Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Netherlands of America

This is what Norfolk, Virginia could be, according to recent reporting on PRI's The World.

We own a home 22 feet above sea-level, closer to the Atlantic than the end zones of a proverbial football field. I was listening to a story about preparing for climate change in coastal Virginia just as I drove past the structure that makes this possible -- a hurricane barrier built in 1966 to protect New Bedford and Fairhaven from hurricane storm surges. That wall is the world's largest such barrier, and could not be built today because of Nixon-era environmental regulations (see M.L. Baron's video and narrative for fascinating details). Without it, though, our bank would have required prohibitively expensive insurance or elaborate engineering before approving a mortgage so close to the steadily rising sea. (We have not delusions about that wall being a perfect defense, by the way. It was designed based on careful review of the previous 100 years of flood records.)

As I wrote in Climate Foxholes in late 2013, people with grown-up responsibilities such as running insurance companies are no longer able to avoid figuring climate change into their planning. Lately, the Scottish golf industry -- like the tea and coffee industries elsewhere -- is preparing for climate change, as described in some detail in journalist Robin Young's recent interview of turf agronomist Richard Windows. Even our own country's most audacious climate denier takes the risks seriously when it comes to his own golf courses.
Caption from original story: Hurricane Sandy sent 8-year-old Avery Solan out to play in the flooded streets of Norfolk, Virginia, in October 2012. The city is trying to prevent worse flooding as sea levels rise, and at the same time grow new industry in a region currently dependent on military jobs.  Credit: Rich-Joseph Facun/Reuters 
What intrigues me about the Norfolk example is that leaders there -- beginning, I think, with those who had to make long-term plans for the U.S. Navy's many facilities in the area -- were early adopters of a pragmatic, defensive approach to climate change; they now see themselves as being able to turn long-term peril into a growth industry.

Coastal Virginia is not the only place where planning for resilience to climate change is underway. Some of the greatest progress seems to be found in post-Sandy New York, including New York City and the neighboring Hudson Valley.

Lagniappe -- Why the focus on coastlines?

The effects of climate change are not limited to coastlines, as those who study agriculture, ecology, and a variety of other subjects well know. But the greater vulnerability of coastal areas to flooding does warrant significant attention. That vulnerability actually has several, interrelated causes:

  • Melting ice. About 2 percent of ALL the water on the planet is currently in the form of ice caps and glaciers. In many cases, that melting is accelerating (increasing at an increasing rate), lowering albedo (reflectivity) at the surface and thereby causing even more warming. Most people who know that sea levels are rising seem to be aware of only this cause.
  • Water already in the oceans is expanding as it warms, causing to to rise just as mercury rises in a thermometer. With average ocean depth at about 12,000 feet, we are very fortunate that the entire water column is not susceptible to thermal expansion.
Both of these factors raise Mean Sea Level, and it is easy to see why estimates vary as to exactly how much. Local sea level varies with topography and also, it turns out, with such local conditions as the amount of aquifer pumping that is taking place or sediment loads in nearby rivers.

Whatever the local sea level turns out to be, houses and business above that level can be at elevated risk for flooding. That is because winds, waves, and tidal surges from future storms (which may themselves be more frequently intense) will be occurring on top of higher local sea levels. So although our house at 22 feet would not ever become waterfront on a regular basis, it is potentially vulnerable to rising seas, making us quite grateful for the wall mentioned above.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Geo Veritas

Schadenfreude -- taking joy in the pain or failures of others -- is an unattractive emotion. But it is exactly what many geographers -- especially those who work in the shadows of a certain venerable institution on the Charles River -- feel when we view vignettes recorded on the edges of a Harvard commencement at the opening of the 1988 documentary A Private Universe from Annenberg Learner. 

Still from A Private Universe

The clip is from a longer piece about the shortcomings of private education in general, and the piece itself misses an essential point by mistakenly describing the topic of seasons as an astronomy question. If Harvard had a geography requirement -- or even a geography department -- the errors pronounced by these new graduates would be less common. It is geographic learning in particular that is missing in the background of these young scholars -- and future decision-makers. 

How many people with strong opinions on climate change would perform just as poorly? Far too many, it seems, and it is for this reason that any glee geographers take from this video is short-lived.

May 2020 update: courtesy of Harvard Crimson:

Our own BSU EarthView
as shown in the
 national standards for
geography education.
Photo: Ashley Costa (Harris)
National Geographic
We know that geographic illiteracy is a serious problem. We also know that decisions taken at Harvard almost 70 years ago are part of the cause. The short version is that homophobia was the cause, as shutting down the department was the only way to get rid of Derwent Whittlsey, the brilliant chair of the department when the attack on the department began in 1947. On the 40th anniversary of the events, Neil Smith wrote a detailed discussion of these and other factors in an analysis published in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers (now called the American Association of Geographers, of which I am a member.)

