Ebola and our Nation

New fears that the infectious Ebola virus might mutate into an airborne disease have triggered deep anxieties of national safety in recent weeks–and elicited fears about national preparedness rarely–if ever–raised before the arrival of Thomas Eric Duncan at Texas Health Presbyterian in Dallas.  The rise of one case of infection that spread in that hospital helped further to transform a dire health emergency located only in West Africa into a danger seeming to lie at the edges of a nation increasingly obsessed with patrolling its borderlands.  How did a virus whose expansion as a world health emergency was so sadly ignored for months as it spread in West Africa come to be re-dimensioned as a subject that, with a dose of posturing, was a concern of national security?  The answer partly lies in the challenge to spatially orient individuals to the possible pathways of viral infection, and to potentially new pathways for its contagious transmission.  (For the infections of two nurses exposed to the disease have raised fears of the abilities that we have to contain the illness in a hospital setting.)   Even if concerns that Ebola virus may mutate lack much grounds, given the virus’s unchanging nature over time, the mutation of mapping the spread of a disease in West Africa to tracking possible pathways of communication outside the continent has provoked far more intense reactions than did news of the spread of the virulent disease over several previous months.

Fear is difficult to measure, but the levels of tweeting with the term or hashtag of Ebola offers a barometer of alarm about Ebola virus’s transmission.  For the 271 million active users of Twitter exploded with 140-character pronouncements about the arrival of the infectious disease across the Atlantic, beyond the expected boundaries in which the highly infectious disease had been first tracked over several previous months.  The rapid expansion of tweets mentioning Ebola illustrates how the virus came to infiltrate (and infect) social media world-wide exploded from the first of October, when the increasing density of tweets in the United States’ 52.7 active users so drastically grew.  The twitter maps show a marked explosion mentioning or tagged #Ebola dating from the announcement an infected Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian-American afflicted with the Ebola virus was being treated for the disease in Dallas on September 30.  Within a week, and for the week before his recent death, the virus had migrated to national news when the arrival of a patient afflicted with Ebola in the United States had raised questions of how his arrival had not only been permitted, but how the way that Duncan had gone untreated after arriving at an emergency room in Texas Health Presbyterian in Dallas opened the avenue to the infection.  Even as confidence grew that health risks were minimized, the density of tweets that illuminated the country insistently up to just three days before his death, as if threads that so inundated the twittersphere had themselves grown so intense so as to obliterate the boundaries of the United States, so intensely exchanged were tweets to overload the mapping abilities by firing off some 6,000 tweets per minute with astounding rapidity, compared, according to Time, to a frequency of 100 tweets per minute in the days before September 30.

At the risk of attributing the nation one identity, Twitter users across the country were suddenly passing news of the virus’s arrival in the United States with newfound intensity, in ways that don’t only betray the mass-enrollment of the medium’s 48.2 million US-based users.  The electrifying nature of the confirmation of the arrival of an Ebola-infected patient spread throughout the country in something like a Great Fear which had been prepared for by the unrelenting news of the infectious virus’s spread across the Atlantic.  While acknowledged, the disease’s spread–or the hashtag–was less clearly an issue of the moment that merited tweeting about.



October 1 Twitter Traffic



October 2 Ebola tweets high



October 3 Twittermap



Twitter Explosion on Ebola oct 5



The mapping of geo-tagged tweets with the hashtag Ebola had dramatically mushroomed as early as October 1–or from the moment news of the arrival in Dallas of the tragically infected Duncan spread.  They register the panic generated as word got out quite quickly that the first case of infection had arrived, undetected, in the United States, not only at the Dallas airport but in Dallas itself, to a local family, in ways that seemed suddenly to confirm both the permeability of our borders and the lack of geographic remove of a virus whose infectious virulence was widely known, but appeared contained in West Africa.  While in mid-September, the extreme intensity of tweeting appears limited to the major cities in the United States, the proliferation of twittered conversations by October 1 triggered something of an information about the arrival of the term in public debate and led to issues that had no prior tie to the infectious disease.  The tweet that the CDC issued describing the spread of the disease by contact with bodily fluids —

–retweeted over 4200 times, bearing the calming words “Ebola poses no significant risk to the United States”–have been balanced by numerous alarmist tweets of the arrival of infected airplane passengers who entered the nation’s purportedly poorly guarded borders and inadequately monitored points of entry.

From a concentration of alarmed tweets largely the coasts of the continental United States, messaging proliferated after the Duncan’s identification as a case of Ebola in the Homeland with an unheard of density that overwhelmed the nation’s cyberspace and clogged up the twitter sphere in something of an information overload as Ebola became the hot topic of 140 characters.



Twitter about Ebola 9:16


October 1 Twitter Traffic

October 2 Ebola tweets high


October 3 Twittermap


Twitter Explosion on Ebola oct 5


It is interesting that while the United States was set aglow with alarmist tweets, as was England, the countries across our borders, Mexico and Canada, show relatively low traffic–as to mark the rebirth of Ebola as a national phenomenon with Duncan’s arrival, at times, by October 2-5, in a startlingly uniform manner across the nation, whose tweeting density cartographically overwhelmed registration of its own borders:  the radii of tweets expanded beyond the shorelines of the continental United States, as if registering the overwhelming nature of national attention to the virus on the internet.  If as early as this last summer, tweets had wondered, with the first news of Americans infected with Ebola to return to the US in hopes of being cured, “How many degrees of separation are between you and #Ebola?,” our friends at Fox posted a handy projection whose alarmist tone seems designed to stoke fears by casting the disease as a national problem by mapping potential treatment centers within our shores, to suggest where those afflicted with the contagious virus might be transported in due time:


Quarantine Stations


Coming shortly before the WHO declared the outbreak an “International Health Emergency” on August 8, the mapping of CDC Quarantine Stations on the nightly news recast the problem of mapping Ebola’s contagion as a problem that might be located within our shores, rather than across the Atlantic ocean.  After all, the map reoriented our attention in relation to the Ebola story as if it were now a national issue.

(The BBC map of early October 2014 that tracked the future displacement of patients that contracted Ebola virus while in West Africa showed the eventual global ramifications of the virus, before the first known case where Ebola virus was contracted in the United States, spreading new fears of transmission that involved state, local, and federal officials; it provides a strikingly poor notion of the spread of the vectors of contagion–



based as it is on a map of countries, rather than pathways of infection, and illustrates the high levels of anxieties around placing Ebola in space.)

The expanding radiation of tweets from major cities charts the emergence of a geographically removed epidemiological crisis of Ebola within the national borders of the United States around a very precise date.  From a phenomenon that was confined to major US cities on a September 28 twitter map, whose points of greatest density were confined to Baltimore and Bethesda, the New York area, Charlotte and Atlanta–


Focus Oct 28 Twittermap


September 30 provided a burst of tweets from Dallas in the center of the country, consumed by tweets–


Focus Sept 30 Dallas Explosion


–which went national by the first day of October that suggest the knitting together of the national twittersphere with new focus by Oct 2 as the entire country increasingly tweeted about the virus’ spread grew to overwhelm the messages that Americans posted on the Internet:


Focus Oct 1 Twitter Explosion National


Focus October 2 Twitter USA



The limitations on tweeting in mid-September in the United States–mostly confined earlier to the northeast and Los Angeles, as well as Texas, was truly explosive.  #Ebola developed conversations in many fronts, at the same time as it was inevitably poised to enter public discourse about the nature of the United States’ borders, until regular checks and screenings at airports and screening agents in full protective gear, poised with thermal guns to greet visitors from the most severely Ebola-stricken nations like Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, in order to detect elevated temperatures that might betray signs of the fever associated with the virus, and, should need be, placed in quarantine.  But even as attempts to start screening procedures in hospitals and airports, the fears about the invisibility of the disease, and the difficulty of detecting those infected in the earliest stages, has triggered deep-set anxieties (if not paranoid fears) into which several politicians have, however improbably, sought to tap, in ways that create a powerful new hybrid between infectious pathways and national threats.  The difficulty of screening folks who arrive in the country on all flight pathways leaving countries afflicted with Ebola–given that no U.S. Airlines actually fly to West Africa, outside of Lagos and Dakar–and that any restriction of imports to the region would paralyze local responders.  (One of the more widely diffused maps of the accelerated viral communication air flights from West Africa could encourage imagined the arrival of Ebola from Dakar to New York and Washington, DC alone, rather than Dallas.)



senegalFlightsMapJLMother Jones


A subsequent more DIY iteration of a similar map projecting the dangers of contagion from airplane flights, if one of considerably more questionable politics, imagined the multiple flight-paths, this time from Lagos as vectors of disease from Ebola-afflicted countries:




Such maps raise impossible questions of how to quarantine for Ebola linked to questions of national safety, and oddly removed from a global context in which pathways of viral communication might be charted–or the global count that now exceeds 4,000 deaths.  They have led to multiple maps of the global cases of Ebola to be charted on Wikipedia to more alarmist WordPress blogs, to come to terms with the spread of the fatal disease whose name is now on everyone’s lips–often suggesting, with the intensity of an infographic, information that is somehow being withheld or not fully released to the public.  (The rise of such self-made maps of Ebola, often using data on a Google maps template, has put it into the hands of all to act as muckrakers and unmask the new dangers of the virus’s future spread.)

The “inside story” that has developed on Ebola’s transmission have no doubt generated the spread of miniblogs about Ebola across the twitterverse.  Even the screening measures that are able to be introduced at airports, CNN reminds us, are, in the words of Laurie Garrett, author of The Coming Plague, “something to calm the nerves of the American people, the British people, the French people, and so on” as if this were a first-world problem of anxiety-control; Mary Schiavo, former Inspector General of the US Department of Transportation, dismissed them as “entirely window dressing, because we have to do something,” but have little sense of what to do at any rate.  Schiavo cautioned “there’s much more that needs to be done to keep people safe,” as if the government were being lax.  Yet for a disease that does not reveal symptoms for some three weeks after infection, the tracking of potential vectors of transmission is extremely difficult, if not impossible.  On a related front, shortly after Texas Governor Rick Perry announced at Texas Health Presbyterian that “Professionals on every level of the chain of command know what to do to minimize this potential risk to the people of Texas and this country,” mutated over the following week to a message from a Border Control agent in the Rio Grande Valley that “we might not know how to respond [my italics added].”  “Did they train up or come up with a plan to respond to this? I don’t know,” he added, spinning up new fears in the mind of the general public and linking border-mania to Ebola.  The tie between Ebola and our borders materialized the threat of the virus as a “homeland risk” in ways that prepared for its entrance into national debate; members of Congress like Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) preposterously describe Ebola as “another instance of the federal government ignoring the ongoing problems on the U.S.-Mexico border.”

Thomas Eric Duncan’s arrival in Dallas weeks after the mapping of imagined pathways of contagion itself suggests a far more complex threats of a network of indirect flight paths than can be revealed in a map of direct flights from Dakar–and reminds us that the danger of infection on airplanes is far less than the transport of the infected.  The data overload mapped on Twitterfeeds reveals how Americans came to suddenly process their relation to a disease that had arrived on their shores, some seven months after volunteers first rushed to West Africa in hopes to contain the disease’s spread.  The delay was astounding, as was the revealing of the increasingly limited and mutable nature of the attention spans that might be measured by Twitter feeds–and the inevitably metastisization of debate about the arrival of West Africans with the disease not only by airplane–a vector of transmission long feared  as it almost inevitably hybridized with other discourses on national vulnerability.  The first warning from a border guard about the danger of Ebola entering the United States in the Rio Grande came from the suspected apprehension of an Ethiopian, so widespread was the fear of African provenance of the disease that had come to appear as if it lurked just across our borders.

Did the relative lack of tweeting on Ebola in Mexico suggest a lack of interest in the spread of Ebola there, or just the absence of how the disease so readily intersected with fears about the preservation of boundaries?

Despite the confidence of the CDC at the abilities to control and staunch the spread of the disease, a panic rapidly grew around the vulnerability that the arrival of Duncan in Dallas suddenly suggested itself across the United States.   For his illness, the story of his rejection at the hospital, and his ability to pass undetected through the Monrovia airport, beyond the fears stoked by quarantining of those with whom he had close contact, offered evidence that our borders were not secured.  The anxieties that were unleashed were either cunningly paired or themselves latched onto, as if by haphazard association, the obsession with borders in the United States, from the wall that has been constructed to keep out Mexican immigrants from the country; fear of illegal migration was openly conflated with the arrival of a threat from which the US government was insufficiently protecting its citizens.  And in a triumph of isolationist thought, talk radio foresaw that should any US soldiers be dispatched to help with the treatment of West African countries that lack an public health infrastructure, they would turn into vectors for the disease to be brought to the US, in something like a homeland security threat some even cast as a plot to inflict punishment on current residents of the United States for sins of slave-holding, linking the severity of the infectious disease in Liberia to the founding of the nation by former US slaves in a despicable bout of geographic free-association and tragicomical transhistorical whimsy.

The story of #Ebola, it was proved, not only has legs, but will travel with the rapidity of the infectious disease itself, in ways that make it the most attention-getting news item at a time when political pundits are thirsty for news stories that would be able to make a big impact and circulate.  The contrast in twitter maps over the course of just two weeks is striking, as is the spike at the time of the announcement of Duncan’s arrival on US soil:


Twittering about Ebola 9:15


Ebola on Twitter in US

October 2 Ebola tweets high


And by October 3, the United States seemed distinctly obsessed, aside from non-Twitter users in Montana:


Focus Oct 3 ExplosionOctober 3


Focus October 4 tweetmapOctober 4


Focus Radiation of Tweets Octobver 5October 5


Much of this retweeting seems to have lain not only in an understandable fear, as the knowledge grew about levels of Duncan’s compelling tragedy and inadequacy of his care, but much of the tweets were no doubt panic-inspired 140 character alarms, a condensed Great Fear in miniature, as the shock that lurked behind Duncan’s tragic history mutated into intense fears about national vulnerability and preparedness–or national safety.

The notion that Ebola should mutate from a global public health emergency to national threat seems particularly cruel, since the long-threatening virus has suddenly gained such widespread traction after being grafted onto free-floating fears for national security.  A categorical confusion occurred bout the infectious nature of Ebola, which mutated as make Ebola’s attack on the lining of internal organs suddenly gained immediacy.  Despite the concern about the future spread Ebola outbreaks long confined to West and Central Africa, the illusion of the geographical remove of Ebola created a compartmentalization of public health responses that were suddenly, with Duncan’s arrival in the United States, been breached:



long confined to West Africa


The fears of how Ebola disrupts previous models of the communication of especially virulent diseases seems to reflect how it stands to disrupt our categories of thought, breaking imagined gulfs between cultures and bridging oceanic expanse, in ways that even the utmost vigilance creates no barrier for.  And in an era when making barriers to immigration, to terrorism, and to the new nature of risk.  The readiness to install teams of officials equipped with infrared temperature guns to take the temperatures of all passengers arriving from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea is by no means a fool-proof method or one even guaranteed to detect the presence of the virus among all passengers, but the intensity of the screening procedures enacted by the CDC’s division on global migration and quarantine (who knew it existed?) to be conducted by customs and border protection officials from the Department of Homeland Security–wearing Homeland Security badges–who are already mobilized and stationed at John F. Kennedy International airport, and already invested with authority to stop and search all international travelers.  Eventually, their place is to be taken by members of the Coast Guard and eventually medical workers under contract with the government at five airports, but the men conducting the “expanded screening measures” are supervised by the Office of Homeland Security’s unit if US Customs and Border Protection.

The link was present in fear of border-crossing allowed the risk of Ebola to grow so expansively across the country.  But the breach was apparent not in the breaking of any actual national boundaries, but in the new category of the “homeland”–from airport screening to border stations to the protections that the government can offer to its residents–in a way that made no real sense, but that suddenly invested a new logic in Ebola virus that allowed it to move from the far-off to the close-at-hand.  All of a sudden, the disease acquired  a new identity as it became a “homeland risk.”

That said, we might do well to pause, even given the dangers that outbreaks of Ebola poses, over the multiple other risks for death in the nation.



causes-of-death-ebola-labels.pngBusiness Insider


For the magnification of the local risk of screening for Ebola, for all its rootedness in a deep instinct for self-protection, seems to mark a turn away from an epidemic that is already worldwide–in a dramatically misleading graphic which, while this map by AmericanXplorer13 has made its way to Wikipedia, misleadingly suggested that local transmission of the virus has spread throughout the Eurozone and to at least three states in the US.



Map of Ebola Outbreak – 1 October 2014″ by AmericanXplorer13 – Created with tools from Kartograph, released under the AGPL license


The irresponsibility of such a map, or self-made data-visualization, even though it was careful to note that no deaths from Ebola had yet occurred in several regions, almost intimated that the spread of the virus from West Africa, or out of the zone of its “widespread transmission,” had breached the barrier of containment.  Far better is the graphic from the New York Times, which transposed the same data to a far less troublesome data vis, but is so striking for how it attached a medical narrative to the two cases contracted out of Africa it described, but where the slight narratives of different coloration contrast with the anonymity of the ochre spaces that mark “Countries with Ebola outbreaks,” as if the responsibility lay with their governments.  How can one, indeed, give individual faces to the upwards of a thousand cases contracted each week.


Ebola out of AfricaNew York Times


The problem that we face of mapping the international health crisis of Ebola demands more informative ways to map the virus’s transmission.

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Filed under Customs and Border Protection, Ebola, Ebola Outbreaks, Homeland Security, Mapping Ebola, national preparedness, Rick Perry, The Coming Plague, Thomas Eric Duncan, Twitter maps, Twittersphere

Mapping the New Enemy

Maps offer a unique tool to display the relation of power to territories, and the use of a magnified map of Syrian airstrikes performed a useful function in the news conference of Defense Department Spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby.  “We hit them [in airstrikes] last night out of a concern that they were getting close to an execution date of some of the plans that we have seen,” said Attorney General Eric Holder–whose tenure at the Department of Justice must have been more consumed by approving surveillance activities than he had expected–on the eve of his resignation from the Obama Administration.  The circumlocution was tellingly obfuscating, and seems to realize the increasing role of the Department of Defense in the decision to launch stokes.  For the Attorney General–whose tenure at the Department of Justice now seems more consumed by approving surveillance activities than he ever expected–boasted about successfully delivering a round of airstrikes of Tomahawk missiles into Syria.  The map’s finality obscured the problematic legal status of launching the airstrikes, however.  Holder omitted that planes fired into Syrian territory on September 23 was not only mapped in the image issued by the Department of Defense, and explained by its spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, against strongholds of the new enemy to the Homeland identified as the “Khorasan Group,” but defined the legitimacy of airstrikes that had expanded the fight against ISIS to a new enemy.  “I think it’s absolutely safe to say [the group's plots have been] disrupted,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey noted, although he kept alive the justification for future strikes by adding that “their aspiration to conduct attacks in Europe and the United States and elsewhere in the region remains an aspiration.”

The Khorasan Group have yet to make themselves known or confirm their very own existence.  Rear Admiral Kirby described how the attack had disrupted “imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests” from the very  “training camps” and “bomb-making facilities,” destroying a “safe haven” they secured in Syria to develop the very sort of external attacks with which ISIS has not been identified and had even distanced its principal goals.  But the existence of “bomb-making facilities,” almost designed to trigger fears in the American public, keying in as they do to a narrative of terrorist attacks against the Homeland, provided a rationale for extending the airstrikes campaign into Syrian territory in order to eliminate the threat that the Khorasan Group posed.  The dangers that were posed by the group against whom the attacks had been directed, according to US Central Command, justified expanding the war that intended to “degrade” ISIS to a broader fight to protect national interests.  The situation maps Kirby showed also mask both the failure to seek broader Congressional authorization for the strikes and the potentially disastrous long-term consequences of continuing such attacks and targeting  sites that involved untold civilian casualties.  Although the map did their best to isolate the targets for these strikes, they illustrated both the pronounced geographic and cultural remove of Department of Defense decision-making, as well as the costs of staging these attacks from aircraft carriers in the Red Sea or Persian Gulf.

Mapping the airstrikes served several functions, ranging from putting the unknown Khorasan Group on the map to lending legitimacy to incursions into Syrian airspace, without Congressional approval or UN support.  Indeed, the flatly declarative map  advanced arguments about the just nature of the war against the “Khorasan Group” by American forces, even if few had heard of the Group only days before.  With the crude map, the presence of sites of danger suddenly assumed concrete locations and had already been vanquished:  eight “Khorasan sites” according to anonymous sources, were hit by Tomahawk Cruise Missiles launched from ships or submarines in the nearby Red Sea and F-22 Raptor stealth aircraft and Predator or Reaper drones, as if those same sites of training camps where alleged threats against the Homeland were being planned did not lie in Syrian territory or the attacks against them did not violate Syrian airspace.  Rear Admiral Kirby, the Department of Defense spokesperson, bluntly summarized the results of the airstrikes with the satisfied resolve of self-justification:  “We certainly believe that we hit what we were aiming at.”

The map before which he spoke at the DoD news conference suggests more targets, but show eight yellow bursts west of the embattled city of Aleppo, where the Khorasan Group is said to be based, close to the border with Turkey.  The strikingly cartoonish map signs that designate targets of airstrikes are akin to explosive bursts as if taken from an outdated video game that suddenly seem the centers of attention in an opaque landscape, which is so different from the recent maps we have seen of an expanding Islamic State–the alleged focus of earlier airstrikes across the region.  And rather than display the movement of arriving airstrikes, moreover, the explosions ringed with orange suggest an ability to attack across the country.





Such situation maps immediately circulated on the nightly news and online alike, in a remarkable instance of a single map that has been adopted wholesale to explain and describe the airstrikes effectiveness against targets.  Attorney General Holder’s odd obfuscations seemed desperate attempts to justify the bombing of select Syrian sites, and broader justifications that claimed the airstrikes were performed “out of concerns that they were getting close to” attacks.  This affirms claims that the bombings were needed to stop “imminent” attacks on the “homeland” of the United States, in ways that evoked 9/11–although “imminent attack plotting” was newly qualified in Orwellian Newspeak when intelligence identified plans as “in an advanced stage,” albeit without known targets or actual attacks suspected or needing to be feared.  (The discussion of these bombing strikes from planes and ships conspicuously did not include acknowledging possible civilian deaths or casualties–and neither did  President Obama’s speech to the nation–as civilian casualties reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights including at least 300.)

The signs designating hit targets, akin to dated video games, but seemed, placed on a map, to affirm the remove at which Pentagon mappers of the scene of battle, as if to designate the complete obliteration of a place without civilian casualties:






What were these targets they took out, and how immanent was their threat?  The maps issued by the Department of Defense did the difficult work of parsing a national incursion aimed at cells lying within a country but is not part of it, in what seems a new triumph of the logic of a war on terror that knows no bounds.  With “US-only strikes against the Khorasan group” sent into Syrian airspace beside an unspecified number of other international pilots to perform over 200 strikes on a dozen targets, they gave legitimacy to the “Khorasan Group”–evocative less of an insurance firm than an Afghan drug cartel traded on the deep web or Silk Road–as being worthy for attack that did not deviate from a mission ostensibly directed against the expansion of the Islamic State.  Indeed, while the territory that the Islamic State controlled have been so often mapped and re-mapped in recent weeks, the Khorasan Group has suddenly emerged, territory-less, just around September 20, three days before the airstrikes, as “the cell in Syria that may be the most intent on hitting the United States or its installations overseas with a terror attack.”  The maps elevated targets of alleged imminent danger at the same time as apparently wiping them out.

