather long, have an epic quality in the music, often containing both a quick, patriotic section of music, and a slower, stately part, and consists of many verses, usually chronicling the history of the country. Many are also composed by Italians (or other Europeans) … Examples include Argentina, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, and Uruguay.”

Most Latin American anthems require four to five minutes to be played in full. Such lengthiness represents a significant problem for events such as the Olympics, which allows only eighty seconds per anthem. As a result, only a short section of many Latin American national songs are actually played. It should also be noted, however, that a few Latin American anthems, such as Venezuela’s, are much shorter.

The trend of new national anthems appearing after independence is visible in other regions of the world including South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe. In eastern and southern Asia, most countries gained sovereignty shortly after World War II, and many adopted existing anthems as part of their new identity.  Before their official adoption, these musical pieces served different purposes, but most had been associated with nationalist movement.  The current Chinese anthem was originally written in 1935 and used as a Japanese resistance song, but once the Communists took power in 1949, the communists adopted it and elevated it to national standing. Similarly, Indonesia’s anthem was originally the song of an anti-colonial party, and was adopted by the new government after independence. In Africa, most countries selected new anthems as they gained independence between 1958 and 1975. Eastern European countries that gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 also opted for new anthems at the time, as did several of the other new states of the region.

Countries that have retained independence for long periods of time often have long-standing national anthems. Japan’s anthem dates back to 1883 during the Meiji period, as a national anthem was perceived as a requirement of a modern nation. Thailand and Tonga, which largely escaped European colonialism, have also used the same national anthems for a long period of time.

In regard to issues of national identity, the Commonwealth countries of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are particularly intriguing. As part of the British Empire, they long used “God Save the King/Queen” as their only official anthems. Although local songs began to be used in unofficial circumstances, “God Save the King/Queen” continued to be employed long after independence had been gained. Canada did not switch to “Oh Canada” until 1980. Update: Although “Oh Canada” was not the de jure anthem until 1980, by 1939, it was considered the de facto national anthem. In Australia, the change came only in 1984. In New Zealand, “God Save the King/Queen” is still a co-anthem (although rarely used), and was only demoted to ‘co’ status in 1977. For these countries, switching away from the British anthem reflected increasing nationalist sentiments. At the same time, the importance of their British heritage is demonstrated by their reluctance to finally abandon “God Save the King/Queen.”

Several countries have changed their national anthems since 2000, often signaling intent by the government in power to shift the national image. Although Russia adopted a new anthem in 1990, in 2000, Putin returned to the official Soviet music, albeit with new lyrics, advertising a shift from post-Soviet instability. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan was the only country without a national anthem, as its rulers rejected virtually all forms of music as un-Islamic. Afghanistan’s old national anthem was restored in 2002 after the outing of the Taliban, only to be replaced again by the Karzai government in 2006 as a sign of a new Afghanistan. In 2001, Rwanda changed to a new anthem, adopting it as well as other official symbols, signifying the new post-genocide Rwandan order.

The selection of a national anthem is not only a reminder of differences of national differences, but can also demonstrate similarities. With the independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia re-adopted its pre-Soviet national anthem, which is the exact same piece of music used by nearby Finland. This unusual shared national anthem is symbolic of the very close cultural and linguistic relations between Finns and Estonians.

Although a number of countries around the world are still changing their national anthems, Latin America’s stability in this regard is noteworthy. This constancy demonstrates how anthems can become more important to national identity than regimes themselves, as new governments in Latin America do not change the anthems.  However, for much of the rest of the world, new national songs will likely emerge as political instability continues and as new regimes try to influence national identity.

National Anthems: Forced National Identity? Read More »

The Economist’s “Shoe-Thrower’s Index”: A Success?

As revolution in the Arab World spread from Tunisia, The Economist magazine developed a “Shoe-Throwers Index” (STI). The STI combines available data for most of the Arab League to gain insight into what countries are at the greatest risk for revolution. Originally published on February 9th, the STI came out two days before the departure of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Since then, several countries high on the list have also experienced massive unrest.

