What is revealed, and hidden, by different mapping strategies and cartographic conventions

The Weather West Blog Community and the Possible End of the Great California Drought

One of my favorite blogs is Weather West: California Weather and Climate Perspectives, run by meteorologist Daniel Swain. Posting once or twice a month, Swain focuses on current and upcoming weather events and conditions. He delves into meteorological complexities but writes in an accessible manner that can be easily understood by non-specialists. More important for the concerns of GeoCurrents, Swain’s posts are always illustrated with informative and often striking maps. For those who appreciate the aesthetic properties of cartography, it can be difficult to beat meteorological mapping. I often find the patterns and colors almost mesmerizing.

Equally impressive is Swain’s devoted readership. Each of his posts receives thousands of comments. Many are deeply informed, and they are also often illustrated with useful maps and dramatic photographs. For weather enthusiasts such as myself, the cloudscapes that are periodically posted on Weather West are reason enough to follow the blog.

What I most appreciate about the Weather West community, however, is its idiosyncratic perspective on precipitation. Here we find a group of devoted people who love rain and fully understand just how essential it is. Given California’s seemingly interminable drought – 10 of the past 12 years have been dry, the last two exceedingly so – one might expect this attitude to be common in the state, but in my experience it remains rare. Even National Weather Service (NWS) forecasters in California sometimes write about the “threat of rain” during times of dire drought. A few years back I was so frustrated by such mindless wording that I wrote a letter to the NWS urging them to replace “threat” with “promise” under drought conditions. I was surprised to receive a reply, but it turned out to be defensive and entirely non-apologetic. But some people understand. The best birthday present I ever received was a CD put together by my wife filled with rain-positive song in many genres and from several countries. One of the most memorable was Luke Bryan’s raunchy country tune called “Rain Is a Good Thing.” As Bryan emphasizes, farmers certainly understand. As his song opens:

My daddy spent his life lookin’ up at the sky

He’d cuss kick the dust, sayin’ son its way to dry

It clouds up in the city, the weather man complains

But where I come from, rain is a good thing

When rain does come to California, the Weather West community exults. They post their own precipitation numbers with pride, and bitterly complain when their own locations are stinted, ending up in the dreaded “donut hole.”  Some tend toward pessimism and sometimes find themselves gently chided by those more hopeful about coming storms. Overall, they seek to teach and inform each other, and thus form a model blog-focused community. (“Model” is used as something of a pun here, as Weather West readers often urge each other to beware of “model riding,” or giving too much credence to particular meteorological model outputs. This is especially the case when the output in question refer to “fantasyland,” or the time beyond the period of relatively reliable forecasting.)

Currently, the Weather West community it very excited but also worried. California’s long-term drought has just broken, at least temporarily. December precipitation was pronounced over almost the entire state, and January looks to be wetter still. Swain’s most recent post, of January the 2nd, is titled “Major Norcal Storm Wed.; Potential High-Impact Storm/Flood Pattern to Continue for 10 Plus Day. Wet Antecedent Conditions Set Stage for Future Flood Risk.” Even the blog’s most rain-besotted commentators are now concerned that they may get too much of a good thing. Some are even sheepishly admitting that they are now hoping for a mid-winter ridge that would produce a spell of dry weather.

California’s abrupt transition from dry to wet this winter was not expected. Until quite recently, mid- and long-range models predicted yet another rainy season of little rain. As almost all the state’s precipitation falls between November and March, this is a crucial matter. Driving these dry forecasts was the fact that the Pacific Ocean is still in La Niña* conditions, which have persisted for the past two years. In La Niña winters, far Northern California often gets ample precipitation, but the rest of the state is generally dry. In these years, the jet stream is typically displaced to the north and must ride over a large high-pressure ridge somewhere in the eastern Pacific. If the ridge is displaced too far to the east, California is hard hit by drought. If the high-pressure zone is instead pushed westward, cold storms can ride over the ridge and produce moderate rain and decent amounts of mountain snow. Under the contrasting El Niño** regime, a different winter pattern typically prevails, with the jet stream ripping directly across the Pacific. El Niño years usually bring abundant precipitation, especially to Central and Southern California. What makes the current situation so unusual and perhaps even inexplicable is that California is now experiencing an El Niño pattern in a La Niña year, with one relatively warm storm after another lined up across the Pacific. Meteorologists are trying to figure out what is going on, and undoubtedly much more will be written on the subject.

If the current forecasts through January pan out, California could end up with full reservoirs and a very healthy snowpack in the higher elevations. But that does not mean that drought conditions will not necessarily return before the wet season ends. Last year, heavy precipitation in December was followed by a parched period stretching from January through March, generally the wettest time of the year. By the end of the summer, the state’s crucial reservoirs were frighteningly depleted.

But even if this February and March are dry, fears of a disastrously water-short summer of 2023 are currently being washed away. Indication for the 2023-2024 wet season also look promising, as La Niña is dissipating and El Niño looks like it might return. But El Niño sometimes fails to produce the predicted downpours, as was the case in the winter of 2015-2016. As U.C. San Diego Scripps Institute of Oceanography reported:

Most long-range forecast models predicted a potentially drought-ending deluge in California from the climate pattern known as El Niño in winter 2015-16, but the actual precipitation was far less than expected. … “Comparing this El Niño to previous strong El Niños, we found big differences in the atmospheric response across the globe, including California,” said Nick Siler, lead author of the study that was published in the Journal of Climate, and a postdoctoral scholar in the research group of co-author Shang-Ping Xie at Scripps. “We found that these differences weren’t all random, but rather were caused by tropical sea-surface temperature anomalies unrelated to El Niño.” … The results of the study suggest that El Niño events might not have as strong an influence on California precipitation as previously thought. They also suggest that recent warming might have had a hand in making El Niño drier. The Indian Ocean is known to be warming faster than other ocean basins

Climate change seems to be intensifying California droughts, just as it might be undermining El Niño rains. But it might also be making wet periods wetter, particularly those produced by so-called atmospheric rivers. As a result, the chances of a devastating “arc storm” are increasing. As we shall see in tomorrow’s post, Daniel Swain is one of the leading experts on this topic.

