Physical Geography

The role of the physical environment in issues of geographical significance

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.

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What Is the Black Sea? (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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The 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.

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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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ARkStorm Fears Recede in California Despite Flooding; Anomalous Lack of Rain-Shadowing Explained by Weather West

Fears of an impending ARkStorm in California have receded, although much of the state has been receiving prodigious amounts of rainfall and the forecast remains wet for the next 10 days. In the most recent storm, the heaviest rains have fallen in the Santa Barbara and Ventura areas, northwest of Los Angeles. The map posted below shows total precipitation amounts of up to 14 inches in a 24-hour period; other reports indicate that a few areas have received more than 18 inches. As would be expected, floods and mudslides have hit the region, causing considerable damage and taking several lives. For the state as a whole, however, the damage has been less than has been reported in many sensational news articles. I have read stories and seen videos that describe California as being “devastated,” “drowned,” and “underwater.” Despite the localized destruction, which should not be minimized, the recent storms have been beneficial for the state as a whole, washing away a devastating drought, at least temporarily. Even in some of the hardest hit locations, some rain enthusiasts posting on the Weather West blog are joyful for what they have received.

From a climatological perspective, the most interesting feature of the map posted above is not the torrential rain in places like San Marcos Pass, which periodically receive heavy and extended downpours. More unusual are the relatively high figures in inland areas that are rain-shadowed by mountains, such as the Cuyama Valley. Cuyama is extremely dry, receiving only 8 inches of precipitation a year on average. As bands of rain typically move from the south or southwest to the north and east, they dump most of their moisture over the coastal highlands as the air rises and cools; as the air descends and warms on the lee side, precipitation rates plummet. This dynamic is especially noted under conditions of an atmospheric river, which brings a relatively shallow but extremely wet airmass streaming in from the subtropics. As the recent flooding rains in the Santa Barbara area came from a stalled atmospheric river, the relatively high level of rainfall in Cuyama was unexpected.

A more pronounced precipitation anomaly was found further to the north, just to the east of the Sierra Nevada crest in east-central California. A high range, the Sierra rings most of the water out of winter storms. And as result, the Owens Valley, lying just to east of the southern Sierra, is extremely dry. The town of Bishop in the northern valley receives less than 5 inches of precipitation in the average year. Yet over the course of a mere 24-hour period on January 9th and 10th, 2023 – under conditions of an atmospheric river – Bishop received over 3 inches. And the downpour continues; just 11 minutes ago, commentator Unbiased Observer noted in Weather West that Bishop is closing in on 4 inches. This oddity demands an explanation.

Fortunately, such an explanation was made available, again by Unbiased Observer, on the Weather West blog, run by meteorologist Daniel Swain. I have posted the pertinent information below from the blog’s discussion forum. Such sharing of information among a devoted community of weather watchers is one of the many reasons why Weather West is such a valuable resource.

ARkStorm Fears Recede in California Despite Flooding; Anomalous Lack of Rain-Shadowing Explained by Weather West Read More »

Should California Be Bracing for a Possible ARkStorm?

The storm currently hitting California has not produced as much precipitation as was anticipated, irritating some Weather West readers (see yesterday’s post) while reducing flood concerns for the present. But the forecast remains extremely wet over the next week and beyond. As the maps posted below show, rain in the lowlands and snow in the mountains could fall in prodigious quantities, which would probably cause extensive flooding (note the 256 inches of snow over roughly two weeks forecasted on one of the maps posted below). If the current seven-day forecast verifies, and if the wet pattern remains entrenched, California might even experience what is known as an ARkStorm, an event that occurs on average once every several hundred years. In an ARkStorm, much of the Central Valley, California’s agricultural heartland and home to millions of people, could be inundated for weeks.

As noted in the previous post, California has been locked in a persistent drought, experiencing only two wet years out of the past 12. An abrupt end to a long-term drought by devastating floods would not be unprecedented. Indeed, this is precisely what happened in the mid 19th century. As reported by EarthDate:

In the 1840s and 1850s, California was exceptionally dry, so by the fall of 1861, California ranchers were hoping for rain in late November they got what they were wishing for and – then some. It didn’t stop raining for 43 days and by January 1862 the Central Valley was filled with an inland sea.

The Great Flood of 1862 was that an extraordinary event, one that affected much of the western United States. The Wikipedia article on it provides a good summary. As it notes:

The event dumped an equivalent of 10 feet (3.0 m) of water in California, in the form of rain and snow. .. An area about 300 miles (480 km) long, averaging 20 miles (32 km) in width, and covering 5,000 to 6,000 square miles (13,000 to 16,000 km2) was under water over a period of 43 days.

Although this was the biggest flood in California’s recorded history, geological evidence shows that even larger floods have occurred over the past several thousand years. Of particular note were the years 440, 1418, 1605, and 1750. The largest flood was that of 1605 (± 5 years). As noted in a 2017 Quarternary Research article, this event may have even produced a large lake in the Mojave Desert that lasted for several decades. The Quarternary Research article claims that this flood may have been linked to a global cooling cycle associated with this so-called Little Ice Age. As the authors note, “This cooling was probably accompanied by an equatorward shift of prevailing wind patterns and associated storm tracks.”

The current concern is that global warming will lead to increased flood risks in California – along with increased drought risks. As Xingying Huang and Daniel Swain wrote in an August 2022 Science Advances article:

Despite the recent prevalence of severe drought, California faces a broadly underappreciated risk of severe floods. Here, we investigate the physical characteristics of “plausible worst case scenario” extreme storm sequences capable of giving rise to “megaflood” conditions using a combination of climate model data and high-resolution weather modeling. Using the data from the Community Earth System Model Large Ensemble, we find that climate change has already doubled the likelihood of an event capable of producing catastrophic flooding, but larger future increases are likely due to continued warming. We further find that runoff in the future extreme storm scenario is 200 to 400% greater than historical values in the Sierra Nevada because of increased precipitation rates and decreased snow fraction. These findings have direct implications for flood and emergency management, as well as broader implications for hazard mitigation and climate adaptation activities.

(See the map made by Xingying Huang and Daniel Swain posted blow to compare historical ARkStorms and those predicted for the future.)

 

Daniel Swain’s avid followers at Weather West have noted how the current situation follows Swain’s recent ARkStorm article:

Many researchers are concerned that California is not doing enough to prepare for the possibility of devastating floods. One proposal for dealing with extreme precipitation events is to allow rivers to occupy more of their natural floodplains, as outlined in a New York Times article published today. Such an approach would also help recharge California’s aquifers, many of which are severely depleted. But as the author observes, this would be an expensive solution that would generate pronounced opposition. From an environmental perspective, however, it makes a lot of sense.

 

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The Political Regions of Europe and the Fallacy of Environmental Determinism

Europe Political Orientation MapGeoCurrents reader Rafael Ferrero-Aprato recently brought to my attention an interesting map of political divisions in Europe made by the Dutch electoral geographer Josse de Voogd and reproduced by The Economist in 2014. Josse de Voogd notes the difficulties and limitations in making a map of this sort: “Some countries [are covered] in much greater detail than others and there are lots of political parties that are difficult to place ideologically. The information comes from a wide range of resources over a long time-span.” In general terms, the map seems reasonably accurate. But at the more local scale, the situation often gets too complex to be easily captured in a map of this sort. As Rafael Ferrero-Aprato notes in regard to his own country, Portugal:

Speaking for Portugal though, the red corresponds to the strongly leftists regions of Alentejo/South Ribatejo (because of the latifundium agricultural system) and Setúbal Peninsula (an industrial region). It includes also the moderately leftist areas of the north Algarve, lower Beira Interior and Lisbon. So far, so good.