The STI is formatted through several indicators, which are all weighted separately (as shown in this Economist video.) By far the most heavily weighted factor of the index is the percentage of population under 25 (the greater the percentage, the higher the score), which accounts for 35% of the total STI score. Other factors include the number of years a ruler has been in power, democracy rankings, and corruption rankings, each of which individually account for 15% of total score. (For a more in-depth analysis of the variables, go here.) Overall, the STI compiles a unique set of information, often relying on other rankings to complete the index. However, The Economist was careful not to include every piece of relevant data.  For example, the data on unemployment was considered “too spotty” to be used. More recently, The Economist has provided an interactive index, which allows users to change factor weighing, and thus generate unique “Shoe Thrower” indices.

Several relatively straightforward geographical patterns are apparent with the STI, as shown in the map above. The clearest pattern is found among the rich Gulf States, especially Qatar, Bahrain, and the U.A.E. Here, oil and gas wealth in combination with higher levels of social development has generated low STIs; these countries have some of the lowest percentages of population under the age of 25.  The Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) also scores relatively low in the STI, as in all three countries less than half of the population is under 25. The countries that top the STI list –Yemen, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt — do not share much geographically; beyond the fact Egypt/Libya and Iraq/Syria have common borders.

Has the STI been successful in forecasting which countries in the Arab world are at the great risk for further unrest? In many cases, the STI has been on target, especially in regard to countries at the top and bottom of the rankings. Yemen, the highest scorer, was relatively calm when the index came out, but since that time it has undergone intense turmoil, with prominent government officials resigning. The country with the second highest score, Libya, has experienced not just protests but an actual revolution, eliciting a major international response. In third-ranking Egypt, protests were already in progress when the index was created, which eventually dislodged Mubarak. The fourth country on the list, Syria, has also experienced recent protests and crackdowns. On the other end of STI, Qatar, Kuwait, and U.A.E. have not been substantially impacted by unrest, and Qatar and U.A.E. have even provided military help to the international mission in Libya.

In some countries, however, the STI fails to explain recent events. Most notably, Bahrain has the fifth lowest score, but has still seen intense protests. Iraq, fifth on the list, has experienced some anti-government demonstrations, but they seem unrelated to the democratic wave moving across the Arab World. Furthermore, the country that set-off the wave of unrest, Tunisia, ranks as relatively stable. Although the index does highlight zones of potential unrest, it does not do so perfectly.

Analyzing the STI indicates some problems that arise when one attempts to create a single index for a continually changing dynamic of contemporary events. One of the first issues faced by The Economist’s researchers was to decide which countries to include. They initially selected the Arab League, but “took out the Comoros and Djibouti, which do not have a great deal in common with the rest of the group, and removed the Palestinian territories, Sudan and Somalia for lack of data.” Although this maneuver may seem reasonable, the STI left out Iran, which, although not in the Arab League, has also experienced significant protests. On the BBC website, an informational map of the unrest diverges from The Economist selection. The BBC includes Iran, but leaves off Iraq Qatar, Kuwait, and U.A.E. Although excluding the Gulf States for a map of unrest is understandable, the BBC map contains a significant difference in viewpoint from that of The Economist.

Another problem with the STI is that of signaling a country’s chance for uprising with a single number calculated through a standardized system. Although Libya and Bahrain may be grouped together into the same region, they are separated by vast social, political, and economic differences. Libya, for example, is noted for its harsh autocratic rule and its tribal divisions, whereas the major challenge facing Bahrain is its religious schism between the ruling Sunnis and the majority Shi’ites. Libya and Bahrain demonstrate that while the STI does provide some insight into some of the factors that cause unrest, it cannot predict where unrest will occur or what form it will take.

Create Your Own STI With Custom Factor Weighting


The Economist’s “Shoe-Thrower’s Index”: A Success? Read More »

Storm Season & The Many Gifts of NOAA in Google Earth

Happy Labor Day, readers. This the time of year that brings together Hot Dogs and Hurricane season. A time to celebrate change, whether it is global climactic change, or a change in season.

The 2010 year is characterized by a strong la Nina in the equatorial Pacific, which means a warm and wet winter for the Northern & Eastern United states, while the west coast is due for a cool and cold winter. This and with elevated sea surface temperatures, should lead to a strong season of storms for the USA.

