Take hope: This Fukushima disaster map is a fake

The greatest danger to our planet is not pollution or climate change, but our own despair.

  • The pace and scale of environmental degradation can induce despair and inaction.
  • This map of radioactive pollution of the Pacific after Fukushima adds to the damning evidence.
  • Fortunately, it's a fake. Which means there's room for hope—and action.

We have about 12 years left to save the world. The IPCC report making that dire prediction was published earlier this month. Immediately, normal life around the world ground to a halt, while literally everybody everywhere tried to figure out how to help prevent the apocalypse.

Just kidding. The report caused precious little alarm and precipitated none of the large-scale actions that are needed to alter the course of events.

Apocalyptic overload

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Hurricane Florence seen from space.

As the latest installment in climatological apocalyptica—a genre so dystopian that some still insist it should be classified as fiction rather than fact—the report merely added to the long list of dismal dispatches from the front line of our losing war with the future. A sample of previous, similar bad tidings:

  • Hurricane Florence, which struck the East Coast in September, was 50 miles wider and produced 50% more rain than it would have without climate change. Increasingly violent storms will accelerate coastal erosion, increase the damage inflicted on coastal cities, and speed up the need to permanently evacuate coastal populations further inland.
  • 2018 is on course to be the fourth-hottest year on record. The only years hotter were the three previous ones. In fact, 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001. As average temperature rises continue to exceed predictions, harvests will suffer, electricity grids will fail and the number of climate refugees will explode. Increasingly deadly heat waves and wildfires look set to become the 'new normal'.
  • The equivalent of the farts of 6,000 dairy cows—that's how much methane is released every day by Esieh Lake in northern Alaska. That's enough to set the air above it on fire if you light a match. Scientists fear methane released by melting permafrost could create a feedback loop that will dramatically accelerate the rising of global average temperatures.
  • The natural world seems no longer able to absorb the onslaught of humanity, whether through pollution, climate change or outright killing. Over the last 40 years, the global population of wild animals was reduced by nearly 60%. Germany lost more than three quarters of its insects in less than three decades. One adult elephant is killed by poachers every 15 minutes.

The frog in the pot

Photo: Slworking2 via Flickr

The so-called Holy Fire at Elsinore Lake in California, September 2018.

Humanity is the proverbial frog in the pot. Had the water been this hot to start with, we'd have jumped out straightaway. But since it's heating up gradually, we'll boil to death before we save ourselves.

And by now, the challenge seems so monumental that few see the point in doing something. That feeling was succinctly put by SNL's Michael Che on a recent Weekend Update:

"I just keep asking myself: Why don't I care about this? I mean, don't get me wrong, I 100% believe in climate change. Yet I'm willing to do absolutely nothing about it."

"We're all going to lose the planet. We should be sad, right? This whole episode should be like a telethon or something. But it's not. I think it's because they keep telling us we're going to lose everything. And nobody cares about everything."

"People only care about some things. Like, if Fox News reported that in 2030 climate change is going to take away all the flags and Confederate statues, there'd be recycling bins outside of every Cracker Barrel and Dick's Sporting Goods."

A flippant point, but the grain of truth is that because of its size and pace, the process of environmental degradation seems hopelessly irreversible. How much easier and more comfortable to turn away from incurable despair and ignore the impending end of the world.

Earthquake, tsunami... and worse?


The NOAA map as it appears on some alarmist websites. Note the absence of a map legend.

That's what this map reminded me of. The Fukushima nuclear accident was a thoroughly depressing coda to the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on 11 March 2011. So much so that we don't like to be reminded of it.

Even if, or precisely because, leakage of radioactive material has polluted the Pacific Ocean, all the way down to Antarctica. As this map suggests, we've lost the greatest body of water to radioactive pollution—a loss too great to contemplate.

The map surfaced in 2013, when Japan's Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) warned that highly radioactive water from the destroyed nuclear plant at Fukushima was seeping into the Pacific Ocean, creating an emergency that operator Tepco seemed unable to contain.

Color-coded to reflect various levels of radiation, the map shows radioactivity from Fukushima leaking into the ocean, contaminating the furthest corners of the Pacific; a poisonous purple flame projects eastward from Japan's Pacific coast, fanning out into radiant red, ohmygod orange and worrisome shades of yellow and green.