But after giving it more attention, the borders are not perfect: they include south Algarve (moderately right-wing) and the city of Porto, despite it being considered right-wing. Some leftist “enclaves” are missing too, such as the peninsula of Peniche (industrial fishing) and the city of Marinha Grande (industrial).

The Alentejo, Setúbal Peninsula, Peniche and Marinha Grande were also areas of strong influence of the Portuguese Communist Party during the 1926-74 dictatorships, the only force that remained organized in the face of strong repression by the regime. As such, these regions saw numerous revolts during that time.

Germany Electoral Maps 1The only country that seems to be misconstrued on the map—at least for recent elections—is Germany. As the set of maps from Electoral Geography 2.0 indicates, German elections have recently been structured largely Germany Electoral Maps 2around a north/south division, especially those of 1998, 2002, and 2005. The 1994 and 1987 (West Germany only) maps fit better with de Voogd’s depiction, although it does seem that he unduly minimizes the left-wing Ruhr industrial area.

European right-wing populism mapUnfortunately, the interpretation of de Voogd’s cartography by The Economist is not particularly enlightening. Much of the attention here focuses on environmental determinism, referring both to the map discussed above and to another map made by de Voogd, posted here to the left. As the noted in The Economist article:

Flat areas are more right wing The flat pains of southern Sweden, East Anglia, north-eastern France, Flanders and Padania vote for right-wing populists. Hilly regions like Cumbria, south-west France and most of the Alps tend to stick with the mainstream parties. This observation is not as facetious as it may seem. According to Garry Tregidga, an historian at Exeter University, hilly pastoral areas are generally characterised by left-leaning politics. One debatable explanation is that flat crop-growing areas benefit most from economies of scale, so fathers traditionally passed on their land to the first born, reinforcing differences in wealth and creating a more hierarchical political culture. In hilly, pastoral areas inheritances were more commonly split equally, which over the generations created a more egalitarian social structure and political tradition. Another (equally debatable) explanation is that arable farms need cheap vegetable-pickers and that the consequent foreign immigration into otherwise homogeneous rural areas stokes right-wing sentiment.

Europe physical mapThe Economist author simply gets the physical geography of Europe wrong. Upper Saxony in Germany and Provence in France are correctly depicted as right-wing populist strongholds, yet they are hardly flat areas. And as the “dominant political force” map indicates, many “flat” areas generally vote for the left. Examples here include southwestern France (Aquitaine is not “hilly,” despite what The Economist claims), the lowlands of Scotland, the Brandenburg region of Germany, the plains of Andalucía, and the lower Danube Valley. And what of upland area such as the Alps, the Carpathians, the Pindus, and the Cantabrian Mountains that are accurately depicted as more “rightist” in their voting patterns? As a comparison of de Voogd’s basic political map with a physical map of Europe shows, there is simply no pan-European correlation between topography and political viewpoints.

Like most geographers, I am often perplexed by the hold that environmental determinism retains on the public imagination. Actual evidence is rarely able to dislodge such fallacies. Evidently there is something deep comfortable about the idea that landforms and climate determine how we think.

The Political Regions of Europe and the Fallacy of Environmental Determinism Read More »

Eco-Authoritarian Catastrophism: The Dismal and Deluded Vision of Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

(Note: The following post strays from the usual geopolitical concerns of GeoCurrents into the realm of environmental politics. It also deviates from the norm in being a polemical review of a particular book. Regular posts will resume shortly.)

UnknownAs with so many other hot-button debates, the climate change controversy leaves me repelled by the clamoring extremists on both sides. Global-warming denialists, as some are aptly called, regard the scientific establishment with such contempt that they abandon the realm of reason. In comment after comment posted on on-line articles and blogs, self-styled skeptics insist that carbon dioxide is such a scant component of the atmosphere that it could not possibly play any climatic role, while castigating mainstream climatologists as malevolent conspirators dedicated to destroying civilization. Yet on the equally aptly named alarmist side of the divide, reasonable concerns often yield to dismal fantasies of the type so elegantly described by Pascal Bruckner in The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, upheld by exaggeration to the point of absurdity. More alarmingly, climate activism seems to be veering in an unabashedly authoritarian direction. In such a heated atmosphere, evenhanded positions are at the risk of being flooded out by a rising sea of mutual invective and misinformation.

This essay addresses only one side of this spectrum, that of the doomsayers who think we must forsake democracy and throttle our freedoms if we are to avoid a planetary catastrophe. Although it may seem paradoxical, my focus on the green extreme stems precisely from my conviction that anthropogenic climate change is a huge problem that demands determined action. Yet a sizable contingent of eco-radicals, I am convinced, consistently discredit this cause. By insisting that devastating climate change is only a few years away, they will probably undermine the movement’s public support, given the vastly more likely chance that warming will be gradual and punctuated. By engaging in mendacious reporting and misleading argumentation, they provide ample ammunition for their conspiracy-minded opponents. And by championing illiberal politics, they betray the public good that they ostensibly champion. It is a sad day indeed when an icon of liberalism such as Robert Kennedy Jr. can plausibly be deemed an “aspiring tyrant” for wanting to punish global-warming deniers.

A few off-hand comments by the flighty scion of an illustrious political family, however, are hardly enough to substantiate my admittedly harsh charges. But more damning examples of eco-authoritarianism are not difficult to find. For the present essay, I will limit my attention to one crucial text, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s 2014 The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. Idiosyncratic though this book may be, its significance is undeniable. Its authors are widely noted experts in the politics and intellectual history of the climate change controversy, have previously co-written a seminal work, Merchants of Doubt. They teach, respectively, at Harvard University and the Cal Tech, and the book in question was published by Columbia University Press, one of the world’s most esteemed academic presses. Such widely respected public figures as Elizabeth Kolbert and Timothy E. Wirth provide effusive endorsements on the back cover. Kolbert goes so far at to claim that the book should be “required reading for anyone who works—or hopes to—in Washington.” Wirth tells us that unless we heed Oreskes and Conway’s warnings, we will have no chance of avoiding their “dire predictions.” The noted science-fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson chimes in as well, telling us that the book’s prognostications are “all too plausible.”

Before delving into Oreskes and Conway’s dismal predictions and authoritarian proposals, a few words about the structure and contents of their unusual book are in order. As the authors explain in their first two sentences, The Collapse of Western Civilization aims to “blend the two genres” of science fiction and history in order to “understand the present.” In actuality, virtually nothing that is recognizable as either science fiction or history is found between its covers. Instead, one encounters a brief text (52 pages*) that purports to be a straightforward account of the planetary catastrophes of the 21st century, written by a fictional historian living in the Second People’s Republic of China three hundred years after the final collapse of “Western Civilization” in 2093. This imagined author informs us that that Western Civilization was destroyed by its obsession with free markets and devotion to a “carbon-combustion complex,” which is contrasted with the authoritarian system of China that allowed it to survive and eventually help restabilize the global climate.

Global Warming Temperatures Map 2As the book claims to outline the “not only predictable but predicted” (p. 1) consequences of a fossil-fuel-based energy system, I will begin by examining the author’s actual foretelling. As it turns out, most of it is hyperbolic, going far behind even the most extreme warnings provided by climatologists. Consider, for example, Oreskes and Conway’s most grimly amusing nightmare: the mass die-off of dogs and cats in the early 2020s. Lest one conclude that I am exaggerating here, a direct quotation should suffice:

 [B]ut in 2023, the infamous “year of perpetual summer,” lived up to its name, taking 500,000 lives worldwide and costing nearly $500 billion in losses due to fires, crop failures, and the deaths of livestock and companion animals. The loss of pet cats and dogs garnered particular attention among wealthy Westerners, but what was anomalous in 2023 soon became the new normal (p. 8-9).