This sets the stage for an interesting final quarter of the year in climatology, highlighted by the inevitable Atlantic Hurricane season. Unsuspecting vacationers were hit by the Nor’Easter Hurricane Earl, this weekend, the first strike in what could be a screwy season.

The following KML files are designed to help track the remainder of coming the domestic & international, season of storms, floods and wildfires. By the end of this post your Google Earth Browser should be outfitted strongly enough to render the television weather man an insult to your intelligence.

The best source for this information, as always, is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. Over the past few years, the organization has compiled an invaluable library of Google Earth and GIS Resources on the web.

Beginning with the Hurricanes, there is no better place to go than NOAA for historical storm data. This KML file, containing all the Past Atlantic Storm Tracks, could have saved Galveston, TX, from meteorological hubris a hundred years back.

To track the Atlantic Hurricane season at anytime, just using a web browseruse this resource.

Weather Historians and storm chasers will also appreciate this KML file, featuring more than 50 years of Tornado tracks and data from NOAA.

The newest feature on the NOAA index of Google Earth friendly files, is this file, which tracks both ongoing and imminent floods in the United States with a live feed. Kudos to NOAA on this new release, this is difficult data to find.

A few weeks ago we posted on the series of catastrophic fires and drought across Russia. Now you can track all of the major fires, worldwide, using this KML file, from NOAA. As well, you can use this KML file to track and map drought conditions.

NOAA has also put together a richly detailed digital map on the progress fighting the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. This NOAA-produced map is one of the most reliable and constantly updated maps on the spill cleanup, with dozens of layers of information.

And to close this map overload, here’s a little bit of Apocalyptic Geography. This KML file envisions the home of GeoCurrents, San Francisco Bay, one hundred years in the future, swallowed by the deluge from rising sea levels. (Source: USGS in Google Earth Forums)

Storm Season & The Many Gifts of NOAA in Google Earth Read More »

Announcing the Google Earth Atlas

Update: Since our site upgrade the features of the Google Earth Atlas are temporarily unavailable. We will update this page when the Atlas becomes functioning once more. is proud to present a brand new feature, the Google Earth Atlas.

The Google Earth Atlas is an archive of all of the site’s work in Google Earth to date, in one place, with links to the KML/KMZ files, and the companion posts on

The Google Earth Atlas can be permanently accessed here:

The Archive will be constantly updated, as it works to become one of the web’s top resources for historical geography in the medium of Google Earth.

Represented are many of the world’s most fascinating spaces: Icelandic volcanoes, Pakistani barrages, Kyrgyz city squares, smelters on the sites of former Soviet gulags, and an infinite array of crop circles & hedge mazes.


Announcing the Google Earth Atlas Read More »

Pakistan’s Fatal Floods in Google Earth

“This disaster is worse than the tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and the Haiti earthquake,” commented Maurizio Giuliano, a spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). (Source)

The Indus River as of 8-21-10 via NASA/MODIS

More than 20,000,000 have been displaced, more than have 1500 perished, as the worst Monsoons in Pakistan’s 65 year history as a modern state have inundated the country with record breaking floods. At least 6 six million people are now in immediate need of aid; threatened by disease, disenfranchisement, and dislocation. Starvation looms as600,000 tons of wheat have been lost, along with whole villages’ entire means of sustenance.

The city of Muzzafargarh is a microcosm for the entire disaster. Sitting on the banks of both the Chenab and Indus rivers, the city was devastated when Monsoons caused the Indus to flood and change its course through the center of town. More than 90,000 people were evacuated from the city to 49 camps, without any guarantee of compensation or investigation of the cause of the floods, as pointed out by respected NGO OxFam International.

The combination of climate and chance spelled doom for cities like Muzzafargarh. The summer’s monsoons were fed by record sea-surface temperatures, which enabled even stronger monsoons. Combine this with excess glacial melt due to global warming, and the result is far too much stress on the Indus River’s system of canals, floodgates, dams, and barrages, all of which make up the world’s largest irrigation network.

