484 - “Useless” Australia

484 - “Useless” Australia

“Aboriginal Creation myths tell of the legendary totemic beings who had wandered over [Australia] in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path -- birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterhold -- and so singing the world into existence.”


In The Songlines, travel writer Bruce Chatwin tackles the Australian Aborigines’ poetic relation to their land. The titular 'songlines'  are an age-old Aboriginal oral tradition that conveys tribal lore on human origins, local history and Australian geography. These ancestral songs are so indispensible that tribesmen outside the area they sing about literally may be lost for words, unable to describe local flora and fauna, and consequently unable to survive off them.

 

“The dry heart of Australia [...] was a jigsaw of microclimates, of different minerals in the soil and different plants and animals. A man raised in one part of the desert would know its flora and fauna backwards. He knew which plant attracted game. He knew his water. He knew where there were tubers underground. In other world, by naming all the 'things' in his territory, he could always count on survival.”

But songlines also transcend local relevance - a line started in one part of the country might end hundreds of miles away, sung in another, unintelligible language. This system of navigation by narration is of a complexity that belies the first-contact view of the Aboriginals as mere Stone Age savages. It is also too big for a single book, and accordingly, Chatwin’s treatment is anecdotal rather than comprehensive, resulting in a narrative that itself resembles a songline: full of fascinating twists, turn-offs and dead-ends.

“[...] it struck me, from what I now knew of the Songlines, that the whole of Classical mythology might represent the relics of a gigantic 'song-map': that all the to-ing and fro-ing of gods and goddesses, the caves and sacred springs, the sphinxes and chimaeras, and all the men and women who became nightingales or ravens, echoes or narcissi, stones or stars--could all be interpreted in terms of totemic geography.”

If the Old World was ever described by such a set of songlines, they have long since vanished in the stark glare of a more utilitarian geography -- one also applied to Australia in this Habitability Map, drawn up in the 1920s. Habitability (here meant to signify the degree to which certain areas can sustain a modern, sedentary lifestyle) depends upon the agricultural qualities of the land. This map also takes into account the presence or proximity of coal fields, as these will also invite exploitation, and therefore settlement.

The map is divided into several zones of equal habitational value, separated by contour lines (or isolines) better known for delineating temperature and elevation. Good agricultural and pastoral lands hug the south-western and eastern coasts, gradually degrading towards the middle of the continent via fair agricultural lands and good grazing lands to sparse grazing lands.

In the central part of Australia, the non-shadedness of two fields denotes their total unfitness for habitation. They are unequivocally labelled: Useless.

This map reflects the theories of professor Griffith Taylor of the University of Sydney, who in the 1920s argued that the settlement of Australia be limited to its non-tropical coastal regions. In a sense, prof. Taylor was right. Today, 90% of Australia's population lives within 50 km (31 mi.) of the coast, mainly in the areas vertically shaded on this map. The country's interior is devoid of settlement, and almost uninhabited.

But prof. Taylor was also wrong, not in the least from the viewpoint of the Aborigines, who did not view Australia merely as a mainly unarable (93%) and largely ungrazeable continent. In their songlines, even the harshest bits of desert have relevance, and are habitable - if only for their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

This habitability map was used to support the claim that by the middle of the 1920s, Australia had reached maximum occupancy. It should probably be seen in the context of the geopolitical anxieties of Australia at the time, which saw its small, almost exclusively white population under potential threat of annihilation from the burgeoning masses of Indians, Chinese and other Asians adjacent to its almost empty territory (1).

Prof. Taylor's map could be used to demonstrate that, despite its extremely low population density, Australia was reassuringly 'full'. It therefore transcends a supposedly merely 'scientific' purpose (2). The subtext of this habitability map is reminiscent of a similarly dissuasive map, discussed earlier on this blog (3).

Many thanks to Olli Porkka for sending in this map found here at the National Archives of Australia.

 

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(1) An earlier map discussed on this blog directly addresses the anxieties of 'White Australia' at about the same time. See #380 - White Fright: Asia Looming Over Anglo-Australia.

(2) In the mid-1920s, Australia counted around 6 million inhabitants, today its population is approaching 22 million.

(3) #440 - Dissuasive Cartography: the Emerald Desert.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images
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