As a cartographer at Conservation International (CI), I’m often asked, “Hasn’t everything already been mapped?”
It’s easy to understand where this mindset comes from: the type of map most people look at shows their local roads and political boundaries, things that may not have changed in their lifetime. When political changes — like the recent creation of South Sudan — do require updating a map, it is often headline news.
And with an ever-increasing constellation of satellites swarming through the heavens, it appears every inch of the planet is under constant observation and scrutiny, easily available at your fingertips on your smart phone. These perceptions lead people to think of their physical world as both static and well-documented. Neither is quite accurate, especially on a global scale.
Indeed, our natural world is as dynamic as our political one, but the chronological scales at which this change occurs can be so subtle we can easily take it for granted.
Enter the 13th Edition of the “Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World.” Like all good map producers, the atlas team meticulously researched and revised the maps from the previous edition. Political borders were updated, cities were added and, as John Vidal points out in a recent Guardian article, the nearly 7,000 changes to this edition of the atlas also reflect “climate change, and large infrastructure projects which have changed the flow of rivers, lakes and coastlines.”
Take the Arctic, for example. It has a new island named Uunartoq Qeqertaq, meaning Warming Island in the Inuit language. The island’s appearance is a result of retreating ice in the Arctic Circle, and has been deemed permanent enough to be included in the atlas. In other regions, Antarctica has shrunk since major ice shelves broke off, and a river in Mongolia “has been redirected to allow gold mining.”
But it’s not all negative, and this gives us hope that there’s also opportunity for us to take actions that will lead to positive change. The Aral Sea, for example, is (very) slowly returning to its former size as Kazahkstan redirects water to flow into it. The sea had shrunk to a fragment of its former size as water was diverted for agriculture. Too much, it turns out, with negative consequences for the health of those same farmers as seabeds became dust fields.
The Guardian article focuses on the changes in the polar regions, but what scientists at CI and our partner organizations are discovering is that effects of climate change are just as dramatic in the tropics, if not more so. This is because these regions aren’t even accustomed to seasonal changes, so even the slightest change is significant. The changes to biodiversity may be a little harder to see from space, but are just as important.
We use maps to describe our world, to make decisions, and above all to convey a story. This story definitely has a plotline, but it’s not too late to make a few positive revisions.
Kellee Koenig is a cartographer and GIS specialist in CI’s Science and Knowledge division.