Partner these climate factors with a network of neglected and poorly conceived dams and you have a disaster of a colossal scale. It appears that the critical point in the flooding across Waziristan and Punjab was the flooding of the Taunsa Barrage, which allowed the Indus to cut a new course across Central Pakistan.

You can add another dimension to your understanding of the Pakistani floods, by viewing the region inGoogle Earth. As a companion to this post, please download this google earth file.

Included in the post are satellite overlays from MODIS/NASA, marking the Indus’ change in course throughout August, as well as dramatic imagery of the monsoon storm clouds, the major barrages of the Indus river, and hundreds of user uploaded pictures of life in rural Pakistan.

If that’s not enough, make sure to take a look at this NASA image, to see exactly what it looks like when the Indus changes course through a village.The floods did not discriminate between Northern and Souther Pakistan. The areas of Kyhber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, Sindh, Swat, and Balochistan were all severely affected by the flooding, leaving the entire country in turmoil.

A number of human rights issues are sprouting up around the floods. NGO workers, journalists, and reporters have been denied access to relief camps. Minority Ahmaddiyas have been denied rescue, or even barred from camps. Outreach and relief efforts are still inadequate: more than half a million families are without shelter, while only 98,000 have received tents.

Meanwhile, the global community has responded sluggishly, pledging more than 800 Million Dollars in International Aid, with only 36% donated. America, Pakistan’s military ally is the primary donor, followed by a team of UN-member states.

The World Bank recently extended Pakistan a 900 million dollar loan, but it’s hard to be optimistic they’ll ever see that money again, given the Pakistani government’s demonstrably weak ability to manage the country. These floods present a major challenge in which Pakistan needs to prove itself a functional state for its own survival’s sake.

The world must heed its attention, oversight and will towards Pakistan, a state in great need, regardless of political situation. As if half a decade of drone attacks needed to be compounded by a once in a century environmental disaster. Even nuclear-rival India has donated to the relief effort. You should as well.

(image via NOAA)

A Historic July in Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies is thought to be a contributor to record flooding in Pakistan. Part of a disturbing trend likely to continue with Global Warming.
A barrage in Pakistan during more peaceful times.

Pakistan’s Fatal Floods in Google Earth Read More »

Scorched Earth: Russia Burns

(Photo CreditsNASA/MODIS)

Pictured above are NASA images of the Summer’s temperature anomalies that caused a massive drought, the resulting smoke from forest fires which have caused more than 100 fatalities on the way to blanketing in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine in smoke since the beginning of August.

Moscow has been covered in smog, death rates in hospitals have spiked, and contaminated radioactive land in Chernobyl has burned. A ban on Russian grain exports went into effect yesterday as fires and drought have hampered at least 1/5 of the total supply.

The cost of the fires is now at a staggering $15 Billion, a figure more than that of Hurricane Katrina or the BP Spill Cleanup, and a figure estimated to be 1% of Russia’s total 2010 GDP.

Global Warming and feverish storms catalyzed the fire, but the blaze has reached disastrous proportions, through preexisting environmental degradation and local mismanagement, and the response has been hampered by government secrecy.

This video from Nasa, show’s the chronology of the outbreak, in terms of Carbon Dioxide Pollution:

This post by the cyber-cartographer “Kite Surfer” in the Google Earth Forum points out that 30 of the 50 major fires during the first week of August occurred in areas of major deforestation. More blood, ash, and toxic phlegm, can be tied back to the hands of large Russian logging and forestry operations when one considers the fact that many of these corporations were put in charge of fire control, neglected their tracts, allowed fuel unharvested fuel to build up, and failed in suppression.

A response to this post by Google Earth Boards Member MarkoPolo, outlines the crux of the issue here, citing a paper published in ‘Wildfire Magazine’. These fires are not merely a periodic natural disaster, they have been compounded by systematic mismanagement:

From THIS cover article in the July/August 2010 issue of “Wildfire” magazine entitled “Russian Disarray”: “Currently, the (Russian) state cannot legally derive profit from owning the land, such as by selling timber to fund forest management, but it can sell the land to private parties. As a result, large forest areas are being sold non-competitively for use as private hunting preserves, and private companies are harvesting large areas without returning profits or reinvesting in the land or management of the forests. In the absence of formal regulation, Russia has an extremely low efficiency in the use of forest resources: today only 28% (165 million square meters) of the logged timber volume (609 million square meters) is actually used. The cut (but unused) timber volume has led to a fuels buildup that is feeding large fires. Recent satellite images reveal that most large fires now occur in the band where most logging occurs.”

