Archive for the 'Environment' Category

Where the Greenies Live

“Green” economics is a major trend these days.  There are environmentally friendly cars, houses, light bulbs, and laundry detergent–all components of a larger green lifestyles.  But as with all trends, living green is more popular in certain places than in others.  Today’s map is drawn from a study that attempts to chart areas with large numbers of people who live environmentally conscious lifestyles.

The map above is taken from “Green Market Geography: The Spatial Clustering of Hybrid Vehicle and LEED Registered Buildings” by Matthew E. Khan and Ryan K. Vaughn, both economists at UCLA.  This map–a distribution of Prius registrations in Los Angeles County, California–is just one of several maps they include in their paper to show the distribution of the green lifestyle across the state.  Here, the darker the green, the more Prius registrations there are in that zip code.  Click here or on the picture above to see a larger version of the map.

The map indicates that the residents who live along the southern California coast–undoubtedly the wealthier, more highly educated demographics–are more likely to own a Prius than those living further inland.  Despite this coastal trend, however, Khan and Vaughn speculate that there is an additional clustering effect–that green-minded individuals are drawn together into communities by other factors:

Small initial differences in exogenous spatial attributes such as proximity to the ocean can have a social multiplier effect. As environmentalists move to a nice community, green businesses such as organic restaurants would be more likely to locate near this community (Waldfogel 2007). This creates a virtuous cycle attracting even more environmentalists to move to the community. As environmentalists cluster in such communities, they vote for public goods/taxes bundles that further re-enforce this process (i.e bike lanes and recycling bins).

Khan and Vaughn developed an environmentalism scale for the state, based on the number of registered members of the California Green Party, and votes on two binding, statewide ballot initiatives focusing on environmental causes.  This analysis was the foundation of the map below:

In this map, as in the map above, the greener the zip code the more environmental friendly it is on the Khan and Vaughn scale.  Click here or on the picture above to see an enlarged version of the map.  Interestingly, whereas Prius distributions are aligned most closely with wealthier areas by the coast, the environmental ratings statewide do not hew closely to this model.  On the contrary, it seems that a green consumer lifestyle does not necessarily collolate with favorable opinions of environmentalism, including registration with the Green Party.  It turns out you can make environmental choices without owning a Prius.

The information for this post came via this excellent article in the Economist. 


Tsunamis on the Pacific

Toss a stone into a pond, and ripples move in all directions away from the point of impact.  As they collide with the shore and with one another, they bounce back and interfere, creating turbulence across the water.  These ripples work on the small level of the pond, but also on the larger scale of entire oceans.  The maps of tsunamis created by underwater or coastal earthquakes look surprisingly similar to ripples moving across a pond.

The map above was created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Alaska Tsunami Warning Center.  It shows how a tsunami created by an earthquake on the southern Alaskan coast would travel across the Pacific Ocean and beyond.  On this map, each band of color represents an hour of travel time.  A tsunami starting in Alaska could travel the 6,500 miles to Australia in only 15 hours.  Click here or on the picture above to see the large version of the map.

As with the ripples in the pond, any interference with the tsunami wave will cause it to bounce back and interfere with itself.  See, for instance, the Bering Sea in this map.  Although relatively close to the epicenter of the earthquake, the Aleutian Islands and the enclosed nature of the sea itself force resistance upon the waves, slowing it down.  On the contrary, however, the Pacific island nations present few obstacles to the tsunami wave due to their small land size and the large distances of open water between them. 

The presence of the Great Barrier Reef off northeastern Australia adds more than two hours to the tsunami’s travel time in some places.  And the wave slows down considerably across Indonesia’s Arafura and Java Seas.  This map therefor demonstrates the importance of barrier islands in ensuring a safe coastline–not just from tsunamis, but also from high waves caused by hurricanes or other powerful storms.

America and Russia: Beyond Borders

In the waning days of the Cold War, a first-rate team of American and Russian geographers began to ask whether the Soviet Union and the United States could be compared on common geographical principles.  The team speculated that geographic similarities–such as the tropics of Florida and of the Black Sea coast, the Appalachians and the Urals, and the Mississippi and the Volga basins–reflected fundamental similarities between the two historically feuding superpowers.  They wrote a book called Beyond Borders to explain their remarkable findings, but at the last minute their publisher was sold and publication of the book was cancelled.  Now, 18 years later, the team has made the book available online in its entirety, for free.