Australia's Barrier Reef seems to be doing a good job of keeping the worst contamination away from that country's shores. The Sea of Cortez, between the Baja California peninsula and the Mexican mainland, is still blue. But the contaminated water has touched all other shores lapped by the Pacific, from Alaska all the way down to Chile and the Antarctic.

A certified hoax


Full map, with legend specifying the nature of the data: wave amplitudes from the tsunami.

The map suggests that the world's largest ocean has been lost to radiation and should now be approached with as much suspicion as the exclusion zone around Chernobyl.

Except that that's not what this map shows. It's a Snopes-certified hoax. And therein lies this map's redeeming power. Rather than having been unspeakably catastrophic, Fukushima is not the omerta-inducing disaster you might think it is.

The map, developed by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), does relate to the devastation of March 2011. But it plots tsunami wave height, not radiation leakage levels. Check the date on the map: 2011, the year of the tsunami itself. Not 2013, when Japan's NRA launched its warning about the leakage.

Fukushima is not 'over'. But the problem is on a different scale than the one suggested by this map, and other alarmist misrepresentations that we're sometimes too eager to believe.

Silver linings

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Nuclear plant at Grafenrheinfeld in Germany.

As dark clouds go, Fukushima is fairly manageable. It even has a sliver lining or two.

Fukushima is the only other nuclear disaster next to Chernobyl to get a Level 7 classification on the International Nuclear Event Scale. Yet estimates of radioactivity released at Fukushima range from just 10-40% compared to Chernobyl. The highly contaminated zone was 10-12% the size of the zone in Chernobyl.

  • Only one death has been linked to short-term radiation overexposure. The WHO found that radiation levels of evacuees were so low that health effects were likely to be non-detectable. Worst-case scenario for newborns in the worst-affected area was a 1% increase in lifetime cancer risk. Estimates for long-term cancer mortality due to the accident range from a few hundred up to 1,800—about the same number killed directly by the earthquake and tsunami, spread out over many decades.
  • The accident has boosted the research into and development of sustainable, low-carbon and nuclear-free alternative energy generation. Immediately following the disaster, the IAEA halved its estimate of additional nuclear energy capacity scheduled for 2035. Germany decided to accelerate its phase-out of nuclear power to 2022. Other countries, however, are going ahead with their nuclear plans, including the UK, Russia, India and China. The Chinese want to triple their nuclear power output by 2020, and again by 2030. By 2050, China aims to have up to 500 gigawatts of nuclear capacity, 100 times more than it has now.
  • But Fukushima has also led to safer nuclear energy. New technology installed in nuclear power stations around the world would have prevented the hydrogen explosions which occurred at Fukushima. Improved filter systems allow for emergency depressurization of the core with a minimal release of radioactivity. Disaster-secure power backups and building layouts have become standard across the industry.
  • By April 2014, radioactive tuna was found swimming off the U.S. West Coast. But the difference was less than the level of radioactivity found naturally in a banana. None of the fish caught on the American shore of the Pacific has had radiation levels outside of food safety limits. For fish caught off Japan, that hasn't been the case since April 2015. Even though radioactive leakage still occurs, the Pacific Ocean is vast enough to dilute the radiation to harmless, non-detectable levels. In February of this year, Japan resumed the export of fish caught just off Fukushima.

A nuclear convert

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

George Monbiot, environmentalist and nuclear convert.

Few have gone quite so far as George Monbiot, the environmental activist and writer, who wrote in 2011: "As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology."

"A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation (1)."

"I'm not proposing complacency here. I am proposing perspective. Like most greens, I favor a major expansion of renewables. But the energy source to which most economies will revert if they shut down their nuclear plants is not wood, water, wind or sun, but fossil fuel."

"Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power."

Controversial? Certainly. Enlightened or misguided? That remains to be seen. But Monbiot shows—as does this map—that even world-class disasters can inspire optimism rather than despair.

Strange Maps #943

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

(1) Obviously written before news of the casualty mentioned above was publicized.

