Physical Geography

The role of the physical environment in issues of geographical significance

Another Geo-Quiz

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

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Another line of the same type is added.

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

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

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

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The answer is provided.

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Another Geo-Quiz Read More »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do We See the Shapes of Seas? Test Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remapping the Great Lakes from a Hydrological Perspective

As noted in the two previous GeoCurrents posts, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan are a single body of water, forming the world’s largest freshwater lake (by surface area) by a considerable margin. The Wikipedia article on this greatest of the Great Lakes explains the situation:

Lake Michigan–Huron (also Huron–Michigan) is the body of water combining Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, which are joined through the 5-mile-wide (8.0 km), 295-foot-deep (90 m), open-water Straits of Mackinac. Huron and Michigan are hydrologically a single lake because the flow of water through the straits keeps their water levels in overall equilibrium. Although the flow is generally eastward, the water moves in either direction depending on local conditions. Combined, Lake Michigan–Huron is the largest freshwater lake by area in the world.

 

For casual purposes, there are no problems with regarding this single body of water as divided into two discrete lakes. For both scientific and comparative purposes, however, it is more useful – and accurate – to treat Michigan-Huron as a single lake. Not surprisingly, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hydrological diagram of the Great Lakes follows this model. But it also divides this massive lake into three basins: Michigan, Huron, and Georgian Bay. Georgian Bay is conventionally regarded as part of Lake Huron, but it hydrologically functions as a separate basin.

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Given these complications, it seems worthwhile to experiment with remapping the Great Lakes. The first map posted below shows the standard five-lake model. The second map depicts Michigan-Huron as a single lake, while adding the much smaller but still substantial (430 sq mi) Lake Saint Clair, which is an essential component of the Great Lakes system. The third map divides Lake Michigan-Huron into its three separate basins. The final map shows how the Great Lakes would be depicted if we were to regard all deep embayments as separate lakes.

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Remapping the Great Lakes from a Hydrological Perspective Read More »

Remapping the World’s Largest Lakes

Wikipedia’s article on the world’s largest lakes by surface area features a fantastic map of the fifteen largest, using the dymaxion projection devised by the inimitable Buckminster Fuller. As can be seen, more than half fit into the category of the “Greater Great Lakes of North America” as defined in the previous GeoCurrents article. It is interesting that all these lakes except Ladoga are arrayed along a single sinuous curve that extends from Lake Malawi in southern Africa to Lake Ontario in eastern North America. But intriguing though it is, this arrangement is essentially just a feature of the map projection.

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Close inspection reveals that the Wikipedia map includes a significant “ghost”: the Aral Sea, which was until recently a huge brackish lake in Central Asia. It has largely vanished over the past half-century due to the diversion of most of the flow of the Anu Darya and Syr Darya rivers that feed it into agricultural fields. I have redrafted the Wikipedia map to show this lake as it existed circa 1960.  It was then, by conventional criteria, the third largest lake in the world (by surface area).

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The third map, posted below, takes this redrafting exercise two more steps. Limiting its purview to freshwater lakes, it deletes the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest lake by a considerable margin. (It does include Lake Balkhash in Central Asia; although the eastern part of this lake is saline, its larger western segment is fresh.) Using strict hydrological criteria, it also combines Huron and Michigan into a single entity, which can be called either Lake Michigan-Huron or Lake Huron-Michigan. This water body is actually the world’s largest freshwater lake.

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Remapping the World’s Largest Lakes Read More »

Mapping the Greater Great Lakes of North America

It is difficult to deny the greatness of the Great Lakes, which together form the largest aggregation of large lakes on the planet.  Although almost all sources include five lakes in this collection – Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie, and Ontario – controversies persist. By geological criteria, Michigan and Huron form a single lake, reducing the number of Great Lakes to four. Yet some observers insist that there are actually six Great Lakes, adding Lake Champlain to the list. In 1998, the United States Congress went so far as to pass a bill giving Lake Champlain official Great Lakes status, thereby allowing the use of targeted Federal funding for the lake and its basin. The bill, however, generated considerable controversy, as Lake Champlain is much smaller than the “other” Great Lakes and is located at some distance from them. Co-chair of the Congressional Great Lakes Task Force Steven C. LaTourette denounced the maneuver, stating that ‘‘If Lake Champlain ends up as a Great Lake, I propose we rename it ‘Lake Plain Sham.” Soon afterward, Congress revised the designation, demoting Lake Champlain while retaining the funding opportunities.

