Friday, July 31, 2015

… and Northern Ireland, Sir!

The title of this post is a phrase that comes to mind every time I consider the question of what exactly is meant by the terms England, Great Britain, and the UK. That shortest of monikers is an abbreviation, of course, for United Kingdom. But that in turn is shorthand for The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But if you took geography with Norman (Stormin’ Norman) Little at North Kansas City High School in the 1970s, the word “Sir!” was added, as it was to all place names during recitations.
Yes, we had recitations as the main form of learning geography – in a room full of maps, half standard and half without any labels – we spent almost every class session in oral-quiz mode. If we failed to answer correctly – or if we failed to end with “Sir!” – the response would be “Young man (or lady) … that will be five points off your next examination!”
This approach to teaching geography had two results, one surprising and one to be expected. The surprise is that most students were fond of Mr. Little. They had actually painted “Stormin’ Norman” to give him an unofficial reserved parking space for his beloved Ford Pinto. He was “old school” with an official one-room schoolhouse on his resume, so I think we all just thought of him as quaint in a way that younger teachers could not have been.
The unsurprising result is that I finished high school with a geography course under my belt, and no idea that it was an actual academic discipline. We spent less than a day on any real geographic questions, so I never even looked at geography as an option when I started college.
But I digress. The real point here is to learn a bit more about the country, nation, state, and island we sometimes just call “the Brits.” Fortunately, we have the help of CGP Grey, who provides a lovely romp through this thicket of nomenclature.

And we don’t have to call him “Sir.”

NOTE: This is actually the third time I've mentioned this video. For some different contexts, see Queen Lisa? (2012) and Borderlines (2013).

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Dependent Development

When  we lived in Arizona (1990 to 1994), I was aware of deep fissures in the political philosophies prevalent in the desert Southwest, particularly with respect to land and water. This was the home, after all, of Barry Goldwater and of an abiding and even growing form of libertarian thinking. I was there to study political ecology and to prepare for my work in one of the world's very wet places -- Rondonia -- but I also thought quite a lot about what it meant to live in this very dry place.

I quickly realized that even the most fiercely independent westerners are highly dependent -- like it or not -- on the federal government. I became familiar with the contradictions of "welfare ranchers" such as the petulant Nevadan Cliven Bundy, who famously refuses to pay his rent. His tantrum has now inspired legislators in several western states to attempt land grabs that would amount to acre-by-acre secessions from the United States.
I also knew that our own ability to live, work and study depended upon highly subsidized water, but a recent Living on Earth story helped me to understand that dependence much more fully. It explains connections among politics, water, electricity, agriculture, and climate change, all focused on the infamous Navajo Generating Station. I use the word "infamous" because I have long known it as a major source of air pollution that often creates an ugly haze over the Grand Canyon. I did not realize, though, that its main purpose is pumping water against gravity to supply the cities and farms of Arizona, Nevada, and southern California. Nor did I realize that it is the third-most important source of greenhouse gases in the United States. Steve Curwood explains who benefits from this arrangement, and why change is so unlikely.

Coffee People

In three decades of visiting coffeelands around the world, photographer Steve McCurry has emphasized the people who grow, process, roast, and brew it. Jordan Teicher describes McCurry's work for Slate and includes a few photos, such as this one showing how coffee is typically prepared in Ethiopia. More of these photos are in McCurry's book From These Hands.

McCurry's work is motivated by the conviction that it is important for people to understand that food comes to us not just from land, but also from people. Ten million people around the world make their livelihood from coffee. McCurry does a great service by bringing a few of them into focus. The work highlights two of the concepts of the geography of coffee that are also explored in Dean Cycon's Javatrekker. First is that coffee connects us to many people across many miles; the other is that since the best coffee is high-grown, it comes from communities that are often quite remote and isolated.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Frontier on Fire

Some of Alaska's fires this season. Source: Slate.
An area larger than our smallest state has already burned this season in our largest state. That is, something like 2,000 square miles have burned in Alaska. For comparison, Rhode Island and Delaware are about 1,500 and 2,500 square miles, respectively. As a percentage of the total land area, of course, the burn is trivial -- about one third of one percent so far. But as coverage in Slate points out, this is actually part of the problem: fire-fighting resources in Alaska are spread over an impossibly large area. Moreover, the amount of fire is a great great increase from the past, perhaps the most destructive burning season ever.

Of course, forest and brush fires are natural occurrences that do not destroy land; they just change what is on it. But those degree and intensity of the changes are not natural, and they are damaging to resources we rely upon and should care about.

To learn more, start with Nathan Rott's vivid reporting on the scope and severity of this year's fire season in the Final Frontier state. Speaking with local experts, his story also explains why these fires will last longer than similar fires elsewhere would.
An Alaska Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopter drops about 700 gallons of water onto the Stetson Creek Fire in June 2015. (Photo: Sgt. Balinda O’Neal/U.S. Army National Guard via Living on Earth)
For a deeper explanation of the interactions between fire policy and climate change, listen to Steve Curwood's extended discussion entitled Climate Change Fuels Forest Fires. As with many environmental threats we face, climate change compounds problems that have other causes.
... can cause so many forest fires.
In the 1980s it began to become apparent to many foresters and landscape ecologists that a half-century of success if fire suppression had created conditions that would make fires more difficult to contain. The foresters understood this in the familiar language of fuel loads, which are mentioned in the Curwood piece cited above.

