Saturday, December 19, 2015

Vertical Space

From Bucharest comes a very interesting geography of just a few square meters of land -- as it is occupied in vertical layers. Romanian photographer Bogdan Gîrbovan  selected one of the city's many identical apartment blocks, and then chose a location within that building.

He took this photograph in an apartment on the top floor:
He took photographs from the same position on each floor below, in apartments that had been identical initially. In this way he demonstrates how humans modify space at a very fine scale. All ten images are presented -- and stacked -- on the Bright Side blog.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Marawa, Karawa, Tarawa

Sea, Sky, Land
Sea, Sky, People

In the language of the I-Kiribati people of Kiribati (key-rah-BAHS), the words for sea, sky, and land rhyme, as their world is very much at the intersection of all three, and tides are the rhythm of their lives. Just as telling, although they have dozens of words for the fruit of a palm tree, they have only one word -- tarawa -- for both land and people. The fate of one is the fate of the other.
Fifty thousand people share the main island of Kiribati, known simply as Tarawa ("Land"). All of its six square miles are 8 feet or less below sea level. The dark green around the edges are mangroves, a key to the survival of these islands and their Tarawa ("People"). Image and article: Kadir Van Lohuizen and Kennedy WarneNational Geographic
As with the other tens of thousands of people living on atolls in the warm Pacific, climate change presents an existential crisis for the I-Kiribati. Expertise in fishing developed over  three millennia is proving inadequate as rising seas change the habits of the fish in the surrounding seas. Changing hydrology has already meant a changing diet, as traditional varieties of tarot can no longer be grown. Because a warming ocean brings more frequent bleaching of coral, the islands will have less sediment with which to match the rising tides. 

As world leaders (an over-used and often ill-deserved term) turn their attention to climate change for a few weeks surrounding the Paris climate talks, it would behoove us all to consider the problem from the point of view of low-lying island states, particularly those of the Pacific Ocean.

Among these, the story of Kiribati -- about which I wrote in Climate Foxholes in 2013 -- is perhaps the most poignant. It is a country that is already losing ground -- quite literally to the gradual advance of the ocean. As serious as that gradual inundation is, the battering of Kiribati and similarly situated countries by wind and wave is much more complicated and a much greater threat, as several recent reports bear out.

To learn more and to stay informed, visit the web site of the Alliance of Small-Island States (AOSIS) and follow its efforts.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Tea for the Coffee Maven

I teach three courses on coffee and one on tea. Because the tea course is only one credit-hour, this is a ratio that is proportional to my knowledge and enjoyment of the two beverages. They are very different in geography, flavor, history, and preparation, but I am always interested in connections between the two.

From 44 North Coffee in Maine -- by way of The Salt on NPR -- comes just such a connection. The normally-discarded husk of the coffee cherry -- known in Spanish as the cascara -- can be dried and brewed, just like the hibiscus tea (jamaica) that is popular in the coffee-growing areas of Central America. According to the reporting, the tea can be made from the husks whether the cherries are dried whole (natural or dry process) or depulped at harvest time (wet process).

The article answers another question some of my students and I have had for some while -- can a wine or beer be made directly from the coffee fruit? New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado says yes, at least on the beer side, and ran a limited batch recently. Too bad I did not realize that when I was in Ft. Collins. The reasons to return keep accumulating!

My first order is on its way ... scheduled to arrive for the last session of this semester's tea class, and the first session of next semester's coffee class. Stay tuned for a review.

Deluge Without Equal

From the excellent program The World, I learned that Chennai -- the fourth-largest city in India -- is experiencing a flooding disaster comparable to Katrina right now.

The BBC reports on rescue efforts as a week of continuous rain was followed by the most intense rains in more than a century in this southern city also known as Madras. Elsewhere on BBC, activist Nityanand Jayaraman blames the severity of the damage on unregulated development and poor infrastructure planning. It is true that the vulnerability of the world's poor to climate extremes is made worse by lack of resilience. It is also true that no city in the world would be prepared to receive a half-meter (18 inches!) of rainfall in a single day, as Chennai did this week.