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From a scientific perspective, however, there are good reasons to add a few other lakes to the list, all of which are located along the same great arc and all of which were created by similar geological processes. This idea is admirably explored in a YouTube video by Signore Galilei entitled “North America’s OTHER Forgotten ‘Great Lakes.’” Some of the lakes on Galilei’s list are large indeed: Canada’s Great Bear Lake and Great Slave Lake are both larger than Lake Erie and Lake Ontario and it’s lake Winnipeg is larger than Lake Ontario.

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I have depicted this great arc of lakes – the Greater Great Lakes of North America, if you will – on the map posted below.  Political boundaries have been removed to highlight the lakes themselves. To further defamiliarize the Great Lakes concept, I have rotated the frame, putting northeast at the top. As can easily be seen, this is indeed a great chain of lakes. It is also much more a feature of Canada than of the United States. Only one of lakes – Michigan – is wholly located in the United States. Five are shared between the two countries (Superior, Huron, Erie, Ontario, and Lake of the Woods). All the rest are entirely within Canada.

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Mapping the Greater Great Lakes of North America Read More »

The Very Wet and Very Dry Summer of 2023 in the United States (and Its Consequences for the U.S. Corn Crop)

The 2023 meteorological summer (June-August) in the United States was both very dry and very wet, with extreme precipitation variation. As the map posted below shows, this was the driest summer since (at least) 1895 over several widely scattered parts of the country, including western Oregon, southern Arizona, western New Mexico, southern Louisiana, southeastern Texas, and the southeastern corner of Minnesota. The map also shows a small area near California’s Bay Area as having experienced its driest summer since 1895, but this particular depiction is misleading. Like most of the rest of the state, this region experiences negligible summer precipitation, getting a little over a tenth of an inch on average (see the table posted below for Antioch, CA). The difference between 0.01 inches and 0.15 inches may be large in percentage terms, but it means next to nothing in regard to actual conditions.

The 2023 summer drought in southern Minnesota, Iowa, and adjacent areas is concerning, as this area forms the heart of the U.S. corn belt. The official Drought Monitor Map shows severe to extreme drought over much of the same area. Curiously, this map also shows extreme long-term drought in parts of Kansas and Nebraska that experienced well above average summer precipitation this year. Some critics complain that the U.S. Drought Monitor is too slow to revise its mapping as conditions change.

Given such dry conditions over much of the corn belt, one might expect a reduced U.S. corn harvest in 2023. But according to an August 8 Reuters headline, “U.S. Farmers Expect Corn Harvest Could Be Second-Biggest Ever,” with the article explaining that “rains during July shepherded the crop through its critical development phase, offsetting dry conditions early in the season and hot summer temperatures.” A Successful Farming article outlines the problems faced by Minnesota farmers due to a three-year drought, while noting that technical improvements have mitigated the damage:

Bob Worth, president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and a corn and soybean farmer in Lincoln County, Minnesota, said that improvements in seed technology is saving his farm from complete disaster despite the dry conditions: “If we had the same hybrids that we had in my early farming years,” Worth said, “we wouldn’t have a crop with as little rain as we’ve gotten.”

Despite its relatively healthy 2023 corn crop, the United States just lost its position as the world’s top corn exporter. The title was handed over to Brazil, as was that for soybeans a few years ago. According to a recent Bloomberg report (cited in Farm Policy News):

For more than half a century, US farmers dominated the international market for corn, shipping more of the critical crop than any other country to feed the world’s livestock, fill its stockpiles and manufacture its processed foods. No more. In the agricultural year ending Aug. 31, the US handed the corn-exporting crown to Brazil. And it might never get it back.

