Baltimore’s orgy of cartography and geography

March 22, 2008

The ad says “Come visit Utopia in Baltimore.” With an orgy of maps like that planned, it should be a Utopia for somebody: Geographers, cartographers, historians, and anyone interested in travel.

Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum hosts an outstanding exhibit of world-changing maps through June 8, a Festival of Maps; the entire town appears to have gone ga-ga on the idea. Baltimore will be Map Central for a few weeks, at least.

The Baltimore Sun (one of the truly great newspapers in America) described some of the cartographic gems on display:

Among the treasures is a huge and beautiful map of the fossil-embedded geological strata that underlie England and Wales. That masterpiece, published in 1815 by a pioneering geologist named William Smith, offered evidence used to support Darwin’s theory of evolution and set the stage for creation-vs.-evolution debates that still rage.

Then there’s the map researched by a doctor named John Snow in the 1850s. It allowed him to trace the source of a cholera outbreak in London to a well used by residents of a single neighborhood.

And there will be charts prepared by geographer Marie Tharp of the Mid-Oceanic Ridge, a mountainous rise in the mid-Atlantic seabed, based on data gathered by American submarines during World War II and later used to provide evidence of how the Earth’s crust has evolved through geological time.

The Smith and Snow maps anchor key events in science, the origin of paleontology and one of the greatest examples of public health sleuthing. To have both of those maps in one exhibition is a great coup for the Walters, and for Baltimore.

The exhibit also features a map of Utopia drawn by Sir Thomas Moore. Other maps were drawn by Benjamin Franklin, J. R. R. Tolkein, and Leonardo da Vinci.

Here’s a video description of one of the more remarkable pieces on view, a map of London, on a glove:

Vodpod videos no longer available. from posted with vodpod

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Surely there is material here for the Strange Maps blog.  Here’s a still of the glove, from the collection of The National Archives, UK:

Glove map, from London's 1851 Exposition

Below the fold, a partial list of some of the other exhibits and events planned in and around Baltimore, which will convince you, I hope, that it is indeed an orgy worth getting a ticket to see.

Baltimore remains one of my favorite towns, despite the loss of my Johnny Unitas-led Colts, despite the Orioles’ recent mediocrity; it’s a place of great history, great neighborhoods, and good food. Crabcakes from several sites, dinner at Sabatino’s, maps in the museums. Utopia indeed.

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“Expelled!” incident makes the Big Time

March 22, 2008

Ray Sutera thoughtfully sent a note: The New York Times has a story detailing the expulsion of evolutionary biologist P. Z. Myers from a preview of the creationist movie “Expelled!”

Myers’ account is still funnier.

Why there need to be previews: Myers notes (see the footnote) that the movie appears to again plagiarizes Harvard University’s animation of the operation of a cell, an old creationist trick. If the lawyers get their way, that will be gone by the general release.

Update on the need for previews:  See Myers’ note in which he explains that the cell animation in the movie is not Harvard’s exactly, but a copy of Harvard’s version, repeating Harvard’s errors. It’s an attempt to avoid plagiarizing by adding bad grammar, sorta.

Annals of Global Warming: Plants refuse to listen to climate change skeptics

March 22, 2008

March 20 brought the Spring equinox, but our daffodils have been up for a couple of weeks. Spring comes a little earlier every year.

That fact, and news stories like these below must cause great angst in the bowels of the offices of U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and other places climate change deniers hold sway. One can almost imagine some poor sap of a Coburn minion laboring away long into the night trying to devise legislation that will prevent Canadian thistles, redbuds, marigolds, wheat, soybeans and corn from reading about climate change or going to see Al Gore’s movie, and getting the wrong ideas.

I hope that minion is imaginary.

Here’s story #1: The Tuesday Science Section of the New York Times carried a story by Jim Robbins, “In a Warmer Yellowstone Park, a Shifting Environmental Balance.” Longtime readers probably know of my deep affection and ties to Yellowstone and the Mountain West. So of course this story catches my eye.

Robbins details an interesting set of changes being studied by Robert L. Crabtree, who is “chief scientist with the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center in Bozeman, Montana”: Invasive Canadian thistle, an exotic weed harries cattlemen throughout the world for the ways it destroys pasture land; despite its name, this thistle is an exotic from Asia, accidentally introduced to the Americas. The Lamar Valley in Yellowstone, formerly a wetland, continues to dry as a result of rising temperatures and lack of usual rainfall (a predicted effect of global climate change). Canadian thistle loves drying wetlands, and has invaded along the Lamar River. Officials fought the invasion for several years, but the fight seems lost.