The researchers’ objective was to develop a rubric for comparing Russia and America based on their geographic regions and common history:

While we do not try to minimize the differences between Russia and America, we observed that people in the two countries have many similarities in the way they spread across the continents, adapted to various environments, conquered or absorbed indigenous people, and molded their respective geographies into a set of regions.

The team identified eleven regions on which to base their analysis:

The Core: In America, this roughly corresponds to the Mid-Atlantic Region; in Russia, it means the areas around Moscow and the Upper Volga–the regions that are “what would become all that one could define as uniquely American or Russian.”  This is the traditional “homeland”–Philadelphia, Washington, and New York City in America; and Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Yaroslavl, and Tver in Russia.  This is locus of national cultural origin.

The North: In America, this is New England and the northern parts of the Midwestern States on the Canadian border, such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.  In Russia, this includes Novgorod, St. Petersburg, and the coast of the White Sea.  This region is home to Puritanical and Orthodox traditions–an original national ideological home that has since been outpaced by the development it inspired elsewhere.

The South: In America, this roughly means the states that seceded during the Civil War–from the Potomac in the north to central Texas in the southwest.  In Russia, this means central Ukraine into south-central Russia, bordering the Volga.  These regions are defined by their warm weather and arable land, but also by their history of forced servitude through serfdom and slavery. 

The Heartland: In America, this area corresponds with most of the Midwest, from Milwaukee to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to Buffalo.  Russia’s “Heartland” centers on the junction of the Volga and Kama rivers, near Kazan, Samara, and Ufa.  This is the traditional industrial backbone–a land of factories, labor, and hard work, turned to rust in more recent years from economic depression and a changing economy.

The Crossroads: In America, this is the area around the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, near St. Louis and Nashville, and into the Ozark Mountains in the west.  For Russia, this actually means Belarus, but also Smolensk and other parts of western Russia.  This is the area where cultures meet and clash, nestled between the American North and South, and between Russia and Europe, integrating and meshing opposing ideologies.

The Breadbasket: In America, this is the Great Plains and part of the Midwest, from North Dakota to Indianapolis to Oklahoma; and in Russia this means the Black Sea littoral and as far east as Orenburg.  The Breadbasket is exactly what it sounds like–the “fertile triangle” and source of food for a hungry nation.

The Old Mountains: In America, the Appalachians; in Russia, the Urals.  These mountain ranges define the boundary between the old homeland and the new areas of expansion, and reflect the first traversal point on the road to national expansion and manifest destiny toward the Pacific.

The Tropical South: In America, this is clearly the Deep South and South Florida, a land of palm trees, lazily hot weather, and sultry culture.  But in Russia, this means The Crimea, southern Moldova, and the northwest tips of the Caucasus–a region similar in climate and, as in America, a recent boom of luxury and wealth built by a “sun and sin” economy. 

Mexistan: This is the alien yet internal culture–a fusion of foreign and domestic.  In America, this is the Southwest; in Russia, Central Asia–lands conquered in foreign conflicts, generally far-removed from the ancestral homelands, and harboring a people different from those who founded the nations.

The Land Ocean: This is the vast peripheral expanse–in America, the West; in Russia, Siberia–that forms the backdrop for each nation’s plunge into manifest destiny toward the Pacific Ocean.  The Land Ocean is a region defined by frontier mythology and by the subjugation and elimination of its native peoples.

The Pacific Gateway: In America, this region stretches from San Francisco to Alaska.  In Russia, it surrounds the Sea of Okhotsk, from Vladivostok to Petropavlovsk to the Bering Sea, where America and Russia’s Pacific Gateway Regions meet.  This area is marked by its extreme distance from the national homeland, as well as by its similarly extreme geography of volcanoes, mountainous peaks, and lush forests.

The authors have made their entire book available online, including all the comparative regional analysis of history, peoples, and culture.  They also include maps of the regions within both Russia and the United States, showing how these regions transcend state or national borders as unique geographic identifiers.

Click here to see the book in its entirety.  Click here to see an index of the maps for America and Russia. 

The book concludes with a quote by Alexis de Tocqueville that I remember well from my college political philosophy courses–one of his more prescient quotes to be sure, but also one that strikes at the heart of two of the world’s great nations:

There are at the present time two great nations in the world which seem to tend toward the same end, although they started from different points: I allude to the Russians and Americans…their starting point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems to be marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.