Global Warming Temperatures Map 1Within a mere nine years, global warning could produce temperature spikes so elevated as to generate massive cat mortality? The idea is so ludicrous that I hardly know where to begin. Domestic cats, as anyone who has spent any time around them surely understands, are heat-seeking creatures; native to the Middle East and North Africa, they thrive in the world’s hottest environments. Yet Oreskes and Conway expect us to believe that within a few decades “normal” temperatures across much of “the West” will exceed the tolerance threshold of the house cat? If they really think that such a scenario is plausible, one must wonder why they delay the collapse until the late 21st century and excluded China from destruction, as it would seem that we will all be cooked well before then. (One might also wonder why wealthy Westerners would not allow their beloved companions to remain within their air-conditioned homes during the death-dealing heat waves of the 2020s, but that is a different matter altogether.)

The great cat catastrophe of 2023 is by no means the only instance of risible fear-mongering found in the book. It would seem that there is no limit to the horrors that global warming will spawn, including a resurgence of bubonic plague (p. 30) and the creation of “viral and retroviral agents never before seen” (p. 25). Even typhus is predicted to make a major comeback owing to “explosive increases in insect populations” (p. 25); although it is reasonable to imagine some insect species proliferating in a warmer world, I have a difficult time seeing a massive revival of body lice generating a typhus epidemic that could easily be forestalled by antibiotics. Or consider the authors’ overall depiction of the global scene in the late 21st century:

 [S]urvivors in northern regions of Europe, Asia, and North America, as well as inland and high-altitude regions of South America, were able to begin to regroup and rebuild. The human populations of Australia and Africa, of course, were wiped out (p.33).

Australia Maximum Temperatures MapWhy yes, of course; how could anyone be expected to survive global warming on continents as hot as Australia and Africa? The only problem with this assertion is the inconvenient fact that vast areas of both landmasses are not particularly warm. In Melbourne, Australia the average January (summer) high temperature is 78° F (26° C), only slightly above that of July in Paris. Hobart, a city of more than 200,000 inhabitants, posts summer temperatures virtually identical to those of Stockholm. ** Nor is Africa climatically extreme; most of South Africa is World Average Annual Temperature Maptemperate, and the mountains of Algeria and Morocco are cooler still. Throughout eastern and southern Africa, high elevations ensure equable conditions. Contrary to Oreskes and Conway’s warnings, inland Africa is generally less vulnerable to climate change than most parts of inland South America, owing mainly to its higher elevation. Currently, the average high temperature in the warmest month in Asunción, Paraguay is a whopping 10 degrees Celsius (19 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than that of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The same gap, moreover, is found in regard to the highest temperatures ever recorded in both locations.

Such temperature contrasts, however, are not the main issue. Rather, it is the fact that even the most extreme scientific predictions of possible global warming over the next century do not posit conditions that would preclude human life over vast expanses of the world. People can live quite well in hot climes, and can even do so without air conditioning. Perhaps Chicago will eventually become as warm as Dallas, which currently has an average July high temperature of 96° F (35.6° C), and perhaps Dallas could become as hot as Las Vegas, with its average July high of 104° F (40° C). But even with such a development, neither town would reach the current conditions of Kuwait City, with its average July high of 116° F (46.7° C) and sultry average July low of 87° F (30.7° C).

But perhaps Oreskes and Conway do not foresee all Australians and Africans perishing directly from heat, but rather as dying off from droughts, massive storms, and other climatic disasters—along with new heat-spawned viral diseases and sundry other mega-misfortunes. For the North American agricultural heartland, they seem to mainly fear devastating dry spells. Imagining conditions in the 2050s, they write:

As the Great North American Desert surged north and east, consuming the High Plains and destroying some of the world’s most productive farmland, the U.S. Government declared martial law to prevent food riots and looting (p. 25).

Africa 2060 Drought MapIt is true that many climate models indicate increasingly aridity over the Great Plains and the Corn Belt, which would certainly harm U.S. food production. But at the global scale, such thinking does not pan out, as a warmer world will almost certainly be a wetter world, enhancing agricultural potential in many dry areas—even if more precipitation does come in the form of torrential downpours. If some parts of Africa will lose their food-production potential, others may see it enhanced. Much of East Africa is shown in some models as acquiring a less drought-prone climate, as can be seen in the map posted here. And as is currently the case, most of Africa will remain immune from hurricanes and tornados, the increased intensity of which, moreover, is not assured. (The equatorial belt will always be cyclone-free, as the twisting Coriolis effect diminishes to nothing at latitude zero.) It must also be acknowledged that higher levels of carbon dioxide are to an uncertain extent associated with enhanced vegetative growth. Some evidence even indicates that elevated CO2 Tropical Cyclones Track Mapallows plants to better withstand aridity, as their gas-exchanging leaf pores (stomata) do not need to open as widely under such conditions, reducing transpiration and hence water loss. The mere mention of any such possible positive consequences of climate change, however, is widely regarded as intolerable heresy, and hence would never appear in a book like The Collapse of Western Civilization. I hesitate here as well, as I do not want to imply that the gains of climate change could somehow cancel the losses. In the end, however, honest disclosure of the existing evidence is an obligation of all serious scholars.

Regardless of whether climate change will undercut food production, Oreskes and Conway’s own prescription for dealing with the crisis would only intensify the problem. They strongly support, for example, biodiesel and other forms of biologically derived fuel, viewing “liquid biofuels for aviation” as nothing less than “crucial” (pp. 21, 24). Channeling biological production into the energy system, however, either diminishes the human food stream, raising the price and reducing the availability of staples, or detracts from natural ecosystems, diminishing the scope of non-human life. As Will Boisvert has devastatingly demonstrated, there is nothing at all green about biofuels.

Oreskes and Conway’s support of biofuels is linked to their dismissal of natural gas. They reserve particular contempt for the idea that gas could act as an environmentally beneficial “bridge to renewables.” Most of their arguments against gas are familiar, focused on such issues as the “fugitive emissions” that occur when carbon dioxide and methane “escape from wellheads into the atmosphere.” (p. 23). Such leakage is a genuine problem, but most experts think that it can be solved by technical means. Some of their other objections, however, are novel, such as the idea that natural gas will replace near-zero-emission nuclear energy and hydropower, especially in countries such as Canada (p. 23). Why such a substitution would occur is not specified, even though the possibility that it would is extraordinarily low. The costs of hydropower in particular are almost completely upfront; once a dam has been constructed and the turbines installed, the resulting power is cheap and hence not vulnerable to replacement by natural gas. The only reason why Canada might be tempted to dismantle its hydroelectric and nuclear facilities would be political pressure from environmental activists. Would Oreskes and Conway be among those urging the end these extremely low-carbon sources of power? One cannot tell from the book in question, but in other writings (here and here) Oreskes rebuffs nuclear power, due mainly to “difficulties inherent to the technology and its management.” It would thus appear that this particular objection to natural gas is self-cancelling.

Oreskes and Conway’s focus on the supposed sins of Western Civilization also demands further scrutiny. It is not merely the energy-hungry United States that they portray as essentially doomed, but also many of the world’s most environmentally oriented countries, which happen to be located in the European heartland of the West. The ultimate problem, they imply, is not the environmental policies of particular states, but rather the deeper cultural predilections of the Western world. Such “cultural practices” center around an “ideological fixation on ‘free’ markets” (p. ix) but also include such features as “excessively stringent standards for accepting [truth] claims.”