The map persuaded public viewers that our bombing campaign was indeed justified, against the specter of a careful construction of the danger of an immanent “homeland” attack.  The designation of the Khorasan Group was explicit, effective and swift.  Martin Dempsey, Joint Chiefs Chairman, described “imminent attack plotting” as if to compensate for the acknowledgement that, for all its horrors, ISIS did not in itself pose a threat to the United States; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff William Mayville, a public face for the army, described “The Khorasan group [as] in the final stages of plans to carry out attacks against Western targets and potentially against the US homeland,” although he was loathe to say the effects of strikes definitively degraded or deterred imminent threats to the “West and the homeland.”  The implicit narrative, of course, was of an attack forestalled, and, this time, the eradication of conspirators poised to attempt to hijack another airplane destined for the United States.  The existence of such a super-national entity raised some eyebrows in Syria, as well as in the US-based press; Glenn Greenwald wryly noted how government leaks “after spending weeks promoting ISIS as Worse Than Al Qaeda™, . . .  unveiled a never-before-heard-of group that was Worse Than ISIS™.”

The maps issued by the Department of Defense jumped several steps in logic in order to advance this argument, skipping over questions of international law or powers to declare war.  “Imminent” is a key word by argued the attacks made without Congressional consultation were justified.  They almost represented an interesting illustration of the evolution of President Obama’s thoughts on Presidential prerogative.  For the situation map legitimized the prerogative to invade a nation’s sovereign boundaries without Congressional oversight.  If Senator Obama had forcefully argued in 2007 “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation,” holding “military action most successful when it is authorized and supported by the legislative branch,” decisive weight fell on the formulation “imminent threat.”  United States Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes described the Khorasan Group as holding “very clear and concrete ambitions to launch external operations against the United States or Europe” in ways that justified their inclusion in an already loosely justified attacks on the Islamic State–even if the strikes were clearly removed from the areas under IS control in maps as the below, as if in the hope that this detail would not be noticed.


SYrian Air Strikes


The singling out of this region of attack is a clear expansion from maps of earlier airstrikes that were diffused by Central Command, where bomb-bursts correlated closely with strategic points held by the Islamic State, as if to demonstrate the effectiveness of the response that the United States was asked to contribute in Iraq:




The strikes seem planned with the intent to show the ability of the American air force to strike targets in western Syria, even should Turkey not grant them permission to use a nearby air base, as well as to generate a confidence in the US government’s vigilance against terrorist threats.  This alternate configuration of the airstrike map did interesting work by isolating the Khorasan Group as something of a separate entity from other Syrian rebels, worthy of intense attention from American air force.  Although the identity of the Khorasan “Group” was much less clear to most Syrians on the ground, including members of the US-backed Syrian Free Army, among whom some eyebrows were quickly raised about the expansion of the attack; Charles Lister quite damningly questioned the proper nouns as a “label created by officials in the US and has no recognition within Jahbat al-Nusra or al Qaeda circles.”  Indeed, a US official even set the size of the alleged cell as but a few dozen.  The relation of Khorasan Group to the Al-Nusra Front was important for the US to solidify, given that the last folks we should to attack are those aiming to topple Assad.  But the two groups overlap in the eyes of Syrians who watched them at first hand–and speculated as to their danger.  Indeed, since the Al-Nusra Front is dedicated to toppling Assad’s bloody dictatorship in Syria, the attack seems to have deemed important as a means to “take out” an international player in Syria–rather than interfere with Syria’s ongoing  civil war.  In a majestic bit of Orientalist rhetoric, among the “hardened al Qaeda members” killed in the airstrikes was the leader of the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, Abu Yousef al-Turki, “also known as ‘The Turk.”’

The Khorasan Group were identified as the targets of exclusively US airstrikes indeed do seem to have their own black flag–distinct from that of Jabat al Nusra–that jibe with the evocative hadith from which the name of this “Group” seems to derive:   “If you see the black banners coming from Khorasan, join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice; no power will be able to stop them. And they will finally reach Baitul Maqdis [Jerusalem], where they will erect their flags.”




We were familiar with the terrifying mobilizing force of the closely similar flag of the Al-Nusra front, although it lacks scimitars as the Khorasan flag:




Although the Group may only number several dozen folks, the possibly organization was itself persuasively mapped to 9/11.  The Khorasan Group™ were tied to a bomb-maker in Yemen, responsible for terrorist explosives that have been found on air flights, providing grounds for aims beyond the Syrian and Iraqi fronts–apparent validation of their association with Homeland threats to “U.S. aviation”–as if U.S. aviation has come to constitute a threat worthy of defense or surrogate for globalization. “Khorasan members come from Pakistan,” explained former CIA director Mike Morrell on televisions news programs, and “focus on attacks in the West” and even fixate on the aviation industry itself “as a symbol of the West.”  The argument did not go over well in Syria, but played well in the Homeland, where many Khorasan members have been tied to to al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, AQAP, including al Qaeda’s bomb-builder Ibrahim al-Asiri, of underwear bomber fame and to Musin al-Fadhli, an al-Qaeda insider who knew of plans for the 9/11 attacks, further justifying links to Homeland threats–rather than understanding their actual agendas in Syria.)

The logic of bombs fit closely into the rationale that lent the airstrikes legitimacy.  President Obama explained the parallel ongoing strikes against areas occupied by ISIS, not themselves controlled by Assad, but his opponents, as giving Syrians a choice “in side of Syria other than between ISIL and Assad,” but found it justified to initiate the bombing without Congressional authority as Commander in Chief.  The naming of a precise region in Syria bequeathed a more concrete logic for bombing by mapping a site that became a safe land for “a mix of hardened jihadi from Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Europe,” according to unnamed US officials, which by this past September 13 was identified as posing a greater danger to the US than ISIS itself–the original target of attacks, undertaken at the alleged request of an Iraqi state in need of defense from internal dangers.

The story led to a rather improvised re-mapping of terror threats, and seems to have followed a search  for how one could possible pinpoint a direct threat to the United States in an area of the Middle East where the Islamic State existed, but which could be said to pose a concrete threat to American well-being and national security.  The “cell in Syria” that was “little-known but well-resourced” could pose a direct threat to the US, the Pentagon explained, possessed “training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communications building and command and control facilities.”  Televised graphics suggested the vigilance of F-22 Raptor stealth aircraft overlaying Syria, targeting presumed national enemies:





The apparent widespread newsleaks that led to clear hyping created a new sense of who we were targeting and why, providing a basis for attacks that did not need Congressional approval, or require more evidence aside from “aspirational” terrorism.  Reporter Ken Dilanian offered the somewhat more “nuanced” take FBI director James Comey offered that “the U.S. did not have precise intelligence about where or when the cell, known as the Khorasan Group, would attempt to strike a Western target,” but that Syria is “a place where we don’t have complete visibility.”  Director Comey offered that the FBI and US government was working with intelligence of “the kind of threat you have to operate under the assumption that it is tomorrow;” in the words of Pentagon spokesperson Kirby, “I don’t think we need to throw up a dossier here to prove that these are bad dudes [italics added].”  Comey backtracked a bit from the “imminent danger” that the bad dudes posed, even as the battle drum had begun.  “I don’t know exactly what that word means,” Comey added when questioned about the dangers’ identified as “imminent,” Dilanian notes quite amazingly.   The group was identified in the media as able to “launch more-coordinated and larger attacks on the West in the style of the 9/11 attacks from 2001,” although by mid-September, or days previous to the strikes, no official pronouncements had yet been made about the Group known as “Khorasan.”

The quite nondescript map of airstrikes unveiled and glossed at the DoD news conference does considerable work to tell a single story about the range of airstrikes US planes made with regional “allies” primarily concerned to communicate the danger Islamicists posed their own states.  The map suggested an intensity of concerted actions, as if all strikes were against a common enemy, despite their distinctly separate targets of attack:


screen shot 2014-09-23 at 11.08.47 am.png


The eight strikes convey an odd sense of attacking an uninhabited borderland, which is also the very region where many Syrian refugees have passed on the way to crossing Turkish border:




Who are these new folks who our are enemies?  For Thomas Joscelyn, whose The Long War Journal has described the extended war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Khorasan consists of members of “core Al Qaeda” dispatched to Syria by Ayman al Zawahiri, and are embedded in the Al-Nusra Front, but the references of “seasoned al Qaeda operatives in Syria,” provides a new nomenclature of evil by which the US can, as CNN put it, “take the fight to the terrorists” hiding in “safe havens” west of Aleppo which, as Samantha Power put it as if to offer a validation for the ongoing attacks, “The Syrian regime has shown that it cannot and will not confront . . . effectively itself.”  The US-only airstrikes–in which “coalition members” as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Qatar, each eager to address Islamicist threats endangering their own states, were absent–constituted something of the chief area that the US government seems to have wanted Americans to watch.  But the low quality of the DoD map–and absence from it of a layover showing the Islamic State’s regional presence, or terrain–evokes a Google Maps base-map and image, designed less for informational value than to illustrate the clustering of American airpower west of Aleppo–outside regions held by the Islamic State.


SYrian Air Strikes


The ill-defined maps on most new services were strikingly opaque and stripped of local detail, especially for showing such a frequently mapped area of strategic importance to the world.  For they elicited minimal interest in the area or region where the airstrikes occurred, almost disembodied from thickly traced lines marking a sense of territoriality which most folks who have been following the news realize are increasingly of questionable value as points of actual reference or political orientation, but are presumably on the rather minimal base-maps afforded by Google Maps.




The concreteness implied by the use of this new proper name for a seemingly small group of individuals evokes a land “of the rising sun,” oddly quite similar to the Levant, but invested with tones of violence by the hadith of classical Islamic teachings that describes an army worth joining “even if you have to crawl over ice.”  The pre-Islamic area of Khorasan from the 5th century A.D. till the second half of the 19th century A.D. is no real help–but seems to bring us back to Afghanistan and the AfPak problem of old.  Despite much of the skepticism about how a group “suddenly went from anonymity to the ‘imminent threat’ that became the [compelling] rationale for a emergency air war” coming from the right, who mockingly distinguished “core al-Qaeda” from “al-Qaeda in Iraq” or the “Islamic State” that was formerly “al Qaeda in Iraq and al-Sham,” itself unlike “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” charging Obama with a strategy of “miniaturizing” a problem rooted in the reading of Islamic scriptures that drives Sharia suprematism and the deception perpetrated by a misguidedly Islamophilic President, according to former terrorism federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy in the National Review; Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain offer a parallel critique of how news feeds from Washington have incrementally but steadily perpetuated the myth of a deadly Khorasan splinter aimed at attacking America through hijacked planes, feeding legal justification for bombing Syria to a national press ready to recycle with appropriate graphics for broadcast on Nightly News.

The attacks did not hit the “Khorasan Group” seem rather transparently about a form of “degrading” that had little to do with the organization of the Islamic State.  Multiple news graphics on nightly television focussed on targeting of makeshift oil refineries that have financed the Islamic State’s revenues upwards of $3 million/day from oil smuggled out from eleven fields under their control–refineries that our “partners” were eager to help destroy–as if this somehow lessened the danger of collateral damages of airstrikes by legitimizing their targets.  Yet despite the preemption of an ability to “degrade” what is now the richest terrorist organization in the world, existing investment in institutions and bureaucracies that uphold and strengthen Sharia law and governance and an efficient financial network will simply not be able to be destroyed through use of airstrikes alone.


refineriesAssociated Press Interactive


A collapsed map of the extent of “allied” airstrikes over the region tragically reveals, however, the intensity with which the area has continued to be pounded from the skies by manned or unmanned flights already for a series of months, in what can almost be mapped as an extended war of nerves.



Airstrikes Map


The Department of Defence situation maps that described the bombing of the Khorasan Group west of Aleppo served, in reference to a mythic land or region, to embody the enemy in a new way, giving them a redolent name–even if one not actually apparent on the several situation maps so conspicuously displayed, by evoking a group which once constituted a region, or territory, until the late nineteenth century ruled by the “Khorasan” Kings.  Although the term that jihadists used to refer to folks from that area in the world–described by the West as “embedded” in the Al-Nusra Front–suggests a recycling of the toponym perhaps helps suggest a site of mythic struggle for US airplanes to attack, as if to deflect the question that we are not attacking Syria’s sovereign lands without Congressional authorization, if only since the Group seemed to arrive from a different territory.




The Khorosan region perhaps gains its very nefariousness since it is not a state, but its statelessness manages to overlap with a region of danger, but itself to possess even more terrifying but less recognizably coherent bounds than the Islamic State–and as if the association of the name with the region of Afghanistan communicated its credibility as a national threat.  (The very fact that Jihadists are themselves widely known to refer to anyone who comes from the geographic area as “Khorasan” raises questions about the integrity or identity of an actual fully-fledged “Group.”)




The name inspires terror, indeed, as, while never used to name the interests of a purported Al-Qaeda cel, it is implicitly linked to the threat of redrawing the map of the Mideast in an imaginary optative geography in which the current group of US allies would no longer exist:





Few would be likely to consult early nineteenth-century printed maps to locate the Khorasan Group or follow the rapidly evolving news, but a simple search would have led to a region suspiciously near to Afghanistan, and not a disembodied “Group” that the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper suggested, when he warned on September 13 with  administration sources of “veteran al-Qaeda fighters . . . who travelled to Syria to link up with the al-Qaeda affiliate there, the Nusra Front,” going so far as to admonish the public that “in terms of threat to the homeland, Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as the Islamic State.”

As the thinly informative airstrike maps made their circle on the news circuit, embodying the threat of the Khorasan Group as if it had migrated from Central Asia to west of Aleppo, instead of lying in Syrian “safe-havens,” that constituted a “serious threat to our peace and security” as if they offered grounds that the airstrikes constituted a means “to defend our country.”  The striking thin-ness of the map of airstrikes contrast to even the far greater local detail with which Khorasan was embodied as a region in this 1881 map “Khorasan and Neighboring Countries,” whose topography was delineated with lavish local detail by Lieut. Colonel C.E. Stewart:  if Stewart attempted to concretely render the region, the danger of the “Group” lies in its ability to move, hidden, under the radar as it accomplishes underground and illegal acts of terror both outside and against the recognized group of nations.




Rather than map the lay of the land or encourage interest in its inhabitants, the maps used in news conferences and that migrated to news shows are dense graphics that limit their content to the view from the Pentagon.  It bears remembering that the stories that our current strategic maps tell are far more limited, and seem designed to display far less curiosity about who are the inhabitants of these lands; they go so far as to embody them far less concretely, displaying the overlays of boundary lines between nation-states in thick black lines, as if to create the somewhat outdated illusion that sovereign states of Syria and Iraq still exist in what seems a staging area for war.  The maps situate the location of the strikes against the Khorasan Group–which somehow seems improbably hit without civilian casualties–in the far left cluster of explosions sent by American planes based in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, using symbols that recall the medium of an old arcade video game so clearly that one is tempted to take the thin view of history they offer as their message–in a radically flattened view of the complexity of ongoing conflicts between Syrian opposition, ISIS, Iraqi troops, and Islamist movements.  What, the message of the graphic seems, else do we need to know?




aleppo and raqqa

Where they are located perhaps seems less the point anyway, since they have been “taken out.”

What seems less widely mapped is the extent to which the folks we are attacking are already surrounded, and we sought to display how even an area near the Turkish border–where the United States has an Air Force Base, but from which the Turkish government would not allow United States planes to fly or missiles launched into Syria–but also lying at much remove from what we have mapped as the expanse controlled by the Islamic State as of September 23, 2104.  It allowed us to defend American interests at the same time as we continued to “degrade” the Islamic State from military bases that lie to the South, as both “allies” like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan allowed their airspace to be used, at significant cost.


US Allies in the RegionWashington Post, September 23 2014


ISIS Sept 23 map


0923-airstrikes-ai2html-600U.S. Defense Department; Institute for the Study of War; September 23


Coolition AirstrikesAP Interactive; October 2


BN-EW313_Airpla_F_20141006120849Agence France-Presse/Getty Images


The extreme short-term benefits the Department of Defense claimed for the airstrikes –allegedly stopping planned attacks on the United States–may have unplanned consequence of creating deeper ties between the rebels, Islamic State and Al Qaeda, and cast the US as a protector of Assad.

Syrian reactions to airstrikes have not been mapped sufficiently or in detail.  But unannounced strikes extending beyond attacks on ISIS both raised suspicions about US priorities and intents and suggested an unwarranted deflection of attacking the Islamic State among groups who long hoped that the very same airstrikes would be launched at Assad’s forces, and not at an organization not known to Syrians, who deemed it a creation of the US government and false screen for giving cover to Assad’s government troops to advance.  With houses destroyed, numbers of refugees increasing, and women and children injured in targeted marketplaces in Aleppo, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, local desperation has grown in direct reaction to foreign interference.  Despite claims the US has a comprehensive strategy to defeat the Islamic State, the attacks seem short-sighted in encouraging the very conditions to encourage the spread of extremism, local instability, distrust, and the isolation of local forces, both breeding insecurity and hurting a crumbling infrastructure.  The reclusive leader of the Al-Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed Jolani, previously presumed dead, foretold the eruption of a “volcano” against the US and its allies would be the consequence of the attacks, and argued that the airstrikes were leaving Aleppo vulnerable to government forces.  “Short-termism” sadly afflicts the strikes whose results extend far beyond the assassination of Al-Nusra frton leader Abu Yousef al-Turki.  Meanwhile, ISIS advanced within shooting range of Baghdad.

The spread of protests across the country against US-led airstrikes raise questions about what their long-term strategic value really was, aside from leading many to question whether western help would ever arrive.  (Questions about the precise accomplishments of the strikes seem deflected by Pentagon spokesmen.)  Protests against the airstrikes are poorly mapped, but seem to have grown from Islamic State strongholds like Raqqa to cities held by the rebel alliance in Idlib province, as Maaret el Numan, or centers of the Free Syrian Army like Talbiseh, near Lebanon, as well as some forty other towns including Homs and Aleppo–some bearing signs such as “The International Alliance Kills Civilians.”





For the strikes indeed  confirmed deep suspicions that official US policy is less concerned with ending Assad’s dictatorship, lent credence both by the public statements from Assad’s foreign minister that the Assad regime was “OK” with such airstrikes, which implied a collusion between Americans and the Assad regime; the occurrence of the first airstrikes to enter Syrian territory without any coordination with rebel groups to whom they might have offered strategic value seems to have sidestepped any support from the Syrian Free Army or its allies.  For Americans find themselves in the intensely awkward position of relying on the OK of the Assad regime to “downgrade” or attack ISIS in Syria.  The strikes seemed to realize fears and distrust about whose interests the United States wants to serve:  Rami abdul Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights alleges that the airstrikes illustrate the start of “a phase of targeting civilians under the excuse of targeting the Islamic State.”  In a region where the claim “We kiss the hand that holds the trigger against Assad” is common, it is hard to know how bombings undertaken with the Assad regime’s OK would be seen as constructive.  The bombings may have provoked a rise in Syrians declaring allegiance to the Islamic State.


la-apphoto-mideast-syria-jpg-20140929Idlib News Network:  Syrians examining the ruins of a house allegedly targeted by airstrikes in Kfar Derian, a center for Nusra Front opposition


We might remember that most all maps posted above derived from a map that really was carefully staged as a screen, which obscured far more that it revealed.


Up There

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Filed under Al Qaeda, ISIL, ISIS, Islamic State, Khorasan Group, mapping national interests, Syrian Civil War, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

National Waters, Legal Fictions, and Rivers of Fertilizer

If drawn maps usually rely on drawing clear lines of property, territoriality, or even shorelines, the overlaps of more interactive web maps provide new strategies for recording the actual complexity of the relations between land and water.  The projection of the network of rivers within the United States Jason Davies mapped creates an entrancing web of brilliant blue that calls our attention to the body of rivers less as a delineated network, but a nourishing group of waterways, that leads us to think–or rethink–the relations between land and water by foregrounding the water, rather than the solid territory, a variety of forms of mapping dynamic layers and overlays from directly and remotely sensed data have led to a range of new cartographical strategies–often interactive web maps–to help chart the increasingly complex relationships between land and water.

To be sure, the apparently pristine pathways that irrigate a disembodied nation in Davies’ map are not at all so static as they might seem, but his map calls attention to the need to map this body of waters as a constantly challenging collective that registers its fluidity and the changing nature of its composition:  to be sure, not only are not all waterways on the map, but despite omissions the delineation suggests a delicate ecology increasingly in need of being mapped–and increasingly challenging to be embodied.  It is no coincidence, perhaps, that even as Davies created a utopian image of an unpolluted riverine network, it is in response to the attention that the 1972 Clean Water Act gave to the “national waters” of the country that a clearer mapping of these very waters have been called to attention.  If only to stop the range of legalistic reinterpretations of the category of “national waters,” we face increasing challenges to coherently map rivers in isolation from wide the augmentation of phosphorous and nitrogen in surrounding lands, and difficult to disentangle from numerous questions of irresponsible misuse.  No doubt Davies would admit that his data on rivers are not meant to conceal the multiple sources of pollution and human diversion of the nation’s hydrography.   But the elegance of his hydrography, and the attention to the riverine network of waters that they compel, challenge us to develop something like a truly comprehensive cartography of the “national waters” the Clean Water Act addressed in ways that echoed the need to protect “untrammeled” identity of national parks or woodlands.  But in emending the unnecessarily broad language of “national waters,” which verges on attributing a misleading uniformity to water and to only include those waters that lie on the surface of a land map–and not deep within the ground–we must exploit rich data on water diversion and water quality to create a far more dynamic set of models to registering the increased impact of pollutants not only on single points of entry into above-ground water, but groundwater, man-made diversion, and return water and run-off into our nation’s rivers and lakes.

There is a deep-lying prejudice to registering only above-ground waters as part of nation’s hydrographic network, one that was perpetuated in early terrestrial cartographies, that only viewed the water from the land, and was perpetuated in the USGS surveys that focus on surface water alone.  The disembodied electric blue network in the header to this post almost recalls the fulsome praise that the French Renaissance cartographer Maurice Bouguereau dedicated in his 1594 atlas to the rivers of his native France for providing “water and ornament” to the realm and contributing to its vitality, as if to suggest the pastoral nature of his nation in neoclassical poetry.  Unlike the sinuous rivers which Bouguereau lent prominence as navigable waterways and nourishing streams by the use of his burin, both by straightening their course and increasing their prominence beyond other existing national maps maps, to create an atlas whose detailed potomography of his whole country was unsurpassed, the relation between land and water that includes groundwater reserves, watersheds, and drainage must depart from seeing the hydrographic network from a landlocked point of view.  Whereas most stipulations of the 1972 Clean Water Act were framed from the growing danger of augmenting single-point pollution in the 1960s and 1970s, in continuing to protect the purity of our “national waters,” we are in danger of inadequately mapping rivers only as pathways of national nourishment alone:  for not only are we far past the era of single-point pollution of the 1970s, when threats of chemical discharge and pollutants were primarily posed by manufacturing industries, relying on a system of isolated waterways as pathways open to navigation runs the risk of ignoring the greatest dangers of pollution to waters–from the levels of phosphorous in fertilizers returned to the ocean in agrarian return waters, from the entry of pollutants into diminishing groundwater reserves, or from hydraulic fracking.