Thanks to Claire for another great recommendation!

CBRN Hazards in Central Asia

Central Asia was a tightly-controlled, heavily militarized region while under Soviet control.  As the Cold War progressed, the Soviets made significant security investments in the region, constructing weapons plants, nuclear reactors, and biological and chemical weapons facilities in a part of the world far removed from the United States or its NATO allies.  The Soviet Union also used Central Asia’s large barren areas as test sites for its nuclear weapons program. 

While independent since 1991, the Soviet Central Asian states confront a legacy of Soviet chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) contamination.  This map, developed by Philippe Rekacewicz for the UN Environment Program, shows the extent of the Soviet investment in CBRN research, development, testing, and manufacturing throughout Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.  Click here or on the picture above to see the full map. 

The map shows Kazakhstan with no fewer than five separate nuclear test sites, four of which are in proximity to major rivers such as the Irtysh and the Volga.  The map also shows several active uranium mining facilities across the country, and shows two chemical and biological research centers, a nuclear waste storage area, and an active research reactor in Almaty, the former national capital.  Kazakhstan continues to suffer health and environmental impacts from Soviet nuclear tests, to the degree that the country has made the cause a major national and foreign policy effort.

Kazakhstan is also home to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the central research, control, and launch facility for the Soviet (now Russian) space program.  To the west of Baikonur, in the middle of the shrinking Aral Sea, is Vozrozhdeniya Island, which served as a major Soviet biological weapons proving ground.  Researchers there bred many strains of biological weapons, including the bubonic plague.  The island was home to the world’s largest anthrax dump until 2002 when the U.S. Department of Defense organized a mission to clean up the island.  Over three months, using 113 people and at a cost of $5 million, the expedition neutralized as much as 200 tons of anthrax.

To the southeast, across Tajikistan, Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley, and into Kyrgyzstan, the Soviets built a large number of nuclear waste storage facilities.  These facilities are located outside of small villages with names like Ak-Tuz, Min-Kush, and Mailu-Suu.  The Soviets also build several storage sites in the area for hazardous but non-nuclear materials like antimony and mercury.  These facilities lie deep in the Tien-Shan mountains, which rise over the fault lines between the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates.  Any major earthquakes could rupture these storage facilities leading to widespread contamination from nuclear and other hazardous materials.

Turkmenistan and Tajikistan have relatively few CBRN facilities in their territories; but Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan in particular continue to face daunting security and cleanup efforts stemming from old and frequently crumbling Soviet facilities.

The original page for this map and its description can be found here. 

And We Will Defeat The Drought!

The Soviets weren’t ever known for their subtlety.  Observe, as evidence, this stunning propaganda poster of Joseph Stalin engaged in a modification of the Russian climate so large that it borders on terraforming.

In the late 1940s, the Soviet government embarked on what they called “The Great Stalin Plan for the Transformation of Nature.”  This plan called for many ambitious ecological manipulation efforts across the USSR’s central plains.  Trees would be planted in massive belts across the steppe, fresh water from the Russian Arctic would be channeled into the semi-arid Soviet heartland, and land that was once useful only for grazing would become a new breadbasket of arable land.  The Soviet scientific community bought into this plan to end Soviet agricultural problems forever, mostly due to the influence of crackpot biologist Trofim Lysenko.  Lysenko deserves as much credit for the development of this plan as he does for its collapse: as millions of trees died due to his misguided theories, Lysenko was ostracized from the Soviet scientific community and his techniques abandoned.

This poster was printed during the heyday of the Great Stalin Plan for the Transformation of Nature.  Stalin, dressed here in a military uniform, calmly smokes his pipe as he draws lines of forests and canals across the Soviet Union, sentencing millions of rubles and trees to elimination with each swipe of his pencil.  In its giant letters, the poster screams “And We Will Defeat The Drought!”  For a larger image, click on the picture above.

Notice the relationship of the man to the map.  Stalin, by way of his power and wisdom, wields total control over nature, and has the power to change entire ecosystems with the quick, calm stroke of a pencil.  Notice also how he towers over the map, looming over the entire nation as he asserts his dictatorial authority.  Even the Earth itself is his subject.   Soviet propaganda frequently included images of communist symbols over or around the Earth, but in this example, Stalin is literally manipulating the surface of the planet to suit his wishes.

Thanks to Claire Pogue for the translation!

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