Such arguments are difficult to take seriously. Can one really claim that Germany suffers from an “ideological fixation on ‘free’ markets,” considering its fat subsidies for renewable energy as well as the recent collapse of the Free Democrats, the country’s only political party that embraces classical economic liberalism? Could France possibly be regarded as possessing such an obsession? One of the stumbling blocks here is the authors’ failure to define what they mean by “Western Civilization.” Although they never specify its geographical contours or seriously delve into its cultural content, they do give it oddly precise temporal boundaries: 1540-2093. How the initiation date of 1540 was selected is anyone’s guess. If anything civilizationally momentous occurred in this year, it has evidently escaped our historical accounts. Ironically, however, 1540 does occupy an intriguing position in climate history. According to the historical geographer Jan Buisman:

[T]he year 1540 was one with an even more severe summer than 2003. All over Europe, the heat wave lasted, off and on, for seven months, with parched fields and dried up rivers, such as the Rhine. People in Paris, France could walk on the riverbed of the Seine without getting their feet wet.

Dating the emergence of “Western Civilization” may be a relatively trivial matter, but the same cannot be said about Oreskes and Conway’s dismissal of “excessively stringent standards for accepting [truth] claims.” Here we encounter one of the book’s deeper paradoxes. The climate movement relies on its defense of science, leveling the charge of “science denialism” against its opponents whenever possible, yet here we find Oreskes and Conway attacking the very epistemological foundations of the entire endeavor. Nor is this their only instance of rejecting the standard practices of science. “Statistical significance,” they claim, is an outmoded concept that will someday be regarded as “archaic” (p. 61). In several passages, they lather contempt on “physical scientists,” those benighted practitioners, “overwhelmingly male,” who:

[E]mphasized study of the world’s physical constituents and processes … to the neglect of biological and social realms and focused on reductionist methodologies that impeded understanding of the crucial interactions between physical, biological, and social realms (p. 60).

Oreskes and Conway embrace “interaction” to such as extent that they even regard “environment” as another concept that will eventually be dismissed as archaic, as it supposedly entails “separating humans from the rest of the world” (p. 55). In actuality, most people use the term “environment” precisely to highlight connections among humans and the rest of nature. But according to the authors, it was not until the coming of “radical thinkers such as Paul Ehrlich and Dennis and Donella Meadows” in the late 20th century that anyone “recognized that humans are part of the environment and dependent upon it” (p. 56). Such claims are preposterous, as the history of Western thought thoroughly demonstrates. To appreciate the historical depth of such recognition, I would recommend Clarence Glacken’s magisterial, Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century.

Although many of the key scientific questions of the day do indeed demand, as Oreskes and Conway write, an “understanding of the crucial interactions between physical, biological, and social realms,” it is equally imperative to recognize that most do not. Most of the issues addressed by chemists, physicists, and geologists have nothing to do with the social realm, and must be examined through a “reductionistic” lens if they are to be approached scientifically. To insist instead that they must be framed in a socio-biological context is to reject the methods of science at a fundamental level. Such a tactic risks reviving the intellectual atmosphere that led the Soviet Union to the disaster of ideologically contaminated research known as Lysenkoism. In the final analysis, the denial of science encountered in The Collapse of Western Civilization thus runs much deeper than that found among even the most determined climate-change skeptics, as it pivots on much more basic epistemological and methodological issues.

Not just science by also logic suffers at the hands of the author. They argue, for example, that it is a logical fallacy to contend that natural gas could serve as a “bridge to renewables,” due to the fact that analyses of the effects of natural-gas combustion on the atmosphere have been “incomplete” (p. 53-54). In actuality, this is an empirical issue, not one of logic per se.

The most troubling aspect of Oreskes and Conway’s book, however, is not its scare-tactics, its sloppy depictions of climatic patterns, or its attack on scientific standards. What is truly frightening is its embrace of authoritarian politics, coupled with its denigration of liberty and democracy. This is a tricky issue, however, as the authors’ pseudo-science-fictional narrative strategy provides an easy out, making it appear as if the authors actually value liberty and reject despotism. Oreskes contends in the interview that comes at the end of the book that the preservation of any freedoms that we still enjoy demands immediate and thoroughgoing action, as “delay increases the risk that authoritarian forms of government will come out ahead in the end” (p. 70). It is rather, the authors contend, supporters of the status quo who are undermining freedom by their failure to embrace the alarmist position. As they write:

And so the development that neo-liberals most dreaded—centralized government and loss of personal choice—was rendered essential by the very policies that they had put in place (p. 49).

This tactic, however, is disingenuous. No evidence is provided, for example, to indicate that autocratic governments respond more effectively to environmental crises than democratic ones. Rather, this thesis is merely assumed, despite the large body of evidence that points in the opposite direction. It is, moreover, an unfortunate fact that global carbon-dioxide emissions will continue to rise for some time regardless of any minuscule effect that the publication The Collapse of Western Civilization and similar books may have on public opinion. India, for example, has recently announced that it will prioritize economic development over climatic stabilization. The governments of many other countries concur, all but guaranteeing increasing emissions. As result, Oreskes and Conway may claim that they do not personally embrace authoritarianism, but their larger arguments hold that it is nonetheless necessary if civilization is to survive in any form. Finally, given their own predictions of shattering disruptions across the world, China’s geographical position ensures that it would suffer vastly more than Western Europe, the historical core of the supposedly doomed Western Civilization. In imagining China’s unlikely survival against the thrust of their own arguments, they evidently find something deeply compelling about its political system.

China’s intense vulnerability to the kind of climate change foreseen by Oreskes and Conway is undeniable. To begin with, most of the densely settled, agricultural productive areas of the country already experience pronounced summer heat. The huge metropolis of Chongqing, for example, has an average August high temperature of 92.5° F (33.6° C) as well as a sultry average low in the same month of 76.5° F (24.7° C), which makes it distinctly warmer than almost the entire expanse of southern Europe. Even the far northern Chinese city of Harbin post a warm daily mean July temperature of 73.4° F (23° C), which is virtually identical to that of Italy’s Milan (73.6° F/23.1° C). To be sure, the vast Tibetan Plateau of southwestern China has a cool climate, but most of it is too high, and hence Oreskes and Conway's Vision Maptoo oxygen deprived, to serve as a refuge for those fleeing climate disturbances. Only the Yunnan Plateau and few portions of the extreme north would be suitable resettlement zones in a world so hot as to depopulate (most of) Australia. (To illustrate the larger argument here, I have juxtaposed map details of southeastern China and southeastern Australia, extraced from several of the maps posted above.)

Global Warming Natural Disasters MapHigh temperatures, moreover, are by no means the only problems that China would face in the world imaged by Oreskes and Conway. The country is already highly susceptible to drought, especially its densely populated North China Plain. Massive engineering projects are now being constructed to alleviate water shortages in this region, although many experts doubt that they will be adequate. Desertification, likewise, is much more extreme in China today than in North America, let alone Europe. The same story is encountered in regard to flooding; it is no coincidence that most of the world’s truly devastating floods have occurred in China. And it goes without saying that the surge in tropical mega-storms predicted by the authors would have a vastly greater impact on China than on Europe. The same is true in regard to the terrifying northward surge of tropical diseases that the authors envisage. Finally, even specific calamities imagined by Oreskes and Conway, such as the failure of the Asian monsoon—generated it their view not by global warming but rather by geo-engineering efforts to forestall it (p. 27)—would devastate China but spare Europe. As a result of such considerations, it is odd indeed that the authors imagine China surviving while the Western Civilization of Europe perishes.

In a few passages, Oreskes and Conway seem to indicate that China will be able to meet the challenge of climate change with relative success due to its foresighted environmental policies. Considering China’s environmental record to date, this is a most curious argument. Although China does subsidize renewable energy—as do most Western countries—it continues to spew carbon dioxide with abandon. More important, it unquestionably prioritizes economic growth over environmental protection. The most recent figures show that China’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions have just surpassed those of the European Union, which is an extraordinary development considering the fact that the EU is much more prosperous than China.

Oreskes and Conway’s depictions of China’s environmental advantages over the West, moreover, are far from convincing. Consider, for example, the following passage:

China, for instance, took steps to control its population and convert its economy to non-carbon-based energy sources. These efforts were little noticed and less emulated in the West, in part because Westerners viewed Chinese population control efforts as immoral … (p. 6).