In the 1980s I was fortunate to be studying with a landscape ecologist who helped me to understand an important, additional dimension of the problem: patchiness, to which Curwood's piece also alludes. Not only have decades of success allowed fuel to accumulate in millions of acres of forest; but the normal patchwork of old and new forest has been lost. Prior to the very successful campaigns embodied in Smokey the Bear, if one area of forest had a heavy load of fuel, it was likely to be surrounded by a patchwork in which some areas had less fuel because they had recently burned.

The result is a landscape in which fire is likely to behave differently than it did a century ago, in both horizontal and vertical dimensions. The lack of a patchwork facilitates horizontal movement of fire; heavy fuel loads help the fire to reach the canopy much more readily. This can increase the temperature and intensity of the fire, and is much more likely to result in damage to trees that have evolved to withstand occasional, low-temperature ground fires.

As I mention above, these landscape-scale effects of fire policy were not understood for about 50 years -- the amount of time it took to reach uniform fuel loads over large areas. It has taken a couple more decades to understand the ability of climate change to intensify the resulting fire regimes -- and to add extreme temporal variation, as each fire year can be very different from the last.

For more thoughts on fire and climate, see my Hot or Not? post, written in the hottest month of the last presidential election cycle.


As if fire in Alaska were not concerning enough, consider the emergence of a new urban wildfire threat in Washington state. Eastern Washington is drier than the Pacific coast, but the threat of fires in downtown Spokane is nonetheless a novel problem.

2018 Update

The fire season of 2018 is, predictably as devastating as recent years, perhaps more so. The combination of climate change, wildland/urban sprawl, and historic patterns of fire suppression have led to massive, deadly fires. The continuous worsening of fire danger has led one inventor to develop a supertanker of aircraft, able to deliver unprecedented quantities of fire suppressant from the air, and to do so in a controlled way that is more effective against fire and less dangerous to ground crews.

The plane has been used in Chile and Israel but has not yet been deployed in the United States because of unspecified bureaucratic obstacles.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Homeland Insecurity

I usually enjoy sharing maps, but I would rather not have to share this one.
Many justified the second war in Iraq with the mantra that it would be better to fight the terrorists "over there" than to fight them over here. I was never quite on board with that, since the people "over there" did not ask to be our arena. But now the terrorists really are "over here" and we need to step up to protect our fellow citizens.
The map clearly shows that these attacks are clustered in the South, but notice that they are points, representing a few or perhaps a few dozen individuals. I have been in the region enough to know that these terrorists do not speak for all of their neighbors. Such ilk never do.

Map: Recent fires at African-American churches in the South
Six predominantly black churches have caught on fire in the past two weeks. Where are they and what are officials saying?

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Environmental Geography Gamut

One of my goals in general-education classes is to ensure that students will emerge better able to interpret course-related news they encounter in the future. For this reason, my final exams often ask them to find a news item, describe it, and relate it to something they learned in the course. This is a pedagogic approach I learned from the work of geographer L. Dee Fink; it is also a way to ensure that I continue to learn from my students.

At the moment I am taking a break from grading summer courses to share some of the articles that came my way as the result of such an assignment, because all of them fit nicely into the theme of this blog -- and the title of the course in question -- Environmental Geography. (See my "What is environmental geography, anyway?" web page if you've been wondering about that title. Most of what is on this blog fits somehow into that category, though some of it is more appropriately called political, economic, or cultural geography.)

Here -- without elaboration, in the interest of time -- are the articles and radio pieces that students shared. Each one made a connection between the article and Carl Safina's book The View from Lazy Point. (See more Safina references throughout this blog.) In some cases, several students commented on the same stories, making different connections.

Supreme Court Blocks Obama Administration Plan on Power Plant Emissions. NPR June 29th, 2015.

Note From A Civilized City: Boston Parks To Offer Dispensers Of Free Sunscreen. WBUR June 26, 2015.

New Panda Count Brings Cheers And Debate. WBUR March 2, 2015.
Shameless and gratuitous use of cute charismatic megafauna.

Survival Of The Greenest Beer? Breweries Adapt To A Changing Climate. NPR June 24, 2015.

Risk of Extreme Weather From Climate Change to Rise Over Next Century, Report Says. New York Times, June 22, 2015.

Chinese Couples Urged to Have More Children. The Guardian June 29, 2015.

The Dutch Ruling On Climate Change That Could Have A Global Impact. NPR June 25, 2015.

The Evolution of Birdsong. Living on Earth, June 26, 2015.

Genetically Modified Salmon: Coming To A River Near You? NPR June 24, 2015.

How A Historical Blunder Helped Create The Water Crisis In The West. NPR June 25, 2015.
Image: NPR
To Tackle Food Waste, Big Grocery Chain Will Sell Produce Rejects. NPR June 17, 2015. (In searching for this, I also found Landfill of Lettuce by the same reporter.)

Decisions On Climate Change Will Affect Economic Future Of U.S. NPR June 22, 2015.

Save Wildlife, Save Yourself? NPR June 26, 2015.

Scientists Build Case for 'Sixth Extinction' ... and Say It Could Kill Us. NBC News. June 19, 2015.

OK, so I will elaborate on this one. This story was cited by a couple of students. I had seen the headline but had not yet worked up the nerve to read the article. Not only will I now be assigning it in some of my classes -- such as Land Protection -- but I will also be assigning the original article on which it is based:

Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction.  Science Advances 1(5): June 19, 2015. Gerardo Cebellos, Paul Ehrlich, et al.

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