Bouguereau boasted that his atlas would present to his monarch a detailed landscape of the waters that nourished his kingdom, but we are increasingly in need of a suitably dynamic atlas which, beyond extant maps of navigable waterways, orient viewers to waters within a landscape of over-use, poor land management or drought.


French Hydrography from MB


Our network of rivers is less able to be embodied than their ecological equilibria monitored for the entry of pollutants from wastewater, industry, or agricultural run-off, and as subject to diversions.  Dynamic web-based maps can orient us to the causes and effects of water scarcity rarely faced before, to allow us to chart the effects of agriculture and industry on water-use across the country, in order to document and trace the changed character of our national waters–especially in the moisture-challenged West.  We demand dynamic maps of the national waterways in our own age of water scarcity and water diversion that will try to comprehend the increasing likelihood of the absence of drinkable water in several counties of California’s Central Valley–an atlas able to map land from the point of view of its waters, and more dynamically map rivers in relation not only to landscapes but to the available data of water-use.  Indeed, the availability of such dynamic web maps provides an opportunity to synthesize a far greater range of data than Bougereau had at his disposal–he usually traced and synthesized extant maps, increasing the sinuosity or curvature of a river or stream–within a far more subtle range of map signs.

The possible atlas that we might shape of national waterways reveals a shifting relation between water and landscape, in other words, and more accurately map waters in relation to land-use.  Whereas Bouguereau sought to expand the potomography of France beyond the navigability of rivers as a hydrographic network of wealth, recognizing streams, rivers, and lakes as something akin to a national resource, the changing economy of water, a mapping that foregrounds the relative scarcity of water, the fluidity of its presence, and the instability of its purity presents more of a shifting picture of national waters no longer able to be surveyed from fixed or stable shores.  Indeed, any consideration of national waters demands not only the multiple sources of potential impurities but demands to include both the depletion of groundwater reserves as well as wetlands, and the the risks of the increased diversion of waterways based on permits issued in times of far greater (relatively speaking) plenitude of water as a commodity.  Rather than focus on the plenitude and abundance of the national waters that Bouguereau took as a synecdoche for national greatness, we must encourage increasingly compelling cartographical strategies to orient the viewer to the character of the national waters in an age of their increasing absence, and meet the challenges of registering how the increasing diminution and pollution of waters relates to the increasing value of those purer waters that remain.


1.  More dynamic maps of the national waters compellingly engage debates about defining the “national waters” of the United States or that “nexus of waters”–an almost poetic circumlocution whose parsing has become both increasingly crucial and contentious in recent interpretations that revisit the 1972 Clean Water Act.  If the Act’s passage ensured the cleanliness of national waters, what constitute these waters has been increasingly questioned.  Increased parsing of the meaning and subject of “national waters”–distinct from “jurisdictional waters” of legal oversight or “territorial waters” around nations–as comprehending navigable waters and waters having a “significant nexus” to them, while compelling, provide little clear precedent.  For such waters have been left poorly clarified, overly difficult to pin down on maps, and omit groundwaters as much as the impact on water-systems of granted water-rights.  Any map of waterways must, in short, recognize that the waters of any land constitute a particularly fluid subject of oversight, including data as well as maps of geographic precision to gain consensus about what the body of “national waters” constitutes.

Do “national waters” refer only to those waters that have direct entrance on navigable bodies of water, or might they indeed exclude those man-made ponds, lakes, or ditches storing agrarian waste draining to rivers, directly or indirectly, as well as the groundwater that is rarely mapped as a body of water per se, and which the CWA does not address?  While court rulings have included playa lakes, intermittent streams, prairie potholes, wetlands and watersheds, the 2006 Supreme Court ruling  Rapanos v. United States defined them as “relatively permanent, standing, or continuously flowing bodies of water ‘forming geographic features,’ that are described in ordinary parlance as ‘streams[,] . . . oceans, rivers, [and] lakes,” thereby reducing the  integrity of the nation’s waters in which the EPA must prevent point and nonpoint pollution sources, as well as providing assistance to publicly owned treatment works for the improvement of wastewater treatment.

The ruling, in response to a ruling advancing a rather restrictive notion of discharges to “navigable waters” not including wetlands, limiting the authority of the Army Corps of Engineers over the “national waters” by excluding waters not directly connected to navigable waters from their jurisdiction in the CWA.  Despite the appeal of the above delineated blue network of rivers as a fragile lattice of nourishment, the complexity of defining the “national waters” suggests the deep fragility of the network of waterways, flowing, standing, or somewhere in between when it is determined only by a continuous surface water connection to permanent waterbodies, so difficult is it to determine where one waterbody ends and the wetland begins.  While maps suggest one objective image of that jurisdiction–an appealing one, to judge by the image in this post’s header–the complexity of judging sources of pollution that are less likely to be less from point-source pollution to broadly dispersed pollutants in an agricultural or industrial region suggests that the entry of pollutants into a network of water is a less compelling model of regulation than when the CWA was framed.

The difficulty of managing the continued purity of the “national waters” led to a non-majority decision excluding wetlands from the “national waters” by the Supreme Court.  But the 4-4-1 decision gave ground to Justice Kennedy’s criteria of attention due to any “significant nexus” of waters that affects the physical, biological or chemical integrity of downstream navigable waters that has become something of a legal precedent.  The pragmatism of Kennedy’s elegant locution still challenges the application in maps, however, as it leaves the issue of “significance” not only open to interpretation but in need of clarification since it is difficult to consider consensus-based.  Data maps offer a basis to construe the nature of Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” of waters that embodies their flow.  But the challenge of focussing on a “significant nexus” as worthy of attention, as in recent years the points of entry of different sources of pollutants is often distributed widespread across a region–rather than likely to enter the waterways at one point of entrance–in ways that challenge the supervision of local pollutants.  A word map may actually provide a better form of orientation, here, than a point that posits single-point pollution, so multiple are current risks to water purity.




The locution of defining a “significant nexus” might be best understood through the potential damages that pollutants or construction might incur, in other words, rather than through the attempt to defining those geographic features that make them worthy of attention.  Unlike paper maps, or static maps, dynamic web maps can uniquely chart the fragility of the fluid nature of water-flow and water-use, expanding importantly on the “geographic features” aspect of the 2006 decision and better serve to express one’s relation to the blue expanse of water that the conventions of paper maps–which lack the signs or conventions to describe the variations and variability of water quality, pollution, or diversion and color all water a uniform light blue–may lack.  Of particular significance here is the gauging the continued permitting of point sources of point sources of pollution in what might constitute a “significant nexus,” and in parsing the relations of groundwater to the national waterways.

More recent maps made by the USGS of watersheds that contained “impaired waters” in the United States–water bodies containing excess sediment, nitrogen, phosphorous, or pathogenic organisms–chart the extent of water-quality standards across the country.




Environmental Protection Agency (1998)


For the continued intersection of point sources with the entry of pollutants, while monitored officially by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and falling in their purview, demand to be linked more clearly to the broader project of ensuring the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters by preventing point and non-point pollution sources and improving wastewater treatment plants.  (Debate about the definition by which the breadth or size of streams included in the national waters suggests it is a subject of ongoing debate.)   By mapping measurements of the local contamination from industrial, agricultural, animal feedlots, and municipal governments–including the now-exempt agrarian irrigation return flows that carry fertilizer, salinity, and Nitrogen contents into waterways–web-based maps could offer, more than a static map, a necessary layer on which the new nature of the our national waters could be read in ways that might better register new threats of environmental pollutants, according to the Comet Program.


Point source to non-point source pollutants


Even a static map might set a basis for imagining the data that such a web map might render:


Discharged Toxins in RiversMother Jones (uncredited map)


2.  More dynamic maps might effectively both resolve questions over not only what constitute national water systems but how we might best act to protect those waters.  Such maps might help, for example, determine whether the riverine network of national waters extends to artificial ponds, lakes, or ditches that are often repositories of agrarian waste, or the relation between groundwater and the national waters–a significant question in parts of the drying-up West, where low groundwater supplies have not hampered pumping or the concession of often-wasteful water rights.  Web maps offer forms to help embody the shifting and fragmented constellation that make up our “national waters” beyond “geographic features” which are often designed to map land, rather than water–and web-based maps can chart how they have changed and will change over time.  For the need to provide a more dynamic ways to embody the “national waters”–encompassing water waste, agrarian return flows into streams and rivers,  levels of pollutants, and groundwater levels–offer a sufficiently dynamic picture of an ecology of water that is in the process of change and fluid.  Although we can continue to map a disembodied riverine network, we can only embody the fluid spaces of our national waters through the continued challenges that they are poised to face, best understood as the end-product of a shifting relation to waterbodies and waterways, and not a pristine image of nourishing an idealized Virgin Land.  For the complex permits allowing water use and diversion paint a picture often difficult to synthesize or comprehend.

Debates over interpreting and defining “national waters” have provoked an uncomfortable plurality of glosses not likely to be resolved in a static map.  But a web map can best orient viewers to those waters subject to government oversight, and new hydrographic maps of the United States have tried to respond to doubts raised about what exactly “national waters” include, and what sorts of waters they include.  Debate about the parameters of “national waters” is intense because it delimits what areas mandated by the 1972 Clean Water Act to be kept free of pollutants and preserved in their integrity–and to what extent the Act is an optative or enforceable model.  If the intent of the law has been interpreted as only limited to navigable bodies of water, the potential exclusion of streams, tributaries, ditches, headwaters and agrarian return flows have called into question what the body of national waters is in ways that web maps offer opportunities to measure water-use, gauge water diversion, and embody the environmental effects of water waste and of pollutants.  As much as to celebrate the aesthetic idealization of a virgin land and promise of agricultural abundance, more dynamic web maps offer something stronger than a cautionary note of how water levels and quality offer a more adequate and reliable map of how waters are impacted by land use.

The evolution of mapping tools give a basis to parse whether “national waters” constitute every body of water in the country–and to distinguish what bodies of water that merit inclusion within that once self-evident but now benighted category.  The ways that maps can most dynamically render the inter-relation between water bodies to provide a more compelling picture of the effects of water management and use in an era of water’s lack?   Such a map of water management and use may most effectively and persuasively compel us to better refine how we define a legal relation to our national bodies of water:  does the below map indeed offer a comprehensive picture of the future network of national waters?


Tile Vector map of Unfair INsularity


All of these rivers might be considered “waters,” given the deep ecologically interconnected natures of their paths; the aesthetics of the digitized projection in the header to this post, designed by Davies based on data from Michael Bostock, below, offers a landless image of a well-nourished land, irrigated by natural tributary networks discounting canals, man-made ditches, or man-altered ditches. stands as an eloquent response to the difficulty that the definition of national waters has come to face.   Debates over the real jurisdiction of these waters–and their relation to property claims or industrial use–threatens to encourage something more like despair than idealization of the celebration of riverine nourishment one feels after seeing Davies’ map of a water rich continent.  Can we better define who has rights to use their waters, or to what event they can pollute their flow, so that their tributary networks don’t exclude canals, streams, or man-made ditches?

The multiple and different claims of water-use have resulted in something of a legal quagmire of defining the “national waters” across the apparently pristine fluvial system that is embodied below:  “national waters” are more narrow than “jurisdictional waters” and clearly lie within the territorial confines of the country.  Yet the range of legally sanctioned uses of groundwater and rivers relies on claims of property ownership and industrial uses difficult to simply follow a paper map.  It is far easier to idealize the riverine network than draft maps to define “reasonable use” of groundwater or reasonable standards of cleanliness–or what makes up a rationale for the appropriation and diversion of waterways within “reasonable use.”  The  need to map more effectively groundwater use, overdraft, or pollutants returned to waterways is compelling, and the objective image isolating a nation that is irrigated by natural tributary networks and unmapped watersheds suggests an inadequate basis to register the complex relation of water to land pollutants and to the land, whose inadequacy is heightened by the lack of attention to regional groundwater reserves.


River Map of US--Bostockian, by Jason Davies

Jason Davies


The lattice-like web of bright blue riverine pathways reveals a visually compelling icon of agrarian fertility by mapping the “blue streets” that run across America.  As in any map, questions arise for cartographers of what is a river:  the Russian River is left out as a water source, and Mendocino Rivers like the Noyo or Little River seem reduced to one.  Does the map imply categories of what bodies of running water it recognizes as a river?  Such questions are of import to designing maps of national waters for the EPA, which is directly concerned with addressing the nature of the pollution of “national water” or an adjacent “nexus of waters” which the Clean Water Act has been interpreted as addressing.   The notion of an objective system of rivers seems less crucial, especially in water-challenged areas, as defining the potential entry points of pollutants or as posing the question of water bodies whose purity from pollutants demands comprehensive oversight–on account of the multiple and actually undefinable points of entrance of pollutants that such a map either glosses over or omits:  indeed, it might make more sense to spend less attention on discrete rivers than a map of the nation’s groundwater aquifers–the best template on which to judge the relative pollution of national waters and especially of drinking water, yet which the national hydrographic maps do not take into account.  Indeed, the map is only based on the best data on which it is based, and the map of riverine courses seem insufficient save as a form of way-finding, and far less sufficient for adequate water-management.


groundwater3Mission 2012; www-atlas.usgs.gov


The issue of mapping and remapping the national waters is a major enterprise for the Environmental Protection Agency, working often in concert with the USGS.

The Environmental Protection Agency has indeed taken some heat for detailing its own maps of the waters and wetlands of each of the 50 U.S. states, defining in the last year a National Hydrographic Dataset that embraces the varied types of waters in the country, from streams and water bodies (lakes, ponds, etc.) to “adjacent waters”–in short, “the waters” of the United States themselves that the Clean Water Act’s authors concerned and addressed–in a massive act of constitutional clarification to define the limits of pollutants and maintain the integrity of the aforesaid waters in perpetuity.  Rather than only address waters that were navigable, or the question of what the traditional understanding of navigable waters is, the agency sought clarification on what such waters were outside the broader rubric of territorial seas to clarify the purview of the wages over which they have jurisdiction–and debates about whether to retain the exempt status of waste treatment centers or converted cropland from the “waters of the United States.”

The resulting clarification of national hydrography traced in “Streams and Waterbodies” tried to set a standard nut was quickly feared as a posturing to seek control over private lands, but constitutes an early attempt to fashion a standard to differentiate surface water features across the United States.


Streams and Waterbodies



The remapping of these water bodies–surface water features that cast as comprehending stream water, perennial, intermittent, ephemeral, or unclassified, canals, lakes, ponds, reservoirs, playa or just “wash,” so as to comprehend them all, manmade and “natural,” within the scope of the standards for pollution that are applied to the national waters.

They range in complexity even in the Bay Area alone, viewed thanks to the considerable scale of the USGS projection, is dauntingly comprehensive, at the impressively discriminating scale of 1:63,360:


Bay Area Water Types



In a larger section of the complete map, if its shades of granularity in this intensively farmed area comprehending the Central Valley and High Sierra are less clear, the complexity of what it means to be water in the United States are tantalizingly clear.



Norhtern California



The fragility of this network of waterways has begun to be measured and mapped by public interest nonprofits whose web maps effectively distinguish the claims, ownership, or rights of water use across the country, and indeed suggest some of the standards for mapping local pollutants. Interactive web-based maps offer  interactive tools to track both rights and relation of industries to bodies of water with a level of detail never possible, directing a new level of attention and access to relations between water-use and industry by remapping the context of riverine waters in the United States to illuminate their levels of chemical pollution.

The access that they offer to the landscape, and a range of stories that they both tell about it and invite viewer to zoom in to better examine at the same time as our access to a precious common need like water is increasingly challenged due to environmental change.  Maps cannot freeze or forestall changes, but offer versatile tools to track the effects that agricultural or industrial claims make upon our national waterways.   For while we are used to the legal fictions that dominate much of corporate life in contemporary America–yes, of course Amazon exists as a corporation only in Seattle, where it operates from its sole warehouse, and from which it sub-contracts to many nondescript warehouses, just as many companies base headquarters or P.O. Box offshore in the Cayman islands or elsewhere, to subvert national tax codes; Richard Branson lives on a Caribbean island Necker which he bought in 1979, purely for health reasons, we accept grudgingly, rather than to avoid paying taxes on his business empire or personal wealth of £3 billion, moving to the British Virgin Islands where tax on income is nil, even if he incorporated the British flag into his corporate logo.  He is as a result required only to pay taxes on UK income; what constitute personal earnings outside of Britain are exempt.  Similarly, the owner of airbnb himself resides at no actual address but instead regularly travels.  But one ascends new heights of legalistic terms and legal fictions to reparse the undefined category of “national waters” as verbal geography in which man-made sites are absent–the prospect of such reprising is especially perilous, given that water is hardly fixed in any given location–in the manner of a town or city–and by nature circulates in space, or might reasonably be polluted at multiple points independent from its status, and such pollutants will be always carried downwater.


3.  The compelling interest to discriminate sorts of water usage within a map by distinct coloration demands  new inventiveness to use maps as machine to think about terrestrial and territorial space, and remap inhabited lands from the point of view of water-use.  The need for the above maps lie in creating a  precedent to track water bodies themselves not distinguished on a map–where all share the colors light blue without much variation or discrimination.  Pinning down both water usage and “water rights” on a map has been a sort of fiction which American law has long engaged, often without employing clear map signs; one result is the difficulty of using map-colors or conventions to map the effects of declines in groundwater levels or overdraft, groundwater management, squander of water, groundwater contamination, polluted agricultural return water and the effects of existing water rights on ecosystems.  Such changes in water are especially difficult to map given its inherent fluidity, but one can start to scrutinize these questions carefully through a map of granted water rights, which grant “permission to withdraw water from a river, stream, or ground water source for a ‘reasonable’ and ‘beneficial’ use” of the 250 million acre feet of water in California.

The historical concession of “water rights” within the state of California are particularly complex, tied to local agrarian industry and the water-sources and the precedent of staking claims to water rights in the Gold Rush, and rarely construed from the point of view of the best provision of future water needs.  Despite the standing rejection back in 1903 that stripped Californians of Anglo-Saxon rights of possessing waters on wells dug on lands that whose deed they own, and a consequent prohibition on unregulated pumping on any tract of land, it is striking that given the endemic scarcity of water in the state, as of now no regulations on the book prevent pumping water or diverting rivers to protect the integrity of the “national waters” from poor water-management.  The restriction on well-digging did not seem to include prevalent practices of groundwater pumping.  California has been the only state not to restrict pumping, even as the depletion of aquifers only recently compelled the state to review this laissez faire policy.

Indeed, the absolute lack of regulation on groundwater extraction that has historically encouraged California farms has created large loopholes and exceptions for the Water Resources Control Board.  The inadequate regulation of groundwater–regulations that are “sorely needed,” according to Graham Fogg a groundwater expert at UC Davis–and its waste has led directly to the eventuality of the current “chronic lowering” of aquifer levels, and created collapses of overlying lands, and increased subsidence after heavy pumping of groundwater has significantly lowered the ground level.  Even as 80% of the state lands in California has been classified as being in the highest category of drought–and reservoirs like the Almaden in San Jose virtually dry, reduced to trickles–debate on regulating water-pumping have only recently begun with the requisite seriousness.


California Reservoirs

Current legal entitlements permit diversion of water from their source allegedly to serve the public interest.  But do these entitlements constitute the best use of our national waters?  These entitlements include, unlike most of the United States, jointly by the claims of property holders for water passing their lands by riparian rights, not requiring government approval , and appropriative rights of staking claims by posting public notice, now prevalent in agricultural uses of water as well as private land ownership. The web of water use has been greatly beneficial to agriculture, but raises questions not only of the diversion of water or groundwater extraction, but of the considerable pollution agricultural return waters.  The complex web of water usage requires all uses to be “reasonable and beneficial,” but creates difficulties of affirming that a given nexus of water would fall under EPA jurisdiction, and how the multiple claims brought for the water forms a considerable challenge for the EPA to monitor effectively in ensuring their continued cleanliness or lack of significant biological or chemical pollution.  The role or status of waters that did not have a “significant nexus” to other territorial waters as lying within the “water of the United States,” and as outside the purview of the CWA.  Sanctioned access to waters as defined by existing water rights constitute something of an exception to maintaining the “chemical, physical, and biological integrity” of the “national waters of the United States,” in a patchwork of promised water rights that fragment how we understand their integrity.  Indeed, the recognition of the need to accommodate the claims of owners of properties next to water while ensuring that the diversion or appropriation of water matches “reasonable and beneficial” use.

The web of different varieties of water usage in California alone is worthy of attention both because of the shortages of water that threaten the state’s economy and the variety of legal rights to water-use that the state sanctions.  Different water rights create a complex quilt of recognized access to bodies of water that suggest just how complex overseeing or managing agrarian or industrial water usage is, let alone mapping its use.  Yet both the increased stressors on state groundwater in California and environmental challenges to such precious common resources with challenges such as global warming compel the need for increased attention to developing strategies of mapping water and water use able to speak back to the interests of industry and agribusiness.

Despite recent challenges of the pollutants that enter through the exemption of waters flowing from irrigated agriculture across the state, irrigation return flows include not only selenium and sodium-rich minerals harmful to animal environments, and populations, but agricultural drainage water and return flow above and below the ground that include pollutants which can affect drinking water quality, while not constituting a discharge of “point source” pollutants that the wording of the Clean Water Act pointedly prohibits as including “any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, including but not limited to any pipe, ditch, channel, tunnel, conduit . . .”   Notwithstanding the clear attempt at comprehensive language in CWA section 301(a), its framers did not address discharges of pollutants into wetlands or wildlife areas in return flows from agricultural irrigation–although such return flows involve pumping polluted waters in untreated irrigation return flows, often collected in culverts, channels, and ponds and then discharged.  Both salinity accumulations and nitrate contamination from fertilizer pose threats to drinking water in California in cities like Davis and Fresno, whose groundwater supplies are threatened by the presence of salts, often result of treated wastewater, and of high quantities of nitrate discharge. Such measurements provide  basis for gauging and limiting water rights, no doubt, in such moisture-challenged regions of the state.

Notwithstanding knowledge of water rights, can we start to map more responsibly the effect of agricultural return flows, both on the state’s water supplies as well as widespread stock watering (dedicating waters to livestock) across the state?  Does the stewardship of “national waters” not extend to the control over the diversion of waters for agricultural needs in much of the Sacramento and Central Valleys, and their potential effects on the land as they reenter the water systems shown below, often increasing its salinity?


California Water Map

California Water Rights LegendCalifornia Water Atlas

The above data for the California Water Atlas, based on face amounts collected by California’s  State Water Resource Control Board together with measurements of daily stream gauge values by the United States Geographical Society, can be examined at the recent clickable webmap at California Water Rights:  the detailed synthesis provides the most comprehensive picture of water usages and availability–an especially useful map when the scarcity of water and conservation needs must be better tracked and understood.

The arrogation of claims proves even more difficult to “map” with comprehensive clarity, combining coverage by private ownership and water-use rights, difficult to join to the “waters of the United States,” given the reluctance of encompassing varied water-usages or of tracing water rights that have been granted along riverine web within a single regulatory system.  If the mapping of a distinct topography seems a gambit to “freeze” the image of national waters, at a time when increased drought challenged their availability for the future, the claims for water usage constitutes layers of different water usage that is necessary to be read with considerable care.