In actuality, certain Western countries have made greater efforts than China to move to a non-carbon-based economy, albeit with checkered success.*** But any such accomplishments will have no impact on any particular country’s vulnerability to climate change, as greenhouse-gas emissions are a global rather than local matter. What is truly bizarre in this passage, however, is the idea that Western countries have failed to “emulate” China’s population-control policies. At present, virtually all Western countries, no matter how “the West” is defined, have birthrates below the replacement level. Many of them, moreover, post fertility-rate figures well below that of China, including Germany, Poland, Italy and Spain. Yet for all of this, Oreskes and Conway still think that it necessary to scold the West for its failure to enact coercive population control measures.

In other passages as well, Oreskes and Conway ardently support China’s one-child policy, imagining that by the 2040s it will, by necessity, be “widely implemented” across the world (p 24). Yet in actuality, it is not merely Western countries that have seen their fertility rates plunge well below the replacement level. Brazil, Iran, and Thailand fall into this category, as do all the states of southern India. Yet in all of these examples, birth-rate declines have occurred on a strictly voluntary basis, without the human-rights abuses that have accompanied the Chinese program. The drivers of such declining fertility are reasonably well understood, including broad-based economic and social development, mass public education (especially of girls), and even the availability of televised “soap operas” than model small but happy middle-class families. Evidently, the authors find such a gentle and accommodating path to demographic stability much less appealing the strong-arm approach of the Chinese government

In the end, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Oreskes and Conway’s vision of China’s survival is rooted not in the country’s potential for enacting beneficial environmental policies, but rather in its current authoritarianism. Indeed, Erik Conway admits as much in the interview at the end of the book: “authoritarian states may well find it easier to make the changes necessary to survive rapid climate change” (p. 70). The despotic Chinese regime, in other words, is regarded as possessing the ability to force adaptive change on its population, unlike the liberty-besotted West. The authors imagine, for example, that China would be able to effectively arrange mass transfers of people away from inundated coastal plains and other eco-disaster zones. Admittedly, China does has some experience with such relocation programs, having expelled more that a million people from their homes when it began to fill the reservoir behind the Three Gorges Dam. Human-rights advocates, however, generally see such displacements as catastrophic in their own right, but such considerations seem to matter little to Oreskes and Conway.

Former U.S. senator Timothy Worth’s avidly blurbs The Collapse of Western Civilization, describing the scenario outlined by Oreskes and Conway as “chilling.” On that I would certainly agree, but what chills me are not their overwrought depictions of the coming global crisis, but rather their totalitarian response. On the final page of their text, their fictional mouthpiece tells us that three hundred years after the collapse of Western Civilization, “decentralization and redemocratization may be considered.” “May,” however,” turns out to be the operative term, as the passage goes on to note that, “others consider that outcome wishful, in light of the dreadful events of the past.”

Oreskes and Conway’s authoritarian inclinations are seemingly linked to their contempt for the West, which they identify with a dangerous devotion to personal freedom. The most telling passage to this effect is found in the authors’ interview, where Erik Conway states:

 To me, [The Collapse of Western Civilization] is hopeful. There will be a future for humanity, even if one no longer dominated by “Western Culture.”

No matter that Oreskes and Conway see every last person in Africa perishing, they still apparently find such a scenario promising as long as Western Culture perishes in the process.

As noted at the beginning of this essay, tens of millions of people have reached the conclusion that anthropogenic climate change is a giant hoax perpetuated by corrupt scientific and journalistic establishments. In their previous book, Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes and Conway attribute such benighted views to the money and machinations of oil companies and other organizations with financial interests in the status quo. While I would not deny that such factors play a role, they do not provide a full account. Of particular significance are the writings of green extremists such as Oreskes and Conway themselves. By putting forth grotesque exaggerations, by engaging in misleading reportage, and by embracing authoritarian if not totalitarian politics, they discredit their own cause. The Collapse of Western Civilization, in short, reads as if it were part of a great conspiracy, one that that seemingly rests on an insincere approach to evidence and argumentation.

The Collapse of Western Civilization is, of course, merely one thin book, and as such it must be asked whether it can be regarded as representative of even the extremist fringe of the climate movement. But in the final analysis it is not the book itself that disturbs me so much as its reception by the broader green community. Judging from published reviews and on-line comments, it would appear that acclamation has been the most common response. Such acclaim, however, is deeply ironic. Environmentalists generally regard themselves, and are regarded by others, as politically liberal. But when self-styled liberals embrace a work that is not merely illiberal but ostentatiously anti-liberal, I must wonder whether the mainstream environmental movement has any future at all.

*A “glossary of archaic terms,” and an interview with the authors, and a set of scholarly notes, bring the page count up to 89.

** It is true that the record high temperature of Hobart (107° F/42° C) exceeds that of both Paris (105° F/40.4° C) and Stockholm (97° F/36° C), but it is still well below the record high temperature of most cities in the U.S. Midwest. The figure for Saint Louis, for example, is 115° F (46° C).

*** Germany has probably gone farther than any other country in pushing renewable energy, but its success has been limited. Owning to its dismantling of nuclear reactors, it has been forced to increase its coal and biomass combustion, despite its surging solar and wind energy production. As a result, carbon dioxide emissions have increased, deforestation has accelerated, and energy prices have risen, placing a heavy burden on the poor.

Eco-Authoritarian Catastrophism: The Dismal and Deluded Vision of Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway Read More »

Saint Martin/Sint Maarten: An Island Divided

(Note: Today’s post is by Claire Negiar, a Stanford senior, soon to graduate. Claire will be writing a few posts over the coming weeks, many of them focused on France and French dependencies.)

Saint Martin. Sint Maarten. A crossroad between North and South, split between France and the Netherlands, Saint Martin has known a different fate in the aftermath of decolonization than most other Caribbean islands. Although the European colonial powers of Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and even some of the Nordic nations usually battled it out for sovereignty over Carribbean islands in long back-and-forths, on the island of Saint Martin, the two main contenders chose a different path: that of peaceful coexistence. But what enabled Saint Martin to be successful in its division, while so many other attempts at dividing territory across the world have failed? And how have France and the Netherlands been able to coexist and build a coherent island community despite this division?

One hypothesis would be that the early colonization of Saint Martin has given time the chance to smooth over the conflicts and the disputes that resulted from this dual presence. Indeed, borders were disputed for some time before matters were settled: between 1648 and 1816, conflicts changed the border sixteen times. In the end, the French came out ahead with 54 km2 to the 41 km2 of the Dutch side. The French and Dutch had both coveted the island: while the French wanted to colonize all the islands between Trinidad and Bermuda, Dutch interest in Saint Martin stemmed from a desire to have a convenient halfway point between their colonies in New Amsterdam (today New York) and Brazil (temporarily taken from Portugal). Because there were few people inhabiting the island, the Dutch easily founded a settlement there in 1631, erecting Fort Amsterdam as protection from invaders. Soon after, the Dutch East India Company began salt mining operations. French and British settlements sprang up on the island as well, which attracted the Spanish conquistadores’ attention: taking note of these successful colonies and wanting to maintain their control of the salt trade, they suddenly found St. Martin much more appealing than it had been. What is more, the Eighty Years’ War, which had been raging between Spain and the Netherlands, provided further incentive to attack. The Spanish forces captured Saint Martin from the Dutch in 1633, seizing control and driving most or all of the colonists off the island. Although the Dutch retaliated in several attempts to win back the island, these were unsuccessful.

Sans titre3However, fifteen years after the Spanish conquered the island, the Eighty Years’ War ended and the Spanish lost their inclination to continue defending the island. They deserted the island in 1648 and, when this happened, both the Dutch and the French jumped at the chance to re-establish their settlements. Dutch colonists came from St. Eustatius, while the French came from St. Kitts.

