The Space of Climate Change

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Earth Day 2013In the face of unprecendented occurences of extreme weather, loss of species, and pollution, it is clear that climate change is affecting our planet. We cannot afford to wait any longer to act. This quote from the Earth Day 2013 website outlines the theme for this year’s Earth Day campaign which runs under the motto Climate change has many faces.
As the Earth Day campaign points out, the stories of the impact of climate change are extremely diverse: “A man in the Maldives worried about relocating his family as sea levels rise, a farmer in Kansas struggling to make ends meet as prolonged drought ravages the crops, a fisherman on the Niger River whose nets often come up empty, a child in New Jersey who lost her home to a super-storm, a woman in Bangladesh who can’t get fresh water due to more frequent flooding and cyclones.
All these tales have one thing in common: They are a story of our impact on planet Earth, but equally of the impact of a changing planet on human’s lives. Our species has become one that is not just living in the natural environment, but is one factor that changes the environment to a level that no other species did before. This is happening to an extent that geologists discuss whether this can be seen as a new geologic era. Nobel Prize laureate Paul Crutzen started promoting the idea of the so-called Anthropocene, a concept that has now left the scientific world and is increasingly entering the public debate regarding issues of global sustainability and humanity’s impact. Anthropocene.info is a project initiated by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) that aims to “to help visualize and better understand humanity’s geographic imprint in recent time.” Not only is it important to find better ways of understanding the complex interrelations of humans and their natural environment, to which visualisation can contribute, but also is it important to create a public understanding of issues relating to the challenges connected to global change.
Here is one example of a more challenging view existing knowledge that demonstrates how changing the view can make us rethink the way our natural environment is shaped. According to research by the US National Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, “[t]he strongest hurricanes in the present climate may be upstaged by even more intense hurricanes over the next century as the earth’s climate is warmed by increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Most hurricanes do not reach their maximum potential intensity before weakening over land or cooler ocean regions. However, those storms that do approach their upper-limit intensity are expected to be slightly stronger in the warmer climate due to the higher sea surface temperatures.”
This is relevant due to the impact of more frequent flooding and cyclones on humans mentioned earlier. So where are these spaces where this is relevant. We know from historic records where there are tropical storm tracks, and the emerging pattern on a normal world map may be familiar to some of us (see here). But what if we change the perspective and focus on the actual areas that have the highest density of tropical storm occurrences. Using the records from 1945 to 2008, this intensity can be turned into quantities which are suitable for visualisation using the gridded cartogram technique. The following map shows a gridded cartogram of tropical storm intensity visualised over land based on a 0.25 degree grid. The larger a grid cell, the more tropical storm activity has there been over the past >60 years, indicating where the most affected areas of tropical cyclones (with a sustained wind speed of ver 40 mp/h) has been and how the climate patterns shape the world in a highly relevant issue of the Anthropocene:

Gridded Cartogram / Map of Tropical Storm Intensity
(click for larger version)

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The Visualisation of Spatial Social Structure: Reflections on Critical Methods

‘(How) do we understand Capitalism? Reflections on critical methods’ was the title of a workshop on critical methods at the University of Manchester (September 13-14th). As the announcement of the workshop states, ‘there is no consensus on what critical social science is, exactly. Largely it is defined as not orthodox economics or positivist social science‘. Continue reading

Global Spaces of Food Production

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Global Spaces of Food Production
In the year 2000 there were approximately 15 million square km of cropland and 28 million square km of pasture which are represented in the two main maps. These are equal to 12% respectively 22% of the ice-free land surface. This is according to estimates of a study on the geographic distribution of global agricultural lands by Ramankutty et al (published in Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 2008) who used a methodology of combining agricultural inventory data and satellite-derived land cover data to come to these figures (data can be accessed via Columbia University’s SEDAC). Continue reading

Maps for the 21st Century

499 years after Mercator’s birth we may feel that the age of discovery is long gone. We seem to have explored almost every patch of our planet, considerably supported by Mercator’s famous world map that allowed sailors for the first time to reliably navigate across the world’s oceans. His innovation was a significant contribution to the early days of globalisation. Globalisation has turned our planet into a human planet, where people have become a substantial component of the processes that influence our livelihoods – some go as far as calling this a new geological era, the anthropocene. But while we have maps and images of every spot of the earth, we do not fully understand the human environments and interrelations to the natural environment. Normal maps show where sheep and other lovely creatures of nature live but hide much of the so important populous spaces of humanity.
The maps that I created as part of my PhD research are based on a novel cartogram mapping technique, deploying Gastner/Newman’s diffusion-based cartogram algorithm in a new way. The maps give every person living on this planet the same amount of space, while reducing the least populated places to a minimum. The map projection is calculated from an equally distributed population grid so that, unlike in other cartograms, the transformed grid cells preserve an accurate geographical reference. This allows us to map a diverse range of geographical layers on top of the population projection. The new maps show the social and physical environment in relation to population and provide a fresh perspective on the complex geography of the 21st century world. The following animation shows a series of maps that demonstrate the visual capabilities of the technique (the video can be switched to HD resolution by clicking the 360p note in the bottom panel):
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