From a Climate Justice perspective, this is a case of the very uneven geography of climate-change consequences. But increasingly intricate global economic connections mean that the Core "suffers" along with the periphery, as Paddy Padmanabhan explains eloquently on Quartz. I use quotes around the word "suffers" because the inconvenience to customers and financial losses to shareholders are trivial in comparison to the lives and households currently being swept away. Some may remember the supply-chain interruptions Padmanabhan cites from earlier floods.
A fascinating aspect of 21st-century disaster is the role of social media in recovery and reporting, even in places with extremely low incomes and poor infrastructure. Smart phones proliferate in many surprising places, to the extent that the British newspaper The Guardian is able to solicit first-hand reports directly from the scene of the disaster.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Energy Futures Make Coal History

To a great extent, coal has built the modern world in general, and the modern U.S. economy in particular. As Simon Winchester has shown, the search for coal to fuel the industrial revolution also revolutionized the study of geology. Many members of my own family worked in West Virginia mines throughout the early and middle twentieth century. The industry continues to employ thousands of people and it holds billions of dollars in capital assets.

So the demise of the industry is no trifling matter. But for the future of the planet, that demise is absolutely essential, and news of its progress is most welcome. On the WBUR program here & Now, Michael Grunwald explains how a combination of economic, regulatory, and political factors have led to the shuttering of 1/3 of U.S. coal-burning power plants. 
Burning coal along the Potomac.
(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
This story offers a bit of encouragement as the world faces some critical decisions related to climate change. Few would have thought this possible a decade ago, given the political and economic interests committed to maintaining the status quo.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Royal Cartographic Decree

When I stand with students --usually elementary or middle-school -- in front of the Africa side of EarthView, I usually ask them to repeat a simple phrase in unison: "Africa is not a country!"

I do this, of course, because I so often encounter people who speak or write as if it is a single country, rather than a continent of 55 countries (or more, depending on which neighboring islands are counted).

From Michael Blanding's fascinating book The Map Thief, I recently learned that my declaration about Africa echoes the words of King Ferdinand VI of Spain , who decreed in 1747 that "California is not an island!"

He was frustrated by the fact that a cartographic error made by British mathematician Henry Briggs in 1622 had been copied so often that it was thought to be true more than a century later. Eventually, the king's decree -- and better field work -- fixed the error, though the notion of California as an island in the figurative sense remains popular.

Click on map to enlarge.
For more, visit 18 California-iland maps at
I learned all of this on the same day that I learned that my colleague Dr. Joseph Kerski has made available the materials from a workshop and presentation entitled Why Maps Matter. It is part of the ongoing educational work of ESRI, a major GIS software provider.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Mainstreaming Coffee Justice

I have the great privilege of counting some of the world's best coffee farmers among my friends. I also know of coffee retailers who do their best -- through certified fair trade or other models -- to connect customers to producers in ways that enhance the social and environmental sustainability of production.

But after more than two decades of growing attention to specialty coffee, fair trade, and other forms of innovation for sustainability, all of these efforts continue to reside in niche markets -- even boutique markets. The vast majority of customers do not know anything about where their coffee comes from, and seem to prefer not knowing. "Cheaper than a cup of coffee" remains a byword in fundraising, to signify amounts of money too small to notice -- despite the tens of billions of dollars spent on coffee each year, and the millions of people who depend on their miniscule shares of those dollars.
As I have been thinking about my coffee seminars in the spring 2016 semester -- the tenth year of these seminars -- I have been considering an assignment that would directly address the question of mainstreaming coffee justice.

That is, I have been hoping that at least some of the student research in the course could be devoted to options for improving the lives of coffee farmers who will, realistically, never be part of the elite ranks of specialty producers. Coffee is an industry that provides only modest rewards to those at the very top of the quality scale, and essentially no rewards to everyone else. The latter part of this equation must change.

Here is where George Clooney enters the conversation. Yes, George Clooney, nephew of Rosemary. Two aspects of his off-screen work have been overlapping of late, with interesting results. He is a celebrity face for Nespresso, the coffee-pod branch of Nestle -- about as mainstream and far from quality as one can get in coffee. He has also been politically active in South Sudan. The result has been a nascent attempt to develop coffee production in the world's newest country, and to get Nescafe to think about the (obvious?) connection between sustaining coffee producers and sustaining coffee production.

So far, the corporations involved in Clooney's efforts seem to be discovering problems that those of us who study coffee communities have long known, and the remedies they are beginning are inadequate. But their recognition -- however belated -- of the crucial role of farmer viability in their businessses may provide a vital opening for bringing some modicum of justice to mainstream coffee.