After some initial conflict, both sides realized that neither would yield easily and, preferring to avoid an all-out war, they signed the Treaty of Concordia in 1648, which divided the island in two. In spite of the treaty, relations between the two sides were not always cordial. We can therefore see that Saint Martin’s history was off to a rocky start as well, and that things were not always as smooth as they are today.

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Some elements of the initial partition of the island may, however, help explain why it has largely been successful. Indeed, the French and the Dutch realized it was in their interest to sign a treaty giving each of them roughly half the territory. In a game of prisoner’s dilemma, the French and the Dutch would therefore both have chosen the option of “lying low,” resulting in the most beneficial split for both, instead of choosing the “equilibrium” strategy of attacking behind the other’s back, resulting in a sub-optimal resolution where there is also an intense mistrust.  All of the provisions of the 1648 Treaty of Concordia are still in force on Saint Martin today, thus showing that it has at least passed the test of time.

Another interesting point is the fact that the native population of Saint Martin was minimal, and that the population of the island has grown from both colonial settlements. That is to say, the indigenous peoples were overpowered and vastly outnumbered by the colonial powers, and that today the population is roughly split at 50% between the French and the Dutch sides, with 35,518 in Saint Martin and 37,459 in St. Maarten. Overall, the island’s population is highly mixed, with people from over 120 countries, speaking English, French, Haitian/Guadeloupe/Martinique Creole, Papiamento (a Portuguese-based Creole from the Netherland’s islands of the southern Caribbean), Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, and even Italian. It seems that this intense melting pot helps defray cultural tension, as the island is not just a split between forty thousand Frenchmen and forty thousand Dutch. On Saint Martin/St. Maarten, languages, cultures, religions, and ethnicities mix and mingle, and as a result the fact that the island is split between the Netherlands and France has taken a secondary place.

Though initially a part of the French region of Guadeloupe, French Saint Martin more recently experienced a major geopolitical change. The constitutional reform of March 28th 2003 on the decentralization of the French Republic brought about transformation in the status of the overseas territories. The new law laid down a framework for developments in the status and administration of overseas “Collectivités”. In December of 2003, at the request of the municipal council, a referendum was held on Saint Martin on the island’s constitutional status under the framework of Article 74 of the Constitution (which allows the creation of a “collectivité” with a special status); a clear majority (76.17%) of the Saint Martiners voted in favor of this change. Since December 2007, Saint Martin has been a leader of the French decentralization process under this new article of the constitution.

A somewhat similar change occurred on the Dutch half of the island.  In 1957 the Netherlands excluded the Netherlands Antilles from European Territory at the signing of the Treaty of Rome, which created the European Economic Council, forerunner of the EU, cementing its status as a colonial possession. On October 10th, however, 2010, Sint Maarten however became a constituent (i.e., non-sovereign) country within the Dutch Kingdom, giving it an equal status to Aruba, Curacao and, theoretically, the Netherlands itself. Today, the government of the “Country of St Maarten” is a parliamentary democracy.

As such developments show, the two mother countries on the island have been willing to loosen their grasp on the island and offer a certain degree of self-rule to the local population. Such accommodation is rooted in part in the island’s demographic diversity, but mere distance probably plays a role as well. If Saint Martin were closer to France and the Netherlands, would these two countries be more inclined to resist this slow relinquishing of control?  The island’s small size, and its lack of resources, has probably played a role as well.

The fact that Saint Martin has gained substantial autonomy is also synonymous with a loosened fiscal policy, which is advantageous to many wealthy French citizens. The same situation is found in other French dependencies, although the French government claims that it wants to crack down on the resulting financial irregularities. Because of their special status, Saint-Martin, Saint-Barthélémy, Tahiti, and Wallis-et-Futuna all function, to a certain extent, as tax havens and money-laundering hubs. These « Collectivités d’Outre Mer » all benefit from complete autonomy in terms of fiscal and customs policies. The political division of the island of Saint Martin complicates this situation, although sovereignty is divided, no formal border separates the two parts of the island;  one can weave in and out of the two countries without even knowing it.

Walking between the Dutch and French sides of the island of Saint Martin, the biggest difference is that of scale: while the Dutch side boasts very large hotels, nightclubs, casinos, and cruise-ship tourist populations, while the French side is home to smaller-scale hotels, restaurants, and, in true French form, a few topless beaches. What is more, financial institutions on the Dutch and the French sides have a policy of cooperation, thus making money-laundering relatively easy. Indeed, according to UN and European Commission consultant Michel Koutouzis:

“You arrive with black-market money in a Casino on the Dutch side. You are told to sit at a given table for an hour. The casino makes you win a pre-arranged sum, which is a common practice in tax-havens. Once you collect your winnings, you can go invest them on the French side in real-estate or marina projects.”

Today, two main issues have been plaguing the island, French and Dutch sides alike: drugs and disease. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about the dispersion of the chikungunya mosquito-borne virus across the Caribbean, fearing its spread to the United States and throughout the Americas.

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The virus, originally from Africa and southern Asia, causes fever and intense muscle and joint pain for weeks and, in some cases, years. There is currently no vaccine or cure. On December 10, 2013, the WHO confirmed the first two cases of chikungunya that were acquired locally rather than imported, on the French part of the island of St. Martin. As of Feb. 21, the Pan American Health Organization, a regional WHO entity, had confirmed 2,238 cases of the disease in the Caribbean—from Martinique to the British Virgin Islands.

Drug consumption and ease of access has been another concern for the island: both cannabis and heroin are relatively cheap on the island, and are thus prevalent and heavily consumed. Reducing the drug consumption and creating an environment in which people feel comfortable to seek out help remain top priorities for the local government.

Although the island of Saint Martin is divided, it benefits from surprising synergies between its two sides, with a shared but diverse cultural background, and a reputation for delicious food and beautiful beaches. However, the two sides of the islands also share the common challenges of disease, drugs, and regulating financial institutions to avoid money-laundering and tax evasion. Today, although politically divided, Saint Martin largely functions as a unified country, with the minor anomaly of having two separate official languages in different areas. Although not necessarily an example of perfect governance or exemplary policy, Saint Martin provides lessons for other regions of the world about successful coexistence. But is this model reproducible anywhere else in the world, perhaps in such a conflict-ridden and divided country as Cyprus, or is it too idiosyncratic of a situation to be generalizable to any other parts of the world?

 

http://www.stmartinisland.org/destination-st-martin/saint-martin-island-life.html

http://rue89.nouvelobs.com/2008/10/17/ces-petits-paradis-fiscaux-francais-quon-laisse-prosperer

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304071004579409532322280294

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/24/one-island-two-countries/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Martin

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Australia’s Climatic Anomalies

(Having just returned from a family trip to Australia, I feel compelled to muse over a few Australian topics over the next few days….).

In the various indices of the world’s “most livable cities,” those of Australia generally rank quite high. In the Economist Intelligence Unit‘s (EIU) most recent global liveability report, Melbourne places first, Adelaide fifth, Sydney seventh, and Perth ninth. The EIU index does not consider climate; if it did, Sydney would probably rank higher. What constitutes an ideal climate is of course a highly subjective matter; judging from various web postings on “the world’s best climate,” some people prefer mild conditions and while others favor warmth, some like aridity and while others prefer periodic rain, and some revel in year-round constancy while others demand seasonality. Sydney’s climate, however, would appeal to many: summers are on average warm but not hot (with an average January high of 78°F [26°C]*), while winters are cool but not cold (with an average July high of 61 F [16 C]). Although real heat is occasionally experienced (the city’s record high temperature is 113°F [46°C]), true cold is unknown, allowing tropical vegetation to flourish (the record low is 36°F [2°C]). Although some might find Sydney too wet (with average annual precipitation of 47 inches [1,213 mm]), in every month one can expect at least five hours of mean daily sunshine. By the same token, summer days tend to be fairly damp, with an average January relative humidity of 64% at 3:00 PM, but given the city’s mild temperatures, such a figure remains within the comfort range of most individuals.