Other parts of the United States saw record-breaking precipitation in the summer of 2023. As the first map in this post shows, much of northern New England, eastern Michigan, southern California, central Wyoming, eastern Colorado, and south-central Montana experienced their wettest summer since 1985. Tropical Storm Hilary was responsible for most of this precipitation in southern California, and for some of it in central Wyoming and south-central Montana.

If the summer 2023 precipitation map had included the first three days of September, its depiction of the southwestern quadrant of the United States would have been quite different, showing much higher figures for eastern Arizona, Nevada, and parts of northern California (see the map below). A rare early-September cut-off low-pressure system rotated off the cost of far northern California during this period, bring unprecedented precipitation to many areas, as well as widely mocked misery to campers at the Burning Man Festival in northwestern Nevada.

Note on this map the extraordinarily steep gradient on the seven-day late-August to early-September rainfall map in northern California. Here areas getting less than five percent of average precipitation in this period are almost adjacent to those getting over 600 percent. This seeming anomaly was partly the result of a sharp precipitation cut-off in the recent storm, with entrained bands of rainfall hitting some areas repeatedly while leaving nearby areas completely dry. But it is also, again, a consequence of the extremely dry average conditions in this region at this time of the year.

The Very Wet and Very Dry Summer of 2023 in the United States (and Its Consequences for the U.S. Corn Crop) Read More »

The Unique Multiply Enclosed Back Sea, and the Crucial Grain Supply of Ancient Athens

As noted in the previous post, the “marginal sea” concept has little utility for geo-historical analysis. More useful is the idea of what might be termed an “enclosed sea,” meaning one whose entrance to the open ocean, or strait, is narrow enough that it could have been controlled by a strong state in the ancient, medieval, and early modern periods. Such enclosed seas are few. If we limit our attention to parts of the world that had states during these times, there are really only four straits that count: the Strait of Gibraltar, separating the Mediterranean from the Atlantic; the Danish straits, separating the Baltic Sea from the open margins of the Atlantic; the Strait of Hormuz separating the Persian Gulf from the Indian Ocean; and the Bab-el-Mandeb, separating the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean. Of these, the 13-kilometers-wide Strait of Gibraltar is the narrowest. The Bab-el-Mandeb, in contrast, is 26 kilometers wide at its narrowest extent, whereas the Strait of Hormuz is 39 kilometers wide at its narrowest extent. The Danish Straits do entail some narrow passages, but there are three of them, and the most important, the Great Belt, is 16 kilometers wide at its narrowest point.

 

The Mediterranean is not only the most enclosed sea, but is also the largest by far. More significant, it opens up to its own enclosed seas, all of which are connected by even narrower passages. The long and meandering Dardanelles, which links the Mediterranean’s marginal Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara, is only 0.75 kilometers wide at its narrowest extent, as is the Bosphorus, which connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. The Strait of Kerch, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, is much wider, 3.1 kilometers at its narrowest extent, but is still significantly narrower than the Strait of Gibraltar.

Such observations lead to an inescapable conclusion: the Black Sea system, including Marmara and Azov, is a unique physical-geographical entity. There is nothing else remotely like it on earth, an oddly unrecognized fact. It is also noteworthy that the Black Sea lies near the center of the segment of the world that includes the other enclosed seas, as can be seen on the maps posted below.