How the Smiths took over Europe

In more than a dozen countries as far apart as Portugal and Russia, 'Smith' is the most popular occupational surname

  • 'Smith' is not just the most common surname in many English-speaking countries
  • In local translations, it's also the most common occupational surname in a large part of Europe
  • Ironically, Smiths are so ubiquitous today because smiths were so special a few centuries ago

Although very few people are smiths by profession these days, there are millions of Smiths by surname the world over. It's the most popular surname in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, as well as the second most popular surname in Canada and the fifth most popular one in Ireland. And they're a thriving bunch, at least in the U.S.: the 2010 Census (1) counted 2,442,977 Americans called Smith, 2.8% more than in 2000.

Curiously, 'Smith' also is one of the most popular surnames across most of Europe –translated in the various local vernaculars, of course. This map shows the most common occupational surnames in each country. By colour-coding the professions, this map shows a remarkable pro-smith consistency across Europe – as well as some curious regional exceptions.

Meet the Smiths, Millers, Priests and Imams - the most popular occupational surnames across Europe.Image: Marcin Ciura

‘Smith’ popular throughout Europe

'Smith', in all its variations, is the most popular occupational surname throughout Europe. Not just in the UK, but also in:

  • Belgium (Desmet) and Luxembourg, (Schmitt);
  • France (Lefebvre), Italy (Ferrari) and Portugal (Ferreira);
  • Slovenia (Kovačič), Croatia (Kovačevič), Hungary (Kovács), Slovakia (Kováč), Poland (Kowalski), Lithuania (Kavaliauskas), Latvia (Kalējs) and Belarus (Kavalyov);
  • Estonia (Sepp); and
  • Russia (Kuznetsov).

‘Miller’ on top in many Germanic-language countries

'Miller' is the most popular occupational surname in many Germanic-language countries, but also in Spain and Ukraine (perhaps because the grain in both countries is mainly in the plain):

  • There's Müller (in Germany and Switzerland), Møller (in Denmark and Norway) and Möller (Sweden);
  • Molina (in Spain – the map also shows the most popular surname in Catalonia/Catalan: Ferrer, i.e. 'Smith'); and
  • Melnik (in Ukraine).

Clergy surnames rule in the Balkans

Catholic clergy must remain celibate, so 'Priest' as a surname is rare to non-existent throughout Europe. Except in the Balkans, where Catholicism is largely absent. Here, the Orthodox and Islamic clergies have passed on the title from father to son, eventually as a surname, to popular effect. Orthodox clergy are addressed as papa or pope (which means 'father' – so the surname rather redundantly translates to 'father's son'). Islamic teachers or imams are known by the Turkish/Persian term hodzha. An overview:

  • Popov (in Bulgaria), Popovic (in both Serbia and Montenegro), Popovski (in Macedonia);
  • Popa (in Romania);
  • Papadopoulos (in Greece); and
  • Hodžić (in Bosnia-Herzegovina), Hoxha (in both Kosovo and Albania).

Landowners and other professions

Austria and the Czech Republic have different national languages but are neighbours and share a lot of history. Could that explain why they have a similar most popular occupational surname, for 'landowner'?

  • Huber (in Austria) and
  • Dvořák (in the Czech Republic).

Just four professions, that wraps up all but five countries on this map. Those five each have their very own most popular occupational surname:

  • Bakker (in the Netherlands): 'Baker'
  • Kinnunen (in Finland): 'Skinner'
  • Ceban (in Moldova): 'Shepherd'
  • Avci (in Turkey): 'Hunter'
  • Murphy (in Ireland): 'Sea Warrior'

​Even more Smiths

Judging from the popularity of these surnames, your generic European village of a few centuries ago really couldn't do without a smithy. It was a much more essential craft even than that of the miller (or the baker, who put the miller's flour to good use) – except in the Balkans, where spiritual sustenance apparently sated a greater need. On the outskirts of Anytown, Europe live the shepherd and the hunter, the skinner and the pirate.

A bit too simplistic? Perhaps not simplistic enough. This map could have been dominated by even more Smiths. As the original poster explains, he always picked the most frequent version of an occupational surname, even if multiple variants point to a more popular alternative.

In the Netherlands, for instance, people with the surnames Smit, Smits, Smid, de Smit, Smet and Smith collectively outnumber those with the surnames Bakker, Bekker, de Bakker and Backer. So, the Netherlands could be considered another win for 'Smith' – except that the variant Bakker is more frequent than any other single variant.

