633 - Who Put the O in Portland?
From a young age, Frank was fascinated by maps and atlases, and the stories they contained. Finding his birthplace on the map in the endpapers of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings only increased his interest in the mystery and message of maps.
While pursuing a career in journalism, Frank started a blog called Strange Maps, as a repository for the weird and wonderful cartography he found hidden in books, posing as everyday objects and (of course) floating around the Internet.
"Each map tells a story, but the stories told by your standard atlas for school or reference are limited and literal: they show only the most practical side of the world, its geography and its political divisions. Strange Maps aims to collect and comment on maps that do everything but that - maps that show the world from a different angle".
A remit that wide allows for a steady, varied diet of maps: Frank has been writing about strange maps since 2006, published a book on the subject in 2009 and joined Big Think in 2010. Readers send in new material daily, and he keeps bumping in to cartography that is delightfully obscure, amazingly beautiful, shockingly partisan, and more.
Archie Archambault, that's who! The philosophy graduate turned printer struck upon the concept of circular maps after moving to Portland. In Oregon's biggest city, he felt something that must have reminded him of grappling with Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. He felt lost.
Not prepared to be stumped by Stumptown , he set about mapping the city himself. Which, in the Age of Google, might seem redundant. Except that Google Maps for all their ubiquity (in both coverage and accessibility) are not much help if you want to get to know a city. They're like an eternal crib sheet: great at delivering specific info (how to get from A to B), terrible for getting a sense of the wider context.
As Mr. Archambault points out on his website, there's scientific evidence  for the fact that GPS technology is making us less, rather than more spatially aware. When we rely, as is now so commonplace, on satellite-guided driving instructions tailored to our specific trip, we're preventing our brain from doing what it should do naturally: making 'mental maps' of our surroundings.
On these mental maps, we store the whereabouts of the roads and intersections, the landmarks and destinations that are relevant to us. How they are linked is not just a matter of objective proximity, but also of their subjective qualities: Do we find them easy to use (or reach)? What do they remind us of? How do we associate between them? Do we go there often? Mental mapping is very personal and mostly intuitive, and therefore - ironically - hard to replicate. Your average hand-drawn map is but a feint shadow of the mental map from whence it sprang.
Perhaps that intangible quality of mental mapping explains why we don't notice that we do so much less of it these days. And yet this might be bad for our cognitive health, even for our mental health.
Mental mapping is brain gymnastics, just like doing that crossword or sudoku puzzle. Also, mental maps provide us with the opportunity to be flexible and the chance to improvise. Also good brain sport, but not something we keep up if we're drip-fed driving instructions for a single route - a route that recalculates itself if we're brave or stupid enough to take the wrong turn.
Studies show that people who follow directions fare significantly worse at recognising their surroundings than those who use a proper, paper map - even that they have less grey matter in the hippocampus , which is the area in the brain used to store spatial memories. Not to sound alarmist, but people with relatively small hippocampi are more likely to suffer from dementia, schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders. Then again, by that same logic, London taxi drivers - clinically shown to have hippocampi hypertrophied with The Knowledge - should be among the sanest people on the planet.
For a while, Mr. Archambault cruised the city, obsessively reliant on Google Maps and the like, yet remained frustratingly stuck at the bottom end of the learning curve. Then he drew a big circle, overlaid it with crosshairs and took that gunsight for a rudimentary city map, divided into four quadrants. He would flesh it out via some first-person urban exploring.
The main innovation of Mr. Archambault's mapping technique is to reproduce that circle for the different neighbourhoods inside the main enclosure. It's a departure from the generally more angular shapes that crowd most maps. And yet, the choice seemed obvious to Mr. Archambault: "The circle, our Universe's softest shape, clearly conveys size and connections".
Mr. Archambault's aim is to map neighbourhoods, which can only be done by lots of legwork, and is in itself quite subjective: city neighbourhoods often have fuzzy borders, and can expand or contract, or even vanish, due to changes in its reputation, or its social and/or ethnic mix . One of the best sources of information on the size, shape and name of neighbourhoods in any city are the local real estate agents - they're responsible for much of the naming, shrinking and expanding of city neighbourhoods…
In 2011, Mr. Archambault started printing the Portland map on a 19th-century letterpress machine. Since then, he's added circular depictions of half a dozen major cities in the US, one of Amsterdam and one of the solar system. Though O remains his favourite shape, Mr. Archambault is not a radical roundhead. No map of Washington DC can ignore its flawed-diamond shape. Nor does his. And Manhattan will always look like a sausage, or a cigar. Or, on Mr. Archambault's map, like a very long oval.
With their remarkable layout, beautiful typography and handcrafted feel, Mr. Archambault's maps could be mistaken for mere artwork. But he insists that they are tools first, to be used to grasp a city in the clearest, simplest way possible.
 One of Portland's many nicknames. Dating from the mid-19th century, when the city grew so quickly that large areas of forest were cleared before the tree stumps were removed. Early Portlanders jumped from stump to stump to avoid the mud on the unpaved ground. Other nicknames include Rose City, PDX (after the local airport code), P-Town and Bridgetown (the city is located at the confluence of two rivers, spanned by a total of 14 bridges). ↩
 Latin for seahorse, but also the name for a seahorse-shaped part of the brain. ↩
 For more on subjective neighbourhood mapping, see this fascinating attempt to pin down the London neighbourhood of Dalston, discussed in #551. In contrast to that experiment's linearity, another, even more subjective dissection of London is more reminiscent of Mr. Archambault's use of circles: #199. ↩
It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.
- Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
- As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
- Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.
Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.
These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.
How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe
(DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.
Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.
One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.
The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.
Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"
This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.
Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.
Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.
What the future may hold
(NASA via Getty Images)
Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.
Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.
But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.
Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.
Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.
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