*Wikipedia Definition: “During a La Niña period, the sea surface temperature across the eastern equatorial part of the central Pacific Ocean will be lower than normal by 3–5 °C (5.4–9 °F).

**Wikipedia definition: “[El Niño] is the warm phase of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and is associated with a band of warm ocean water that develops in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific.


Customizable Maps of Europe, Asia, Etc.

Europe MapThis final GeoCurrents post offering free customizable maps provides maps of Europe, southern and eastern Asia, southwestern Asia and northeastern Africa, and the exclusive economic zones of the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean. Two versions of the Asia map are provided, one of which is superimposed on physical map. These customizable are available at the link at the bottom of the page.

Eastern and Southern Asia MapMost of these maps were made several years ago when I was still experimenting with this process. As a result the borders are rather crudely placed, especially on the Europe map.



Eastern and Southern Asia Map 2Southwest Asia Northwest Africa MapAs with previous offerings, these maps are constructed with simple presentation software (available in both PowerPoint and Keynote formats), and hence are easy to use and manipulate.


Indian Ocean Economic Zones Map











Caribbean Economic Zones Map







Europe, Asia, etc. Customizable maps (keynote)

Europe, Asia, etc Customizable Maps (powerpoint)




Customizable Maps of China and India

India States MapToday’s GeoCurrents post offers free customizable maps of China and India. The India map, based on the country’s states,  lacks the union territories, which are either too small or too distantly located (the Andaman and Nicobar Islands) to make it on the map. The northern and western portions of the territory of Jammu and Kashmir that are occupied by Pakistan and China are indicated with a dashed borderline and grey China Provinces Mapshading. The China map ignores disputed territories, including Taiwan. The “province-level” divisions that the map is based on include regular provinces, autonomous areas, and direct controlled municipalities. It does not include the two special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau), largely because they are too small in area.

As in previous offerings, these maps are constructed with simple presentation software (available in both PowerPoint and Keynote formats), and hence are very easy to use and manipulate.

Customizable Maps China India (Keynote)

Customizable Maps China India  (PowerPoint)



Customizable Maps of the United Kingdom, Venezuela, and Yemen


United Kingdom Divisions MapToday’s GeoCurrents post offers free customizable maps of Venezuela, Yemen, and the United Kingdom. Those of Venezuela and Yemen are based on their main subdivisions, which are governorates in the case of Yemen and states in that of Venezuela. In regard to the United Kingdom, the situation is much more complicated. The UK’s main divisions are its “constituent countries”: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Making a map based on these large divisions would, however, be rather pointless. But the lower-order administrative divisions of the UK vary among its constituent countries and even, to some degree, within them. As explained in the Wikipedia article on “the administrative geography of the United Kingdom”:

UK Names Divisions MapThe administrative geography of the United Kingdom is complex, multi-layered and non-uniform. The United Kingdom, a sovereign state to the northwest of continental Europe, consists of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. For local government in the United Kingdom, England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales each have their own system of administrative and geographic demarcation. Consequently, there is “no common stratum of administrative unit encompassing the United Kingdom.”

Historically, the subnational divisions of the UK have been the county[3] and the ecclesiastical parish, whilst following the emergence of a unified parliament of the United Kingdom, the ward and constituency have been pan-UK political subdivisions. More contemporary divisions include Lieutenancy areas and the statistical territories defined with the modern NUTS:UK and ISO 3166-2:GB systems.

In making my customizable map, I selected the units highlighted in the same Wikipedia article: ceremonial counties in the case of England, preserved counties in that of Wales, and lieutenancy areas in those of Scotland and Northern Ireland. As many of these divisions are quite small, I constructed two maps, one with and one without name labels. (The name labels can make it difficult to click on and assign colors to the shapes that represent the administrative units.)

Venezuela States MapAs in previous offerings, these maps were made with simple presentation software (available in both PowerPoint and Keynote formats), and hence Governorates of Yemen Mapare very easy to use and manipulate.

Customizable Maps Venezuela, Yemen, UK  (Keynote)

Customizable Maps Venezuela, Yemen, UK  (PowerPoint)


Customizable Maps of Kenya, Ghana, Ethiopia, Belgium, and South Korea

Kenya Counties MapToday’s GeoCurrents post offers free customizable maps of Kenya, Ghana, Ethiopia, Belgium,and South Korea. All are based on the main subdivisions of the countries in question: counties in the case of Kenya, regions in that of Ghana, regional states (kililoch) in that of Ethiopia, and provinces in those of Belgium and South Korea. Since many of Kenya’s counties are relatively Kenya County Names Mapsmall, I have created two versions of this map, one with and one without name labels. As in previous offerings, these maps are constructed with simple presentation software (available in both PowerPoint and Keynote formats), and hence are very easy to use and manipulate.


Ghana Regions MapThere are several problems with depicting such divisions of national territories. One concerns the translation into English of local terms for administrative divisions. The main divisions of Ethiopia, for example, are called kililoch locally. This term has been variously translated as state, region, or regional state. As Ethiopia’s ethnically based divisional scheme is unusual, I have used the least usual term: regional state.

Ethiopia States MapAnother problem is the fact that several of these countries have more than one category of primary administrative division. Ethiopia, for example, is divided into both kililoch and chartered cities. I have noted this on the map by using smaller font and italics for the two chartered cities, Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa. In South Korea the South Korea Divisions Mapsituation is rather more complicated, as the country is divided into: “8 provinces (do 도/道), 1 special autonomous province (teukbyeol jachido 특별자치도/特別自治道), 6 metropolitan cities (gwangyeoksi 광역시/廣域市), and 1 special city (teukbyeolsi 특별시/特別市).” As a result of such complexity, I have merely mapped South Korea’s main administrative divisions.