California Water Rights


Simulated Streams


The colorful dots gauge the wide range of reasons recognized for the diversion of water across the state, and claims for water usage along the rivers’ paths.  It’s difficult to process the plurality of rights in anything like a single comprehensive image given the range of water rights staked around the rivers running into northern California’s San Francisco Bay or from the High Sierra, or the loss of massive amounts of water diverted to irrigate the central valley; the complex mosaic of artificial canals and reservoir or diversions against the natural paths and bodies of waters suggests a wide aggregation of claims to water codified over time, whose complex map remains sadly unknown to most even in an era of state-wide drought:


W Rights in Efflux of water in Bay Area

California Water Rights LegendCalifornia Water Atlas


The veritable mosaic of distinct claims for water-rights inland of the Bay Area show a complex adjudication of water-rights around the rivers that run into the San Francisco Bay.  Their mapping maps the region’s settlement against its rivers, revealing a hidden economy of water usage that has accreted over the last century and a half, and suggesting the largest sites for the diversion of waters along a dense riverine web:


Water Use Mosaic outside East BayCalifornia Water Atlas


The crazy quilt of water-rights claimed for stock watering in the Central Valley include licensing for irrigation, fire protection, fish culture or recreational needs, as well as domestic use, begin to trace the complex variety of water use–some rights are merely “claimed” or “cancelled” no doubt made on largely local decisions, without an overall picture existing of water usage across the state–as well as several revoked water claims.  Sort of a negative map of areas of dense settlement–San Francisco is itself entirely black, since it also lacks any above ground water-source, whereas the dense outflow of water along the Central Valley and through Sonoma County meets agricultural uses.

But the agrarian regions of the state are distinguished by a broad belt of a variety of water claims.  Better monitoring of agricultural return flows in tandem  with groundwater supplies could offer the sort of necessary synthetic image of water usage that would effectively benefit the state not only as it faces an era of increasing stresses brought by drought.  Indeed, monitoring return flow from agricultural regions could direct more attention to levels of nitrate contamination from agricultural fertilizers that returns to the drinking water–which , especially as decreased steam flows have effectively decreased the amount of groundwater supplies, are increasingly salient.


Central Valley

Simulated Streams

Hydrologic Watershed


Particularly significant to this post are the multiple exemptions from the EPA’s regulation or from the regulation of the Army Corps of Engineers, the body designated with the waters’ protection by the CWA.  Indeed, they afford a somewhat terrifying loophole to original intent of the law in how we understand the need to construe their cleanliness and proscribed limits on pollutants that enter their waters.  For how can we limit the waters of farmland from the mandate to maintain the “chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters,” at the same time as we try to keep the riparian network clean, and recognize existing industrial uses of water as not, in fact, able to be controlled, and presuming that they do not create disturbances to that integrity that we continue to oversee?  Indeed, while groundwater use in California was approached with a misguided belief in its continued presence, while the pumping of water has drained riparian ecosystems and reduced surface supplies, agrarian discharge has effectively more highly polluted a diminishing amount of water.

All of which reminds us of the need for mapping the other side of how the irrigation of the land promised to lead to the bountiful cultivation of crops with the westward progress of Empire–and the need to develop strategies for mapping the often poorly defined presence of water in land.  We have recently learned of the increased loss of water in the state’s major reservoirs–whose startlingly low levels demand monitoring water-rights with better consideration of their impact on local groundwater levels or poorly supervised and managed usages for livestock and cropland, or municipal, domestic and industrial markets.  A map that might readily refreshed of these levels of California state reservoirs suggest the widespread depletion of reserves of waters in ways that might serve to trigger limits on groundwater use–or greater attention to limits on waters for municipal use in areas with low groundwater, low water tables, or low water in reserve.


California Reservoirs

The absence of these reserves–clearly part of our “national waters”–has been less widely remarked.  Yet even as groundwater levels have declined, the amount of available reservoir has dramatically dropped further, on would think putting more pressure to bear on water waste.


4.  As the diversion of waters has adversely affected local environments, both by agrarian return waters that bear increased traces of salinity and nitrates, the national waters of much of the Mississippi basin bear a similarly terrifying imprint of industrial farming.   Moving to the effluents deposited in rivers in the wide farmlands of middle America, one can read their prominence and density in Jeffries’ national map with new eyes.  For the annual nitrate yield from highly fertilized farmlands along the Mississippi from its start to the Gulf of Mexico in particularly striking as it heightens the pollution that enters a formerly rich agrarian land, with unclear consequences.  Recent decades have seen a startling rise in the flow of the remnants of chemical fertilizer into the Gulf.  Adding the unseen enrichment of the crop lands of the basin, active area agribusiness augmented local fertilization of lands in the decade from 1997-2006 increased the runoff of nitrogen wastes in noticeable ways, according to the non-profit Ceres, which charted the extent of nitrogen pollution across it basin, reflecting the marked increase in ethanol plants in regions of agricultural pollution that enter the broad range of interconnected waterways that contribute to the Mississippi River to which they lead.




Their effects on the land show the increasingly compromised character of the “waters of the United States,” looking only at Nitrogen risks around the Mississippi basin and surrounding shallow groundwater.


Miss Basin average annual fertilizer




We can look more closely at this striking level of shockingly widespread groundwater contamination confining ourselves to the area around ethanol plants around the Mississippi River’s basin.  In the below map, whose “red” layer registers a very high level of nitrogen pollution, plants are noted by black dots in their actual location–one can comprehensively survey in it the extend of nitrogen delivery into watersheds, in something like a secret history of local land-use suddenly made all too plain to survey:



Nitrogen Pollution of Miss WatershedsCeres


One can focus on expanse corn that surrounds and supplies these plants, here illuminated with light green bubbles, to communicate the intertwining of ethanol plants with the local agricultural economies:


Courn-sourcing Radii includedCeres


The density of sites that deliver high agricultural pollution to local waterways has created a clotting of Nitrogen pollution that stands to fundamentally alter the very notion of the national waters’ inviolability:


Watersheds of High N PollutionCERES/Google Maps


One result of such habits of land-use across such a large share of the nation is to imbue an almost radioactive glow to saturated waters that enter the Gulf of Mexico, where waste-water standard developed in the CWA in 1972 have only begun to be developed to curb the resulting “dead zone” in the oxygen-starved Gulf of Mexico, where the enforcement of the CWA seems have obligingly turned the other cheek until quite recent years–and we still await standards for the many industrial wastewater treatment centers along the Mississippi:





Could the dangers of the changing relations between water and landscape be more clearly mapped?  The concentration of almost half the number of fracking wells in sites where water scarcity is greatest and water stresses extreme creates a further and even more tragic wrinkle in how we view the national waters of the US as “clean.”  In such areas, 80% of allocated waters have already been allocated for existing industries, municipal, agricultural, or industrial users, leaving few real supplies available, and the risk of water contamination and pollution extremely great.  If we map a black dot for each and every site of hydraulic fracturing or fracking in the United States against a projection of variability in water stresses, the resulting graphic in almost the same area of the Mississippi basin suggest not only the availability of cheap lands ready for reconversion, but a large national landscape that stands largely depleted of water supplies across almost all of the western states, and little of an encouraging image of the dangers posed by hydraulic fracking to the ecology of the deep south.


Water Stress Dots- Shale and Hydro-FrackingCeres/Google Maps


Zooming in by enlarging the map’s scale the pronounced density of a range of hydraulically fractured oil and gas wells that are clustered around the Mississippi suggests an alternate use for water around the waters of the Mississippi, a concentration of intense water demand, rich with the potential of future pollution.  Deep concern about the future plowback of wastewater–chemically enriched waters designed to loosen up shale deposits the better to extract or free oil and gas from underwater reservoirs–into national waters.  Whether these waters enter drinking water supplies or not–their impact is not yet fully known, and under study–the apparent violation of the Clean Water Act’s provisions for the national waters has often gone unremarked.



Fracking Concentrations?


Can we ever isolate the image of a pristine web of blue waterways on a white field in the same way?


Tile Vector map of Unfair INsularityNelson’s vector tile web map of rivers across United States


These rivers do not exist, save as a sort of base-map or level from which we must recognize the need to watch their relation to farmlands and industry in future web maps in ways that might adequately register claims of water use, allowing continued lamination of layers onto the fluvial network that we would be wise to take as a basis to remap their relation to the surrounding lands.

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Filed under California Water Atlas, Clean Water Act, Fracking, Mapping Ethanol Plants, mapping the Central Valley, Mississippi Basin, National Hydrographic Dataset, Nitrate Yield, webmaps

Mapping Ebola’s Recent Spread–while Barely Containing Our Widespread Fears

Tracking the progressive advance of Ebola virus in West Africa in an animated HealthMap projection created an eery sense of inevitability of the virus’ unprecedentedly rapid diffusion.  But the mapping on a Google Maps platform so removes the virulent spread of the virus from any context, noting suspected and confirmed infections and fatalities in a bubble map, to poorly embody the scale and scope of its threat of its contagion.  Omitting the distinct terrain over which the strain has expanded from rural areas to urban slums, and the complex vectors of the new strain’s transmission almost conceal the reasons why this outbreak has been so hard to contain adequately, and leave one raising perhaps unanswerable questions about the delay of an orchestrated or more effective response to contain or try to control its now-exponential spread.

The rapidity with which microbes from the very rainforest allows the virus spread to highly vulnerable populations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as, recently, both Nigeria and Senegal–populations particularly vulnerable to the current strain–foregrounded in a time-lapse sequence of those infected with the deadly virus uses a Google Maps platform and template to map the spread, but might be taken as something of a challenge to better map the virus by refining our image of the virus’ transmission and catastrophic spread.  If such widely circulated maps provide a basis for describing the challenge of containing the virus’ spread, they also present a challenge for better mapping the transmission of Ebola virus and reviewing reasons for slow response, perhaps as we hoped the contagion would not emerge to be so virulent as it has become.  Were we confident in the containment of the disease, or were we not mapping the multiplication of pathways of its transmission?  What sort of maps can we now make to better understand the specific distribution of the disease?  Did our own reliance and use of apparently exacting maps, which were only as good as the data that they were fed, conceal a delay in broadcasting early warning signs to the world?

If this is the case, it makes sense to ask if an unwarranted trust in the metrics of mapping has contributed to a lack of clear understanding or reporting on how the disease has spread.  The outbreak that has outpaced previous outbreaks of the virus in central Africa challenge our models for mapping Ebola the spread of the deadly virus–whose mortality rate has at times been estimated as high as 90%.  Even notwithstanding the low resistance of the populations of West Africa, and its location in a region of recent urbanization–unlike the rural areas of Central Africa where outbreaks had been previously confined–the unprecedented levels of human-to-human transmission challenge us to map the contagion we seek to control in ways that can best process the very rapid transmission of the virus and its advance across six countries with varying rapidity.


Ebola Climbs


The numbers noting rate of mortality in the above map threatens to overwhelm our sense about the virus’s spread by privileging the rapidity of its contagion and not examining causes for its diffusion or vectors of its virulence.  The HealthMap announcements have become the recognizable image of its spread.  But despite the apparent authoritative HealthMap graphics as mapping the disease’s first appearance on March 19, a full “nine days before the World Health Organization formally announced the epidemic,” notwithstanding the considerably large investment in Health Map of the US government’s Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), rather than standing at the forefront of health reporting and surveillance, the first maps HealthMap issued in fact antedate the first news conference of the Guinea’s Department of Health of the Ebola outbreak, reported in the first news articles on a “hemorrhagic fever” which summarized the news conference of the Director of Disease Prevention, Dr. Sakoba Keita.  While we have focussed on the HealthMap graphics for the authoritative clarity with which they mapped the virulent disease’s outbreak, forecasting systems played little role in detecting the virus–and little advanced news of the outbreak beyond traditional news sources.  The rhetoric of the map has masked the lag that occurred in the first diffusion of news reports of the hemorrhagic disease.  The unfolding of the maps of the disease’s spread display a similar reluctance to listen or observe on the ground, but rather to synthesize data in what has become something like a proxy for direct observation or reporting.

The limited spatial context for the generic Google Maps platform used on HealthMap especially obscures, on account of its lack of spatial precision, the complexity of new vectors and sources of transmission that differentiate this outbreak from Ebola outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the past fourteen years.  For it maps the disease only by registering numbers in vague national conglomerates–often using incomplete numbers reported by local agencies.  While the first cases appear to the Guinean forest, the spread infection to urban areas and slums offers a powerful chart of the outbreak that–unlike earlier outbreaks of Ebola in central Africa–gained a virulence that challenged both public health authorities and residents who had little exposure to the animal-born disease.

The crowding of states with tan and brown bubbles to designate human suspected or confirmed infections obscure the dynamics and dangers of Ebola’s transmission to a rapidly urbanizing landscape, and are silent on the dangers of confronting the wide range of potential pathways of its transmission that we seek–and indeed are ethically obliged–to contain.  Maps provide forms for embodying as well as tracking diseases, practices of mapping can both communicate the exponential expansion of fatalities of infected victims across space, and suggest potential future strategies for their containment.  Were we only hoping that, as earlier outbreaks in the Central African Republic or DRC, the West African outbreak would be contained, without considering the multiplication of vectors by for its contagion, or the new terrain and new populations to which it had spread?  Or did we fail to map its dangers as quickly as we could have done?




1.  The lack of qualitative or specific details in these maps treat them as registers of the exponential expansion of epidemiological updates. Whereas no previous outbreak of a strain of the diseases has produced more than several hundred cases, the virulence of the specific strain of Ebola, previous confined to rural areas, may rest in the multiple vectors of its transmission and the difficulty containing new vectors for the transmission of Ebola, easily communicated through contact with bodily fluids or blood, leading to a far greater expansion of human-to-human transmission of the disease than occurred in recent history.  Shock at its spread displaces   the vectors of contagion by which Ebola has so rapidly and virulently spread.  Indeed, the current reproductive rate of the disease suggests its expansion will continue most dramatically.

When epidemiologist Michael T. Osterholm warns “the Ebola epidemic in West Africa has the potential to alter history as much as any plague has ever done,” the comparison may illustrate both its extreme danger and potential significance, and a need to reconsider how we have charted the contagion’s spread.  Plague was, of course, misunderstood as a miasma and not examined as being transmitted from the bacteria carried on fleas resident in rats.  While we don’t still know the natural reservoir of the virus, or the relations between different strains of Ebola virus, the pathways of its contagion challenge our ability to map the vectors of viral transmission–and the mapping tools we might better use to contextualize its virulent spread from its epicenter in the Guinean forests.  Despite repeated warnings of the dangers that the consumption of infected carcasses as bush meat constituted a neglected source of its transmission, the expansion of human-to-human transmission has obscured its animal-born origins.  The continued possibilities for infection from the meat of carcasses of animals infected with the virus moreover creates new problems as the WHO works to contain the spread of microbes dwelling in the very rainforest that spread to vulnerable populations in Guinea to recur in Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as Senegal and Nigeria–whose populations seem particularly vulnerable to the current strain.

The need for a map that charts the spatial transmission of the disease, which has itself proceeded jump borders and region divides with ease.  Such boundary lines name the different public health authorities that are forced to face the ravages of Ebola, which may offer a haphazard barometer to calibrate the global danger of the danger, but might obscure the ways humans were infected by the virus in recent months. Already by March 23, cases of the virus were suspected near where it claimed its first victims:


By march 23 ebolaHealthMap/Boston Children’s Hospital


The first documented documented cross-border spread of the disease, according to tropical medicine specialist Dr. Estrella Lasry, occurred in late March–about the time that the outbreak was first reported by Guinean authorities to the WHO.  In over just a month, by April 20, the distribution of suspected cases had dramatically grown, in ways that would have already suggested the substantial threat of its growing incidence of what had been confined to inland areas, and had not been associated with the region:  the migration of the disease from forested and rural areas to cities marked the first time urban occurrence of hemorrhagic fevers in urban slums, in crowded areas where it dramatically spreadoverwhelming health care workers whom it affected in great numbers, and the fear of its international spread prompted  military-enforced cordon sanitaire at border areas, as more affluent areas trusted in their access to superior health care protected them from the growing diffusion of the infectious disease even as it spread.


April 20 EbolaHealthMap/Boston Children’s Hospital


The concentration of infections seem relatively concentrated, but had taken on particular virulence on in Liberia–a country with limited health care facilities or health-care workers.  And by July 8, the area of those infected by disease had grown broader and deeper in density, and any hopes that the outbreak would stay in a concentrated area disappeared, although international attention was only gained as the virus arrived in Nigeria in later that month.


Ebola July 8HealthMap/Boston Children’s Hospital


And on August 5, as the contagious virus decisively multiplied in Nigeria, which, one would think, eyebrows were first raised:


ht_ebola_outbreak_map_august_4_jc_140805_16x9_992HealthMap/Boston Children’s Hospital


The number of confirmed cases not only had grown, but the number of confirmed cases in Guinea and Liberia indicated that the disease was spreading both toward the Côte d’Ivoire.  As of September 16, the virus had grown to new proportions and scarp, an epidemiological emergency only partly intimated by the crowded bubbles that hint at the changed profile of the infection even as they offer frustratingly few tools to process it:


Ebola Sept. 16HealthMap/Boston Children’s Hospital


Providing a means of grasping the spread of a disease and the dangers that it poses is an inherent property of the map, but the obstinance of not reading the disease’s widespread infection is difficult to explain fully.  Could it be that the multiplication of the vectors for the disease’s transmission were inadequately mapped?

Yet plotting confirmed incidence of Ebola tells only part of the story of its the expanding risks of infection in the sub-Saharan continent, and the silences of the HealthMap graphic compromise its informative value.  Recent predictions that the spread of infection by Ebola across West Africa will continue for twelve to eighteen months have confirm, if this was needed, the global scope of the health disaster, as the cascading influence of the spreading contagion for which we have no vaccine challenge the region’s food security.  The expected spread of Ebola virus in new areas will continue to raise compelling questions of the ethics of care–and of the availability of provisional vaccines that will be developed as they are tested–as more than 70,000 people in much of sub-Saharan Africa seem to lie at risk–according to the fifty-two received alerts for Ebola in just a week in mid-September.


52 Alerts in Last WeekHealthMap/Boston Children’s Hospital


How did it travel so quickly after being apparently contained so long?  How safe can it even be to remain, at this time, in Liberia, or to send medical doctors and workers, needed nurses, and temporary hospitals there?

This post focusses attention on the ethics of how we have mapped the virulent disease both at a remove from the landscape and surroundings where it has occurred, and the sense it makes to continue to tabulate confirmed or suspected cases of infection.  For we have charted the current spread of Ebola virus spread to at risk populations, suppressing panic at its exponentially expanding scope, as we try to imagine how the infections might be contained by charting the number of humans infected, omitting the virus’ relation to vectors of transmission or hosts that may warp the dangers faced by people who might become infected in coming months.  Although there is the danger that the current strain may mutate to an air-born virus, as some fear, tracking its human-to-human transmission might be placed into better relief by considering both the paths by which the virus migrated into urban areas and jumped to humans from animal hosts.

A chief difficulty of continuing to map Ebola against a base map of national frontiers and boundaries is that it contains the virus lies in locating it within fixed boundaries and perimeters–and misleadingly suggest a controlled outbreak.  Maps of the region foreground numbers of dead and infected along a blank topography, moreover, in ways that conceal the potential for a qualitatively rich map of the virus’ spread from the Guinean forests, where the recurrence of the highly contagious disease first broke out in humans.  Such projections of the virus ignore important questions of how the vectors or courses of transmission the outbreak have made it so difficult to contain:  for we often read the maps for the possibility for human-to-human contagion, although the spread of the virus seems to mirror the possibility of several sources of Ebola’s transmission to humans from its animal hosts.

Indeed, the spread of the virus mirrors the fragility of the broadleaf forests that run from Guinea to Sierra Leone in the West and the Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Nigeria and Togo to the East, mapped below–an ecosystem that is an environmental “hot-spot” whose diversity is so endangered by slash-and-burn agriculture and irresponsible mining to be among the most “critically fragmented regions” in the world.   The terrain reflects the contours of  regions in which Ebola has spread from the very bats and primates from whom we believe the highly contagious strains of Ebola jumped.  We neglect at our peril possibilities of recurrent transmission from animal hosts as we seek to map the spread of contagion at a remove from the continued consumption of such animal host as “bush meats.”   The widespread contacts with meats of monkeys, rat, and bats–all affected by the virus–from the fragmented forest may have contributed to its spread to more heavily populated regions where we are now struggling to contain its transmission.


Guinean Forests


The coincidence of these regions suggests the need to map distributions of animal inhabitants as we chart Ebola’s dramatic spread across areas it rarely occurred previously–beyond the transmission of the virus by human hosts.  The spread of the disease has occurred without proper precautions or an establishment of best medical practices.  The worst Ebola outbreak ever  confronted by doctors and medical staff was regularly met without necessary protective gear in many West African hospitals for much of the summer.  As if in a terrifying apotheosis of Ivan Illich’s argument of the abundance of “iatrogenic” diseases whose transmission grows in hospital settings, we face descriptions of the frequency with which hospital beds and rooms covered with smeared feces, urine, or blood–the very prime vectors for contracting the virus–were the norm.

The inadequacy of facilities to control or treat the highly infectious disease’s spread has been facilitated not only by health-care breakdowns but an inadequate understanding or mapping of its epidemiological causes, masked in the above graphic, leading President Obama to propose the contribution of multiple mobile hospitals in order to bolster local health-care.  As we brace for waves of panic, challenges to food security with a far more limited harvest, and rising food prices, mappers will be challenged to chart the waves of multiple impact of the simple virus across the continent.

Have we understood the best models for mapping a disease that has been imagined as specific to humans, but which has not only infected as it has jumped to humans from the animal population, but seems to have jumped from rain forest populations of fruit bats, antelope, great apes, and chimpanzees through local food supplies?  Although once the virus has migrated to humans, further pathways of infection will be human-borne, the continued danger of Ebola’s spread through meats and contact with animals’ blood suggest a proliferation of the virus’ impact we need to assess in order to contain most effectively.  Controlling the transmission of the virus’ transmission, which can occur through contact with the effusion of blood or bodily fluids from infected bodies, or spread from contact with cadavers, is now feared to spread to up to fifteen nations–of which some 22 million people stand to be at risk.  The maps of the risk of the infection have, indeed, displaced maps of actual infections or local mortality rates as the focus of international news–as what was at first a West African phenomenon has been replaced by a startling “heat map” of the broader populations at risk for virulent disease, whose infection of which is shown as spreading like an unstoppable cancer across Central Africa toward the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi.

The eye-catching graphic in the Daily Mirror used data of at-risk populations across Africa to create a graphic of the disease boring a radioactive hole in the continent’s interior.  But the numerous absences and silences in this attention-getting infographic–as the Google projections of confirmed cases and deaths from Ebola in this post’s header–distort its communication by the remove at which they lie from the local landscape.



Ebola mapDaily Mirror; Sunday, September 14


Is this eye-grabbing graphic most informative guide to the progress of the devastating disease, if it tracks the range or human infection by Ebola alone?  And could one better understand the multiple “populations at risk” that it illuminates, not only in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Ivory Coast, but Togo, Angola, Uganda, Cameroon, the CAR, DRC, and Burundi by the migration of the virus and  the local transmission of viral infection?  Would this offer a better base map to chart the containment of successive waves of infection?  How would this change our notion of the best practices for the effective containment of the disease?