For more direct visual evidence, download this Google Earth File, which outlines areas of Deforestation and Major Fire Area. In order to view the file, download Google Earth, and then open the kml file in your browser.

The fires are proving to be a major albatross for both Vladimir Putin and Dmiti Medvedev. In early August, Medvedev was hasty to respond, more concerned with corrupt projects for 2014 olympics and his own leisure.

Vladimir Putin, however, topped his counterpart’s response with this this ridiculous PR stunt, flying a water bomber over the blaze:

The two have also shifted blame, chewing out regional authorities for their lack of response to the fires. Ironically, the lack of local accountability is a product of an executive power grab in 2004, which banned the direct election of local governors and kept individual candidates off the ballot.

These measures caused local fire prevention prefectures to lose their teeth and funding, exacerbating today’s problems. The firefighters are armed with technology as old as their website: Fireman.Ru, a fascinating database of songs and proverbs from Russian Firefighter lore, undone only in translation by the idiomatic expression. This poem, from the “Do Not Joke With Fire,” section of the site, makes for a much more immediately satisfying moralist read than a Chekhov Play:

... Splattered on the driver field of diesel fuel,
Then the pitch with home-grown tobacco cigarette.
He crushed his cigarette butt into the ground somehow
However, cases have been tobacco.
Wally gone, flashed tires,
Over the field went up suffocating fumes:
The ears are burning – kaloriyki and dumplings
Loaf of wheat bread burn.

Moral – do not smoke in a fire zone?

To close this post, here is a videos of the awe-inspiring ferocity of the firestorm:

Here’s to the safety of those fighting the blazes and touched affected by the drought.

Scorched Earth: Russia Burns Read More »

A Summer in Worldwide Human Rights Abuses–Illustrated In Google Earth

While the BP Oil Spill and the World Cup have stole headlines this summer, a number of disturbing trends have passed through the cracks of newswires without garnering a fraction of the fanfare.

To stay informed on the most pressing issues and abuses across the world, there is seldom a better resource than Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch is one of the world’s foremost watchdog agencies for news, policy briefings, and investigative journalism without borders. Their mission statement is a reflection of their status as an indispensable NGO:

Mission Statement:
Human Rights Watch is dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world. We stand with victims and activists to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom, to protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime, and to bring offenders to justice. We investigate and expose human rights violations and hold abusers accountable. We challenge governments and those who hold power to end abusive practices and respect international human rights law. We enlist the public and the international community to support the cause of human rights for all.

This post illustrates the epicenters of the articles highlighted this summer on the Human Rights Watch website, through the medium of Google Earth.

To view the presentation: download and open this file in your Google Earth browser.

Each place-mark in the presentation has an original short summary of the infraction on human rights in question, as well as link to the original article on HRW.

There is no tour mode for this file, so please spend some extra time exploring the linked articles, and exploring the nearby panoramio photos of the areas.

The presentation is dotted with hundreds of photographs of Jamaican slums, Ossetian rubble, Saharwi Refugee Camps, Corrupt Zimbabwean Diamond Mines, and Kyrgyz Steppes to be discovered, in some of the most dangerous areas of the world for a journalist to visit.

A Summer in Worldwide Human Rights Abuses–Illustrated In Google Earth Read More »

The Geography of the Whale Ship Essex in Google Earth

This week’s presentation is an illustration of the ill-fated voyage of the Whale Ship Essex, the real life whaling voyage that inspired Moby Dick, in Google Earth Tour mode.

To view the tour, the companion to this article, first download Google Earth, then download this file.

The story of the Whale Ship Essex begins in Nantucket Harbor, 1819. Under the direction of Captain Pollard and First Mate Owen Chase, 19 other sailors embark on a two year journey in search of riches through the Azores, Cape Verde, and around Cape Horn to the great Pacific whaling seas.