The enclosed nature of the Black Sea system has been geopolitically important during several historical periods. Consider, for example, the situation of Athens during its heyday in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. After the defeat of the Persian Empire, Athens was eager to secure access to the Black Sea and its many resources. The Delian League that is soon created maintained control over both the Dardanelles and the Bosporus. After its defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, Athens lost this informal Aegean empire, and thus found itself in a strained situation. It eventually cobbled together a new but less-imperial Second Athenian League, which included cities along the Dardanelles and Bosporus. It was at this time that Black Sea grain became essential for the sustenance of Athens (and several other Greek city states). Securing access to the essential grain supply also entailed maintaining a tight alliance with the culturally hybrid Greco-Scythian Bosporan Kingdom, which sat astride the Strait of Kerch (then called the Cimmerian/Kimmerian Bosporus). Fish supplies from the highly productive Sea of Azov and the rivers that flowed into it were also an important resource for Athens, underscoring the significance of its connection with the long-lived (438 BCE –527 CE) Bosporan Kingdom.

For a fascinating account of this relationship, I recommend Alfonso Moreno’s “Athenian Wheat-Tsars: Black Sea Grain and Elite Culture,” which is found in an important book entitled The Black Sea in Antiquity: Regional and Interregional Economic Exchanges. Moreno highlights the close ties between Athenian elites associated with the school of Isocrates (an extremely important although under-appreciated intellectual and political operative), and the Greco-Scythian elites of the Bosporan Kingdom. His final words are worth quoting:

Two things only were needed to ensure the permanence of this system: the good-will of the Bosporan kings, and Athenian control of the route between [the Cimmerian Bosporus and Athens]. As long as Athenian political leadership could provide this, Athens would be fed and a few of its politicians gain enormous power. If correct, we may have here a very different way of understanding this trade: an oligarchic grain supply sustaining a professedly democratic state.

Although the fifth century BCE is usually considered the golden age of ancient Athens, the fourth century BCE was in many respects a more intellectually vibrant period. To a large extent, the culture that allowed such intellectual flourishing was underwritten by the grain and other resources that flowed in from the Black Sea, which in turn entailed maintaining close relations with the states that controlled the crucial choke points leading from the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Azov.

The Unique Multiply Enclosed Back Sea, and the Crucial Grain Supply of Ancient Athens Read More »

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.

What Is the Black Sea? (Part 1) Read More »

The World’s Three Great Archipelagic Realms, and the Difficulties in Determining What Counts as an Island

When lecturing on early modern history to Stanford students the other day, I remarked that there is nothing on the earth like insular Southeast Asia, with its many thousands of islands ranging in size from huge to tiny. In terms of archipelagic scope, only the Caribbean can compare, I noted, although its islands are much smaller and many fewer in number. And Southeast Asia’s island realm becomes much larger still if one were to include the nearby island clusters of Melanesia (the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomon Islands).

That evening, however, I realized that there is another great archipelagic realm, that of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. I tend to neglect this region largely because its population is so small. Greenland, almost all of which is ice covered, has only some 56,000 inhabitants, while the many islands of the Canadian Arctic counts only around 23,000. But as can be seen in the table of large islands posted below, insular Southeast Asia and the Arctic Archipelago are of comparable scope, whereas the Caribbean is distinctly smaller.

If one is concerned, however, only with the sheer number of islands, another archipelago arguably occupies the top ranking. These are the islands of southwestern Finland, sometimes called the Turku Archipelago, whose scenic specks of land are scattered across a relatively small span of water called the Archipelago Sea. As noted in the Wikipedia article on this area:

The Archipelago Sea is a part of the Baltic Sea between the Gulf of Bothnia, the Gulf of Finland, and the Sea of Åland, within Finnish territorial waters. By some definitions it contains the largest archipelago in the world by the number of islands, although many of the islands are very small and tightly clustered. … The total surface area is 8,300 square kilometres (3,205 square miles), of which 2,000 square kilometres (772 square miles) is land. … The number of the larger islands of over 1 square kilometre (0.4 sq mi) within the Archipelago Sea is 257, whilst the number of smaller isles of over 0.5 hectares (1.2 acres) is about 17,700. If the number of smallest uninhabitable rocks and skerries is accounted, 50,000 is probably a good estimate. In comparison, the number of islands in the Canadian Arctic archipelago is 36,563. Indonesia has 17,508 islands, according to the Indonesian Naval Hydro-Oceanographic Office. The Philippines has 7,107 islands.

