Friday, December 24, 2021

Post-Post Soviet: 30 Years On

Thirty years ago this Christmas, AP journalists Alan Cooperman and Liu Heung Shing were hurriedly invited to a conference room below ground at the Kremlin for what turned out to be an extraordinary historical moment. 

In an interview exactly 30 years later, Cooperman describes the exact moment when the Soviet Union was disbanded. The interview begins with the drama of that evening and then explains how those events relate to the current crisis in Ukraine that has proven increasingly intractable for three U.S. presidents (so far).

Closing the books on the Soviet Union.
Forbidden image by Liu Heung Shing

I was fortunate enough to have been taking a course entitled Geography of the Soviet Union during the fall semester of 1991. I had been the student representative on the committee that hired a young economic geographer who was a leading expert on the region, so I decided to take her course as an elective. 

Among other things, the course was designed to show us the complexity and inherent inefficiency of Soviet governance. As the semester progressed, she would often start class with a map or article and say, "this is how it was in September" when the course began. And then she would explain what was already changing as Gorbachev implemented various reforms.

Although I never studied the region in depth after that semester, the in-depth survey helped me to understand much of what I have read and heard in the ensuing three decades. Most notably, it is clear that no U.S. president can take much credit for the collapse, even though excessive military spending in the U.S. did probably bring it about just a bit more quickly by justifying the same errant behavior in the USSR.

That professor, by the way, was soon named editor of a journal called Soviet Geography, which soon changed its name to Post-Soviet Geography. I recently learned that even that name became passé, and the journal is now called Eurasian Geography and Economy

Map: Britannica article detailing the Soviet collapse 

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Ozone Interactions

The ozone layer has no ozone anymore
and you're gonna leave me for the guy next door
I'm Sick of You
~~ Lou Reed

I use the song "Sick of You" from the 1989 New York album to introduce the concept of ozone depletion in my environmental geography classes. The song is a quick catalog of the absurd environmental and political debacles of the Reagan years, but includes the charming couplet and refrain cited above. 

My point? Geography is the study of the real world.  

It was during the 1980s that climate change was just beginning to gain some attention as a problem for the far-off future and that the depletion of stratospheric ozone -- globally but especially around Antarctica -- was emerging as a more urgent concern. The science was debated and for some time actively denied -- as inconvenient science sometimes is. But as people realized that the problem could be addressed without serious inconvenience to them personally, the denial melted away and in 1987 the Montreal Protocol was signed.

For some time in the 90s and aughts, both global warming and ozone depletion were being discussed and debated. Since geography education is rare in the United States, much of that discussion took place in the absence of a basic understanding of the structure of the atmosphere, the reasons for geographic variations in climate, or indeed the basic relationships between the earth and the sun. 

Folks who do not know what the tropopause is nonetheless had strong opinions about problems taking place above and below it. Well-meaning people who want to protect the planet often have no better understanding of climate change, ozone depletion, or the difference between the two than do those who actively deny the science.

Enter this environmental geographer, seeking to clarify things for students who have heard about both problems -- but only vaguely. 

In order to focus on climate change, I begin many of my courses with an exercise that is focused on drawing a distinguishing it from ozone depletion. I start with a simple pre-test that asks students to identify distinctions, and a post-test that highlights those distinctions in some detail. I then spend one session on the details of ozone depletion, not returning to it much for the rest of the course. 

All of this is prelude to some emerging science that is cause both for concern and for confusion. All I have said about distinctions between tropospheric and stratospheric processes remains true, but there is now a serious caveat. 

I learned of the problem from the EuroNews Green newsletter, in a September 2021 article by journalist Rafael Cereceda with the earnest title "The Antarctic ozone hole is among the largest on record, how does it affect me?" The opening line of the article reflects what has been the broad consensus I have been teaching: "What happens in the stratosphere stays in the stratosphere?" The question mark, of course, suggests that the rest of the article is likely to disrupt that consensus. 

(Note: as of this writing, the article includes one grammatical (it's for its) and one arithmetic (square meters for square kilometers) error; I have contacted the publisher about both. The author uses Hadley Cell and other complicated concepts correctly, though, so I consider the errors isolated.)

The article does cite some fairly long-standing work that has been an exception to the general consensus: since the 1990s there ha been some inconclusive work on possible connections between ozone depletion and circulation changes in the mid-southern latitudes.

The article was. published at the time of year we expect news about ozone depletion. During the southern winter, it gets very cold in Antarctica. VERY cold. So cold that the normal rules about atmospheric heating and cooling do not apply, and the lower stratosphere experiences cooling that in turn creates clouds (in the dark) at altitudes they usually cannot be formed. When the first light of spring -- which coincides with Northern Hemisphere autumn -- reactions take place in those clouds that catalyze ozone depletion. 

This September, the news was that the size of the "hole" created by this process had been larger than normal. The article explains the significance in some detail: the 2019 ozone hole had been the smallest on record (because measurements were not made until the problem had been growing for a couple of decades). This had led to an unwarranted level of optimism among many analysts. 