The sailors then proceed to harvest an innumerable quantity of now endangered species.

In perhaps nature’s cruelest and most ironic twist of fate, 3500 miles west from coast of South America, the Essex is struck twice at full speed in the bow by an enraged Sperm Whale. With all hands out, harpooning the whale’s kin in a shoal, the sailors can only rush back to salvage what little they can from the sinking the vessel, to begin their struggle for survival on the open ocean.

The sailors are forced to the extremes of human persistence: cannibalism, delirium, storms, drinking their own urine, ennui, sickness, hunger, thirst, disease and distrust, as they float towards the hope of survival.

Luckily for historians, there is an excellent account available, penned by the voyage’s first mate Owen Chase. While some of the truths of the encounter may be concealed or embellished in this account, Chase’s account of human suffering in the Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, rates as one of the most colorful maratime histories ever penned.

With these tortures considered, this GeoCurrent’s post highlights the mistakes in Geography made by the sailors on the essex, while outlining the major milestones in their journey from Nantucket to the open ocean, and back.

Even if Cannibalism and Whaling aren’t quite appealing to your tastes, its worth knowing what’s become of the Society Islands and Sandwich Islands. The sailors neither knew where they were at the time, and thought the islands were full of cannibals. A stern Geography lesson would have had them steering with the wind for Tahiti. The mistake forced them down a 95 day, 3500 mile long path towards cannibalism.

The sailors also flunked their Geography Bee, mistaking Ducie Island from Henderson Island, but, er… everybody makes that mistake. These two islands play a smaller role in todays world scene, as the sailors from the Mutiny on the Bounty are no longer taking refuge, ceding the spotlight in the 21st century, to Pitcarin Island, home of the world’s smallest democracy.

Bon Voyage.

(First mate owen chase wants you to learn Pacific Geography

And to Stop Whaling. Yes. You, Japan)

The Geography of the Whale Ship Essex in Google Earth Read More »

Compass Roses & Marriage Proposals: Visual Poetry in Google Earth

We are in the midst of a golden age for ephemeral and accidental art. Google Earth has allowed the anonymous artisans of crafts that best viewed from thousands of miles above the earth’s surface, to find a forum for their work. Some of these works are painstakingly terraformed for years, while others are mere accidents and oddities. This post serves as a visual essay and tribute to the former and the latter. The goal of this week’s GeoCurrentCast is to create a visual essay on humanity, in the same vein as Koyaanisqatsi.

This post encompasses the best of our etchings on the landscape: crop circles with the inspiration of Da Vinci, placed compass roses to fit the scale of the earth, and offered marriage proposals acres wide. These are complemented by both chessboards and toilets fit for giants, as well as rusted out architectural sushi in the middle of Kuwait. There is an eerie intangible poetry of excess in the scale and shape of these monoliths, megaliths, and desert spires.

All of this, is presented in Google Earth’s Tour Mode.

To access the tour first download Google Earth, then download this file. Double click the video camera icon in Google Earth to start the tour.

Included as a bonus to the tour are the 150 most unusual buildings in the world, one of the finest collections of man made oddities to date. Originally created by the folks at Village of Joy, and compiled for Google Earth by munden at the indispensable Google Earth Hacks.

If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe to our feed on twitter.

Compass Roses & Marriage Proposals: Visual Poetry in Google Earth Read More »

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Capped: Here’s the So What.

This week the Deepwater Horizon Response team successfully capped the leaking well with its team of Remote Operated Submarines. While it is still not certain that these caps will hold, or entirely end the disaster, it marked the first time since April 20th, that oil stopped leaking into the Gulf.

A look at BP’s live feeds of the spill, is indeed a sight for sore eyes.

A look at the most recent Google Earth imagery, however, is still an eyesore.

After 87 days, and more than 90,000,000 gallons of oil spilled, this is certainly a cause for tempered celebration, as if we were a triple amputee, elated at the fact that we get to keep our final limb.

The Gulf is now four days free of additional leaking, yet the figure of 581 miles of oiled shoreline, is a guarantee to increase. Seven thousand vessels and 40,000 hands remain deployed on cleanup process, with years of work ahead.

