Physical Geography

The role of the physical environment in issues of geographical significance

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.

Sans titre2

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.

Sans titre1

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

Saint Martin/Sint Maarten: An Island Divided Read More »

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.

 

 

 

 

Australia’s Climatic Anomalies Read More »

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.

Indo-Australian Plate Rent Asunder Beneath the Ocean Read More »

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.

Extreme Salt Lakes Around the World Read More »

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.

 

Visualizing California’s Soggy Past Read More »

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).

 

And the World’s Rainiest Place Is??? Read More »

Yakutia’s Mir Mine: The World’s Largest Hole?

A number of websites provide lists of the “world’s largest holes,” most of which are gargantuan open-pit mines (given the realities of the internet, several of these sites are quasi-pornographic). Although the actual lists differ, several put Russia’s Mir diamond mine, located in Yakutia (Sakha Republic) in the first position. The Wikipedia article on the mine claims that it is actually “the second largest excavated hole in the world, after Bingham Canyon Mine.” But if Bingham Canyon is larger, Mir is much steeper, and therefore seems more impressive to many observers. It is large enough to create powerful downdrafts. According to the Wikipedia, “The airspace above the mine is closed for helicopters because of a few incidents in which they were sucked in by the downward air flow.”

525 meters (1,722 ft) deep with a diameter of 1,200 m (3,900 ft), the Mir Mine follows a diamond-bearing kimberlite deposit of a volcanic pipe. Active from 1957 to 2001, and closed for good in 2011, Mir produced roughly 2 million carats of diamonds annually. Russia’s first major diamond mine, Mir was opened in part for geo-strategic reasons. As explained in a fascinating article by Stephanie (no last name provided), posted in Abazias Diamonds:

 The birth of the Mir Mine came out of Stalin’s desire to retain Soviet independence. After WWII, the Soviet Union required large quantities of industrial diamonds in order to rebuild its shattered landscape. The problem for the Soviets was that the diamond industry at the time was almost entirely controlled by DeBeers. What this came down to was the simple fact that should DeBeers decide to embargo the Soviet Union, whether for economic or political reasons, the Soviets would have to at least somewhat bend to DeBeers’ will.

Although focused originally on industrial diamonds, the Mir Mine was soon producing gemstones in prodigious quantities.  As Stephanie explains:

To DeBeers, the Mir Mine proved to be a strange and puzzling mystery. … DeBeers had been mining diamonds since the beginning of the century and knew a little of the normal production rates of kimberlite pipes. Most kimberlite pipes produce an ever growing quantity for the first few years, followed by a plateau and then a steady decline in diamond production. The Mir Mine seemed to break these rules, as the Soviets were showing ten million carats of diamonds produced a year by the mid-1960s, with two million carats of diamond a year being of gem-quality.

 

Yakutia’s Mir Mine: The World’s Largest Hole? Read More »

The Pleistocene Great Lakes of Western North America

Several recent GeoNotes on lakes and their islands mentioned only currently existing lakes. If one goes back into the Pleistocene epoch, however, the situation was very different. 18,000 years ago, some of the world’s largest lakes were located in the Great Basin of western North America. Today, only remnants exist, although several, most notably Utah’s Great Salt Lake, are still substantial. Note that Lake Lahontan contained a huge island, which itself contained several smaller lakes.

The presence of these Pleistocene lakes was due much more to reduced evaporation, owing to much cooler summer temperatures, than from increased precipitation. Over time, these lakes exhibited huge fluctuations. Evidence suggests that Lake Bonneville “evaporated and reformed as many as 28 times in the last 3 million years.”

 

The Pleistocene Great Lakes of Western North America Read More »

Mapping Loess Soils in Europe

The distribution of loess has played a significant role in human history. These fertile, easily worked soils provided the agricultural foundation for several early civilizations. Chinese culture originated in the Loess Plateau and adjacent areas of the North China Plain (itself formed from eroded, river-deposited loess), and Neolithic farmers in Europe mostly cultivated loess, avoiding heavier soils for millennia. Even today, loess areas tend to be highly productive farming centers. As a result of this importance, the mapping of loess is a well-advanced project. A 2007 Centre for Enviromental Research map, a portion of which is reproduced here, is extraordinarily detailed.

Loess” refers to any soil derived from wind-deposited, silt-sized particles. The most important areas of loess developed in the last glacial period, which ended some 12,000 years ago. The massive glaciers of the time pulverized rock into fine particles, which were deposited in the braided channels of the silt-choked rivers derived from glacial melt. During the autumn and winter, ice no longer melted, and as a result the flow of such rivers greatly diminished, leaving huge expanses of dry silt in the desiccated river-beds; windstorms would then pick up the fine material and deposit it in down-wind areas. In some places, the resulting loess deposits are tens of meters thick.