Ozone "hole" upside down and backwards.
Image: Yan Xia

The article is also an occasion to share even more unusual news: in March 2020 a significant ozone "hole" was observed over the Arctic Ocean. The timing is consistent with previous observations: March is the north-pole vernal equinox, just as September is the vernal equinox at the south pole. What makes this story unique is that the north pole does not get nearly as cold as the south pole -- especially in recent years. Cereceda provides a link to a press release that summarizes an article explaining the dynamics of the 2020 northern ozone hole, in terms of a modified polar vortex.


The album includes one cetacean offering -- Last Great American Whale -- an allegory in which Professor Reed (as I often call him) disparages the state of environmental consciousness in his decade. For the past decade I have taken a great interest in whales and whaleboats. See my Rowing and Rocket ScienceWhaleboat History; and Finity posts for some of the better examples.

We Cannot Negotiate With Nature

The physics of climate change are not interested in the opinions of humans. 

This is what Danish Climate and Energy Minister Dan Jørgensen had in mind when he made the statement I use as a title above. In an interview with the BBC, he was explaining the very bold policies his country is employing in order to reduce its greenhouse emissions. Some of these approaches also have economic benefits, but he makes it clear that they will operate some utilities at a financial loss if necessary.

Image: Maersk

The interview included both the political leader of Denmark and the CEO of its largest company, the shipping giant Maersk, which moves one fifth of the world's trade. He described how the company is planning to make all of that transportation carbon-neutral by 2050, and how it has already begun to accelerate those plans. The first carbon-neutral cargo ship will be on the water in 2023, with eight already on order.

The finances are negotiable; the atmosphere is not.

Their sense of responsibility is in sharp contrast to that of investment bankster Roberto de Guardiola, whose $10,000,000 yacht Highlander was berthed for a couple of months recently near my club's much more modest vessels in New Bedford

I was reminded of this yacht -- called a super yacht because of its size and cost -- when listening to another person in the same BBC program -- Selina Leem of the Marshall Islands, which is the country where this yacht happens to be registered. 

The yacht called Highlander is registered in Bikini, M.I. Perhaps de Guardiola chose that port in part because he enjoys the excuse to have a name that sounds sexy painted in huge letters on the stern of an otherwise unadorned vessel. If he is aware of the calamities inflicted on the small archipelago by the United States, it does not stop him from claiming the name. Nuclear testing erased some islands and left others with a legacy of poison. None of this matters, of course, since the islands were chosen strictly for the "convenience" of lower fees and looser regulations that the super-rich often prefer. 

Selina Leem is an activist and one of just 60,000 residents of her country, which is found entirely on low-lying islands and atolls. I have written about the vulnerability of similar archipelagos in Climate Attack and other posts, but her first-person account of the multiple perils of rising seas is well worth hearing, as is her conversation with the program host about the reasons she would rather combat climate change than abandon her country. 

This conversation was just a sample of many events that were taking place in and around Glasgow in the days leading up to the most recent global climate negotiations. As I posted in Delaying Justice, the main negotiations offered some progress on some of the unmet goals (read: unkept promises) of the previous round of negotiations in Paris. It is of some use to have heads of state make commitments to future targets, but it is increasingly clear that Greta Thunberg and others are correct in insisting that we need much bolder action than COP26 could provide.

The participants in the BBC interview cited above (which I recommend taking the time to hear in its entirety) were in Glasgow at the invitation of TED as part of an ongoing effort called COUNTDOWN that is putting into action exactly the idea suggested above. Never has the adage of to think globally and act locally been more important. We can press our political leaders to do the right thing at a global scale, but we must also do the right things ourselves countless ways that will never be part of the COP proceedings.


The world desired by the Guardiolas of the world and the politicians they rent:

Sunday, December 05, 2021

Language Matters

Both education and training are important, but they are not the same thing. The distinction is rapidly being eroded by the managerial layers (of which there are many) in education who use the words "customer" and "workforce" in place of "student" and "thinker" when describing the people we serve. 

The result is a growing emphasis on teaching only that which can be clearly tied to a specific job, at the expense of teaching that which expands the capacity of the mind to understand nuance and to create new ideas.

Languages and mathematics and the arts are well worth learning, for example, even if none of these are strictly required for a particular job one might pursue. As jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes said, the "mind, stretched to a new idea, never goes back to its original dimension."

Lera Boroditsky illustrates this in a popular TED Talk, whose main message is the importance of preserving linguistic diversity.

This talk is itself an illustration of what Holmes was claiming: I have studied languages and linguistics quite a bit, and yet will never think of them in quite the same way after hearing her examples.

An important implication of her work is that language learning is valuable exercise for the mind -- it has value in both training and education. 


I have been tilting at this particular windmill for a long time. My 2009 Small World page was part of a concerted -- and failed -- effort to keep languages as part of the core curriculum at my university.

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