 

Finland’s archipelago does not look particularly impressive on most maps, owing to the tiny size of most of its islands. But at the level of resolution increases, more and more islands appear almost everywhere one looks. I have illustrated this point with several Google Maps excerpts, posted below.

As the Wikipedia article on the Archipelago Sea indicates, it is difficult to determine the total number of islands in any body of water, as it depends on the size limit used to differentiate an island from a mere rock or other exiguous area of (generally) dry land. This can be a politically charged matter, as the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea grants every country a 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone around all its islands, but not around all its rocks.

Such definitional complexities can also give rise to some odd headlines. Just this week, several news agencies announced that Japan had “discovered” some 7,000 new islands in its own waters. But this was much less a matter of discovery than a definitional change coupled with precision mapping. As explained by Scripps News:

The country recounted the number of islands in its territory for the first time in nearly four decades, and found it has over 7,000 more than initially believed. Using digital mapping, the Geopolitical Information Authority of Japan determined it had a total of 14,125 islands. That’s 7,273 more than Japan’s Coat Guard counted in 1987. The definition of “island” is based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea, but there isn’t an international agreement on how nations count their islands. Overall, Japan detected more than 120,000 different pieces of land, but only considered the ones that had a circumference over one-tenth of a kilometer — about 328 feet.

By this measure, Japan has more islands than the Philippines. But if the Philippines where to reexamine its own island endowment, I imagine that it could come up with a higher number.

The World’s Three Great Archipelagic Realms, and the Difficulties in Determining What Counts as an Island Read More »

The Cheetah: Vanishing from Africa but Returning to India

In 2016, National Geographic announced that the cheetah is “racing toward extinction,” with its population expected to decline precipitously over the next 15 years. Only around 7,000 cheetahs, the world’s fastest mammal, live in the wild. Their remaining habitat is dispersed and disjunct, with roughly 77 percent of it falling outside of protected areas. A recent scientific study found that outside of protected areas, cheetah populations are highly vulnerable and declining. The Asiatic subspecies, now limited to Iran’s arid Dasht-e Kavir, is now functionally extinct, its population limited to an estimated 12 individuals, nine of which are male.

Several hundred years ago, Cheetahs inhabited a vast area extending across most of Africa and southwestern Asia. (The map posted below, however, exaggerates and misconstrues the historical range, as is common in maps of this sort; cheetahs never lived in the dense forests of far north-central Iran or in the driest parts of the Sahara, and their range did not abruptly terminate at the modern political border between Iran and Armenia and Azerbaijan.) In prehistoric times, cheetahs also lived in Europe, where, according to one theory, they died out due to competition with lions. But as cheetahs easily coexisted with lions in historical times across most of Africa and southwestern Asia, this thesis is unconvincing. Regardless of where they lived, cheetahs evidently came close to extinction twice, once around 100,000 years ago and again around 12,000 years ago. Due to these near misses, cheetahs have extremely low genetic diversity, making them highly vulnerable to infectious diseases.

But just as cheetahs are vanishing from Africa, they are getting a new lease on life in India. In September 2022, eight cheetahs were transferred from Namibia to Kuno National Park in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where they were personally released by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his 72nd anniversary. (One of these cats later came down with a kidney ailment is currently undergoing treatment.) On January 25, 2023, South Africa announced that it sill send more than 100 cheetahs to India. Whether Kuno is large enough to sustain a viable cheetah population is an open question, leading some biologists to express reservations about the entire initiative. In the future, they might also have to compete with lions. In the 1990s, Kuno was selected as the main site of the Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project, which resulted in the removal 1,650 Adivasis (tribal people) from Kuno National Park. India’s – and indeed, Asia’s – only remaining lion population has long been restricted to Gir National Park in Gujarat, making it highly vulnerable to extinction. Gujarat, however, has successfully resisted the transfer of any of its lions to Kuno, even though its own population has overpopulated its restricted range.