Sydney’s moderate summers surprise many casual visitors, who often associate Australia with blistering heat in the high-sun season. Even geographically aware travelers might be taken aback. Climatic conditions in general are predictable on the basis of latitude, altitude, position on a landmass (whether located in the west, east, or center), orientation of mountain ranges, and so on. First-year students in physical geography are typically introduced to the “hypothetical continent” on which ideal climate zones are mapped. As an east-coast city situated at a latitude of 34°, Sydney lies on the poleward side of the humid subtropical zone on such a map. (On Australian climate maps, Sydney is variably depicted in either the subtropical or the temperate belt.) As such, it would be expected to experience ample year-round rainfall—which it does. But it should also have hot summers and cool winters with occasional cold-snaps—which it does not. Many similarly situated cities are much less equable. The subtropical east coasts of North America and Asia in particular show marked contrast with Sydney. Analogous cities here include Charleston, South Carolina and Nagoya, Japan, each of which has a sweltering average high in the hottest month of 91°F (33°C). Both cities are also appreciably colder than Sydney in the winter: Nagoya’s average January high is 48°F (9°C) and Charleston’s record low is 6°F (-14°C).

It is not coincidental that Charleston and Nagoya are both located in the northern hemisphere. Similarly situated cities in the Southern Hemisphere are more like Sydney. Montevideo, Uruguay, for example, has an intermediate average summer (January) high temperatures of 83°F/28°C, whereas East London, on South Africa’s east coast at a latitude of 33°, is more moderate than even Sydney, with an average winter (July) high temperature of 70°F (21°C).

The differences between the hemispheres in this regard is likely generated by a combination of ocean currents, which are shaped by landmasses, and the fact that the south is the much more oceanic half of the planet. Sydney owes much of its moderate summers to its maritime location—even its interior suburbs have hotter summers and cooler winters. The subtropical zones in eastern North America and eastern Asia lack such marine moderation owing to the warm currents off their coasts and the greater size of the continents on which they sit. Although the warm East Australian Current does affect Sydney, its influence in the summer is somewhat limited; summer water temperatures off Charleston, South Carolina average about 10°F higher than those off Sydney.

The seeming anomaly of Sydney’s climate is not mentioned in the standard reference work on topic, Glen Trewartha’s The World’s Problem Climates. Trewartha rather regarded coastal New South Wales, like most of the rest of Australia, as climatically unexceptional. As he put it, “Australia approximates in nearly ideal form the climatic arrangement that one would expect on a hypothetical continent where the great planetary controls largely regulate the weather” (75). The one real exception that Trewartha noted (p. 80) is Australia’s lack of an extremely arid but rather cool desert on its coastal flank of its western subtropical belt.

Despite Trewartha’s assessment, Australia is climatically unusual in several regards. Its deserts are both more extensive and less arid than those of other continents. Much of the landmass is also characterized by greater annual variation in rainfall than most other places. Australia owes this characteristic largely to its position relative to the Pacific Ocean, which makes it especially vulnerable to the perturbation of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO). As can be seen on the map, rainfall variability is pronounced in Australia’s more arid interior, but is relatively modest in most costal zones.

Concern is mounting that climate change could accentuate the continent’s already pronounced precipitation variability. The so-called Millennial Drought that began in the late 1990s and lasted until 2009 was the worst dry-spell on record—which is saying a lot. It was followed by an extremely wet period beginning in 2010 and lasting into 2012. The past three months have again been dry over the southeastern half of the country. Long-range forecasts continue to predict a wet summer over much of this region, but they also indicate a drought striking northern Queensland. Forecasting that far into the future, however, is still notoriously unreliable.

* All climate data from the Wikipedia articles on the cities in question, except for the relative humidity data for Sydney, which is from the Times World Weather Guide.

 

 

 

 

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Indo-Australian Plate Rent Asunder Beneath the Ocean

In April 2012, two massive earthquakes hit northern Sumatra. The earthquakes—one of magnitude 8.2 and the other 8.6—were far in excess of what one would expect to encounter many miles from a tectonic plate boundary. Indeed, “strike-slip earthquakes”, where pieces of crust rub against each other laterally, had been completely unknown in the area before the two quakes. Now, researchers from the École Normale Supérieure in Paris argue that the quakes are a manifestation of a new fault line dividing the erstwhile Indo-Australian Plate (see U.S.G.S. map at left). According to the researchers, the infamous earthquakes that hit nearby Aceh in 2004 and Nias in 2005 played an important role in this development. Although the 2004-2005 events were typical earthquakes near a known subduction zone, they may have aided the “intraplate deformation” process sustained by April’s earthquakes. If born out, the research means that the number of major tectonic plates on the Earth’s surface has risen from twelve to thirteen.

The Indo-Australian Plate separation, even if it is still incomplete in some areas, is usually recognized as a forgone conclusion among geologists. During the 1970s, scientists discovered a six hundred mile zone of broken and disfigured crust along the floor of the Indian Ocean. This breakup zone has been in the making for between eight and ten million years. The “Indian Plate” has continued to move north, colliding with Eurasia as it has done for about 50 million years. The “Australian Plate”, meanwhile, has been moving away from the Indian Plate in the west, while crashing into it in the east and causing the pressure that has yielded the new Sumatran earthquakes. The basic dynamics of the situation have been recognized since a 1995 report by researchers from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.

The Indo-Australian Plate separation may seem like a mostly academic issue, but it promises to have major consequences for the new fault region, and perhaps the rest of the world as well. Parts of Sumatra and environs once thought to be relatively safe can expect more mega-quakes and tsunamis in the future. As New Scientist ominously puts it, “Things should become clearer as more earthquakes shake the region.” Moreover, according to researchers from the U.S.G.S., April’s earthquakes set off uncommonly large aftershocks all over the world. Before April, only one earthquake greater than magnitude 5.5 had been recorded as an aftershock more than 1,500 kilometers from the epicenter of the “mainshock” that caused it. During the six-day span after April’s magnitude 8.6 earthquake, the world experienced five times as many remote earthquakes greater than magnitude 5.5 as it normally does. In short, the new strike-slip fault dividing the Indian and Australian plates means business.

The breaking of a tectonic plate is a difficult process to fully comprehend. The Indian Plate is one of the thinnest plates on Earth, but still represents roughly 100 vertical kilometers of rock. The plate’s relatively slender profile is likely the result of melting due to the same massive lava plume that broke up Gondwanaland 90 million years ago and more recently created the Kerguelen microcontinent.

The Indian and Australian Plates were not always joined at the hip; researchers think they only fused about 43 million years ago with the cooling and solidification of former spread regions. In light of their independent histories and the rather awkward-looking shape of the Indo-Australian plate, perhaps the longtime union of the Indian and Australian plates—rather than their separation—is what requires more explanation. It is quite rare for changes taking place on a geologic timescale to manifest themselves clearly during a matter of days and months, but it appears that the present is indeed such a time.

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Extreme Salt Lakes Around the World

The world has many famous salt lakes. Central Asia’s Caspian and Aral Seas, alongside the Dead Sea between Jordan and Israel, are perhaps the best known. Utah’s Great Salt Lake and California’s Mono Lake and Salton Sea are also by no means obscure. These bodies of water are all fascinating in their own right, but by the standards of the world’s “hypersaline lakes”, they are amateurs. In fact, the world’s most extreme salt lakes are to be found not in a hot Afro-Eurasian desert, but in some of the coldest places of the Earth.