Same story in Germany: added up, there are more people named Schmidt, Schmitt, Schmitz and Schmid than Müller. Ditto for Spain: Herrero, Herrera and Ferrer together outnumber Molina. Also in Finland, where Seppä, Seppälä and Seppänen together have a higher count than Kinnunen.

Smiths in other cultures

'Smith' was a crucial occupation in other cultures too, judging from the familiar ring it has in these languages:

  • Demirci (Turkish)
  • Hadad (Syriac, Aramaic, Arabic)
  • Nalbani (Albanian)
  • McGowan (Gaelic)
  • Faber (Latin)

​Other most popular surnames

Take note, though: 'Smith' may be the most popular surname in in the Anglosphere, this map does not mean to show that its variants in French, Russian and other languages also are the most popular surnames in the countries marked grey. They are merely the most popular occupational surnames.

As this sample of most common ones for each country shows, surnames can refer to a host of other things. Personal qualities or physical attributes, for example:

  • Russia: Smirnov ('the quiet one')
  • Turkey: Yilmaz ('unflinching')
  • Hungary: Nagy ('big')
  • Italy: Rossi/Russo ('red', in northern and southern Italy, respectively)

Another option: the origin of the name-bearer (be it a place or a person):

  • Sweden: Andersson ('son of Anders')
  • Slovakia: Horvath ('Croat')
  • Kosovo: Krasniqi (refers to the Krasniq tribe and their mountainous home region)
  • Portugal: Silva ('woodland')
  • Latvia: Bērziņš ('little birch tree')
  • Estonia: Tamm ('oak')

But sometimes, even for the most popular ones, the exact origin of the surname is lost in time:

  • Spain: Garcia (originally Basque, possibly meaning 'young', 'bear' or 'young bear')
  • Finland: Korhonen ('hard of hearing' or 'dim-witted'; 'village elder'; 'proud'; 'upright').

Smith popularity theory

So why exactly is Smith – and not Miller, for example – the most popular surname in many English-speaking countries? The theory propounded by historian C.M. Matthews in History Today (July 1967) probably also holds for the other-language variants so popular throughout Europe:

"The reason for (the) multiplicity (of the surname 'Smith') is not so much that metal-workers were numerous as that they were important and widespread. On the skill of the smith, both rich and poor depended for the most essential things of life, the tools of husbandry and the weapons of hunting and war. Every community in the land must have one, every castle, every manor; and so distinctive was his trade that he would seldom need another name".

That does not mean all people with the surname have a forefather who forged iron into weapons and farm tools. Especially in North America, 'Smith' was adopted by many people precisely because it was already common – as a secret identity or to blend in, for example by natives, slaves and immigrants.

Map found here on Marcin Ciura's blog.

Strange Maps #942

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

These cities are the hubs of Africa’s economic boom

South Africa is no longer the only place on the continent that has urban wealth clusters

  • The wealth of Africans is projected to grow by a third over the next decade
  • The continent's wealth is agglomerating in a number of urban clusters, in the south, east and west
  • Wealth is collected in a few other places - isolated capitals and mini-clusters stretching from Morocco down to Angola
Keep reading Show less

Why is Le Guin's hand-drawn map not as famous as her book?

Like Stevenson, Tolkien and other creators of fantasy worlds, Ursula K. Le Guin was a cartographer as well as a writer

  • Stevenson, Tolkien and Le Guin have all made maps to 'illustrate' their stories.
  • Despite the iconic status of Le Guin's 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, her hand-drawn map of planet Gethen is quite unknown.
  • The map focuses on Karhide and Orgoryen, the two main nations on the frozen planet and the locus of the action in Left Hand.
Keep reading Show less

Finally, a world map that's all about oceans

The Spilhaus Projection may be more than 75 years old, but it has never been more relevant than today.

  • Athelstan Spilhaus designed an oceanic thermometer to fight the Nazis, and the weather balloon that got mistaken for a UFO in Roswell.
  • In 1942, he produced a world map with a unique perspective, presenting the world's oceans as one body of water.
  • The Spilhaus Projection could be just what the oceans need to get the attention their problems deserve.
Keep reading Show less