Belgium Provinces MapI hope to post the rest of my customizable maps over the next several days.


Customizable Maps Kenya, Ghana, Ethiopia, Belgium, South Korea  (Keynote)


Customizable Maps Kenya, Ghana, Ethiopia, Belgium, South Korea  (PowerPoint)


Customizable Maps of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Indonesia

Provinces of Iran MapToday’s GeoCurrents post provides free customizable maps of the provinces of Iran, the provinces of Indonesia, the states of Malaysia, and the regions of Saudi Arabia. An additional map shows the major cities of Iran as well as the country’s provinces. These maps are constructed with simple presentation software, available in both PowerPoint and Keynote formats. To obtain these customizable maps, simply click at the links at the bottom of the post.


I hope to provide the remainder of the GeoCurrents customizable maps next week.

Regions of Saudi Arabia MapProvinces of Indonesia MapStates of Malaysia MapProvinces and Cities of Iran MapCustomizable Maps Iran Saudi Arabia Malaysia Indonesia

Customizable Maps Iran Saudi Arabia Malaysia Indonesia

Customizable Maps of Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador

Mexico StatesDear Readers,

As it is taking longer than expected to distribute all of the GeoCurrents customizable maps, I have decided to expedite the process. As a result, I have not done anything with the maps that I am making available in today’s post other than color in the provinces, regions, states, etc. of the countries in questions, which are Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Chile, and Ecuador. Those Argentina Provinces MapPeru Regions Mapwho download the customizable base maps in the PowerPoint and Keynote files at the bottom of the post can, of course, use them to make any province-based thematic maps that they see fit. Just click on a shape and assign it a color. For small provinces, the name-labels may have to be moved away to allow one to click on the shape rather than the label. In such cases, the name-labels can then be dragged back to the proper place after the color has been assigned. This may sound confusing, but it is actually quite easy.

I hope to finish this process over the next two weeks. In the last week of March, I will begin teaching a 10-week course on the history and geography of current global events. During that period, I hope to post one GeoCurrents article each week that reflects on the topic currently under Chile Regions Mapconsideration in the class.Ecuador Provinces Map















Customizable Maps Mexico …  (Keynote)

Customizable Maps Mexico ..   (PowerPoint)

Customizable Maps of Brazil and Colombia, and Brazilian Social Development

Tocantins in Brazil mapGeoCurrents is continuing its initiative of providing free customizable maps. Today’s offerings are of Brazil and Colombia, based on their first-order administrative divisions (states in the case of Brazil; departments in that of Colombia). The Brazil maps also includes portions of neighboring countries, and one of its versions includes as well the map on which it was constructed, which allows one to “reveal” individual states, as demonstrated here for Tocantins. As in previous offerings, these maps are constructed with simple presentation software, and are available at the links at the bottom of this post in both PowerPoint and Keynote formats.

I have used the Brazil base-map to make several thematic maps of the country. The purpose here is mainly to demonstrate the significant socio-economic progress that Brazil has made since 1990. The current economic and political situation of the country is, of course, grim. As noted in a recent Forbes article, “According to the weekly Focus survey by Brazil’s Central Bank, 2016 will herald a depression-era contraction rate of 3.8% this year instead of the previous estimate of 3.5% made by dozens of Brazilian economists at the big banks.” The detention of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”)—seen by many Brazilians as the main architect of their country’ recent social progress—underscores the current political crisis, although some observers think that his arrest indicates the strength of Brazilian democracy.

Brazil 1991 HDI MapBut regardless of what one thinks of either Lula or of Brazil’s current situation, the progress that it made in the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st is difficult to deny. Consider, for the example, the composite Human Development Index (HDI), which takes into account education, longevity, and income. Here we see that the highest Brazil 2010 HDI Mapranking unit in 1991, the Federal District (Brasília), scored lower than the lowest ranking state (Alagoas) did in 2010 (0.616 vs. 0.631). Other countries have also seen major improvements in their HDI figures over this period, but few have made gains as large as those of Brazil. As the maps posted here show, the geographical patterns of Brazilian HDI did not change much during this period. The large interior state of Mato Grosso, noted for its soy boom, did register a particularly large jump, however.

Brazil Life Expectancy MapI also mapped more recent data for life expectancy and infant mortality, found on the Wikipedia page of the states of Brazil. In terms of life expectancy, the northeast no longer appears as the worst-off part of Brazil. Instead, the north as a whole occupies most of the lower categories. It is interesting to see that Mato Grosso does not show particularly well on this Brazil Infant Mortality Mapmap, which may indicate that its recent gains have been more in the economic than in the social sphere. Somewhat similar patterns are found on the map of infant mortality. Here I am surprised by the low showing of the state of Rio de Janeiro and by the very low showing of Bahia.

Brazil Customizable Maps  (Keynote)

Brazil Customizable Maps (powerpoint)


Customizable Maps of Switzerland and Poland, and Swiss Per Capita GDP by Canton

Switzerland Per Capita GDP MapToday’s post continues the GeoCurrents initiative of distributing free customizable base maps made with easy-to-use presentation software (PowerPoint and Keynote [preferred]). The files found at the bottom of this post contain customizable base maps of Switzerland (by canton) and Poland (by voivodeships, or województwo). The customizable map of Switzerland also includes a few of the country’s largest cities. As the base map of Poland was used to make maps that illustrated a previous GeoCurrents post, it is not used for today’s thematic maps. Instead, the maps featured in the current post are based on the customizable map of Switzerland.