2.  The World Health Organization hoped last month to control the outbreak of Ebola over nine months to only 20,000 human infections.  But difficulties of controlling numerous vectors of the transmission of the disease through contact with bodily fluids now suggests the reality of soon facing 20,000 cases in one month  that will be increasingly difficult to contain.

Ebola’s spread raises questions of the best practices of mapping the devastating outbreak, and of communicating Ebola virus’s transmission:  so physically devastating and gruesome is the virus, which is notoriously difficult to contain with success, or even to treat by intravenous replenishment, that viewing the virus outside the lens of human-to-human transmission is difficult.  But the huge risks of transmission compels we consider what criteria to adopt to map to best  process the disease’s spread and contagion.  National maps of the distribution of illness make little sense in communicating that spread.  The rapidity with which  microbes focussed in the very rainforest that seem to have spread to vulnerable populations in Guinea to recur in Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as Senegal–whose populations seem particularly vulnerable to the current strain.  The outbreak at first concentrated in these three countries was no doubt encouraged by their increasingly urbanized and interconnected populations, especially among the high levels of poor who live in dense slums, whose populations who depend on the foraging of “bush meats”–the term for local animals in surrounding rain forests on which many depends.  Such animals not only seem the hosts from which Ebola “jumped” to humans, but have themselves, due to deforestation, suffered from shrinking forest land, moreover, in ways that have restricted their regional habitat (and that of the virus)–augmenting the risk of a “spillover” of Ebola across species in these regions that it is deeply unethical not to map.

The silences of the info graphic conceals deep changes, including the expansion of a network of roads that have multiplied routes of contact of meats from rural areas to urban slums, that have shifted the ecosystem of the Ebola virus itself.  As we consider turning our attention to mapping the location of the virus and its varied hosts, we stand to gain much from what might be called  a “deep map” of Ebola both less widely discussed and understood, for all the emphasis on the dangers of eating bush meats, and better communicate what underlies the disease’s dramatic distribution.


FAO World's Forests 2000FAO


Absences of endangered forests are by no means the only silences of info graphics depicting the virus’s spread.  The most prevalent way of mapping Ebola’s incidence by national boundaries and human habitation presents a striking contrast with the extent to which its hosts have been bats and other animals as rats and monkeys–whose consumed flesh is known as “bush meats.”  The meats constitute a prevalent form of nutrition among poor in a region without traditions of husbandry.  As much as the virus might be easily contracted by person-to-person contact, we may have focussed on contact of infected bodies, given both the horrors of hemorrhaging and bleeding in an uncontrolled manner so horrible watch and humiliating to experience, and our belief in familiar microbial transmission of influenza or other microbial diseases.  This concentration on hand-to-hand contact may however have perhaps led us to focus on the bodily fluids of the infected as a vector of the transmission of the disease.  Although such meats are now publicly prohibited from consumption by several governments, animals such as bats seem frequent hosts of the virus, although few mappings of the incidence of bat colonies have been attempted to determine the possibilities or potential for the virus’ geographical spread.  Could one map not only the presence of disease in populations of fruit bats, a common for of bush meat, and the routes of their harvesting and transport for sale to urban markets?

Such a practice of mapping is recognized by Oxford researcher Nick Golding as necessary to offer “the first step towards understanding where outbreaks of the disease might occur in the future,” as well as help “prepare for future outbreaks and to deal with the current one we need to understand how human movements cause the disease to spread once it has entered the human population.”  Indeed, while the disease is found in animals over a broad territory, the outbreaks of disease among these animals are rare, and the ability to detect infections in animals militate against the ease of such mapping, the ability to synthesize a variety of social and environmental factors where Ebola might be transmitted to people from host animals might be mapped in order to be correlated with the past occurrence of human infection from Ebola.

The mapping of such possible animal hosts of Ebola is not new or unavailable.  But a mapping of the simple distributions of animals who serve as hosts for Ebola–from fruit bats to chimpanzees to cane rats–provides a basis to examine the entrance of Ebola virus into local food chains.



BrainerdDispatch, based on data from WWF and WHO



Wikipedia Commons


–and maps onto the range of populations mapped as being at risk:


1410462125569_700Catholic Online


To do so would present a compelling alternative mode to track spread of the virus from the first epicenter in Guinea to Liberia and Sierra Leone ,where it has been particularly virulent, and to Nigeria, and illuminate links that exist from the surrounding forests from urban centers on which health authorities have concentrated attention.  To process the alarming spread of Ebola virus across West Africa, our use of maps to track the illness poses unique questions of how a virus judged to be hosted by animals (fruit bats or great apes or chimpanzees) in the continent’s interior has rapidly spread along its coastal populations as well as rural regions, that demand more advanced tools of mapping to track adequately.

As we synthesize increased data about the precise location of Ebola’s initial outbreak, its pathways of infection, as well as its future risks, it makes sense to increasingly adopt such models to process the virus’ geographic distribution.


3.  The recent closure of national borders follows the logic of quarantines for those infected with the virus, and reflecting the maps that specify nations whose citizens have been infected with the virus–rather than of controlling the vectors of its transmission.  Might pathways of the handling and consumption of meats be mapped against the spread of Ebola, to create a more complex map of the virus’ diffusion as we work to contain its spread most effectively?  Examining other pathways for the transmission and contraction of Ebola might lead to a more effective attempts to contain its spread, to be sure, even as we focus on rates of suspected or confirmed infections that are reported by national agencies or available to the World Health Organization and CDC, and at least complicate the picture maps might offer of its containment.  As it is, the progress of Ebola from rainforest environments is often labeled a “social problem” difficult to contain due to “deep-seated beliefs and cultural practices” as well as inadequate health care, and not mapped on the ground.  One stares at the progress of figures of mortality and infection in maps, questioning if they even display the full range of the infected, hoping to contain their future spread across the continent, without describing the range of narratives or social processes that have facilitated the contagious disease that they purportedly track.

We have most often mapped the outbreaks and incidence of Ebola across West Africa by tallying infections and mortality in bubble maps that show sovereign frontiers, but might better map to trace the complex narratives by tracking so viciously contagious a virus against the changed landscapes where it has spread to understand the climates and environments in which it has appeared as we seek to contain the over 4,366 cases of infection so far confirmed.  Despite valuable charts and tables that “map” the spread of Ebola virus across West Africa from March 2014, the tally of infections hardly begin to process the shock of the dramatic levels of mortality but both barely chart the striking process of the disease, at the same time as their alarmist tone effectively heightens our deepest fears of contagion.

The recent proliferation of web-based maps chart the unfolding of the incidence of a virus previously successfully contained in remote areas in the African continent, but long feared to spread beyond its shores, as we picture terrifying screens for scenarios of a global health crisis caused by the tendril-like threads that seem to move from hosts with such ease as to complicate their vectors of transmission and confound the idea of what it would be to map the disease’s spread:  as we come to conceive of Ebola as able to move from contact with an infected individual’s bodily fluids, mapping the spread of the virus seems the only way to grasp the meaning of its reappearance and difficulties of its containment.  (The complication for West African food security as the virus has both increasingly claimed lives of rural populations and spread to the interior of the continent.)  The microbe’s spread is poised to create a devastating web of indirect risks of global proportions, where risks of transmission have grown, despite a widespread ramping up of clinical trials by GlaxoSmithKline.

By tracking the virus as if it were transmitted has spread only by human-to-human contact, and by excluding the transmission of the different strains of the virus from animals, we may be short-sighted in perpetuating only a part of the picture of Ebola’s rapid spread.  Alternate scenarios for viral containment among local populations forecast situations where the possible numbers of individuals infected by rates Ebola virus could range from 20,000, if conditions stay roughly the same, to as high as 60,000 if conditions worsen–and, should conditions for treatment and containment improve, or a vaccine developed for humans, below 20,000.  Although the geographic migration of the deadly disease is challenging to track, the maps we make of its incidence raise as many questions as they do red flags and suggest the importance of dedicating attention to Ebola’s spread.

The ways in which we map the virus raises questions of what sort of story we want to tell about the rapid spread of Ebola virus.  Ebola is transmitted by contact with the blood or liquids of the infected.  But the spread of the virulent strain is due not only to human-to-human contact–as suggested in many of the maps or the most inflammatory prognostications of possible avenues of its future global spread–but also in the body fluids or tissue of other hosts, such as animals, whose distribution are for more difficult to map.  As we contemplate the litany encoded in the distribution of over 2,400 deaths caused by the virus and over 4,700 infected, according to recent metrics of its fearsome spread, and a huge future fatality rate, given the absence of any vaccine; notwithstanding several promises to start testing a vaccine for humans, limited successes have been reached for individual treatment, despite the recovery of two Americans flown to Atlanta.  The pathways of the virus need to be mapped both from its first confirmed cases in March 2014 and from the case suspected in Guinea in December, 2013:  but difficulties to chart multiple possible vectors of transmission complicate the effect or informative nature of a tally of those infected, or afflicted.  (While we do not have a vaccine, the tremendous gravity of the situation is evident in the WHO’s recent acceptance of that experimental drugs to treat Ebola patients would indeed be ethical so long as it involves patients’ consent.)

Such maps may erase the very vectors and hosts in ways that obstruct a clear understanding or picture of the terrifying process of the disease across the continent–as we risk essentializing the disease or seeing it as a consequence of inadequate health care.  The drastic manner that the virus dissolves linings of the internal organs of the body by hemorrhaging and bleeding, perpetuate images designed doubtless to increase fears of the further spread of disease whose very symptoms–the discharge of blood and bodily fluids from bodily orifices, and, as blood fails to coagulate, something like the dissolution of linings of bodily organs–so horrific to experience so as to obscure other vectors for Ebola’s transmission.  (Practices for treatment by intravenous replenishment of blood and electrolytes pin hopes on the reconstitution of one’s bodily fluids.)  But the practice of mapping the disease’s incidence may tell only partial stories about the incidence of illness, and offer narratives inadequate to translate into health policies:  for they ignore the danger of the transmission of Ebola in animal meat, and the migration of the disease from rural to urban environments.

Has our fear of the transmission or communication of Ebola by contact with bodily fluids led us to focus, as in the case of SARS, only on the bodies of those afflicted with the disease?  Ebola virus was almost only found in Africa since its discovery in 1976, fears of its migration off of the continent have almost subsumed understanding of the contradictions of its apparent localization in central Africa, where the first cases were discovered in Zaire and Sudan, contained on account of their remote locations, but with high fatality rates in all its strains.  The absence of a vaccine or isolated antibody, the basis for much modern medicine, have increased deep fears about human-to-human communication of the viral disease, exploited in such films as Contagion and partly domesticated by the marketing of stuffed Ebola microbes.  The paramount questions of its containment and isolation–the goal of the World Health Organization–and the difficulty of raises questions of how medical supplies, infection control, and treatments can be maintained, and the ethics of medical treatment without tested vaccines, as the geographical spread of the disease across two geographically removed regions faces problems of being contained–especially when its communication is not well understood or studied.  The most recent panic provoked by the arrival of two infected Americans infected with Ebola virus in Atlanta’s Emory University hospital elicited immediate fears of the expansion of the virus and sympathy.

But the existing caseload of Ebola victims in all countries seems likely to surge in coming weeks across West Africa, and its spread difficult if not impossible to contain, despite attempts to do so by quarantine.  The virus’ spread have not been mapped in nearly the sufficiently sophisticated tools to comprehend the nature of its virulence.  We continue to privilege human contact with blood, sweat, bodily fluids, or diarrhea of human victims, so terrifying is the apparent breakdown of bodily structures Ebola provokes.  The difficulty of administrating the intravenous electrolytes to stave of its terrifying spread is all but secure, and the HazMat suits and protective gear mandated to be worn in the presence of cadavers of Ebola’s victims or the infected underscore needs to circumscribe contact with the diseased.  Indeed, the fixation on the confinement of the bodies of the ill in continued disputes over plans to quarantine Ebola victims suggest a difficulty of mapping the disease’s spread by local governments and international health organizations.  For while Doctors Without Borders/Médecins sans frontières doubts the value of quarantines ill in “death houses” to contain the virus–pointing to the number of cases that will go unreported and the risk of lack of food and clean water for those with the virus–even if they have also established isolation houses in hopes to contain the virus from spreading to further states as the Ivory Coast.  But attention to the constraining of bodies may obscure other avenues for outbreaks of the disease

Yet the logic of its spread may have been poorly mapped in relation to the environments where its progress has been most terrifying.  The challenge of how to project the expanse of widespread waves of infection by Ebola virus across much of West Africa are hardly met by a static map of the region in which it has spread–which treats the environment as a passive field against which the viral infection has spread.  As of August 31, the WHO reported over 3,600 confirmed, probable, or suspected cases of Ebola virus in West Africa,–and the number of people affected by the haemorrhagic disease has indeed recently exponentially grown, as reported cases have multiplied by over 50%.  Could a mapping of the sites of outbreak and transmission of the virus offer a way of telling a story about the physically ravaging and highly contagious virus, or even process the sheer information overload of so many infected or deceased?  Mapping the virus’ rapid and terrifying spread, as much charting its incidence from Guinea to Senegal, and beyond Nigeria, through their populations to Sierra Leone or Nigeria since its first appearance risks projecting fears of the danger of communicating the virus to populations worldwide that remove it from any cause, and limit our response.  This post seeks to raise several questions about what shown in the organization of information in these data maps–and if one is not just tallying demographics not readily updated and lacking clear geographic specificity–and how to map the local outbreak as a global health risk.  As we continue to process further information about the vectors of infection and the needs to contain infection among animals as well as humans, we can hope for more effective mapping of the incidence of Ebola, both in relation to urban centers, slums, and rural areas, as well as to areas of forests from which bush meats come.


NG Ebola Map

National Geographic


4.  The problem of charting local emergencies has become one of mapping a health crisis of truly global proportions.  Even if it is now confined to a region in equatorial Africa, mapping the communication of the virus raises question of what it means to track the outbreak of Ebola, its relation to previous outbreaks, and the incubation of the disease that allowed its rapid spread.  The relative lack of epidemiological sophistication by which maps tally reported cases of infection or mortality in bubbles fails to capture how the very geography that facilitated the contagious’ virus rapid spread by treating the base map of the virus’ communication as an oddly static field, and viewing humans either as potential vectors of infection or passive victims.  For most of the maps of Ebola’s rapid spread seem to confirm the scariest fears of “losing the battle to contain” the virus for which there is no known vaccine, and which has previously ravaged the African continent.  Geographic containment of the disease is a priority of the World Health Organization, the data maps of its spread in West Africa have offered a screen on which to project fears and concerns of outpacing efforts to control a disease whose spread through bodily fluids of people or animals–and the possibly placing the virus into broader circulation among humans once again.

This highly infectious variant of previous Ebola outbreaks in the continent appears to have been likely underreported since the possible earliest case last December.  While known vectors of its communication are poised to multiply, the practice of containment is impossible to achieve by quarantine and isolation of patients in sick-houses or containment of traffic between national borders:  while the sealing of national borders in hopes to create barriers that might prevent the cross-country mobility among the possibly infected stands at odds with recent rapid expanding urbanization and geographic mobility in growing cities of this very region:  demographic changes brought by increasing urbanization, deforestation and geographical mobility have transformed West Africa’s living geography in the past decade, effectively bringing the city closer to forests where the epicenters of past Ebola outbreaks.  Yet the specter of confined borders or the creation of confines stands to create undue stress on relations between doctors and local populations to slow the infection’s spread or arrival of medical staff and supplies, if not generate panic and mutual distrust within local populations at the same time as weekly count of infected exceed 500, with many likely to be unreported.

Quarantines have offered somewhat effective means of containing Ebola.  Their prevalence as a tool to combat Ebola echoes attempts to contain plague in seventeenth-century Italian cities, when the isolating the afflicted within cordoned city-state or regions as soon as possible fit new understandings of the transmission of disease by individual bodies.  Quarantines separated people known to carry the plague, segregated by analogy to goods exposed to plague or disease that remained for periods of forty days [quaranta giorni] in order that  miasmatic “pestilential air” could dissipate, and the rapidly growing numbers of those infected with plague be effectively circumscribed.  The practice of quarantine emerged before plague hospitals, and the same sort of isolation once again emerged as a coordinated reaction to unidentified virulent diseases such as the recent outbreak of SARS:  quarantine managed plague with shifting efficacy from 1347-52, as cities instituted quarantines of neighborhoods or goods in the face of a disease against which there was no known or effective medical response–encouraged or facilitated by the drawing of a fixed spatial boundary on terrestrial maps, as in this late seventeenth-century plan of the barriers that would contain the plague in seventeenth-century Bari.

Is this emphasis on the human-to-human transmission of disease the correct strategy to apply to Ebola?  The spatial containment of bodies of the infected and ill–who are often asked to lie in isolation wards that are deemed an effective death sentence for those effectively removed from medical care–oddly mirrors early modern reactions to pestilence despite our more effective concepts of tracking disease:  although effective if they occurred quickly, the scope of Ebola virus in the region suggests a range of factors have shaped true transmission of a disease beyond close contact with bodily fluids, or its human hosts:  are human bodies rightly presumed to be the sole agents in need of containment, and the sole subjects to be confined?


Cordoning Bari

Containing Plague in Bari (1690)


Is an emphasis on the danger of human-to-human transmission, the sort of transmission that quarantines seeks to limit, an adequate response?  Closed national borders have so far followed the logic of quarantines for those infected with the virus–rather than of controlling the vectors of its transmission.  If barriers have contained disease when created quickly, the vectors of Ebola’s transmission are so challenging to map to make analogous quarantines by cordoning off West African regions offer a sort of exemplum of the misleading picture of the pathways of infection that the Ebola virus might exploit.  Fifty thousand people were quite recently forcibly barricaded in Monrovia to isolate the Ebola virus’ spread, limiting access of inhabitants to food or drinkable water and no doubt increasing their desperation, fearfulness and sense of fatality.  The first two Americans reported to be infected with Ebola virus, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebo, have been transported from the continent, and to Atlanta, to recuperate in isolation chambers set up by the CDC in Emory University Hospital, the former recently released after being cured.  Is such a dramatic contrast in understandings of the etiology or response to the disease unconscionable?  With numbers of those affected by the Ebola virus now seem destined to rise exponentially, with some West African countries experiencing an increase of 50% last week, the specter of further quarantines and fears of the airborne transmission of the virus are misplaced.  Although the contact with dead or ill bodies is one clear means of transmission of the disease, its long strands are rooted in the body’s fluids–and its most virulent strain yet encountered seem able to have “jumped” from animal meat to humans, and prove particularly difficult to contain in cases where the disease is advanced.





The initial response of the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention was to issue bulletins restricting non-essential travel to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, in the hopes to create distance between the US and the re-emergence of the disease.  African nations followed suit, terrified by re-emergence of the deadly virus and the lack of any public health response that was deemed effective:  Nigerian airlines cancelled flights to Freetown and Monrovia in an attempt to contain human contact with the infected; Nigerians angrily blamed airplanes for allowing passengers infected with Ebola to enter the country as opening the pathways to transmission of the disease.  But presumption that victims of Ebola constitute the prime subjects needing to be contained, or quarantined, or that the disease could be bound and frozen, kept within the boundaries of states where the virus, not only hamper coordinating medical reactions to Ebola and needed supplies, as well as food, but offer a no-exit strategy that may fail to contain the disease or address the actual vectors and incubators of its rapid geographical spread through several cities across the central Continent.  If trade provides a crucial means for the communication of disease, which is not only particularly aggressive but may mutate in the face of resistance.

Rather than being an isolated instance, historian Tom Koch, who has studied the uses of maps to embody the spatial distribution of diseases from the early modern period to the present, warns that “rapid viral and bacterial evolution brought on by globalization and its trade practices” pose deep challenges to how we contain future outbreaks of disease as well as to our practices of medical protocol and ethics.  The reactions suggest a terrifying widespread return of medical quarantine as we face increasing fears of contagion as unable to be contained.  The need for containment is itself echoed in the mirrors maps manufacture about the disease’s rapid spread, and what better maps might exist in an age when our mapping abilities to track the transmission and probable bearers of the highly infectious virus.


5.  The figure of infected victims of Ebola crossing national borders has become a standard and repeated image of the transmission of disease and the challenges of its containment.  A widely read report of late July described with considerable panic the arrival in an airplane of a man infected with Ebola who collapsed in the airport of Lagos, Nigeria, infected with the Ebola virus.  It provoked increased fears about the very vectors of Ebola’s transmission, including airborne transmission (which is impossible) and exposure to the environments where the bodily fluids of its victims have been present.

The communicative value of even the most accurate epidemiological maps of the virus’ rapid outbreak may have failed their readers–as this powerful visualization from National Geographic–in communicating the nature of its transmission, despite its terrifying suggestion of its spread in West Africa serves to emphasize the global threats that Ebola’s spread pose.  Although disease maps provide clear tools to understand the spread and pathways of communication of a disease, the highly virulent and rapidly moving nature of the virus, whose spreading transmission has multiplied because of both growing density of urban population sizes and the increasingly interconnected nature of populations in the region.  Given the increased health risks that are the result of huge changes in West African urban geography, both the simple tally of cases of Ebola the snapshot-like nature of most distributions by country only skim the surface of the depth of multiple stories–and terrifying fears–about the virus’ rapid spread across the West African coast.  For the story of Ebola is increasingly about the new vectors of transmission that result from the relation of the cities to the interior, in ways obscured by data distributions that collectively group numbers of cases and deaths–mutely enumerating the daunting count of those infected and deceased, but without telling a clear story about its geographical spread across a rapidly urbanizing region.


NG Ebola MapNational Geographic


The spread of Ebola across four nations since April, when it was first reported to have spread from an epicenter in a rural Guinea, is unprecedented in the relative rarity of its geographic spread and the rapid bodily decline of those it has infected raises questions of how medical supplies, infection control, and treatments can be maintained, across two geographically removed regions–as the existing caseload of Ebola will likely surge in coming weeks.  The odd mapping of the incidence of Ebola by nation contrasts with the extent to which the hosts of bats and other animals whose flesh is consumed known as “bush meats”–and not person-to-person contact alone, despite the horrors of hemorrhaging and bleeding in an uncontrolled manner so horrible watch and humiliating to experience.  Although such meats are currently prohibited from consumption, the virus’ rapid spread provokes fears of containing increasingly porous boundaries between nations in West Africa, but such containment and isolation may discount other sources of the bearers of disease at multiple sites, or the over two thousand afflicted with Ebola.  And, if bats are indeed the hosts of the virus, few mapping of the incidence of bat colonies have been attempted to determine the possibilities or potential for the virus’ geographical spread.  Could one map not only the presence of disease in populations of fruit bats, a common for of bush meat, and the routes of their harvesting and transport for sale to urban markets, as a basis for the spread of the virus from the first perceived epicenter in Guinea to Liberia and Sierra Leone where it has been particularly virulent, as well as Nigeria.  Might pathways of the handling and consumption of meats be mapped against the disease?


Ebola Outbreak Poster

Is the danger of the disease’s fatality underestimated in the graphic posted above?