Both the country of South Sudan and our department's beautiful wall map were new when South Sudan's ambassador to the United States, Dr. Akec Khoc, paid a visit. We were pleased that the new map shows not only his country, but some details that he mentioned in a talk that day. He is shown here with several BSU faculty members. L-R, Dr. Madhu Rao, Dr. Khoc, Dr. Vernon Domingo, Dr. James Hayes-Bohanan, and Dr. Jabbar Al-Obaidi.
... and Climate

Environmental concerns around coffee have centered on organic, shade-grown, and bird-friendly coffee. These practices tend to require a lot of additional work on the part of the farmers growing the coffee, and they command premiums from concerned buyers, myself included. Somehow the dollar-per-pound premium at retail translates to pennies or a dime at the farm gate, even in fair-trade models, but at least the farming communities get the benefit of cleaner air and water, and less exposure to chemicals in the field.

Just as important as the potential threats to the environment posed by conventional coffee-growing methods are the environmental threats to coffee production, particularly from climate change. The best coffee -- like the best wine -- depends on delicate and rare combinations of cloud-forest microclimate and volcanic soils. A skilled farmer can work with these to coax amazing flavors from a plant whose fruit would be unremarkable in a different location.

The farmers I know who work in such locations have been worrying almost constantly about climate disruptions for a decade or more, but most conventional farmers have until now been relatively unaffected. Mainstream coffee has not been as vulnerable to climate change as the rare specialty coffees are, but that is about to change, according to a new study by World Coffee Research.
Click image to enlarge. Both optimal (purple) and suitable (other colors) conditions for coffee are expected to become more scarce in East Africa.
The forecast decreases in suitable coffee lands pose an existential threat not just to the elite segments of coffee, but to coffee in general. Sadly, this may be what finally motivates some folks to get serious about climate change.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Akademik and Counterintuitive

When the Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy was caught in thick ice between Australia and Antarctica just after Christmas 2013, its crew and owners were dismayed, but among climate deniers it evoked a definite sense of Schadenfreude. The expansion of sea ice that caused this mishap was taken as evidence that the planet could not be warming. If the planet is getting warmer, they asked, how could a cold place have more ice than ever?

Decades ago, geographers and other planetary scientists realized that the overall warming caused by increasing concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases would have complicated results. Just as cake batter that heats too rapidly will not cook evenly, so too would a complicated system of fluids (air and water) at the earth's surface behave somewhat chaotically when experiencing unprecedented rates of change in temperature. For this reason, "global warming" gave way to "climate change" or even "climate disruption" as descriptive terms.

Since we are living through the first and only "experiment" of its kind, we cannot know all of the implications of unprecedented increases in carbon dioxide (increased nearly 50 percent in just two centuries), methane, and other gases. This is precisely why scientists and activists have urged caution -- alas, to little avail.

The area of ice cover in the Southern Ocean  continues to expand, though little is known about the ice volume, and the causes of the expansion are not yet fully understood. Among climate skeptics, this expansion of ice-covered surface is far more interesting that then disappearance of ice at the opposite pole, even though that loss is THREE TIMES GREATER than the gains in the south.

The expanding ice is important. It reflects solar energy, which will slow -- however infinitesimally -- the overall warming of the planet. But it does not negate the evidence of climate change provided by droughts, floods, wildfires, coral bleaching, and sea-level rise elsewhere on the planet..

NASA scientists provide a brief explanation of the see-saw phenomenon between the two roofs of the world in this video, as well as two more extensive discussions of the current state of our understanding of Antarctic ice here and here.


In college I majored in geography, but in high school I lettered in math. So I decided to put this phenomenon in some perspective, mathwise.

Arctic Ice
     Arctic Ice      Annual
Earth Surface Area 510,072,000 km2 1.53%  0.0037%
Earth Ocean Area  361,900,000 km2 2.15% 0.0052%
Southern Ocean Area 21,960,000 km2 35.43% 0.0861%
Antarctic Sea Ice Maximum 7,780,000 km2 100% 0.2429%
Antarctic Sea Ice Annual Gain 18,900 km2 100.%
Arctic Sea Ice Annual Loss 53,900 km2 35%

This is to say that at 7,780,000 square kilometers, the greatest-ever extent of Antarctic sea ice (defined conservatively as ocean areas with 15% or more ice cover) covered about 1.5 percent of the earth's surface, about 2.5 percent of all the earth's ocean surface, and just over 1/3 of the Southern Ocean -- that narrow band of ocean poleward of 60 degrees south latitude.

The annual ice gain is one half of one one-hundredth of a percent of the world's oceans, and about one-third of the amount of ice surface lost annually in the Arctic. It is not trivial -- it is an area larger than Connecticut -- but it hardly means we can quit worrying about the other 99+ percent of the planet.

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