In making the per capita GDP map of Switzerland, I was somewhat surprised by disparities found among the country’s cantons. The high levels of economic production found in Geneva, the city of Basel, and Zurich were not unexpected—but that of Zug was. But as it turns out, the answer here is simple. As noted in the Wikipedia article on the canton:

The capital Zug is home to a large number of companies which only have their headquarters in the city. This is the case because Zug has one of the lowest taxes in Switzerland. Trade in particular is of great significance. There are a large number of small and middle sized businesses in all areas of the economy. There are over 24,300 registered companies and over 70,000 jobs in the canton, with 12,900 of the registered companies in the city of Zug.


Switzerland Foreign Nationals MapI was curious to see of there is a relationship between per capita GDP and the presence of foreign nationals in Switzerland, as migrants often head for the most economically productive areas. I was not, however, able to find high-quality data on the percentage of foreign nationals by Swiss cantons. But as all but one Wikipedia article on the cantons contain this information, albeit in outdated form, I was able to make a map. As one can see, Zug does have a high percentage of foreign nationals, although the figures for Geneva and the city of Basel are, not surprisingly, higher. Italian-speaking Ticino also has a relatively high percentage of foreign nationals.


Switzerland Population Density MapI was also a little surprised by the high level of per capita GDP in remote and lightly populated Grisons/Graubünden. High-end tourism seems to be the main reason. As noted in the Wikipedia article on the canton:

24 per cent of the workforce are employed in industry whereas 68 per cent work in the service industry where tourism reaches a remarkable 14 per cent of the GDP. Tourism is concentrated around the towns of Davos/Arosa, Flims and St. Moritz/Pontresina. There are, however, a great number of other tourist resorts in the canton, divided by the official tourist board for winter sports for example into categories “Top – Large – Small and beautiful” -yet still not including all of them.

Customizable Maps Switzerland, Poland (PowerPoint)

Customizable Maps Switzerland, Poland (Keynote)


Customizable Base Maps of Italy


Italy Regions MapThis post continues the current GeoCurrents initiative of distributing free customizable base maps, made in easy-to-use presentation software (Keynote and Powerpoint). These files can be downloaded by clicking at the links at the bottom of the post.

As can be see seen, today’s offering is of Italy, with the maps based on the regions of the country. In the links below, these customizable regional maps are offered with both English and Italian versions.

Italy Population Density Map








I have used this base-map to construct two thematic maps, one of population density and the other of per capita GDP. As can be seen, at the regional level there is no clear spatial pattern of population density in Italy, as both densely and relatively sparsely populated regions are found across the country. When it come to per capita GDP, on the other hand, Italy Per Capita GDP MapItaly extortion rate mapthe regional patterning is clear, as northern Italy is much more economically productive than southern Italy. I have also included a Wikipedia province-level map of extortion in Italy. As can be seen, the poorest regions of Italy are all plagued by high extortion rates.






Italy Autonomous Regions MapFinally, I have included as well a simple map showing Italy’s autonomous regions. The issue of regional autonomy in Italy, however, is rather complicated. As noted in the Wikipedia, “all the regions except Toscana [Tuscany] define themselves in various ways as an ‘autonomous Region’ in the first article of their Statutes,” yet “fifteen regions have ordinary statutes and five have special statutes, granting them extended autonomy.” As the same Wikipedia article goes on to note:

Article 116 of the Italian Constitution grants to five regions (namely Sardinia, Sicily, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, Aosta Valley and Friuli-Venezia Giulia) home rule, acknowledging their powers in relation to legislation, administration and finance. In return they have to finance the health-care system, the school system and most public infrastructures by themselves.

These regions became autonomous in order to take into account cultural differences and protect linguistic minorities. Moreover, the government wanted to prevent their secession from Italy after the Second World War.

Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol constitutes a special case. The region is nearly powerless, and the powers granted by the region’s statute are mostly exercised by the two autonomous provinces within the region, Trentino and South Tyrol. In this case, the regional institution plays a coordinating role.

Italy Base Maps (Keynote)

Italy Base Maps (PowerPoint)

Customizable Maps of France, and the New French Regions

Dear Readers,

Regions of France MapI mentioned late last year that GeoCurrents would be giving away a number of customizable maps made in easy-to-use presentation software (Keynote and PowerPoint). Thus far, this process of map distribution has been slow, both because that maps that I have made need to be fine-tuned and because I am always tempted to use these base-maps to map out particular phenomena, which is time consuming. As a result, for the next few weeks I will simply concentrate on delivering these customizable base-maps in relatively raw form. As before, the PowerPoint and Keynote files of these customizable maps are found at the bottom of the post.



Pre-2016 Regions of France MapToday’s maps are of Metropolitan France, based on both its regions and its departments (these maps exclude, in other words, French overseas departments, which are fully part of the country) . Two maps of French regions are necessary, as France reformed its regional structure early this year. As explained in the Wikipedia:

In 2014, the French Parliament (the National Assembly and the Senate) passed a law that reduced the number of regions in Metropolitan France from 22 to 13. The new regions took effect on 1 January 2016.

The text of the law gives interim names for most of the new regions by combining the names of the former regions, e.g. the region composed of Aquitaine, Poitou-Charentes and Limousin is Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes. However, the combined region of Upper and Lower Normandy is simply called “Normandy” (Normandie). Permanent names will be proposed by the new regional councils and confirmed by the Conseil d’Etat by 1 July 2016. The legislation defining the new regions also allowed the Centre region to officially change its name to “Centre-Val de Loire”; this change was effective from January 2015.

Departments of France MapI find this change somewhat frustrating. First, the regional names will probably change, which will instantly make my map obsolete. More important, the reduced number of regions will reduce the resolution of maps based on these entities. To allow a finer level of resolution, I therefore mapped out the departments of France, which are numerous. After doing so, however, I discovered that there is little if any easily accessible data based on French departments. After spending a few hours looking for something of interest, I abandoned the quest.