6.  Can we explain the dangers of its communication by maps that do not adequately chart the spread of the virus’ outbreak by a range of vectors?  The effort of humanitarian mappers, using OpenStreetMap mapping templates, readily applied mapping techniques to track the first outbreak of infections from April 2014 occasioned an early attempt to trace the spread of the virus from rural areas, and define its Guinean epicenter and routes of travel to coastal towns from the regions around Gueckedou, as Doctors without Borders requested the OpenStreetMap Humanitarian team to map the outbreak in an effort to define with greater precision the spread and immediate impact of the disease, using Bing’s high-res imagery of the region, and maps from Airbus Defense and Space as well as overlaying satellite images with MapBox Streets/Digital Globe to track incidence with a resolution absent altogether from most large-scale maps.  The collective effort of 200 mappers to locate over 100,000 buildings and some hundreds of miles of roadways supplemented the absence of adequate maps of the region of Guinea, the site of the first hemorrhaging confirmed caused by Ebola virus.  At the same time as worries already began of the spread of the virus to Liberia and Sierra Leone, the mapping helped establish the epicenter in Guinea and radius of the outbreak.  Despite the far greater complexity and geographic range of Ebola’s spread, such maps might be beneficially integrated with other overlays in attempts to try to understand the mechanisms of its rapid spread in an area for which we often lack adequate maps.



HUOSM ebola mapped in March 2014Wired/OSM Humanitarian Team


The level of local detail in such early maps already pinpointed the breadth of its transmission, and raises questions about the role of human-to-human transmission as the sole vector of the virus, which has been argued by the World Health Organization in July to have been transmitted by wild animals, such as bats, but in addition to bush meats from wild animals, in the local pig farms that often play hosts to the bats.

Some of the precision of these maps has been lost in the later maps that seem emphasize occurrences of probable or confirmed and suspected cases in “countries” and regional “districts,” rather than in an inter-related web of the transmission of the disease.  The result of the tracking of cases came to embody the sources and centers of fears of its spread, as the confirmed or probably cases of infection were mapping against the continent as a whole, so that the spread of infections gained a new look on the map as a field of red that demanded to be contained, juxtaposed by the specters of historical sites of infection, as if to augment local fears of its future spread, and to understand the migration from regions of Guinea and Sierra Leone to other ports along the shoreline of West Africa as Dakar, suggesting that the spread of the virus has not only outstripped medical abilities in the area, but that the spread of the disease invaded an entire district which would need to be isolated or quarantined–as requested most recently by Theo Nicol, Sierra Leone’s Minister of Information–and not public health officials–to respond to the spread of the disease into the country, in ways Doctors without Borders (MSF) cautioned were without benefits and in face quite detrimental to medical care, nourishment, or establishing needed trust of medical professionals:  the mapping of confirmed cases as if confined to a given administrative region reflects a reality of public health administration, but a distorting image if one would like to map the vectors of its communication.  (The historical cases of former outbreaks of Ebola in the CDR or South Africa were another strain of the virus, and, while reaching into the collective memory, not related to this outbreak, which began with a similar jump of the virus from animals to humans.)

The spread of Ebola in West Africa in relation to “Historical Cases” magnify its danger, but oddly contain the virus to the African continent’s sub-Saharan regions.


Ebola cases--confirmed, probable, historical



7.  The mapping of “historical cases” of related Ebola virus outbreaks may introduce more than a bit of a red herring.  For although they similarly seem to have begun from similar reservoirs of monkey or bat hosts, relations between the viruses is not clearly understood, despite similarities between the Guinea virus and the Zaire Ebola virus (EBOV) lineage; nor are links between their different reservoir species or hosts and the virus outbreaks understood, although the relations are presumed in the coloration of the above inset map of the African continent.  The vectors of viral transmission may create a map quite distinct from the earlier inland growth of Ebola in both Central and South Africa.  For  outbreaks of Ebola may have all been incubated first within the animal populations in ways not communicated in the above maps.  At the same time, the natural cycle of transmission of Ebola within the forest remains largely unknown, creating problems understanding its transmission–although its appearance in and transmission from animal populations has been clearly identified as the basis for its spread at the forest’s edge in rural Guinea.

The spread of the virus across three countries by late July already made it the deadliest breakout of the contagious virus in the continent as it moved from Guinea to other edges of the forested interior, in ways that the CDC map below does not clearly describe, but explain the odd dispersion of cases reported around the border between Guinea and Sierra Leone.   When Liberia shut most of its border points in late July in an effort to contain the disease and halt the virus, it had already spread across at least four nations, leaving possibilities of its future containment optimistic at best, in an attempt to isolate the migration of infected individuals given deep preoccupations at continued geographic mobility in the region.




The confines created around those districts with suspected or confirmed cases in April, shortly after the spread of the deadly virus had been mapped, misleadingly places the problems of quarantine on each nation–Mali; Guinea; Sierra Leone; Liberia–and not to define the impact of infections on local society or analyze the channels of its transmission, apparently able to have jumped national boundaries with ease in areas.  We perform a far less sophisticated mode of mapping outbreaks by identifying its incidence in isolated districts, without the greater geographic or spatial specificity the OSM map tried to chart–and perhaps have provided a misleading map that raises false hopes for being a ground plan to its spatial or geographic containment.  But the multiplication of incidence has of course made the process of mapping impossible, and fears of under-reporting widespread.  Such a mapping might be particularly important, however, since the evidence suggests that the combination of increasing human penetration into rain forests, and increased human contact with meats in urban centers–in addition, most significantly, geographical mobility between goods from rainforest areas to growing urban slums, creating channels and microclimates that are increasingly likely to change the patterns of the transmission of Ebola in ways maps might better track in order that the virus could be more effectively contained.  In an era when satellite-based mapping and GIS systems could make questions of human penetration into forests, contact with animals, distribution of bats and other species, and population density in urban slums where Ebola has spread could stand to be mapped in quite potentially significant epidemiological ways.

The recent growth of populations in West Africa that are living in urban slums from the Ivory Coast to Senegal suggest an especially dangerous topography for Ebola’s growth, which is left silent or unspoken in most infographics of the region, despite its significance in understanding the social shifts that magnify the transmission of the deadly virus.





The considerable growth in urban areas and slums in Conakry, Bamako, and Dakar make them terrifying incubators for human hosts, again absent from infographics of Ebola’s current spread.





The distinctions of local distributions are unfortunately erased in flat “impact maps” which highlight danger zones of travel, and not effectively map the virus’ transmission and spread or the environments in which it has grown–the flat colors of data maps, prepared relatively quickly with whatever data is at hand about Ebola, and not the region, seem almost to hide, rather than try to foreground, the dangers of the virus’ spread and the dangers of its migration from rural to urban areas.

At the start of the virus’ spread, attempts to localize its incidence expanded the number of fine-grain maps in circulation–although the mapping of incidence onto the urban and rural environments was rare, as were fears and concerns about the mutation of the virulent disease.   The rapidity with which Ebola spread through Liberia and to Senegal makes the distinction between “confirmed” or “suspected” cases, or indeed an administrative mapping of the topography of Ebola less valuable in understanding its transmission or the possibilities of its potential spread by vectors or the overlap of incidence with even a road map of nations that might track the paths of geographical mobility by which removed outbreaks could be related to one another.  Although fourteen of Liberia’s fifteen counties report cases of Ebola, what does such a spatial distribution tell us about the disease save of the dangers that the administrative response must face?  Data on the large numbers of populations of the slums of Monrovia were not even available to the United Nations in its mapping of slum populations, shown above, from 2009–although the terrifying density of populations in urban slums in growing cities in Sierra Leone, Guinea, or the Cote d’Ivoire are striking, as is the massive urban growth of the city of Dakar (Senegal) or Conakry (Guinea), not to mention the large city of Bamako, which lies terrifyingly near to the suspected cases of Ebola in one district of Mali.  (There seems no data available in the UN map of urbanization about Monrovia.)

If in 1990 there were only some 24 cities in Africa whose population exceeded one million, the number of cities with more than a million inhabitants had doubled by 2011, and has exceeded that proportion by 2014, and many of these urban agglomerations are concentrated in West Africa in ways that have dramatically shifted the landscapes across which Ebola has so far most intensely spread.


West African Urban Agglomerations, 2011


The movement of the virus to these cities was terrifyingly close in April, when it seemed inevitable, or evident, but few measures of adequate containment were articulated or in place as the virus advanced from Guinea to Mali and Liberia.  But the shifts of urbanization that have occurred in the region were oddly absent in most of the maps that describe the disease’s spread in districts of Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Mali–the size of urban populations only become prominently realized in maps of contagion after the virus arrived in Dakar.




8.  Boundaries between states however provide a limited information to allow us to track the disease’s spread or its scope.  The responses to the spread of highly infectious virus by August was to shut the borders crossings and frontiers between nations, in a terrifyingly shortsighted miscalculation of the spatial geography of viral containment, and misplaced allocation of resources, since the virus had already spread to Guinea.  When Liberia shut most of its border points in order to contain the virus’ progress to the south, was the area of infection from Gueckedou already too progressed to rely on national frontiers as a basis to staunch its spread?  Were other possible causes or vectors of disease less addressed?


Confines around Ebola_detail


While the map rightfully suggests the importance of human-to-human transmission, it oddly omits the very animal populations that both suffer from the disease and from whom Ebola is prone or apt to jump.  Closed national borders follows the logic of quarantines for those infected with the virus–rather than of controlling the vectors of its transmission.

Continued consumption of bush meats across much of West Africa suggests a far likely route for the transmission of Ebola than person-to person contact.  The difficulties of preventing the consumption of bush meats that were infected with the disease–including fruit bats, rats and monkeys–though widely suspected to be as the chief bridge between humans and animals in the region.  The transmission of disease in meats–either uncooked or by butchery–can cause itself multiple centers for the transmission of the disease from infected humans, not tracked by the concentration on human incubators of the disease.   Despite the current ban on consuming bush meats, the possibilities of such a transfer of the virus through consumption poses a decisively high risk and is potentially difficult to enforce.  Many villagers openly blame the arrival of medical teams for the virus’ spread, even as fruit bats and antelopes and rats have disappeared from the markets of the main towns, attempts at curbing the consumption of animals that are both plentiful in the forests and provide a prime staple to meet local nutritional needs of urban and rural poor in an area without animal husbandry; such curbs on the butchery and sale of bush meats are however most often met with incredulity among many–“Banning bush meat means a new way of life, which is unrealistic”–in regions without animal husbandry, and the eating of potentially uncooked meats or handling of dead infected animals from the forests effectively multiply the potential for further human-to-human transmission of the disease.  A ban on consuming bush meats–Liberia forbade its consumption and shopkeepers selling bus meats were jailed in attempts to retract its consumption in Nigeria–was less effective in practice, and pushed trade underground.  Bans on the importation of bush meats into London reveals fears of the meats as vectors of transmission that are difficult to control in West Africa, but have gained less attention than they deserve.

Ebola in LiberiaAhmed Jallannzoe, EPA


9.  The policy seems to hope to contain the spread of bodily fluids that are associated with its transmission from those inhabitants infected with Ebola, as if the enforcement of clear boundaries could prevent future transmission in an era when far great border-crossing and dramatically increased interconnectedness of urban populations across West Africa.  Indeed, the mapping of the epicenter of its “outbreak” seem to be beyond the point, if important to register, in dealing with its spread:  the unwarranted closing confines with Sierra Leone and Liberia rests on the conception that human-to-human transmission  constitutes the sole or primary sources of its incubation.  But this inference may be false, according to Mapping the Zoonotic niche of Ebola virus disease in Africa, who suggest that the transmission from infected humans is in fact surprisingly low.  The absence of attention of a topography of the network of transmission of the disease, and of the presence in animals, as well as humans, would offer a far more complete picture of its transmission beyond the numeric tabulation of the dead in datasets.

What could a more dynamic terrestrial mapping of the spread of disease show, beyond the fears for its further expansion?  In what ways does the embodiment of the virus’ spread in maps of the districts of West African nations poorly communicate the nature of its spread–or the relations between Ebola virus’ spread and recently increased connections between large urban centers on the coasts to rainforest areas previously less often penetrated by purveyors of goods for urban food markets.  Indeed, health authorities would do well to monitor then expanded unrestricted or reviewed traffic of foodstuffs and plants from vendors who move with increased access to the deforested rainforest areas on new roads into growing cities, even if the virus is already out of the bag:  for the very roads linking regions that were previously with far less contact with one another create new pathways for rapid transmission of the virus, as much as they might be seen as forms of regional modernization.

Other maps might offer unwarranted alarmist images of the potential pathways of Ebola’s feared future spread.  The justifiably intense fears now emerging about the uncontrolled spread of this hemorrhagic fever have grown after the spotting of several cases in Senegal and seems possible to be transmitted on any flight out of Dakar within the contents of a plane’s shipments.  We map the increased fears of cross-border transmissions of the dread disease in a particularly terrifying fashion, forecasting future distributions of illness by transposing a map of airplane flights from Dakar into a graphic that might be read as one of the exponential growth of the airborne transmission of a disease, in ways that misleadingly label the global health crisis as one of transmitting Ebola out of Africa, rather than trying to contain or understand the mechanics of its rapid spread on the ground trough far greater international aid before the outbreak itself is truly cataclysmic, and no longer possible to be mapped locally:



Mother Jones, September 4 2014

Despite the good intent to emphasize the global nature of the epidemic, the graphic removes attention from the on-the-ground story that the same magazine had been tracking so compellingly.  For all the knowing ways of getting the attention of readers of a progressive magazine, the image of the proliferation of Ebola on airplane flights may even minimize the questions of either its spread on the ground or provoke a rhetoric of quarantine.  The map of airplane flights from Senegal’s capital does suggest the huge changes in human connectivity that have emerged in the past decade, as if they stand to change the transmission of the deadly virus into a focus of global attention.   But the alarmist tenor of the map, which colors potentially affected countries in yellow as if to display how much of the globe could be touched by the bodily fluids from infected passengers leaving Dakar, suggests only potential channels of travel–and is not in facet based on actual reporting of disease.

The map almost seems to advocate the need to pursue a logic of quarantine and containment, so terrifying is the scenario of the virus’ potential spread.  Do the flight pathways tracked by Google Flight Search map potentially expanding pathways of Ebola virus’ communication in ways that play upon our fears, and, even as they ostensibly invite us to consider how the disease might be contained, deflect questions from situation on the ground that we are all too likely to see as if it is far removed?  Or are we already there, given the recent mapping of 140 alerts for the hemorrhagic virus that are already evident worldwide on HealthMap?


Alerts--International significance


In the case of West Africa, might it be prudent, as Pigott, Golding et al. suggest, to monitor the presence of disease in fruit bat populations and Great Ape populations to try to contain the outbreak of a disease whose outbreak is commonly associated with hunting and butchering, as much as contact with infected humans’ bodily fluids?  Despite the risks of contagion from the fluids of the dead, the mapping of diseased populations is often the most fearsome–and least preventative–means to track Ebola’s incubation and chart the virus’ spread.  Do such maps effectively perpetuate ungrounded fears of human-to-human transmission by regarding infected local inhabitants to be exclusive vehicles of contagion, since they are the subjects whose mapped distribution minimize the attention we might pay to the transmission of the disease by animals and especially rodents, monkeys, pigs, and widely ranging populations of fruit bats?

Rather than being a purely human-borne disease, despite the huge multiplication of human-to-human transmission, the transmission of Ebola through animals, uncooked bush meats, including apes, fruit bats, rats, porcupines, and non-human vectors has dramatically grown since from August.  The geographic spread of the virus did not follow regions that were geographically contiguous, but spread from multiple epicenters in the region, in ways perhaps dependent on animal hosts and the possible cross-species jumping of the disease from bats to apes and others.  The maps of local health authorities and treatment centers against the spread of reported instances of Ebola offer images of overwhelmed health institutions which surrounded by the virus’ spread, hampered from reaching inland areas affected: major treatment centers in the region appear to be swallowed in a sea of Ebola infections, themselves overwhelmed by risks of infection they are inadequate to handle.  They exploit justified fear of the virus as a source of infection by displaying the paucity of hospitals  field laboratories to study to the incubators of the virus’ spread or be trusted to staunch it, as well as the deep need for international aid to contain the further spread of the virus and care for its victims.




The map charts the spread of a disease as overwhelming medical capacities which are positioned in a far smaller area than the areas where confirmed case of Ebola have been reported.  Its design of placing the few clusters of treatment centers far removed from the expanse of afflicted almost confirms the decreased trust between healers and patients for a virus which not only lacks commensurate medical response:   treatment centers seem lacking in ways that could stave off the dangers of the virus’ inland spread.

The authoritarian images of control over cities by armed forces, or militias that fumigate streets or men in white HazMat suits, recuperating the body of the dead that were formerly attended by family, suggest an imagery of antibiotics and antiviral spray in Monrovia’s Duwala marketplace,  as if to acknowledge the fatalism of the virus’ spread and the only means of stopping it with antibiotics and law and order–notwithstanding the huge potential risks of panic.  (Indeed, the huge risks of decreased harvests and local food supplies, whose prices are poised to spike to levels never seen in West Africa, have already led the UN and FAO to secure and transport masses of foods from rice to maize and cassava.  Even the recent ban on consuming bush meat may further dry up other needed sources of nutrition.)  The promise for the arrival of American soldiers and military–while a needed reinforcement of personnel–cannot but raise fears and questions about the future multiplication of vectors of transmission of the disease, and of their arrival without coordination of the application of best resources to policy of containment.



enhanced-4535-1406913957-10AP Photo/Abbas Dulleh


10.  The unprecedented intensity of this West African outbreak has moved from Guinea in March 2014 and then Liberia and Sierra Leone, onto Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, reveal a potential multiplication of vectors of infection clearly knowing no national bounds and beyond the mandate of any local authority.  But it does little to provide a causation image of the historical necrology of Ebola it mutely registers, and places so suggestively to the apparently geographically broader, if less virulent, outbreak of Ebola in earlier years:


_77398785_ebola_deaths since 1976BBC News; 28 July 2014


The BBC’s info graphic illustrates the intensity and increased risks that the current outbreak of Ebola poses.  But in projecting the data onto a relatively blank base map, it oddly removes attention from the situation on the ground that it fails to map sufficient detail.  The reluctance to encode further information than that disseminated by WHO and CDC creates a limited view of the transmission of Ebola on the ground, despite the impressive use of intense coloring to focus our attention on the expanse of its recent outbreak.  Despite data from such apparently reliable sources as the WHO and CDC, the map offers few guides for reading its mapping the incidence of outbreaks of and fatalities of Ebola virus by proportional nested circles, and presumes that the variants are Ebola are not different from each other, although it does suggest a broadly focussed geographic incidence in a similar region–and apparently similar ecosystems, putting aside the outlying outbreak in South Africa.  The absence of individual or collective narratives that it tells leaves one confronting the sheer numbers of the outbreaks, but hanging in the air.  Might the mute order of the data distribution be more helpfully placed in overlap with other data, in order to foreground its relation to other potential causes of these viral outbreaks?

Even less helpful, of course, are the maps that redden the entire central band of the continent as a source of infectious viral disease.  The maps that are proliferating online and in the news tell us little  of epidemiological value about Ebola virus’ spread, so much as they reveal the chance of infecting the entire continent, reminding viewers of the multiple sites of the outbreak and recent spread of the virus across the expanse of much of the central continent in alarmist fashion, as if to suggest the danger of neglecting the disease that had previously dedicated the Ivory Coast and CAR.



The African, September 14 2014


To be sure, the detailed country by country regional spread of the illness suggests the benefits and needs of clearer tracking, and a unique topography for the pathways viral transmission has so far taken, raising multiple questions about the relation between human and animal vectors that encouraged the unique topography within which it has most rapidly spread, but also the distinct topography among reported victims of the disease.  Are these counts accurate, one wonders–do they rely on accurate door-to-door screening to tabulate the numbers of those afflicted by Ebola-like illnesses, or depend on the counts of health authorities and hospitals?–and can they forecast its future spread?   When the World Health Organization is now predicting some over 20,000 cases of a disease that has no known cure, the limited areas of exposure seem reassuring, but the map of confirmed cases offer little sense of a road-map to its future cure–even if they misleadingly suggested areas of its containment last July.



Jide-Salu, July 31 2014


11.  The difficulty of establishing a clean dataset on the ground in these regions is, in a sense, compounded by the exclusive mapping of human cases of the transmission of the disease–which has, at the same time as displaying particular virulence in humans, been widely reported across populations of great apes across Africa–including the gorilla and chimpanzee–to an extent which has so far not been mapped or not mapped with nearly the same prominence as human cases and deaths.  Hunting and handling of bush meats appear the most likely causes of outbreaks of the virus, although the dangers of human-to-human transmission are particularly high risk during home care and funerary preparation of infected cadavers.  At the same time, they discount the extent to which the increased urbanization of West Africa–and its own expansive rise of urban populations–create a human density where the disease might be difficult or impossible to contain, and the vectors of its transmission uncontrollably spread.

Much of the mapping of the occurrence of Ebola outbreaks past or current occurs without noting Ebola’s presence in apes or fruit-bat population.  As if significant, they somewhat stubbornly retain the boundaries of the modern sovereign states.  In this late-July chart from the Economist, has the cumulative spread of the virus was mapped against the population of fruit bats who are credible vector of transmission across species throughout the continent, to judge band in this case it is based on a rough mapping of the ecosystem where fruit bats live, rather than the number of bats who are themselves hosts for the disease or, say, infected apes.  (And the result seems equally–if not more–alarmist, since not all fruit bats can be said to carry the virus, and the scientificity of the image that it presents undermines the intensity of this localized outbreak on the Western coast.)


Economist mid-July

The Economist


Reading the map, one imagines its spread was a public health crisis reveals the poor quality of public health in Africa, rather than that most western medicine has been particularly ill-equipped to understand the spread or the vectors of its disease.  But the map oddly conceals the different viruses of Ebola that have appeared in the past fifty years in Africa, and the increased virulence of the current disease.  For although the incidence of Ebola in the Central African Republic now seem to be confirmed as a separate, less virulent strain, the overlap in the map of incidence and the bat population suggest the danger that infected animals transmit the disease in ways not constrained by human-to-human contact.

Meanwhile, the map omits the routes of the transmission of the butchery and migration of uncooked meats to cities and slums on rainforest-to-city roads that seem to be a major route for the disease’s transmission.  The difficulties of reaching rural areas where the dependence on bush meats is particularly intense–and distrust of foreign doctors or medicine has the potential to be considerably stronger–might create a distinct map that foreign aid organizations might approach the growing epidemic.  Local insistence against the danger of consuming bush meats that might be uncooked or handling raw meats and widespread refusal to accept the interpretations of medical aid workers in much of the continent poses a serious health risk–and underscore the importance of confronting this resistance in providing aid to West Africa.  The reasons why a base-map of the habitat of infected fruit bats and bush meat consumption have been less prominent in the mapping of the outbreak suggests the limits of relying on base-maps to understand the spread of the disease.


12.  The recent dependence on the recycling of existing geographic and news maps of West Africa have been less informative of the vectors of transmission or incubation of the deadly virus.  They almost indeed seem to generate the illusion we are able to locate and control the disease whose spread we are still at such pains to try to control by effective quarantine–the three-day country-wide “lockdown” that is proposed in Sierra Leone suggest a desperation at confronting the disease, with the rationale of taking an updated count of mortality rates and number of those afflicted, and may well provoke a deeper erosion of trust between the sick and health-care providers, that would encourage many to disguise the symptoms of illness or not seek out care, at the very time that a better understanding of the basis for its spread need to be understood.