As of July 12, BP spent an estimated 3.5 Billion on its cleanup processes. This is actually a meager figure, considering their average annual revenue exceeds 12 billion.

Imagery from the day before the end of the spill from MODIS/Skytruth shows a significantly lessened sheen on the surface from a month ago:

Surface reports, however, are a tempered method of assessing the damage. Much of the accessible oil on the surface was burned off in the largest “controlled burns” since the first Gulf War. The these burns have created elevated levels of Methane, Hexane, and other Neurotoxins in the air from New Orleans to Florida. An artist, quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, compares the smell to huffing oil paint.

What comes up, must come down, and now the Gulf States will have to content with exponentially larger quantities of sulfur dioxide in their rainfall, leading to a contamination of inland freshwater ecosystems.

The sheen is at its most megalithic below the surface, with slicks the size of small states. While the surface is certainly clearer, the effects are starting to make themselves known up the Atlantic Coast.

As we reported earlier on GeoCurrents, the Sheen had entered the North Atlantic Loop Current, and this has been corroborated with reports of oil washing ashorein near Jacksonville and St. Augustine, on Florida’s Atlantic Coast.

The video below represents and academic projection of the oil’s progress from the loop current, through the Atlantic coast.

While this continues, our elected representatives will continue squabbling, pretending to act in our best interests while their proposed ban on drilling is related only to worker fatalities, without sufficient environmental safeguards.

The congressional attack on BP for their supposed under the table dealings to free the Libyan Lockerbie bomber is but another attempt to divert attention and culpability through the fearmongering veil of terrorism. After all, if Cheney had not been looking tosave his billionaire cronies a few meager thousands by reigning back safety standards, the disaster may have been prevented altogether.

However, America is now in an era of de-facto legalized bribery through its lobbying machinery, leading to “Pervasive Corruption and a Poverty Trap.” Look for our elected representatives to follow all the red herrings in its investigation of its patrons.

Unfortunately we don’t have one of Dashiell Hammet’s Continental Operatives, with an oiled gull as his client, to go Blood Simple on those behind this once in a generation disaster, and those preventing proper regulation.

The hones falls on us to do what we can, to support forward thinking organizations and representatives. The gulf ecosystems have been irreversibly damaged, and organizations such as the International Bird Rescue, the National Wildlife Rescue, and A Matter of Trust are in need of financial support at this time to continue their efforts for years to come.

An ideological shift, however, is an even more important development that must result from the disaster. A new crop of muckrakers, reformists, and activists must spring forth to remove this country from the belly of its dying machinery.

After 87 days and 90,000,000 Gallons, the status quo has remains. The cap on the well may stop the flow, but the social and political ills are still gushing torrents.

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Capped: Here’s the So What. Read More »

People Per Goal & The Economic Geography of the World Cup

The group stage of the World Cup offered an opportunity for outliers on both ends of the spectrum of economic and population strength to compete on equal terms.

World Cup competitors have a mean population near 50,000,000 million. The median sits far below that at 22,578,572. The majority of the competing nations are of modest size, but the inclusion of hundred million plus superpowers like the USA, Brazil, and Nigeria significantly skew the mean.

The discrepancies in Per Capita GDP, are a little more muted than those in population, but mismatches, such as Ghana’s $ 1500 overcoming the USA’s $45,000 a year advantage. Sixteen of the top 50 countries in Per Capita GDP are represented at the World Cup. Honduras, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, North Korea, and Paraguay had the chance to at least quintuple their respective countries’ Per Capita GDP Earnings from the $30,000 per player bonus for advancing to the knockout stage.

The mean per capita GDP for a country competing in this years world cup stands at 20441.44 Centers, well above the world average. Still, the twenty fifth percentile in Per Capita GDP for world cup competitors stood at $7574 USD, which is fairly close to the worldwide median in this category.

Now, considering the graphs above, take a look at the comprehensive performances of the participants in the World Cup during the Group Stage.

Which countries were the most efficient at producing goals per citizen? It seems the USA and Nigeria left far too many (goal)mouths to feed, while it takes the support of only a few thousand Uruguayans and Paraguayans are required to produce goals with their fascinating efficiency, well ahead of the world Average of 16976995 people per goal.