As with the other customizable maps available at GeoCurrents, these maps of France come in several forms. One map, for example, merely has the shapes of the departments, one has the departmental names but not the shapes, and a third has both. All of these maps are easily manipulated by clicking on the shapes and names, which can then be recolored, dragged into new positions, and so on.

France Customizable Maps  (Keynote)

France Customizable Maps (PowerPoint)

Nationalist Defacement of Maps at Stanford University


Mapping the world is becoming an increasingly fraught endeavor, with both cartographers and those who use their products being taken to task for their failure to depict the geopolitical framework in a certain way. I have received threatening email messages, for example, after posting maps of India that did not include areas claimed by that country but controlled by Pakistan and China. More recently and more seriously, Russian MP Oleg Mikheyev has asked prosecutors to “list the Coca-Cola company as an ‘undesirable organization’ due to the fact that the soda giant did not include Crimea on a Russian map in an online ad.”

Those who object to certain ways of depicting the world sometimes respond by defacing maps and globes that they regard as objectionable. Unfortunately, Stanford University has seen several examples of such cartographic vandalism. Interesting, the three cases that I am familiar with are all focused on issues of nationalism in East Asia.

Defaced Stanford GlobeI first became aware of this problem several years several years ago when I was admiring a large and gorgeous glass globe in the Stanford Library. As can be seen in the detail posted to the left, someone—almost certainly a Korean nationalist—had scratched out the word “Japan” in the label “Sea of Japan” and had replaced it with “East Sea.” Stanford librarians are aware of this defacement, but there is little that they can do, as the cost of restoration would be prohibitive.

More recently, wall maps hanging in the Stanford Department of History have been subjected to similar forms of defacement. This issue is somewhat different, however, as the maps in question are historical documents, showing regions as they existed in earlier periods. Evidently, the depiction of such historical reality is unacceptable to some viewers, who are instead determined to change these maps so that they reflect current conditions. The result is a misdemeanor not merely against property but also against history.

Defaced Stanford Map 2The first of these maps depicts southeastern Asia in 1968. As can be seen in the detail posted here, someone has crossed out “U.K.” under “Hong Kong” and added “China,” evidently wanting to wish away the period of British rule in this former colony. Oddly, “Port.” (for “Portugal) under Macao was left alone, as were several other markers of colonial status elsewhere on the map.

The final example comes from an undated map of eastern Asia that must have been made before 1971, when the United States returned Okinawa and the rest of the Ryukyu Islands to Japan. The fact that this archipelago had been controlled by the U.S. for a prolonged period is fascinating and too-little known, but it is evidently disturbing for some, as someone has inked over the Defaced Stanford Map 1red lines indicating what had been the U.S. zone of control. The same person also crossed out the name “Formosa,” as well as that of “Mt. Morrison” (alternatively, “Yushan” or “Jade Mountain”), evidently unwilling to tolerate European terms on historical maps of this corner of the world.

I can only hope that the persons who defaced these maps were not Stanford students. If they were, it certainly reflects poorly on the university.


Base-Maps of the Philippines & Linguistic/Regional Controversies in the Archipelago

Philippines Provinces MapGeoCurrents is continuing its distribution of customizable base-maps, constructed in easy-to-use presentation software. (The files are found at the bottom of this post, in both PowerPoint and Keynote [preferred] formats.) Today’s contribution is a province-level map of the Philippines. This map is available in several versions (with province names and without them, in color and in grey, aggregated into regions, and so on). A forthcoming GeoCurrents post will feature several thematic maps of the Philippines that were made with these base-maps.

Several complications of the provincial structure of the Philippines merit discussion. The first is the fact that the National Capital Region (Metro Manila, essentially) does not belong to any province. To a significant degree, the same thing is true in regard to the country’s 38 “independent Philippines Regions Mapcities,” but the situation here is complicated, and as a result this distinction is generally ignored on the GeoCurrents customizable maps. Deeper issues arise, however, when the provinces of the Philippines are aggregated into the country’s 18 regions, divisions that “serve primarily to organize the provinces of the country for administrative convenience.” In the case of the Philippine’s only autonomous region—The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao—the independent cities of Cotabato and Isabella occupy particularly ambiguous positions. Consider, for example, the Wikipedia’s description of Cotabato City:

Cotabato City is the regional center of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) but the city is administratively part of the SOCCSKSARGEN [region]… . For geographical purposes, it is grouped with Maguindanao [province], or for statistical reasons sometimes grouped with the Cotabato province, and does not belong to the ARMM. Cotabato City is distinct from and should not be confused with the province of Cotabato.  https://

Owing to these complications, I have mapped Cotabato City as if it were a province.

Isabella City on the island of Basilan is another special case. As again summarized in Wikipedia:

Isabela … is a 4th class city and the capital of the province of Basilan, Philippines. …While administratively the island province of Basilan is part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), Isabela City itself is in not part of this region and is placed under the Zamboanga Peninsula region.

Owing to these complications, I have mapped Isabela City as part of Basilan on the province-level map, but I have separated it from this province on the region-level map, appending it instead to the Zamboanga Peninsula region.

Additional complexities arise from the frequently shifting roster of Philippine provinces and regions. As a result of such changes, the maps that I have made will almost certainly become outdated quickly. Consider, for example, the adjustments that were made in the provincial structure of the Philippines just from 2006 to 2013:

October 28, 2006: Plebiscite approves the separation of Shariff Kabunsuan from Maguindanao by virtue of Muslim Mindanao Autonomy Act No. 201 enacted on August 28, 2006.

December 2, 2006: Plebiscite approves the separation of Dinagat Islands from Surigao del Norte by virtue of Republic Act No. 9355 approved on October 2, 2006.

November 18, 2008: MMA Act No. 201 declared void by the Supreme Court, Shariff Kabunsuan reverts as part of Maguindanao.