Mapping Loess Soils in Europe Read More »

Lakes on Islands in Lakes: Toba and Taal in Indonesia and the Philippines

For those interested in geographical superlatives pertaining to islands and lakes, Elburz.org has an interesting list, beginning with the world largest island (Greenland) and largest lake (Caspian Sea). It continues with the largest lake on an island (Nettilling Lake on Baffin Island in Canada), the largest island in a lake (Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron in Canada), the largest island in a lake on an island (Samosir in Lake Toba on Sumatra in Indonesia), the largest lake on an island in a lake (Lake Manitou on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron in Canada), the largest lake on an island in a lake on an island (Crater Lake on Volcano Island in Taal Lake on Luzon in the Philippines), the largest island in a lake on an island in a lake (unnamed island in Mindemoya Lake on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron in Canada), and the largest island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island (Vulcan point in Crater Lake on Volcano Island in Taal Lake on Luzon in the Philippines).

Two of the lakes in question were formed in volcanic craters, Taal in the Philippines and Toba in Indonesia. Massive volcanic explosions in the past produced the depressions that eventually formed these lakes, while subsequent volcanism built up the islands within them. The Toba Event—the supervolcanic eruption of the Toba volcano that occurred some 69,000-77,000 years ago—is believed by some scientists to have plunged much of the world into a decade-long volcanic winter that reduced the global human population to a mere 1,000-10,000 breeding pairs.

Past eruptions of Taal Volcano were never as devastating as the Toba Event, but Taal is still counted as one of the world’s sixteen most potentially deadly volcanoes. Taal Lake is of note mostly for its biological oddities. Taal was once a salt-water bay; after it was separated from the sea, it turned fresh gradually, allowing a number of oceanic species time to adjust to freshwater conditions. Taal thus supports freshwater sardines as well as a freshwater sea snake. It once had bull sharks as well, but they were exterminated by local fishermen in the 1930s. Bull sharks live in freshwater environments elsewhere in the world, including Lake Nicaragua.

Lakes on Islands in Lakes: Toba and Taal in Indonesia and the Philippines Read More »

René-Levasseur: The World’s Second Largest Island in a Lake?

The Wikipedia’s list of the world’s largest islands in lake has some intriguing features. Four of the top seven positions are occupied by islands in North America’s Great Lakes: Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron (or Lake Michigan-Huron, which is actually a single lake), Isle Royale in Lake Superior, St. Joseph Island in Lake Huron, and Drummond Island, also in Lake Huron.

While Manitoulin is clearly the world’s largest lake island, the second position entails some ambiguity. Until the turn of the millennium, Vozrozhdeniya Island in the Aral Sea was the second largest island in a lake, but the shrinkage of the Aral subsequently turned it into a peninsula then caused to disappear completely as a geographical feature. Currently René-Levasseur Island in Quebec’s Lake Manicouagan occupies the second slot. Lake Manicouagan, however, is an artificial reservoir, created by the damming of the Manicouagan River in the 1960s. Unique among large lake islands, René-Levasseur is larger than the lake that surrounds it; the island covers 2,020 km2 (780 sq mi), whereas the area of the lake is 1,942 km2 (750 sq mi).  

         Together, René-Levasseur Island and Lake Manicouagan make an interesting geographical feature, easily discernable from space. Due to the near circularity of both the lake and the island, they are sometimes called the “eye of Quebec.” Such circularity derives from the feature’s origin as an asteroid impact crater some 214 million years ago. The crater was originally around 100 kilometers wide, but erosion and sedimentation gradually reduced the depression to a width of around 72 kilometers. Until the damming of the Manicouagan River, two crescent-shaped lakes occupied the periphery of the depression. Once the dam was completed, the two lakes merged together to form what is now Manicouagan reservoir.

René-Levasseur: The World’s Second Largest Island in a Lake? Read More »

Misleading Lists of Large Lakes

Conventional lists of the world’s largest lakes by area are often misleading. Most claim that the Aral Sea is one of the Earth’s most extensive bodies of inland water, some placing it in the fourth position, and others, including infoplease and factmonster, in sixth place. In actuality, the Aral Sea has virtually disappeared, and now is essentially a massive salt-flat, as can be seen in the paired images to the left. As a result, it should be deleted from such lists.

Second-place standing is also controversial. Most lists place Lake Superior in this position, including AboutGeography. The Wikipedia, however, has demoted Superior to third place, as it claims that Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are actually a single lake, the world’s second largest. From a strictly limnological point of view, it is difficult to argue with this assessment.