In an undated article on Education.About, Brian Baskerville briefly describes the factors that led to the closing of the department (though he erroneously uses "preference" to describe Whittlsey's sexual orientation). He goes on to assert that geography remains at Harvard, as each of Pattison's 1964 Four Traditions of Geography can be found in one form or another in various parts of the curriculum. This is a rather "thin gruel" as they say, and a far cry from the systematic study of geography that is required to develop a geographically informed person.

About a decade ago, Harvard tried -- in its own flawed way -- to make amends with geography. Or at least to reclaim the word, if not the discipline itself. The effort is described in an understandably self-serving article in Harvard Magazine, Geographers See Death, Birth and Job Prospects. The article acknowledges but dismisses the claims of homophobia as it tries to build the case that Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is both the key to returning intellectual rigor to the field and a necessary part of mending the "hopeless divide" between human and physical geography.

This is all by way, of course, of promoting the GIS program at Harvard. Although it is good to see a significant aspect of our field embraced there, it sadly represents a real missed opportunity. The tools and technologies of geography are important, but they are not geography itself. A conversation I had at Harvard a few years ago with GIS pioneer Jack Dangermond was telling. He had given a presentation in which he offered example after example of geographic principles and patterns. After the lecture, I was hoping that he would lend support to our efforts to expand geography education in Massachusetts. He was shockingly dismissive of the idea. The founder of ESRI is so convinced of the value of his product that he thinks it makes geographic literacy irrelevant. It is as if Word and Excel would make writing and math obsolete (which I suppose they have for some people). He argued that gap in our knowledge of geography would be remedied simply by adding more data to our GIS databases and improving user interfaces.

Whatever really transpired in the 1940s, Harvard remains a drag on geographic literacy.
Veritas -- Truth

Lagniappe -- CitiesX

I wrote this addendum in October 2022 -- here I acknowledge learning some valuable geographic lessons at Harvard during the pandemic. In fact, the course I describe below helped me to realize that I am, in fact, something of an urban geographer. Even though the word "urbanization" is in the title of my doctoral dissertation, I never thought of myself in that way before.

We all had unexpected experiences as a result of the dramatic change in our living habits during the global coronavirus pandemic of 2019 to present. At some point during 2020, I responded to an ad for a MOOC -- a Mass Online Open Course -- hosted by Harvard. I had been among the first people at my own campus to teach an online course, and the first to win an award for online teaching. But I had neither taught nor taken a completely open course like this -- something that had been set up and then essentially left alone for students to complete at their own pace.

As I browsed the offerings, I noticed CitiesX: The Past, Present, and Future of Urban Life and decided that this was the most likely to sustain my interest -- despite two strikes against it. Not only is the course offered at Harvard, but it is also housed in economics -- a field that makes ample use of simplifying assumptions that separate it from reality. I had plenty of time on my hands, however, so I took the course, and found that Dr. Edward Glaeser provided a great many insights about the geographies of a great many cities -- I only screamed at the screen a few times over many dozens of lessons.

In fact, the CitiesX video library is a rich resource that I use for some of my own teaching. It includes all of the videos used in the course, organized by location and theme.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Their Poem

Eggs at Casa Hayes-Boh come from The Country Hen, as part of our regular milk delivery from Crescent Ridge Dairy. This week's delivery included the following colorful poem.

Eat them here or eat them there.
Enjoy the goodness anywhere.
Green eggs are not to cause alarm.
We're really talking 'bout the farm!
The eggs are brown as all have seen.
It is the farm that's much more green!

Solar has been nature's way
from the beginning of our days.
Fossil fuels lead men* [sic] astray.
Making skies an ugly gray.
Now solar is back in a big way!
And blue skies will be here to stay!

We've been good stewards of the land
farming with nature hand-in-hand.
The soil, the water and the air
always reward us for our care.
The sun will run all our machines
And keep the air so nice and clean.
Our organic eggs will be more green!

Country Hen eggs are also available in many of our area grocery stores.

*as we know, women have also been known to use fossil fuels.

My Poem

Every place I have ever been
Is still there

Indicating one of my favorite places on a National Geographic giant traveling flat map.
We rent one of these maps for a couple of weeks each year.
We will soon have our own NGS giant traveling flat map of Massachusetts.

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