February 11, 2010: RA No. 9355 found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, Dinagat Islands reverts as part of Surigao del Norte.

March 30, 2011: Supreme Court reverses its decision on Dinagat Islands and became a province once again.

October 28, 2013: Plebiscite approves the separation of Davao Occidental from Davao del Sur by virtue of Republic Act No. 10360 approved on January 21, 2013.

Proposed Philippines Regions MapNot surprisingly, several new provinces have been proposed, as can be seen on the Wikipedia map posted here.

The Philippine’s structure of administrative regions has also changed frequently, with new regions added and with provinces transferred from one region to another. An executive order in 2015, for example, created a new region composed only of the two provinces on the island of Negros, which had previously been divided between the Central Visayas and the Western Visayas regions. This division reflected the island’s cultural and linguistic affinities, but evidently caused problems in planning and developmental initiatives. The new region is officially designed to “further accelerate the social and economic development of the cities and municipalities comprising the provinces of Negros Occidental and Negros Oriental and improve the delivery of public services in the aforementioned provinces.” The linguistic division of the island, however, presents a challenge to its regional unification. As outlined in an article in the Philippine Inquirer:

“The Constitution provides that the region should have a regional language that shall serve as the auxiliary official language in the region, the auxiliary medium of instruction,” said Maxino, dean of Silliman University’s College of Law. “So in this Negros Island Region, what would be the regional auxiliary official language?” he asked.

For Negros Oriental Vice Gov. Mark Macias, the solution is simple: Transactions will be done in English.

English is one of two official languages of the Philippines, along with Filipino. Filipino, which is based on Tagalog, is also the country’s sole “national language.” The Philippines has an additional 19 officially recognized “auxiliary” languages, which are used regionally but not nationally. The majority of the people of the Philippines speak English fluently, a situation that has brought considerable economic benefits to the country. Still, the idea that English should serve as a Philippine regional language strikes many Filipinos as a step too far. But then again, profound controversies also persist about the role of Filipino as the language of national integration. Those who retain strong loyalties to their own regional languages sometimes view Filipino/Tagalog as an imposition from the center and often favor English for inter-ethnic communication. This attitude is reflected clearly in a comment by Randy Derigay to an 2014 article in the Manila Bulletin entitled “Filipino Is ‘Foreign’ To Many Pinoy* Students”:

Why call it Filipino where in fact it’s TAGALOG? It’s ironic that you guys are promoting the speaking of Filipino but the majority of FILIPINOs are Visayan speaking. Why not make it plain English to be fair to everybody? I mean fair to Cebuano, Waray, Hiligaynon, Bol-anon, Ilocano speaking people, etc. Did you ever wonder why Filipinos don’t unite at all? That’s probably because of that………. Language. We tend to be regionalistic. So don’t expect people from Mindanao to speak the FILIPino language per se.

Other commenters on the same article, not surprisingly, disagree vociferously. It is interesting to see how Philipmon seeks to refute Randy Derigay:

It is unfortunate that the educational system still instills colonial mentality to students and graduates. And, businesses including advertising support it. (Just look at the billboards, telly advertisements, etc., which are mostly in English.)

By forcing students to use English even after class, it subconsciously emphasize the “superiority” of the colonial language to Filipino. Additionally, Pinoy parents in the “upper” echelon of society encourages their children to speak English rather than Filipino to get ahead. And, these children are sent abroad for their further education/indoctrination. However, in the process, these children lose their nationalism. Unfortunately, these are the same children who will lead our country.

And finally, consider the rejoinder to Philipmon by Mssn:

Go and work in call center using Tagalog. Let’s see if you will survive one day…. Internet and social media use English… English will be the language of the Internet… and THE FUTURE is the INTERNET economy…. if you don’t know English you are dead…

Comments sections of newspaper articles may not give representative data, but they can be revealing and they are often very diverting. I probably spend too much time reading them.

*“Pinoy” refers to any native resident of the Philippines. The Wikipedia article on the term claims that it is “considered by most Filipinos as a racial slur and derogatory,” but I am not convinced. The same article states that “the word is formed by taking the last four letters of Filipino and adding the diminutive suffix -y in the Tagalog language (the suffix is commonly used in Filipino nicknames: “Ninoy” or “Noynoy” for Benigno …, “Totoy” for Augusto, etc.).

Philippines Customizable Maps (Keynote)

Philippines Customizable Maps (PowerPoint)

Using GC Customizable Maps in the Classroom: Population Density in California

The customizable maps that GeoCurrents is releasing to the public have many potential classroom uses, as this post will seek to demonstrate. Manipulating such maps is a good way to learn some of the fundamental elements of cartography, and can be useful as well for gaining basic geographical knowledge. It is one thing to merely look at a map, and quite another to actively engage with it.

My example today concerns the population density of California. With 39 million inhabitants, California is by far the most populous state in the USA, with 12 million more residents than second-place Texas. But California is not particularly densely populated, ranking only 11th on this score among U.S. states. But all such measurements obscure the extremely uneven nature of the distribution of California’s people. Large expanses of the state are almost uninhabited.

California Population Density 1My starting point for a classroom exercise on this matter would be a customizable map of the counties of California coupled with a ranked list of those countries by population density (see the map to the left). I would then ask the students to construct a population density map of California based on this data, using whatever color scheme and break-points in the data that they see fit. If one uses an unlabeled base map, as shown here, students will have to figure out where each county is located before they assign it to a color category. An easier alternative assignment would be to begin with a labeled map. In this case, however, the small counties (such as Sutter, Alameda, or Orange) can be difficult to color, as when one “clicks” on them California County Namesone will actual click on the name-tag rather than the shape. These name-tags, however, can be dragged away and then replaced after the color has been assigned. If the map is filled in without the county names, the labels can be restored by using the “select all” feature on a county-name-only map (posted to the left), copying what has been selected, and then pasting it on to the colored population density map. Black-letter names placed on dark-colored counties will then have to changed to white to make them legible. (The county-name-only map is available for download in the PowerPoint and Keynote files this post, along with several other maps used in this post.)