And how much, do we, the people, in theory pay to support these social structures that allow for these goals? The average citizen of a world cup participant nation earned 8361 dollars per goal their country scored. Not a bad haul, but it your country wasn’t scoring like North Korea, it may be off to the coal mines for a few years.

If Ghana can continue their impressive run, they’ll not only capture the hearts of all of Africa, but also cement their status as rather impressive statistical outlier, against the world’s remaining industrial superpowers and population centers. Its one of the few times where we can say that the world’s rich and the poor truly compete on a level playing field.

You can play with all the World Cup figures and selected CIA World Factbook information more in this spreadsheet. Feel free to import more data, and share your graphs and findings in the comments section. Bonus points awarded for the craziest regression line.

People Per Goal & The Economic Geography of the World Cup Read More »

The Geography of FIFA & International Recognition

FIFA divides the world into the six regions:

These six “continents” hold a a quarry of curiosities.

Palestine competes as its own country in the South Asian Football Federation, and is a FIFA member. On the other side of the West Bank, Israel is the only country in the region that competes in the European UEFA.

The South American nations Suriname, Guyana, and French Guina, all compete in the North America & Carribean CONCACAF. Curious to see these three nations classified as Carribean, while the evidence points that they clearly lie on the South American continent.

Australia is, strangely, excluded from the Oceania region. Oceania is the smallest region, and receives the fewest bids to the world cup. Kiribati, Micronesia, Niue, and Palau are all part of the Oceanian regional football federation, but are non-FIFA members. New Zealand is the region’s lone upstart representative in the World Cup.

The United Kingdom does not recognize FIFA so that Scotland, Wales, and the English can settle their differences on the pitch. The fact that the UK scoffs at the idea of performing as a single state can be bolstered by the fact that nearly the whole of their former empire competes in the Commonwealth Games.

Other UN states that are not in FIFA include Monaco, Kosovo, Nauru and the Vatican city.

Nauru has declined FIFA membership, as the washed up phosphorous mine has no space or money to spare on football. What will happen to the Tuvalu and Maldives’ federations, as their countries sink. The rule to date has been no country, no state.

After a few head scratchers with the continental groupings, the real fun starts when you get into the areas that begin to call into question the difference between a country and a state.

FIFA really gets interesting when you look into the provisional members of the Nouvelle Nouvelle Fédération-Board, whose members are composed of people without states, new states, and sovereign territories. FIFA has its eyes on would be states, to assist their international recognition on the pitch, should the receive international recognition. Their list of provisional members is an impressive list of obscuro-geography:

The Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Casamance, Western Sahara, Yap (a Micronesian state), Zanzibar, Sardinia, the Kingdom of the two Sicilies, Easter Island, Maasai, and the micrnoation of Sealand all have made inroads with FIFA through this program for future membership.

Sicily and Kurdistan have already played an international friendly, facilitated by the Nouvelle Fédération-Board. Which now hosts the VIVA world cup, the creme de la creme for non-FIFA-member states. Padania, a province of Northern Italy, most recently defeatedIraqi-Kurdistan for the title of best football team without an internationally recognized state.

For those who are curious, Tibet has been repeatedly thrashed on an international stage. And it’s doubtful China will allow its membership any time soon.

The Assyrian people, a diaspora of 3 million, have a larger population than this world cup’s tiniest contender, Slovenia, a population of 2 million. Still, without an internationally recognized state, a world cup berth is a dream that must follow a revolution.

Many of these tiny countries will remain provisional members, and it’s doubtful we’ll see an independence movement hinging on FIFA membership on its core ideal. Don’t be surprised if you see Somaliland, Greenland, Kosovo, Zanzibar, and Iraqi Kurdistan make the jump to full time membership in the coming decade.

Greenland’s admission begs the question of whether the state should compete in CONCACAF or UEFA, with European cultural ties, but is part of the North American continent.

FIFA recognition would likely follow a tremendous milestone in international recognition.

With that said… Go Zanzibar!

The Geography of FIFA & International Recognition Read More »