The changes are dramatic, to observant ecologists:

Enter the pocket gopher, a half-pound dynamo that tunnels into the ground near the surface. The gophers love the abundant, starchy roots of the plant and burrow beneath it to harvest the tubers. What they do not eat they stockpile under plants or rocks.

The expansion of pocket gophers and thistle is not gradual, Dr. Crabtree said, but a rapid positive-feedback loop. As the gophers tunnel, they churn surface soil and create a perfect habitat for more thistle. In other words, the rodents help spread the plant. And more plants, in turn, lead to more pocket gophers.

“The pocket gophers are unconsciously farming their own food source,” said Dr. Crabtree. Their numbers here have tripled since the late 1980s, he said.

For their part, grizzly bears have discovered the gophers’ caches and raid them. As a result, the Lamar Valley is pockmarked with holes where grizzlies have clawed up bundles of roots. Bears also devour gophers and their pups.

Dr. Crabtree thinks the bears started feeding in earnest on the new food source in 2004 — a poor year for another bear staple, the white bark pine nut. Now, he adds, they seem to be eating the gophers and roots more routinely.

Tom Oliff, chief scientist for Yellowstone, confirms that the growing season for the park has expanded 20 days a year since the mid-1990s, which may explain the spread of Canada thistle. Mr. Oliff said the park reduced control efforts because evidence showed that the plant ebbed and flowed and that the range would probably shrink on its own.

One doesn’t have to be a fan of the Craigheads or a biologist to be dimly aware that the Yellowstone ecosystems are intensely studied and intensely threatened. Climate change played a contributing role in the cataclysmic fires in the park in 1988; reintroduction of wolves still sparks some controversy, though the return of a top predator has already produced other dramatic changes in Yellowstone ecosystems. Yellowstone is home and refuge to a wild bison herd, and beautiful and unique — generally revered as a “crown jewel” of America’s features.

Nor does one need to be a climate scientist to recognize the signs of warming listed in the article, and the dangers that are implied: Drying wetlands, invasive species, dying traditional foodstocks for grizzlies, population explosions that almost always are a symptom of serious trouble in an ecosystem.

So I was surprised, dumbfounded even, to see The Unbearable Nakedness of CLIMATE CHANGE claim this as a good story. Why?

Something absolutely unheard-of before: an entire New York Times article talking about Global Warming but… with no hint of impending doom or catastrophes:

In a Warmer Yellowstone Park, a Shifting Environmental Balance by Jim Robbins – published: March 18, 2008

Destruction of wetlands, displacement of native species, upset of the ecological apple cart — and this is “no hint of impending doom?” (While you’re at the NY Times site, also see this story, about how warmer temperatures threaten the grizzly.)

Here’s story #2:

Cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., now appear weeks earlier than they used to. April 5 was the date of the debut of the blossoms 30 years ago, according to a story at National Public Radio, but they are out already and will have peaked by the end of March this year.

Washington’s blossomless Cherry Blossom Festivals (the dates for the festival have not kept pace) provide one more indicator that spring comes earlier. A geographer from Virginia Tech, Kirsten de Beurs, uses remote sensing satellite data to look at the dates plants spring forth, and has determined that spring is moving up 8 hours every year. (Go to the NPR site and listen to the story.) (This science is called “phenology,” the study of the timing of biological phenomena.)

Here’s the problem for climate change deniers: How can they convince the birds, bees, grizzlies, and especially the trees and flowers, that they shouldn’t be acting as if the climate were changing? How can the climate change skeptics get the Canadian thistles to stop invading, the Japanese blossoming cherry trees in the Tidal Basin to delay their blossoms, the bluegrass of Kentucky to delay its greening, the prairies of Kansas to delay the wildflowers and grasses?

Have all those plants been suckered in by Al Gore’s movie? Don’t those plants know that Anthony Watts has shown that the weather measuring stations across the U.S. are placed wrongly, and so there cannot be warmer weather?

Church authorities got Galileo to lie low on the issue of heliocentricity centuries ago; but according to the legend, as he left the room where he had agreed to keep quiet, he muttered, “but still, it moves,” referring to the motion of the Earth about the Sun. This is the problem of the climate change deniers: Still, the climate changes.

Canute couldn’t command the tides not to flow; climate change deniers cannot command the flowers not to bloom. That force that through the green fuse drives the flower? It’s the destroyer of skepticism, too. Climate change skeptics curse it today.


Satellite photo composite: “Land surface phenologies across CONUS in 2000 revealed by hree AVHRR biweekly composites.” From USA National Phenology Network (USANPN)
  • Project Budburst: You can be a citizen scientist, and help climatologists and geographers map the coming of spring. Details here. Contact Barron Orr at the University of Arizona,


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