California Population Density Map 1It would, of course, be useful at some point to provide students with a model of a map constructed in such a manner, as with the one posted to the left. Here one can see how I categorized the raw data, splitting it into 11 groups. I usually try to limit such divisions to no more than nine, for the simple reason that Apple’s Keynote program provides a handy 9X12 color Keynote Color Matrixmatrix, with a 10th row for white-black (see the illustration). In this case, however, the vast differences in the values being mapped—from 1.6 to 3,472—seemed to demand more categories. I thus used black for the highest category, and for the lowest I took the lightest color in the sequence California Population Density Map 2and set the opacity to 50%, lightening it still further. An alternative for a map with numerous categories is to use a two-color scheme, as illustrated to the left. I prefer this kind of map whenever the value range is large, as it emphasizes extremes. Many people tell me, however, that they find such maps difficult to interpret. Another way to signpost extremes is to provide the actual figures on the map itself, which I have done here, albeit using total population rather than density. As can be seen, the populations of California’s counties vary by roughly four orders of magnitude, ranging from a little over 1,000 in Alpine to more than 10 million in Los Angeles.



California Population Density Map 3Once the population-density-by-county mapping exercise has been completed, it is important to point out its limitations. This step can be accomplished by contrasting the maps that the students have made with a map showing population density at a much finer level of analysis. As can be readily appreciated by viewing the map posted to the left, it is somewhat misleading to focus on overall population density figures for many if not most California counties. This issue is especially acute for a huge county such as San Bernardino, which is larger than nine U.S. states. As can be seen on the map, the vast majority of San Bernardino’s two million residents live in the far southwestern corner of the county. The rest of the county is sparsely inhabited desert.



Ventura County TopographyMany California counties are characterized by such highly uneven population distribution patterns. Los Angeles County, for example, has an extraordinarily sharp north-south population gradient. In neighboring Ventura, almost no one one lives in the entire northern half of the county. In most cases, such patterns are easily explained on the basis of physical geography. To illustrate this, I placed an expanded section of the population density map showing Ventura County hidden below a depiction of the Ventura County Population Densitycounty’s topography. I then roughly outlined (in black) the flat areas of the county, something that students could easily do in a classroom exercise. If the opacity of the topography map is then set to zero, as in the last map posted here, the population density map is revealed, showing the correlation between settlement patterns and landforms.

But even on the higher resolution population density map, certain mysteries remain. Why, for example, would population density abruptly jump just to the north of Ventura County in an equally rugged section of Kern County? The answer here, again, is found in the degree of resolution. This map may seem to be finely divided, but in actuality in entails a large degree of spatial aggregation. Such aggregation is evident in the fact that the color categories often follow county boundaries exactly, which is almost never the case in regard to the actual distribution of the population. The main lesson here is that no map can ever be perfect unless it is made on a 1:1 scale, in which case it would also be perfectly useless.



California Population Customizable Maps (PowerPoint)

California Population Customizable Maps (Keynote)

Mapping Early Modern Japan as a Multi-State System

Europe 1000 mapAs numerous GeoCurrents posts have noted, the basic world political map is a misleading document, as it implies that the geopolitical order is much simpler than it actually is. The deceptive simplicity of the standard view is doubly problematic when applied to earlier times, when sovereignty was generally even more slippery than it is at present, and when clearly demarcated boundaries were often absent. In some times and places, particularly those conceptualized as “feudal,” sovereign power was parcelized in such a complex manner that political entities become almost impossible to map. The usual cartographic expedient is to simply depict the highest levels of the feudal hierarchy, such as the Kingdom of France circa 1000 CE or the Holy Roman Empire around 1500 CE, despite the fact that the actual powers of these large political entities were at those times quite limited.

world political map 1700Early modern Japan of the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) was similarly characterized by a complex division of sovereignty among many unequal political entities. To be sure, one of these—the Tokugawa shogunate—effectively dominated the county as a whole, even though it was symbolically subordinate to the Emperor and his court. This dynasty of shoguns imposed peace on what had been a fractious and war-torn archipelago in the 16th century. As a result, world historical maps typically depict early modern Japan as a single, unified state, as seen in the Wikipedia “world in 1700” map posted here. (Note: This particular map erroneously portrays the entire northern island of Hokkaido as fully part of the Japanese realm, when in fact only its southernmost area was under direct Japanese control.)

The only acknowledged zone of ambiguity in the greater Japanese archipelago on many of these maps is the Ryukyu island chain, stretching between southern Japan and Taiwan. On the Wikipedia map posted here, this area is labeled as “near Japanese vassals.” In actuality this collection of islands formed the separate Ryukyu Kingdom, which paid tribute both to China and Japan—a useful strategy for maintaining profitable trade relations at a time when diplomatic ties between these rival East Asian powers had broken down. But although the Ryukyu Kingdom was a ceremonial vassal of the Tokugawa Shogun, in terms of actual power it was a foreign vassal of the Japanese daimyo (lord) of Satsuma, who ruled the southern portion of Kyushu Island under the suzerainty of the Tokugawa. As noted in the Wikipedia:

Japanese were prohibited from visiting Ryukyu without shogunal permission, and the Ryukyuans were forbidden from adopting Japanese names, clothes, or customs. They were even forbidden from divulging their knowledge of the Japanese language during their trips to Edo [Tokyo]; the Shimazu family, daimyo of Satsuma, gained great prestige by putting on a show of parading the King, officials, and other people of Ryukyu to and through Edo. As the only han* [domain] to have a king and an entire kingdom as vassals, Satsuma gained significantly from Ryukyu’s exoticness, reinforcing that it was an entire separate kingdom.