Cheetahs have a celebrated history in India, where they were widely used by aristocrats as a semi-domesticated hunting animal. According to the Indian author Divyabhanusinh, the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great owned some 9,000 cheetahs over the course of his lifetime, although most experts think that this figure is greatly exaggerated. Regardless of numbers, tame Cheetahs figure prominently in Mughal art and were held in high esteem. But cheetahs were also killed in large numbers by elite Indian and British hunters. According to Wikipedia, “Three of India’s last cheetahs were shot by the Maharajah of Surguja in 1948. The same maharaja “has the notorious record of having shot and killed a total of 1,710 Bengal tigers, the highest known individual score.”

India was not the only place in which cheetahs were used extensively in hunting. Images from the third millennium BCE in both Mesopotamia and Egypt depict leashed cheetahs. According to the Indian blogger Rahultiwary, citing Wildcats of the World by Mel and Fiona Sunquist, “Later the cats were widely used in the Middle East, Afghanistan, southern Russia, Pakistan, India, and China. Tame cheetahs were used to hunt goitered [or black-tailed] gazelles, foxes, and hares in Russia and Mongolia, and the sport flourished during the middle ages in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. In 1474, one Armenian ruler owned 100 hunting cheetahs.” In Central Asia and the Caucasus, cheetahs here evidently exterminated in the 1950s, and by the late 1970s they were hunted out of the Arabian Peninsula as well.

The gradual disappearance of cheetahs from Africa, coupled with their reintroduction to India, has important lessons for conservation biology. Many environmentalists who warn about the impending “sixth wave of extinctions” also think that economic growth and development more generally are the root cause of the crisis. According to the noted Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, the primary drivers are “continued population growth, and overconsumption, especially by the rich” Continuing economic growth, such authors argue, entails the extraction of ever more resources, which will eventually – and quite soon in Ehrlich’s view – reach the point of exhaustion, resulting in a systemic collapse. Although their dire predictions have all failed thus far, eco-pessimists might be right in the long term , as only time can tell. But in the short term, they are almost certainly wrong. Rampant habitat loss and wildlife destruction is occurring primarily in the least developed parts of the world. Where economic development has reached an advanced stage, habitat is generally increasing and wildlife is rebounding. Economic development is also closely correlated with reduced human fertility; economically surging India now has a below-replacement-rate Total Fertility Rate of around 2.0, whereas in economically troubled Niger the figure stands at 6.6. To the extent that economic development is hindered in tropical Africa for environmental reasons, the destruction of nature can be expected to be intensified rather than reversed. Even in Europe, environmentally justified energy austerity programs are accompanied by increased environmental degradation. When people have difficulty affording power, trees can be quickly sacrificed for fuel, as is indeed occurring in some of Europe’s few remaining old growth forests.

India deserves credit for protecting and restoring wildlife and wild lands at a far higher level than might be expected on the basis on its raw developmental standing. Most of the world’s remaining wild tigers, for example, live in India, even though India accounts for a relatively small portion of the animal’s original range, and even though India is far poorer than most countries that had, or still have, viable tiger populations. The contrast in wildlife conservation between India and China is especially stark and has been apparent for hundreds if not thousands of years. The sad story of China’s long history of wildlife extirpation can be found in Mark Elvins’ well-researched book, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China.

As a final note, North America had its own “cheetah” (Miracinonyx trumani) until the Pleistocene-Holocene Extinction Event circa 12,000 years ago, which wiped out roughly 85 percent of its large mammals. This large America cat was morphologically similar to the cheetah. It was likewise built for speed, as was its main prey, the pronghorn “antelope.” Recent genetic research, however, has shown that Miracinonyx trumani was much more closely related to the puma (cougar or mountain lion) than to the eastern hemisphere’s cheetah, and is therefore now properly deemed “the American cheetah-like cat.” It came to resemble the cheetah through convergent evolution, not from descent from a common ancestral species.

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