The Wikipedia list of the largest lakes conveniently includes small maps, made to scale, of the water-bodies in question. I have copied and traced out several of these images to construct a simple map overlay that shows relative sizes of a few noted lakes. The massive extent of the Caspian Sea (which is actually a lake) is evident, dwarfing the combined Michigan-Huron. Michigan-Huron, in turn, is shown to be massively larger that Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul (in maroon), the world’s second largest Alpine lake, which in turn is vastly large than Lake Tahoe (dark blue), widely viewed as sizable lake. (Lake Tahoe is actually too small to be on the Wikipedia list; as a result I have had to estimate its relative size here.)

Misleading Lists of Large Lakes Read More »

The Centrality of the Caucasus

London to Mumbai Great Circle Route, Passing Through the Caucasus

London to Mumbai Great Circle Route, Passing Through the CaucasusFor the past month, GeoCurrents has focused on the Caucasus, exploring the region’s history, languages, cuisines, and more. Two additional posts will conclude the series. We will subsequently pause to introduce some new features of the blog, and then we will move on to examine a different part of the world.

The current series began by asking a seemingly banal question, “Where Is the Caucasus?” Although the region is easy to locate on a world map, its geographical categorization is tricky, as the Caucasus straddles the conventional divide between Europe and Asia and can plausibly be placed in different regions of the world. The initial post concluded by suggesting that the Caucasus might be regarded as a world region in its own right.

After inspecting the Caucasus for the past month, I am more convinced than ever that it merits such a designation. Despite its compact size, the Caucasus contains as much human diversity as most recognized world regions. Its role in world history has been profound—and deeply underrated. When we append the Caucasus to some other part of the world, its distinctiveness tends to fade away, leaving a vague peripheral zone of rugged landscapes and obscure peoples. In the process, the region’s larger significance is lost.

The seeming obscurity of the Caucasus is an artifact of our inherited and rarely questioned schemes of global division. Newer ideas about the geographical structures of the pre-industrial world, however, can help reposition this historically important region. In the traditional Western imagination, the Caucasus is situated between Europe and Asia: the two major divisions, along with Africa, of the Eastern Hemisphere. World historians posit instead an “Afro-Eurasian ecumene” of loosely linked civilizations that encompassed most of the so-called Old World. Within this mega-region, the primary divide is increasingly seen not as that separating Europe from Asia, but rather that marking off East Asia from everywhere else. Physical geography played a role here; the mountains between India and China are so formidable that travelers between them often detoured thousands of miles through the Silk Roads of Central Asia. In demographic terms, Europe and India were the twin anchors of this rump ecumene (without East Asia), constituting its major population centers.

Population Map of Eastern Hemisphere Circa 1648 by Colin McEvedyTo the extent that the area encompassing Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Peninsula formed a historically coherent sphere of interaction, the Caucasus served as its fulcrum. That centrality is evident on the first map posted here, made by  Jake Coolidge for GeoCurrents, which shows the most direct line, or great circle route, between London and Bombay (Mumbai). Such a pivotal location was an advantage, if a minor one, for the Armenian merchants* who helped knit together the Afro-Eurasian ecumenical societies.

*Although Tbilisi, situated near the mid-point of the London-Mumbai axis, is a Georgian city, its population was predominately Armenian until the second half of the nineteenth century.

The Centrality of the Caucasus Read More »

Sochi 2014: A Subtropical Winter Olympics?

Wikipedia map of the Subtropics

Wikipedia map of the SubtropicsIn 2010, Foreign Policy magazine asked Russian opposition leader and Sochi native Boris Nemtsov why he opposed the 2014 Winter Olympics in his hometown. Nemtsov’s reply was broad ranging. He decried the displacement of 5,000 people while warning that corruption and organized crime would devour most of the construction funds showered on the city. He began his critique, however, with Sochi’s climate:

“[Putin] has found one of the only places in Russia where there is no snow in the winter. He has decided to build these ice rinks in the warmest part of the warmest region. Sochi is subtropical. There is no tradition of skating or hockey there. In Sochi, we prefer football, and volleyball, and swimming. Other parts of Russia need ice palaces — we don’t.”

Sochi does indeed have a subtropical climate, with average winter temperatures well above freezing, complicating Olympic plans. As Nemtsov elaborates, most of the skating facilities are being built in the Imereti Valley, which is warmer than Sochi itself. Cooling, needless to say, will be expensive. The ski venue might seem to be even more of a problem, as Olympic-quality skiing requires natural snow in copious quantities. The snowy Caucasus Mountains, however, lie just to the northeast of Sochi.  The main skiing facilities at Krasnaya Polyana, thirty-seven miles (sixty kilometers) from the city center, will probably have adequate snow.