The geopolitical situation of early modern Japan, in short, was much more complex than what is indicated by most maps; it was not a politically unified country in the contemporary sense of the word. Its geopolitical character at the time has been vividly captured by Fabian Drixler, whose work on Japanese Buddhism and infanticide was described in a previous GeoCurrents post.

Drixler begins by noting that Japan experienced an unusually long reprieve from war under the Tokugawa, and then goes on to claim:

The Great Peace is even more remarkable if we think of Japan as not one country, but a collection of some 250 states and statelets. Each state had its own castle and samurai army, as well as a daimyo descended from men who had won power on the battlefield. Some of these states were no more than portfolios of widely scattered villages. But others were compact territories, called “countries” by their hundreds of thousands of inhabitants.

The Tokugawa maintained the peace not by crushing
all their competitors, but
by creating a system in which—for the first time
in centuries—Japan’s ruling elite no longer needed to fear destruction at the hands of their peers.

Tokugawa Japan Map2To be sure, some specialists have attempted to map the complexity of Japan’s geopolitical order during the Tokugawa period, but even in Japanese publications, the political cartography of the Tokugawa period is often surprisingly simplified. The most common strategy, seen in the maps Tokugawa Japan Map 3posted here, is to distinguish the domains controlled directly by the Tokugawa shoguns from those controlled by the daimyo, and then to subdivide the latter in terms of their relations to the Tokugawa clan. The fudai domains seen on these maps were ruled by hereditary vassals of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the dynasty, whereas Tokugawa Mapan Map 5the shinpan were distant kin of the Tokugawa clan. The tozama lords, in contrast, were “outsiders” who only became vassals of the Tokugawa after the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 that paved the way to Tokugawa dominance. Their domains tended to be located in the peripheries of Japan, and many were relatively large. When the shogunate fell in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, it was defeated by the combined military forces of three tozama domains—Satsuma, Chōshū and Tosa—all of which were located far from Japan’s centers of political and economic power.

Maps showing the distribution of power in Tokugawa Japan among these various categories are useful, but even these tend to be somewhat crude, aggregating sizable numbers of small lordships into composite categories. More important, as Drixler notes in a private correspondence, “the distinction between tozama, fudai, and shinpan may also have been less important than such maps suggest.” Significant territorial discrepancies are also found in the various maps posted here. A more comprehensive map of the geopolitical order of Tokugawa Japan would thus be highly beneficial.

Daimyo Territories Japan MapFortunately, such a map is now available, thanks to the efforts, yet again, of Fabian Drixler. Drixler maps more than 200 different domains, yielding a landscape of stunning detail. His main map** sacrifices the larger aggregations of fudai, shinpan, and tozama, instead using separate colors to denote each domain in order to invite viewers to think of Tokugawa Japan as a multi-state system. He has made a separate map, however, that does distinguish these three different kinds of political territories while also differentiating the lands of shrines and temples as well as those of the court and emperor.

Western Japan Daimyo Territories MapThe most striking feature of the resulting map is the extraordinarily fine spatial divisions found in the core areas of Japan. While large domains predominate toward the edges of the archipelago, both the western heartland or Kansai (the greater Osaka/Kyoto region) and its counterpart in the east, the Kanto (a large plain surrounding Edo [Tokyo]) Eastern Japan Daimyo Territories Mapwere political shatter-zones; both areas were fragmented among scores of loyal retainers. Intriguingly, this mirrors the spatial structure of the Holy Roman Empire at the time, whose larger constituent entities were similarly in the margins (particularly the east).






Domain Categories Japan Map








Holy Roman Empire 1648 MapIn both Japan and Germany, political unification*** was propelled from the periphery (Prussia in the case of Germany; Satsuma and Chōshū in the case the case of Japan). But whereas the new German Empire was centered in Prussia’s Berlin, the new rulers of a unified Japan returned the seat of power to Edo, renaming it Tokyo—the “Eastern Capital”— in the process. In Drixler’s view, this reflected an astute awareness that the new country might otherwise splinter into separate eastern and western states.


*Drixler notes that the term “han,” used in this Wikipedia article, is a loaded term, as it “encapsulates the perspective of the Tokugawa center, the ceremonial version of reality in which the other lords were just heading private clans rather than ruling their own states. Internally, domains did not call themselves ‘han,’ but used terms such as kuni or ryōbu.” The term “kuni” is often translated as “country.”

**Drixler’s map is based on a series of maps in Nishioka Toranosuke and Hattori Shisō, eds., Nihon rekishi chizu (Tokyo: Zenkoku Kyōiku Tosho, 1956) and correcting discrepancies between them with reference to the territorial grants from 1664, in Kokuritsu Shiryōkan, eds., Kanbun shuin-dome (Tōkyō Daigaku Shuppankai, 1980) and the Kanbun inchi-shū in Kokusho Kankōkai, eds., Zokuzoku gunsho ruijū vol. 9 (Kokusho Kankōkai, 1906).

*** Such a comparison, however, may be a little too facile, as it evades the so-called German Question of the 1800s. This contentious issue divided those who conceived of German nationalism in terms of all German-speaking people from those who wanted to exclude the German-speakers from the Austrian (later, Austro-Hungarian) Empire. The envisaged states of these two camps were often referred to as Kleindeutschland (“Lesser Germany”) and Großdeutschland (“Greater Germany”). The proponents of “Lesser Germany” may have won the struggle in the 1860s and ‘70s, but the issue was not definitely settled until much later. As Drixler again perceptively notes in a private correspondence:

By calling itself the “German Empire,” the new state came to claim that name for itself, but it was really only in 1945 that Austrian and German became mutually exclusive categories. We now generally conceive of 1871 as “Prussia unifying Germany,” but I think this is reading history backwards.