With about 98 percent of its surface buried by around a mile of ice and almost no precipitation of any kind away from its coast, Antarctica is just about the last place one would expect to find bodies of liquid water. Nevertheless, tiny Don Juan Pond (see image at left from Ross Sea Info) in the Antarctic region of Victoria Land manages to remain free of ice year-round through by means of its staggering salinity. Widely considered the saltiest lake in the world, Don Juan Pond boasts salinity twelve times that of ocean water, allowing it to stay liquid at temperatures well below -50°C. Don Juan Pond may be the most extreme Antarctic salt lake, but it is not alone. Much larger Lake Vanda maintains roughly ten times the salinity of seawater. Lake Vanda is the final destination of Antarctica’s largest river, the Onyx, which flows only for brief periods during the summer, and looks more like a small creek than a continent’s mightiest river. Unlike Don Juan Pond, Lake Vanda’s surface remains covered in ice year-round, though during the summer liquid water tends to collect around the edges of the lake.

Compared to the miles of ice that define most Antarctic terrain, Antarctica’s salt-lakes support a veritable cornucopia of life. The algal blooms that occasionally grow in Lake Vanda may not seem like much, but by the standards of inland Antarctica they are quite significant. Salt lakes outside of Antarctica are much more hospitable to life, but their high salinity tends to result in a lack of biological activity relative to freshwater counterparts.

Djibouti’s Lake Assal (source)

The saltiest lake outside of Antarctica is Djibouti’s Lake Assal. Lake Assal is about as salty as Lake Vanda, and its relatively large size makes it the world’s largest reserve of commercially exploitable sea salt. Positioned at the bottom of a volcanic crater, Lake Assal finds itself in an awkward position as both a key pillar of Djibouti’s economy and one of the country’s most prized environmental assets. Only bacteria can survive inside the lake, but there are a few shrubs that manage to grow nearby. Most of the lake’s inflow comes from the Red Sea through subterranean waterways, which makes sense given that the shores of Lake Assal are the lowest land in Africa at 155 meters below sea level.

Though Turkmenistan’s Garabogazköl Aylagy is not technically a lake—it is a lagoon connected to the Caspain Sea by a narrow inlet—it maintains a salt concentration even higher than that of Lake Assal. The hypersalinity of the lagoon is quite remarkable considering that the Caspian Sea itself is only about half as salty as ocean water. Virtually no water enters the lagoon from other sources, which, when combined high rates of evaporation, results in a staggering fast inflow of water from the Caspian (see this picture from Wikipedia). The lagoon was cut off from the Caspian and completely dried out in the 1980s in an effort to maintain the volume of the then-shrinking lake, but the effort backfired when salts from the dried seabed wafted over the surrounding landscape causing health and environmental damage similar to what was experienced around the Aral Sea. The lagoon was restored to its former extent in 1992, when concerns about the Caspian Sea began to fade.

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Visualizing California’s Soggy Past

A previous GeoNote highlighted a collaborative effort to map historical changes in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin RiverDelta. In a similar spirit, the fantasy satellite map shown at left, created by Central Valley geographer Mark Clark and noted by Frank Jacobs, imagines what the entire state might have looked like in 1851. Perhaps the map’s most salient feature is massive Tulare Lake, which dominates the Southern San Joaquin valley. Tulare Lake, now completely dry in all but the wettest years, once boasted a surface area of 1,780 square kilometers (690 square miles), making it the largest freshwater lake west of theMississippi River. The rain and melt water that fed the lake in times past now forms a vital input for California’s $36 billion agriculture industry.

Tulare Lake, along with the other extensive river and wetland systems depicted in the map, were drained in the late 19th and early 20th centuries near the end of a wetland-drainage movement that is as old as the country itself. In fact, much of America’s prime agricultural land in the Midwest was once wetland. As shown on the maps below, which were taken from a USGS report, the states of Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, and Ohio—as well as California—have lost over 95 percent of their wetlands since European colonization, primarily to agriculture. Most of the changes in the East occurred during the 19th century.

 

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And the World’s Rainiest Place Is???

A recent GeoNote stressed the impossibility of accurately measuring the coastlines of countries, owing to the intricacies of fractal geometry. But even without fractal complications, many basic geographical measurements are difficult if not impossible to specify. “What is the rainiest place on earth?” seems like a simple question, but it is not.

One problem with determining the world’s wettest place is the highly specific nature of precipitation patterns in many rainy areas. Extremely rainy paces can be relatively small areas where local topography wrings excess moisture out the monsoonal flow or the trade winds, and it is not possible to establish enough weather stations to fully capture such micro-climatic differentiation. Consider, for example, Mount Waiʻaleʻale on the island of Kauaʻi in the Hawaiian Islands, which—according to some sources—receives more than 452 inches (11,500 mm) of rain a year, and is thus one of the contenders for the “rainiest place” title. But as can be seen on the map, the part of Kauaʻi that receives more than 280 inches a year is extremely limited. Had the weather station on Mount Waiʻaleʻale been placed in a slightly different locale, it may well have recorded a different level of precipitation.

Precipitation also varies year by year, which can result in different places exchanging the title, as rainfall is often recorded in 30-year running averages. For the same reason, one often finds disparate figures for the same locale. In the case of Mount Waiʻaleʻale, the Wikipedia article gives a figure of 452 inches (11,500 mm) in one place and 373.83 inches (9,495.3 mm) in another. Year-to-year precipitation fluctuation is a major issue for Cherrapunji and near-by Mawsynram in India, two other contenders for the title. Cherrapunji’s annual average rainfall is often recorded as 463.66 inches (11,777 mm), and that of Mawsynram at 467.4 inches (11,872 mm). Recently, however, the region in which they are located had several notably “dry” years, leading to some speculation that global warming was reducing local rainfall.

But even if it could be determined that Cherrapunji still gets more average annual rainfall than Mount Waiʻaleʻale, that does not necessarily mean that it can necessarily be counted as a “rainier place,” as assessments of “raininess” can have a subjective component. Mount Waiʻaleʻale gets heavy rain all year long and indeed almost every day, whereas Cherrapunji and vicinity get almost all of their rain during the summer monsoon; in January, Cherrapunji gets less than half of an inch on average, and thus dries out considerably.

The contest between Cherrapunji and Mount Waiʻaleʻale may be moot, however, as it now seems that parts of northwestern Colombia get more rain than either place—and receive heavy downpours throughout the year. According to the Wikipedia, the Colombian town of Lloró receives, on average, 523.6 inches (13,300 mm) a year. Northwestern Columbia, moreover, is a remote area with a sparse network of weather stations; it thus seems possible that even higher precipitation figures could be obtained on some of the rugged slopes of the Andes Mountains in the area.

 But if one changes the question slightly to ask what place receives the heaviest rainfall, not specifying a time period, a different answer would be obtained. Here, the interior portion of the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean would have to be considered the top contender. Consider, for example, the following rainfall records12 Hour Rainfall, 45 inches,
January 7-8, 1966 Foc-Foc La Reunion (elevation 7511 feet); 24 Hour Rainfall, 71.8 inches,
January 7-8, 1966 Foc-Foc La Reunion (elevation 7511 feet); 48 Hour Rainfall, 97.1 inches,
January 8-10, 1958 Aurère, La Reunion (elevation: 3083 feet); 72 Hour Rainfall, 154.7 inches,
February 24-26, 2007 Cratère Commerson, La Reunion (elevation: 7577 feet); 96 Hour Rainfall, 191.7 inches,
February 24-27, 2007 Cratère Commerson, La Reunion (elevation: 7577 feet); 10 Day Rainfall, 223.5 inches,
January 18-27, 1980 Cratère Commerson, La Reunion (elevation: 7577 feet).

 

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