Despite the intentionally misleading opinion of the Nigerian government asserted that the haemorrhagic disease in question was in fact not Ebola virus, but Dengue–though this has few grounds for being true–provided an interesting distribution of this insect-transmitted disease across specific latitudinal parameters might lead us to re-dimension our own ways of mapping Ebola against a variety of base-maps, perhaps focussing less exclusively on human victims–even as we mourn their tragic deaths, and see such deaths as a barometer of the global catastrophe of the virus’ spread–by shifting from the counting of the dead that Ebola has claimed than the animal vectors which communicate the deadly virus, or the changes in human populations from urban population density that have increased the transport of meats and butcher shops that have made it more likely for people to come into contact with the deadly virus.





Filed under Humanitarian Open Street Maps, Mapping Ebola, Mapping Ebola in West Africa, Mapping Ebola's Animal Hosts, mapping the containment of disease, Public Health and Ebola, tracking Ebola

Reading the World as It Is Worn on One’s Shoulders

The recent official prohibition issued in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar against tattooing a map of the country “below the waist” at the risk of carceral punishment suggests an unlikely overlap between mapped geography and bodily topography.  In according symbolic status to tattooed maps is not particularly new–but the degradation of the country by a permanent tattoo inked below the waist has rarely been seen as meriting fines and a sentence of up to three years imprisonment.  The decree reveals a heightened concern for the debasing of a national map in a country riven by some of the longest running ethnic strife and civil wars in the world:  U Ye Aung Mint informed a regional assembly at Mandalay that the government worried that while “this [same] symbol tattooed on the upper part of the body because it might demonstrate the wearer’s pride in their country, but a tattoo on the lower part disgraces the country’s pride,” he sought at a time of civil unrest to prevent “disgrace” of the map when it was transposed to “an inappropriate part of the [human] body” and written on one’s skin as an intentional insult to the nation inscribed on the body.

Perhaps because the art of tattooing has been an import of Americans into Iraq, rather than a local art, that was prohibited by the dictator Saddam Hussein under Islamic law, when it was considered haram and a desecration of God’s creation of the human body, an increasingly adoption of the map-tattoo was more of a conscious imitation of American occupiers, and an import of the American invasion of the country:  indeed, often inspired by the tattoos seen on the skin of foreign soldiers, the rise of tattoo parlors in Baghdad is something of a novelty–as are the mostly angry designs illustrating flaming skulls, razor coils of wire, or heavy metal band logos that were increasingly sought out in tattoo parlors in the war zone–even if Iraqi-American artist Wafaa Bilal used his body to create a map of American and Iraqi casualties, the latter of which were revealed to audiences under uv light.  But the emergence of maps as signs of  bodily resistance to ISIL‘s hopes to redraw a Levantine map–in an eery reworking of the growth of tattooing as a means to identify the bodies of those fearful of dying unclaimed in the Iraqi War–seems a particularly striking oddity as an illustration of patriotism and iconic badge inscribed on the body:




The tattooing of world or national maps on one’s own body is more often less intended as an elevation or degradation than a celebration of a map’s formal elegance–dissociated from a form of spatial orientation.  But the newfound popularity of maps as tattoos reveals an only somewhat unexpected transposition of the virtuosic artisanal craft of map making to one of the most productive areas of inventive printmaking, or perhaps the arena of artisanal production that touches the greatest growing not-that-underground audience of visual consumption and display.  While graphic designers readily transpose any image to any surface, there is something neatly cheeky about transposing the global map to the most local site of the body:  a return of the scriptural forms of mapping in an age of the hand-held, and an assertion of the individual intimacy of reading a map–reducing the inhabited world to a single surface–in the age of the obsolescence of the printed map.

The bodily inscription of maps might be seen as an act of political protest in Myanmar, and tattooing offers a declarative statement not easily removed from one’s body, but the abstract image of the map seems more often cast as a decorative art among groups rapidly searching for engaging (and ultimately visually entrancing) forms of bodily adornment rarely seeking to insult the integrity of the territory by linking it to the lower-regions of the body authorities seem to fear.  Given the proliferation of tattooed maps, we might join a hero in Geoff Nicolson’s crime novel which features the forcible tattooing of territorial maps on the bodies of victims in observing, once again, that “the map is not the territory.”

Despite the relatively recent decline of the printed map, the elegance of the map’s construction makes a widespread migration of the format and symbolism of engraved maps onto human flesh across the world as a decorative form of bodily marking an almost foregone conclusion.  Could the elegance of the delineation of the map’s surface not have migrated to body art sooner or later?  The vogue seems to correspond not to a shifting threshold of pain, but the expansion of tattooers’ repertoire, and the search for increasingly inventive images to be written onto the skin.  Unlike the expansion of tattoos that mark place or origin, or offer bearings of travel, the growing popularity of its most highly symbolic forms recuperate the deeply scriptural origins of cartography, as the stylus of tattooing consciously imitates the elegance of the burin and imitates a lost art of mapmaking whose formally elegant construction is now displayed on one’s skin.  The humiliation implied of degrading the territory by mapping it to the “lower” body parts in Myanmar seems removed, however, from the recent fad of appropriating the map’s design as a form of visual expression.  Historians of cartography, take note of this new surface of cartographical writing.

Seafarers used tattoos to plot their oceanic migrations without regard for territorial bounds, and sites for public reading, as it were, of one’s past travels.  The tattoos of sailors or merchant marines used to be symbols of world travel, by charting oceanic migrations:  tattoos offered self-identifying tools to a seagoing group and evidence of sea-faring experience–the “fully-rigged ship” a sign of rounding Cape Horn; the old standard of the anchor the sign of the Merchant Marine or the sign of Atlantic passage; dragons signified transit to the Far East; a tattoo of Neptune if one crossed the equator–and the ports often noted, in the form of a list, on a sailor’s forearm.  (The icon seems repeated with some popularity in the eight-point compasses often observed on inner wrists among the tattooed crowd in Oakland, CA.)  Only recently did the prevalence of modern tattooing led to the circumscription of permissibility for tattoos as a form of “bodily adornment”:  in January, 2003, Navy personnel were newly prohibited from being inked with “tattoos/body art/brands that are [deemed] excessive, obscene, sexually explicit or advocate or symbolize sex, gender, racial, religious, ethnic or national origin discrimination . . . . [as well as] tattoos/body art/brands that advocate or symbolize gang affiliations, supremacist or extremist groups, or drug use.”  The fear that conspicuous gang-related affiliations would challenge the decorum of membership in the Navy eclipsed the innovation of marking experience of world travel, in an attempt to contain the practice of tattooing that was already widespread among Navy officers.

So popular is the tattoo as an art of self-adornment that the Navy’s explicit proscription was partially rescinded by 2006, suggesting the inseparability from the navy and the tattoo, and the separation of tattoo from travel:  tattooing would from then be permitted, the US Navy ruled, only if the tattoo in question was neither “indecent” or above the neckline, so long as it also remained registered in the tattooed individual’s military file.  In a country of which over one-fifth of whose population possesses at least one tattoo, according to a 2012 national survey, the practice was less easily tarred with accusations of indecorousness, and might even hamper the number of eligible naval recruits.  The diffusion of tattooing as a form of self-adornment has in part made maps particularly popular genres of tattooing, as a way to track mobility and worldliness beyond the seafaring set.  The adoption of the map as a flat declaration has a sort of nostalgic whimsy born of anachronism.  In an age when our locations–and travels–are stored on smartphones that encrypt data of geolocation into KML files, the map is a trusty declaration of intention as much as of orientation, the tattooed map reveals a public form of reading and a fetishization of the map as legible, if coded, space–although cartographical distortion is rarely an issue with the tattooed, who prize the map’s elegance more than debate about its exactitude of the precision of transferring expanse to a flat surface:  what is written on the body seems distorted perforce, given the curvature of body parts as the upper back or its irregular surface.  And for whatever reasons, the difficulty of ordering uniform graticules seems to make them rare in the tattoo art collected below from Pinterest–where the growing popularity of the map as icon seems something like a popular logo of individual worldliness, if not an inscription of something like a personal atlas–or whatever one is to make of the map in the age of digital reproduction.

The proliferation of the map as a form of invention, both as form of generic wonder and a potentially personalized site of self-decoration, might be said to reflect the expanded audiences that emerged for the first printed maps as treasured commodities for public (and personal) display in early modern Europe.  But the popularity of noting space and place personalized tattooing represents one of the best instances in which one can make the map one’s own.   Mr. William Passman, a retired 59 year old financial planner from Louisiana, collects maps of the countries he’s visited in an interesting and highly personal manner as a basis for his own personal travelogue that he has inscribed (or dyed) on his upper back.  Passman’s decision to tattoo a graphic travelogue of his journeys to different continents stands at the intersection between a culture of conspicuous tattooing and the age of the info graphic:   he chose the template of a blank world map, roughly in the iconic corrected Mercator projection, actually inscribed on his back in an unusual way, as a chart or mnemonic device to note countries he visited during his life, treating his skin as the canvass for an atlas for his travels.


map from 59 yr old from Louisiana, William Passman


The backpacker, outdoorsman and blogger treated the tattooing practice as something like a diary–or log of travels written on his own back–that could be readily updated and expanded at tattoo parlors, and ready updated as it was reposted online.  And so when Mr. Passman had time to visit Antarctica, a new favorite tourist destination, he added the country that was omitted from the already expansive tattoo on his back, significantly expanding its coverage and apparently taking up (or taking advantage of) most all the available surface skin that remained–creating a virtual (if also quite physical) travelogue of his experiences:


Passman added Antarctica--retired financial planner


Passman intends to “update” his set of tattoos beyond the 75-80 countries he had visited when last interviewed, and is eager to add countries upon his return, treating his body as a legible diary.   A recent visit to Antigua hence prompted a visit back to the local Tattoo parlor to alter his personal map:




The coloration of the back dispenses with the four-color system of cartography, seeming to use a stylized system of its own.  Passman began to tattoo a blank map on his upper back, delineated carefully to thicken certain coastal shorelines, and a blank slate as if to facilitate their coloration–




–most cartographical tattoos remain monochrome, as if in order to better preserve their graphical design and to recall the aesthetic of early modern map engraving, and push the limits of personal adornment by inscribing something like a cartographical text on one’s own body.  (Tattooing was, in early modern Europe, viewed as distinguishing indigenous peoples who imprinted “finer figures” into their skin, unlike Europeans.)

The deep-skin-dying of maps of global expanse seems to court the macrocosm-microcosm conceit of the Renaissance, locating the whole world on the single body of one resident, condensing expanse to a symbolic form in ways that only maps can do, complete with the visual devices of engravers to signify the spaciousness of the chart and the substantiality of territories by darkening their edges’ interior, in vague imitation of the shading on the coasts of land regions in engraved shaded lines of intaglio maps.




Other maps formats of world map tattoos suggest the format of Old World/New World transposes nicely onto two feet, with an eight-point compass inset:




It is striking that he is not alone, although it seems that Antarctica and Greenland may be absent from the templates of other tattoo artists, and which Fed Jacobs judged to be “the most popular cartographic tattoo”, of the maps on upper backs, usually appearing without the addition of the southernmost continent:




mapnom backTricia Wilson’s Tumblr site




If these images of the generic upper back tattoo–a bodily region not the most painful to be inked, if fairly high on the pain scale, taking longer to tattoo and also to heal–although that compass rose to the right of the spinal column seemed to have hurt given its pink surrounding skin–suggest the map as a form of bourgeois adornment among a Facebook-using set, one can see this map-tattoo catching on as a conscious sign of cosmopolitanism, in this image from Inked magazine, at times revising the conspicuous display of globalism in this Atlas-like image of sustaining the earth on one’s shoulder, for a far less exhibitionist image befitting the pedestrian world-traveller:




Glyphs from maps, like compass roses, are especially treasured forms of adornment, with directional signs or without, like this exquisitely colored compass rose from a nautical chart, designed in Crucial Tattoo in Salisbury, MD by Jonathan Kellogg:


Inked by Jonathan Kellogg, Crucial Tattoo in Salisbury, Maryland


More rare is a map that emphasizes the graticule’s transposition of terrestrial curvature–or a map that is actually antique in its inscription of separate hemispheres:





Henricus Hondius, Nova Todas Terrarum Orbis Geographica ac Hydrographica Tabula (1641)

Or, in a widely repinned work by Annie Lloyd of considerable elegance:

Inked Mag by Annie Lloyd?


Is there a sense that the tattoo shows one in morning for the disappearance of the paper map?  Or a devaluation of the actual world, whose form is now effectively incorporated as a form of purely personal adornment?

The pleasure of the world map’s spatial curvature might, however, might be better transposed to the present in one image posted from Miami, Florida, whose contour lines seem inscribed onto the curvature of embodied flesh in ways that invite the experience of map reading more than only celebrate the map as a static symbolic form, as “infinitely entertaining .  .  . to give you pause,” expanding the cartographical canvas to the entire back, arms, and side, as well as the tops of the shoulder, treating the body as the ultimate surface of inscription:




What is the logic of making such maps, not too easily consulted by oneself, for one to carry around, save as providing the extension of making one’s own body a text for others to read?  If, to be sure, this can be achieved in fairly exhibitionist ways, the imaging of the world can literally transform one’s body to texts that recuperate the elegance of the engraved map, replete with the transposition of parallels and meridians to the curves of the back and arms, in ways can’t help but invite the body’s surface to be close read that almost seem a dare or challenge to even a passing observer, expanding the inscribed surface of the body to almost make the body no longer recognizable as flesh:



And the practice of taking the back as the surface for world-mapping may have heavily ironic, as much as celebratory or encomiastic ends.  The encomiastic function of maps lends itself to something like mockery in this retracing of the itinerary of the Red Army’s Long March, here before life-like wax images of two icons of the March, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, which cannot help but evoke the costs that the March wrecked on actual living bodies:



China mapped on one’s back, facing Mao Zedong and Chao En Al


The exhibitionism of cartography can mutate what is an emblem of unity for personal ends, as this image that transforms the surface of a strictly cartographical text, binscribing the map not on shoulders but one’s chest, and rewriting the contours of mapped space as a glyph-like colored design:






Given the popularity of the heart-shaped sign as an almost plastic tattoo, not only a currently fashionable, but a compellingly popular graphic to inscribe one’s emotional commitment on one’s flesh,or as an anatomically precise image, is it a matter of time that we see the occurrence beside the flaming heart tattoo, or “heart lock,” of the cordiform world of the Renaissance cartographer Oronce Finé?  Or is it too challenging to needle?



tumblr_n7dviinbey1s83h8do1_1280Houghton Library


More modest in scope, the tattooed map can of course also offer a nice example of locally rootedness, rather than cosmopolitanism, as in this person from the French region of Brittany, hearkening back to something like a sailing chart or the scroll of a treasure map in its cursive toponyms:





Or of a the bathymetric conventions of the precipitous depth of the mountain lake to depict sites even more specific as a place and time, making them somehow more mysteriously compelling by a detailed map than the mere addition of the name could offer:




For those inclined to more literary identifications, and whimsical definitions of provenance in an anti-territory, rather than an actual one, one might express the limitless of one’s affiliation by an image of the map, as if it were a badge of affinity to C.S. Lewis’ secret world, as well as invite acknowledgment of a sign of common readership–in ways that broadcast the scriptural significance of the Narnian map and the domains of the kings and queens of Cair Paravel (and land of Aslan):





Or, in ways that great one’s body as an even more expansive text, the equally mythologized territory of Middle Earth as a way of expressing an alternative orientation to the world, replete with J. R. R. Tolkein’s own cartographical evocation of a neo-medieval scriptural realm, as if to invite viewers to enter into the complexities of its imaginary space of Middle Earth, with a detail that evokes true fandom in apparently obsessive form, if not a battle between good and evil:




These tattoos are particularly difficult to remove, and not particularly legible, but that seems beside the point.

The migration of the map from the paper to the skin seems to treat the map as the ultimate aestheticization of body and the expansion of the treatment of flesh as inscribed surface:  the tattoo is most often an image of transcendence than of pinning one to a location, using the power of maps to escape spatial categorization.

But perhaps the utmost expression of the obsolescence of the map in tattoo remains the simple contrast between tattoo and image, and the apparent revenge, in this photo, of the body against the map, which seems to remind us in the deliberately anachronic juxtaposition of contemporary technologies of travel from the antiquated map:





Filed under digital reproduction and maps, maps as tattoos, maritime tattooing, Navy Tattoos, tattooing, tattooing models, U Ye Aung Mint

Mapping the Quake beneath American Canyon

The ways of mapping the effects of latest 6.1 earthquake–the largest in a quarter of a century–raise questions not only of the damages it left in its wake, or tragic human injuries, and property loss, but the web of services it disturbed.  The expanse across which the quake’s rumbling was felt at 3:20 am endured only twenty seconds but seemed to last several minutes, shaking the sides of buildings and houses, waking panicked residents, and breaking 50 gas lines and 30 water mains, leaving some 10,000 without power.  In ways that oddly echo the interconnectivity of communications, the quake centered in American Canyon was hard to embody or illustrate, if the measurement of the rumbling along the stretch of major faults lying along the San Andreas Fault that lies between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates was exact.




The “shake map” quickly generated by CISM revealed a quite specific concentration of incidence, some 6.7 miles underneath the earth’s surface, whose effects reportedly woke sleepers in the early morning both in San Francisco and Oakland, and as far as the South Bay and Davis.




The distribution of losses created by Napa restaurant closures and damages to buildings or rows of shattered unopened wine bottles might be on some minds–and a multitude of isolated images of individual incidents proliferated on social media, even as maps were created to track its impact.  But for all the many images of local damages and disruptions, from trailer parks to freeway ramps, posted on Twitter and social media, images of the web of outages in PG&E outage maps seemed the most compelling representation of the effects of its wake, even if the most abstract–and in a Google Maps format, that reveals the extent of the energy supplier’s range of gas lines and power lines.


outage map pg&e after quake



legend pge


The comprehensive coverage of the map–and the surprisingly uneven progression of individual outages from the epicenter–make the map a clearer synthesis of the earthquake’s impact than the dramatic footage of fires in trailer parks diffused on news agencies, or the images of damages to unreinforced masonry buildings in downtown Napa.  The distribution that it reveals are both more convincing and readily apprehended descriptions of the cascading effects of the earthquakes in this region than the specific descriptions of injuries and damage paraded on the nightly news.

The range of individual maps generated in response to the event convey a less vivid sense of its disruptions, perhaps as they were less immediately able to register its impact in ways viewers could apprehend.  The USGS generated their own crowd-sourced “Did you feel it?” map, somewhat less scientifically, that tried to measure the dispersion of intensity around northern California, taking the 3:20 am quake–and not its several aftershocks–as its focus:



The geocoded responses provided data for an intensity map over a surprisingly restricted area, using 21,000 unsolicited responses:



Later that morning, service seemed to have been partly restored, but if the range of local disruptions reported at 11 am diminished, their effects also apparently extended far beyond the aftershocks experienced by inhabitants of nearby regions:


Outages, 10-49 am



legend pge



By mid-afternoon, or 2:30, the disruption only slowly diminished.


PG & EOutages 2-30 pm

legend pge


Even though such automatically generated maps lack an author, the data they display organized a collective story for readers by which to understand the scope and scale of the earthquake’s effects.

Yet such maps might also serve as greater sources of information.  The greater engineering superstructure of the Bay Area–including highways, exit and entry ramps, gas mains, airports, public transportation, rail lines, and sewage systems–are all particularly serious potential sites of damage still difficult to be adequately mapped.  Indeed, the parallel expanse of a still relatively poorly mapped network of gas lines in the PG&E system–many of which recently existed only in the very paper forms in which they were originally drafted years ago–makes the final and continued effects of the earthquake difficult to determine.  The web of aftershocks indeed shadow the expanse of a poorly mapped web of gas lines across Northern California that has yet to be fully monitored for leakages in an antiquated system or even comprehensively mapped, whose potential leakages could trigger a disaster more serious than the San Bruno explosion of a natural gas pipeline in 2002, for which PG&E sustains it has no responsibility.


Gas Transmission Pipelines PG&E



Focussing only on the mapped network on natural gas pipelines in northern California that might have experienced breakages or fissures in the American Canyon quake, whose particularly dense network of gas mains around Napa is here mapped at greater scale:


Gas Main Network, larger scale


The questions of liability that would be raised by the inadequate mapping of the state, condition, and quality of existing gas mains around the Bay Area to public safety make it mandatory to release a full and comprehensive mapping of the quality of existing gas main lines and the potential dangers to which they would be exposed in earthquakes, far beyond the documented physical damage to buildings.  As much as counsel customers on its Facebook page “If you smell gas or are experiencing another electric or gas service emergency as a result of this earthquake, please call 1-800-743-5002 immediately,” and caution them that “If you shut off your gas service, do not turn it back on,” the availability of a truly comprehensive map–unlike the above maps provided by PG&E’s GIS system, “as a courtesy and for general information purposes only,” without a disclaimer that the map’s information is accurate without independent verification.


Filed under American Canyon Earthquake, Community Internet Intensity Maps, crowd-sourced maps?, GIS, Interactive Maps, Mapping Earthquake Damages, Mapping Earthquakes, Northern California, USGS

Mapping the Proposed Balkanization of the State California

Timothy C. Draper fondly reminisced that “I grew up in the state that was number one in education, the number one place to do business and the best place to live,” imagining that the division of the state of California into six separate states would return the state–or all of its six new states to be carved from it–to that past by re-mapping it anew.  The promise to return to prosperity is a call designed to formulate mass support, but all too short-sighted in nature.  Draper’s initiative to “divide” California into six California’s–six separate states–picks up the inventive cartographies of division that partition the United States into more “rational” or “reasonable” mega-regions, macro-states, or mini-countries, and betrays what little sense he has of the environmental or ecological status of the state.  His proposal stands at odds to how, back in 1837, the German-American jurist Franz Lieber famously doubted that altering hues of a map’s regions could effect its political economy, or “that the face of our country would change . . .  if the engravers were able to sell their maps less boisterously painted and not as they are now, each county of each state in flaming red, bright yellow, or a flagrant orange dye arrayed, like the cover produced by the united efforts of a quilting match.”  Lieber studied topographic mapping in Dresden before coming to America, and meant to contrast political economy and the coloration of maps–probably contrasting the four-color maps of the United States to those of Prussia with his Berlin-trained mind’s eye; the flagrant color-scheme of a map, however, becomes a device for Draper to urge that we remake the state of California into six “political entities” that most of those living in them would not actually be able to recognize.

By converting California to six cantons, the hope is to remake the state as six more manageable mega-regions to bridge perceived distances between government and Californians.  Draper represents the remapping of the state as a means to reconnect its residents to a model of good government in something of an extension of the argument of states’ rights.  The graphical division of the Golden State into six entities, maxi-regions or mini-states, each emptied of local meaning and purged of cities, provides the rallying cry of the venture capitalist’s movement for the May 2016 ballot, having gained over 1.3 million signatories of in-state residents at the time of its submission in mid-July–and of a charge that Draper hopes would open up the possibility that other states follow the lead of his movement to break into separate states as well.  Perhaps the initiative isn’t motivated by the desire to make one state in charge of border control, or break off West California [to] include much of what most Americans think of as stereotypical California – L.A.’s tangle of freeways, the movie industry, Disneyland and the surfing beaches up to Santa Barbara,” but to distance concerns that seem to address only part of the state from anyone living elsewhere by selective severing of what seem purely regional problems.