Tabular Comparison of Climate in Sochi Russia and Portland Oregon, Wikipedia DataBut while Sochi qualifies as subtropical by strict climatological criteria,* it can be misleading to characterize it as such, at least in the United States. If I were to use the term “subtropical” in class, my students would imagine Miami or perhaps Los Angeles at a stretch. Certainly those native to California’s Bay Area would never consider their winter-chilled homeland as “subtropical” in any sense. Yet the Bay Area is actually much warmer in winter than Sochi. In Palo Alto, the average February high temperature is 62°F (16°C), far exceeding Sochi’s 49.8°F (9.9°C). In terms of annual temperature range, Sochi is closely analogous to Portland, Oregon, as can be seen in the paired tables reproduced here. In the United States, the notion that Portland has a subtropical climate would seem quaint if not ludicrous.

From the Russian perspective, however, Sochi definitely is subtropical. If anything is mentioned about Sochi in the Russian press, it is generally its sub-tropicality—and for good reason, as it is essentially the only place in the country with a non-freezing winter. Climate evaluations turn out to be variable, relative to one’s personal experience. I once spent a summer in the Nunamiut (“Inland Eskimo”) village of Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, where the locals found their own summer climate delightfully temperate and that of the adjacent Yukon Valley oppressively hot. In Anaktuvuk Pass, July temperatures rarely exceed 50°F (10°C). Yet one day during my sojourn the winds died down, the sky cleared, and the temperature soared to a delightful 75°F (24°C)—or so I thought. The villagers were not pleased at all with the brutal heat.

The (US) Wikipedia article on Sochi describes its climate not only as subtropical, which is technically true if slightly misleading, but goes on to characterize it as being of the “Mediterranean–type”—which is simply incorrect. Mediterranean climates are characterized by dry summers, and those of Sochi are distinctly wet. True, Sochi gets a bit more rain in the winter than in the summer, but its average July precipitation of 4.9 inches (124 mm) is hardly meager. In most climate classification schemes, a Mediterranean climate cuts off at 30 to 40 millimeters (1.2-1.6 inches) of precipitation in the driest month. (Note that by such criteria, Portland Oregon is definitely Mediterranean, yet few Americans would place such a wet city in that category.)

Beyond ice-rink cooling costs, the Sochi Olympics faces a number of problems. The Circassian protests have already been discussed in previous posts, and issues surrounding organized crime and corruption are noted above. But according to Boris Nemtsov, the mire runs much deeper. In a 2011 television interview, he claimed that the total costs could exceed U.S. $30 billion—ten times the figure of the Vancouver Olympics. Nemtsov also highlights the cultural and environmental damage suffered by the city and its environs, as roads are pushed through nature reserves and old residences are demolished without replacement. Such disruptions, he claims, have already undermined the summer tourism industry, the lifeblood of the local economy. Construction, moreover, is running behind schedule, worrying Russian leaders. In mid-January 2012, “President Dmitry Medvedev … ordered the government to ensure facilities for Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympics were finished on time, in a rare official show of impatience with the sluggish progress.”

Sochi is not the only part of the Caucasus impacted by ambitious winter tourism designs. Russia plans to build major downhill ski resorts elsewhere. According to a January 14, 2013 article:

[T]he draft project of the tourism cluster in the south of Russia envisages the construction in 2011-2020 of five world-class mountain resorts in Lagonaki (Krasnodar Territory, the Republic of Adygea), Arkhyz (Karachaevo-Cherkessia), Elbrus-Bezengi (Kabardino-Balkaria), Mamison (Republic of North Ossetia-Alania), Matlas (Republic of Dagestan). The length of all the ski slopes will total nearly 900 km. 179 elevators will be installed. Hotels of various levels of comfort designed for 89,000 places will be constructed. … Each year the North Caucasian tourist cluster will accept 5-10 million tourists.

            Such plans seem overly optimistic, as security concerns, inadequate infrastructure, and poor hotel management may make it difficult to attract many tourists. Some critics think that Russia would be much better off building additional winter sports facilities in the Khanty-Mansiysk area in the Ural Mountains of western Siberia. Khanty-Mansiysk, capital of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, boasts of its mountain skiing facilities and the fact that it has successfully hosted several world biathlon championship. It is also an oil-boom town located in the Russia’s richest administrative district. As such, it would seem to be a more reasonable place for winter resort development than the violence-plagued northern Caucasus.

*One prominent climate classification scheme, for example applies the subtropical label any place where the average temperature of the coldest month is between 6°C (42.8°F) and 18°C (64.4°F), while another uses the range between 2°C (35.6°F) and 13°C (55.4°F).

(Many thanks to Asya Pereltsvaig for translating Boris Nemtsov’s interview.)

 

Sochi 2014: A Subtropical Winter Olympics? Read More »