Climate Change and its Effect on Mapmaking

“It’s 2019. We already have maps of Earth. There’s no need to create anymore maps because we already know what our planet looks like. Geography and cartography are dead fields anyway, what’s the point?”

Despite the fact that I majored in geography during my undergraduate career, I understand why so many people in our country hold this skewed logic.

Why do so many people hold this stance on the geographic discipline?

I think the first flaw is simply the misunderstanding of what geography as a discipline is. Geography isn’t just about memorizing the capital of every U.S. capital or being able to point out where every country is located on a world map. Geography is not just about memorization and location.  It is the study of places and the relationships between people and their environments. Geography seeks to understand where things are found, why they are there, and how they develop and change over time. This brings us to my next topic of discussion. . .

This is honestly how I felt while earning my geography degree. Silly representation, but so accurate.

Why should you care?

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you probably are aware of the phenomenon our planet is currently experiencing and has been for several decades: Human induced climate change. This is not something to take lightly. The current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is extremely likely (greater than 95% probability) to be the result of human activity since the mid-20th century and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented over decades to millennia.

This graph compares the amount of atmospheric CO2 from samples found in ice cores taken by researchers in Vostok, Antarctica, with the more recent direct measurements. This graph quite evidently presents evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. Or in other words, recent warming trends are due to anthropogenic causes.

Also, did you know that 97% of climate scientists agree that climate-warming over the past century are due to human activities? Personally, I believe this is an alarming statistic we must pay attention to and I think you should, too!

What does the global climate change phenomenon have to do with mapmaking?

Just think about it for a moment. Climate scientists have found that one of the largest impacts this warming trend has on our planet is increased temperatures on our planet, causing glaciers in the polar regions to melt at an alarming rate and in turn, results in sea levels rising. Wouldn’t this mean that our current maps might slowly but surely become inaccurate because of recent warming trends? Might this necessitate an update in the appearance of our maps, especially in the Arctic region?

A quaint community along the coast of Greenland. One can visually see the breaking off of pieces of glacier.

I found an article from BBC.com that captures this issue really well. The author of the article, Jonathan Amos, points to the fact that the Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. The seasonal sea-ice is decreasing at an alarming rate and the ice sheet that sits atop Greenland is losing mass at a rate of about 280 billion tonnes a years. In layman’s terms, this is extremely disconcerting and should not be something to take lightly.

When choosing to make a map of this region, one must understand that it has to be updated rather often. This is exactly what the team on the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) are doing currently. Geographic information systems and mapping specialists from the BAS are working on producing an updated map of the Arctic region. This is no easy feat. It takes time and persistence to take on such a huge, yet imperative task.

I hope I helped you better understand why we still need geographers in this world.

If you’re still interested in learning more about global climate change and what YOU can do to help, check out some of the great resources I found below:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC): The United Nations body is responsible for assessing the science related to climate change.

NASA on Global Climate Change: NASA’s site has extensive research on the most up to date research in current climate science.

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