Even those who champion local community should be taken aback by the apparent popularity of the proposal to subdivide California as a state.  Despite continued questions as to the proposition’s legality, debate about the benefit of dividing the state–and about doing so by putting the issue up to voters to decide by California’s somewhat awfully anti-democratic proposals–has provoked a small storm in an era of widespread drought.  Despite Draper argument that his success of forecasting is revealed by his skillful investments in Tesla, Intel, LinkedIn, and more, his discernment of the “different issues important to different people in California” might overstate the divides into which he proposes to break the state to help its future growth.  The debate is framed by proponents of the cause on their website, where Draper’s initiative, energy and funds, have animated catchy graphics that animate a cartographical fantasy.



1.  Revising borderlines is certainly a great way to create distance in the name of promoting greater transparency that the initiative promotes.  The declarative finality of the map seems a great way to close debate, rather than advance it, by revealing and promoting fault-lines of which Californians weren’t even aware.  The  finality of the map that is the logo of the proposal that Draper hopes to put before voters in 2016 is, tellingly, both bleached of toponymy and of local knowledge of the regions that it separates by whitespace borders.  In indicating six districts or proto-states in which he imagined the monolith “California” might be good to divide and cantonize, the image is conveniently oblivious of what the “new borders,” for all their alleged objectivity, might in practice mean–assimilating hinterlands to major cities would surely diminish consensus and accentuate new divides; but he argues the divisions reflect the “very different personalities” and economic and political priorities of the residents of each of these regions.  Indeed, the habitual carving of countries by data visualizations lends increased credibility to new parsing of provocative lines of political divisions that effectively work disrupt their symbolic unity, presenting an argument that the size of these six state offer a template to restore the good days of local government, as if that would somehow leave California both more responsive and responsible to state-wide problems.

The proposal seeks to redress the distance at which each region’s interests have come to lie from Sacramento.  For Draper’s movement, the division would respond to the balancing of the different interests of each region, although only those of Silicon Valley seem defined:   Draper has discussed, for example, how a “large group in Sacramento” grew so “very isolated” from the “very different personalities” of each region to find it impossible to prioritize such concerns as Silicon Valley’s prioritizing H-1B_visas, or Southern Californians’ concern with immigration, as if their distance in Sacramento exacerbated the problem of “trying to balance the interests of people all up and down this coast” more than partisan gridlock.  The image of the coast indeed seems central to the canonization his group advocates:  five coastal regions seem the template for the division of the state; names of most coastal regions include “California” as if to remind residents that they only seek to preserve the best interests of the state:  “North California,” “Central California,” and “West California,” remind residents they have the state’s best interest at stake, notwithstanding the peripheral “Jefferson” and the massive new regional”Silicon Valley,” which is expanded to include choice properties around San Francisco, as if spatially linked by the web of private commute buses not only to the Bay Area but also much further north to Mendocino.  (Perhaps this is one of the true agendas of the movement for Six Californias:  not to break up California into regions like “South California” and “Jefferson,” but to make “California” a setting in which Silicon Valley, the place where Draper lives and works, can expand to attain the sort of place on the map that it deserves.)


New Map of California


The notion of repartitioning the state echoes past proposals of splitting off or partitioning of states.  Andrew Shears of Mansfield University has taken the time to collate and synthesize many of these movements in a stunning exercise of an “alternate history”of what might have been, using a list of U.S. State Partition Proposals, that multiplies the familiar fifty states in the union to a whopping 124 proposed states–with a disclaimer about advocating such multiple proposals.


United States that Could Have Been


The similarities between the “Draperized” map of California and collapsed movements of secession that Shears mapped in the state are curious. They probably partly reflect the massive settlement of the California coast and its concentration of capital–the proposal carves “Silicon Valley” out of California’s coastline and adds both West California and North California to it.  Unlike previous calls for downsizing California that predate the announced secession of “Jefferson” in 1941, before the entry of the US into World War II, the argument is to create more responsible government, rather than that distinguishing the region of “Coastal California” would allow an ample conservative voice for denizens of the interior of the state.  The map that demonstrated the splitting of the state has, moreover, itself become a sort of rallying cry:  rather than a grass-roots phenomenon of secession form below, the disbanding of California creates a collage of cantons in which all residents will better recognize themselves.

The divisions mapped above are meant to promise “more direct contact” of the citizens with a government “now ruled by detached and isolated politicians in Sacrament,” which Draper and friends suggest splitting to six legislatures (five more), electing five more governors, and passing six separate budgets, all out of the belief that small, rather than big, is beautiful, and that local problems will be more easily resolved locally, rather than gridlock.  Of course, the habitual carving of countries by data visualizations lends increased credibility to how redrawing six states would provide a better reflection of its political divisions, as if intentionally confusing such electoral divides with the state’s actual topographic landscape. For the notion of divvying up states into red and blue does create a difficulty for California, if one’s been trying to parse the ostensible national divide in the electorate that we’ve seen on news screens from at least 2000, and that now substitute for political debate–in order to create a set of state-like sectors that would reflect voter preferences that would vote reliable, we could benefit from Draper & Co.’s design, which would individuate some new “red states” in California in the electoral mosaic.




But the initiative is not only seeking to parse blue from red.


2.  While data visualizations are great for challenging disrupting inherited symbolic forms too often burned onto the back of our retinas, does Draper’s six-color proposal really open new space for debate?  While abandoning a five-color scheme to display data, the odd choices of hues used in the “Six Californias” logo makes one wonder what is trying to be conveyed–aside from the heat of the Sierras and sandiness of the desert–save the fundamental fact that these districts should be disjoined.  Sick of charges of gerrymandering, the notion is perhaps to take both the revenues produced by Silicon Valley for its local education budget and SoCal tax franchise and keep it for oneself, and leave the Central Valley a distant poor cousin where per capita income would fall below that of the state of Mississippi; now that the reduction of property taxes have dispensed with one of the best ways of reallocating capital in California, just let the tax franchise be divided to create a spectacularly wealthy shore and poorer satellite states with minimal populations, and really big water problems, posed only to accelerate with the growing drought.

What goes on with the aqueducts, rivers, canals and reservoirs is a crucially omitted point to which the end of this post will return.  Putting aside  problems posed for the University of California system, jewel institution of the states not to mention the wide network of community colleges, the budgeting for a far-flung elementary public school system would be immense–if the Regents would have to reconsider the whole question of in-state tuition, as well as the viability of the system.  (Forget about questions of what in-state tuition would mean; would we have not only ten new senators, but six Regents?)  As one who made much money on LinkedIn, does Draper envisage online education replacing the state universities?  Although Draper has insisted that the division of the state into a region with twelve senators and six governors would cut a bloated bureaucracy, what, one might ask, about the work of the California Coastal Commission at a time of increased concern with rising ocean-levels and tsunami?

Or does the imagined legal elevation of the region of Silicon Valley to statehood–the apparent essence of Draper’s imaginary future division of the map, only seek to remove Sacramento’s oversight of its economy?  Since the basic motive behind the division seems to be to allow the newly-forged state “Silicon Valley” to hire cheaper labor from Asia without restriction, it’s probable that he wouldn’t be so interested in cultivating in-state employees, anyways.  The new entity of “South California” (the amalgamated Orange and San Diego Counties, but leaving out most of Los Angeles to create a more homologous demographic) might even work to tip the balance of political representation in the US Senate, with “Central California” (the San Joaquin Valley)–assuming each of these regions would, by constitutional amendment, have two senators.  The ‘proposal’ exemplifies a pretty perverse cartographical wish-fulfillment that seems more distant from reality the more closer that it is considered, or the ways that California works–the website addresses issues such as pension-retention and the future of in-state tuition, barely belying its deep self-interest and suggesting few questions of collective resolution–and little (if any) sense of awareness of the state’s geographic location or the increasing precariousness of its environment.  Is proponents seem to distill all problems of governance to questions of geographic proximity, and prefer to see all resolutions as springing from the fragmenting of the state’s map into six separate sectors.

To be sure, the above parsing of the state reflects the rhetorical reconstruction of the nation into mega-regions or sub-divisions that have become increasingly popular, and play out a deep anxiety that the map has changed in ways that representational government no longer reflects, or no longer does well.  Our political map needs to be redrawn, the argument goes, to better account for how the ground has changed beneath our feet.  Such newly popular maps, perhaps hastened by the eye-grabbing nature of digital web-design and computer-assisted reporting, greatly profit from the ability to convert digitized cartography into a compelling meme, take their spin and part their power from the recent division of the country’s political preferences into “red” and “blue” states in news media–no matter how mutable such divisions might be, and how the division of California into two settled poles might provide a balance–as much as an argument for separatism per se.  In Draper’s initiative, indeed, it has been remarkable how much the image of re-drawing the state has become the story, as if the map, rather than illustrating the situation on the ground, can become the basis for future debate and, even, the infographic the issue itself, now liberated from a purely illustrative function.  It even invites the question if whether the sorts of divisions that infographics have accustomed us to see reveal actual obstacles to civic consensus or debate.

Indeed, the recent re-divisions of our chorographic maps into sharply distinguished choropleths that better distinguish divides in the nation and explicate the imagined oppositions between who’s red and who’s blue in the national news seems to have generated a range of unique solutions to better parse the nation into who watches the World Cup with attention and who doesn’t.  The map provides the basis for a more eye-grabbing news story, as well as a satisfyingly direct–spare me the time to read the paragraphs–model to consume information.  Such divisions of the country into allegedly “more accurate” cartographical parings have come to seem omnipresent signifiers that circulate in the blogosphere, removed from a storyline or caption; in elevating “place” as an object of true meaning, these divisions of demography create ghosts in the machine of the nation:  it’s not so surprising we’ve created alternative demographic divides and performed futurologies of the fragmentation to be brought by impending demographic shifts, or past signs of inevitable unbridgeable differences across regions that have not yet been sufficiently recognized in other maps.

The idea of the initiative is to bring the map into better correspondence with reality, so that the map better reflect the lost idea of an efficient and productive state.  So why not use the five-color scheme that divides the nation to divide the nation in different ways?  Creating a new national architecture for understanding our identity is not only a form of mise-en-abyme of the current rage for dividing the nation into more sensible units than that followed by the electoral college, and projecting the new sorts of urban constellations of paved earth–and the sectors of commuting they allow–that divide the nation in new ways.


Emerging Megaregions


Draper might indeed be seeking to create a similar exercise of cartographical futurology, by improbably linking San Francisco to Silicon Valley, and merging San Diego with Orange County, and then parsing the rest of the current state to most appropriately divide whatever is left over.

Some have argued that such a division already exists–and might be historically back-projected to the country’s origins, perhaps in order to rectify the errors of the founding fathers who fathomed the federation in the first place, noting that several nations in fact exist, based on the research of the reporter Colin Woodward into the eleven nations that now make up our nation:


American Nations


The currency of this notion that we’d do better to just divide the nation into regions seems particularly appealing as an exit-strategy to the toxic arguments of those who continue to advocate the confused concept of “states’ rights” to advocate NIMBY policy or to resist recommendations that society might be profitably adjusted to profit those disenfranchised.  If we partition “Greater Appalachia,” the thought might also run, we get rid of a lot of other problems to affirming the unified policies of “Yankeedom.”  (Of course, it goes unspoken that the notion that such a division of a country into mini-nations seems a way to sanction a set of “just wars” about political differences, which wouldn’t have to be “civil” but just just.)  Once drawn on a chart, and hopefully in straight or straight-ish lines, the divisions of regions seem to make sense–especially if they can all be given logos that approximate new flags or a board game.


GDP map


This is by no means the only means recently advocated or devised to divide the country.  Creative parsing of the country into regions that the demographic of Facebook users seems to map into clusters of “Friendship” might be an alternative division of constituencies, if you posit the idea that regions should possess some inherent coherence or identity, measured that they be more likely to be Facebook “friends”–as if that could create consensus, or that it takes to much time to arrive at consensus by political debate, which in themselves map interestingly onto Woodward’s divides.


United FB regions


The data-visualizers like might also opt to divide the regions of the US into its greatest centers of population, as in this gridded cartogram that exaggerates geomorphology as weighted to number of inhabitants, in ways that reveal the increased political problem posed by the concentration of the population outside of rural regions:  the population-weighted gridded gridded cartogram of the sort that is warped by the energetic cartographer Bejamin D. Hennig posits the question of how to best distribute the political process across the country that might merit a rethinking of the role of the electoral college, to be sure, and to the notion of “super”-senators to augment the voice of specific states.


Cartogram of US popation on grid


Let’s pause to reflect on the specific gridded distribution of population  across the state the proposal would divide to six, and ask where its major centers would be–and reflect on how the distribution of population might inspire libertarian ideas of separatism within the state:


California in Gridded Cartogram


But how to parse populations into greater divisions doesn’t seem to be the most evident answer to problems of arriving at consensus, if that notion of national uniformity is what one really wants.

ESRI mapped the country into ‘eco-regions,’ which might, as much as anything else, prove a manner of dividing the land, if it weren’t already inhabited-and if the divisions didn’t prove so irregular.  The result would be closer to the land, and to its geography, than the divisions the libertarian Draper put on the table–although few at ESRI would surge that these eco-regions provide effective lines of governance or of mapping onto discrete economically viable units, and nor would Jefferson have arrived at such a solution when we still remained an agricultural state.


esri ecoregions USA


3.  But something like this seems to be going on in Draper’s somewhat immodestly self-promoted proposal to divide California voiced as a libertarian solution to the ostensibly increasing distance of current state government in Sacramento from the people’s will.  The notion that this “aims to address a variety of issues the state faces today” begins from the not so imaginative invitation “ever really think about how big California is?” that passes as a form of cartographical reflection, asking how can only one governor even be expected to look after all of its inhabitants, and resolving problems of representing Californians by the illusory simplicity of a DIY cartographical exercise that anyone should be free to weigh in upon:  “you can create your state from the ground up . . . [and] have a say in what your state becomes.”  The graphic indeed seems to drive the argument for how Six Californias can bridge the divides that have grown with governments that have so receded from local issues to become “further distant” from the very folks they represents them–“six smaller states with more local and more responsive government,”as the website has it.  To shift the business plan of the government, as it were, and its “parts” are spun off to spend tax dollars more effectively and responsibly–and, despite the stacked deck of the considerably large economy in California, to compete among one another, rather than be overseen by Sacramento.

Such “draw it yourself” form of libertarian cartography is particularly deceptive as a way to resolve the state’s deep problems–and seem not only create multiple problems for the state’s existing infrastructure and educational systems with the illusion that one has done something to solve them, and argues that more problems are solved by the disaggregation of the state as a powerful means to dismantle governmental control.


New Map of California


The logic underlying the project of dividing the state seems be to allow each “region” to express its own interest in the most transparent ways.

Draper’s idea that remapping six California’s would be a basis to “recreate your state” that may be on the 2016 ballot has been fittingly lampooned by the cartoonist David Horsey of the LA Times in his own revisionary map of the possible divisions of the Golden State into proto-states with their own diffident mottoes, each no doubt phrased with a suitably separatist inflection.  Horsey played much more creatively with the proposed regions’ toponymy to point up the quite interested (and urban) perspectives that animate the venture capitalist’s dismemberment of the state–taking the “more effective” map of “six Californias,” but renaming “Jefferson” as “Weed,” for example, and using the “iState” as a designation of Silicon Valley, whose motto might now become “I’ll Google It” while “Border” has selected the simple declarative “Send ‘Em Back!”  (The mottoes reflect something of the self-interested nature of the initiative Draper sponsored in exempting Silicon Valley from the regulations that surround work-visas, which would allow Silicon Valley industries to hire the technological whizzes that it wants to hire, without inconvenient legal obstructions.)

For Draper has proposed that a belt from Marin to Tahoe as “North California,” as if to endow it with homogeneity, and greater San Diego becomes “South California.” Horsey’s remapping of the state into regions nicely reveals just how much the continuity of such regions derives from one’s perspective.  If Draper’s promise is to put voters back in touch with their representatives and destinies, the funny map into which he wants to carve the region removes the relation of the state to its major sites of agrarian production, but also to the snow packs and aquifers that until recent memory sustained much of the state, streaming down from the Sierra,  or the quandary of whether the dismembered state would be able to better deal with issues of drought.  Hollister farmer Andy Griffin of Mariquita Farms made similar concerns, and asks the deeper question, in a his own nice gloss to the below cartoon, by asking how the planned subdivision of the state remain removed from any awareness of where we are–and muddy regional awareness of even more pressing issues such as “mass transit and traffic congestion, even rental prices and housing supply”–perhaps “all regional concerns,” but ones “that need cooperation across county and city lines.”  Doesn’t the map Draper uses serve to obscure these issues, and reduce the state to the bottom level of questions of local self-interest?




Griffin’s points are hardly demanding of cartographical demonstration, but raises questions of the lack of a tabula rasa from which the division of the state into administrative entities might begin–and the alienation of such a proposal from the lay of the land.  While it looks like it might work in Photoshop, it evokes the specter of multiple desalination plants along the coastline that would presumably provide water to “Western California” and “Northern California” if they weren’t getting such a good deal from the network of reservoirs, aqueducts, Owen River, and canals that currently service not only the economy of the Central Valley, but the large cities that have grown up along the coast, let alone the sites of water storage that keep supplies of water uniform in an increasingly dry state.  (Or the question of where the SoCal amalgam of “South California,” far better named ‘Bling’, might deposit its trash, save in Border or in the Pacific.)


water storage and distribution


Just how connected Los Angeles and San Diego are to this matrix of water-transportation from the Columbia River to the Colorado River becomes apparent if one considers the map, cleansed of toponymy, of where it is that the Southland’s supply of drinking water derives–and the extent to which the SoCal watershed derives from the expanse of the entire state, in ways that would be a potential disaster of litigation to disentangle, if not  a natural disaster in the making, once one imagines the negotiation of water across multiple pseudo-state lines.

Indeed, not only do the Sierras provide over half of the total flow into the Sacramento Delta–the lynchpin of the complex system of irrigation and aqueducts that provides water to 25 million Californians and some three million acres of actively and intensively farmed agricultural land, and create a water structure that provides clean water to the state, but the linked ecosystems of the Delta and Sierras demand an increasingly collaborative policies and oversight that the very idea of division seems particularly shortsighted and would not only blindside but obfuscate.  Look a bit closer at the situation of the linked region of the Sierra-Delta at the center of the network of water that allows inhabitants of the states to live, and drives its land-based economy:





One arrives at an even more strikingly persuasive map, no doubt, by bleaching it of local toponym and topography alike, and foregrounding the web of water transport that reaches out of a thick central vein, and reaches most of the southern state that would ostensibly, in this perverse proposal, hive off as separate units, disconnected from the prime manmade surface aquifer which, albeit artificially, carries water to their residents across the very lines that the Draper-backed proposal mandates the law artificially sever, in ways that betray limited familiarity with the state’s water supplies, let alone the changes that climate change pose for the delicate balance that has historically that formed among the state’s diverse regions:



The historically built web of water supplied down the California Aqueduct and from the watershed that leads to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir to the rest of the state is artificial in nature, but a web that animates the ecosystems of the farmlands around where we live.  Indeed, the web of freshwater that we have created links the state as an organism–with some 60% coming from the Sierra.  After the break-up of the region into proto-states, perhaps we can dispense with the diversion of water to the Central California’s valley to San Diego and Orange County?  In those regions, desalination plants could crowd the coastlines, at least in the short term increasing the number of local jobs if at massive cost to those new states.




It’s a good way of forgetting the ways that we are bound to the allocation of resources, and to imagine that by going back to the drawing board with the idea that it can be a tabula rasa, we might be able to better sculpt the future out of the confused state of the present, and find clarification in letting us forget where we are by remapping out sense of the present lay of the land or our responsibility to it–rather than removing us from the land.  And of the future of the state, evident in the selection of a new topographic map, from a futurist press release dated 2072, imagining the new shoreline created due to erosion and the disintegration of the arctic ice cap, created by Burrito Justice, of the remade San Francisco archipelago:




One might as well also think of the remapping of just a detail Los Angeles bay, from a more detailed map drawn by Spatialities that considered the shifts in toponymic place-names that will occur after a rise of water elevation of 260 feet:


Los Angeles Bay


As a consideration of the fragile supply of waters, the shifting of the known shoreline throws a wrench into the forward-looking rhetoric Draper uses.

Making maps that might attend more to natural resources, and less to administrative reorganization, would be a good place to start to think about our relation to the land.  Francis Leiber was particularly concerned to develop administrative solutions that would lead to good government, reflecting his dedication to questions of political economy, and no doubt might stress administration of the land as an individual responsibility:  Nullum jus sine officio, nullum officium sine jure (“No right without its duties, no duty without its rights”).  Libertarians as Draper lose sight of this, and of what responsibilities might be lost in the proposed disaggregation of the state.


California Republic

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Filed under Andy Griffin, Benjamin Hennig, California, Colin Woodward, David Horsey, Francis Leiber, Six Californias, six-state solution, Timothy C. Draper, Timothy Draper

Weed Maps?

While the criminalization of marijuana over the past decades strove to push the stuff literally off the national map, the rethinking of the efficacy of a “war on drugs” has created a new mapping of the legalization of cannabis as a legitimate pursuit.  The rise of legal marijuana dispensaries in many states of the nation have created yet a new manner of mapping our national divides–itself a favorite national past-time.  From the illustration of which states have enacted laws of marijuana legalization–

Marijuana Legalization map


–or, to offer a more updated account of “decriminalization” as well as “legalization”:


Map-of-US-state-cannabis-laws.svg   Legend MariJ Map clean


These broad brush-strokes of cartography demand a finer grain.  And a finer grain has arrived, so to speak, with the entrepreneurial folks at Weed Maps who have collated local dispensaries at a range of scale to which one can zoom to reveal a geography of availability and even openly ranked dispensaries that are perhaps the closest available we have to sanctioned standards.  Users can click on the clickable icons of dispensaries that appear on the screen with precise geolocation, differentiating “laboratory tested” from, presumably, riskier, and delivery services from in-store only.

Google Maps has essentially provided a new iconography of pot, particularly useful when one is addressing customers and taking laws for medical cannabis at their word.  Issues of legibility and economy in a map lies always at the crux of cartographical invention, and we might look at these early models of mapping as a sort of prototype that has sprung up on a website that includes such euphoric messages of encouragement of abundant capitalization as “Congratulations Washington!  Legal Weed Has Arrived!” and ponders “What a long, strange road to legalization it’s been in the Evergreen State.” Consider the local density of outlets in the Bay Area, in a map offering a busily synoptic overview of the rich efflorescence of the weed economy, as a promising point of departure:


Bay Area Weed Map


Hard to read, you may say, and too crowded and complex in its iconography, not to mention for readers with occasionally addled brains?  The interactive map produces its best results by hovering over specific sites, but in the large-scale version just gives an idea of the abundant range of buying options available. But let’s just focus on buying clubs around the East Bay:


East Bay Dispensaries

and take advantage of the range of ratings and select reviews:

Rating and Reviews


This could be of use for the traveller–not many legal dispensaries in Fresno or Reno–or for whittling one’s abundant range of options down to the lab-tested–

Lab Tested


or, to restrict oneself to both recreational AND lab-tested–


Bay Area Recreational, Lab-Tested


or, shifting the geographic terrain a bit to a nearby destination, to explore the rankings of regions closer to the Sacramento foothills:


Sacramento Foothills--review and rank


And you might do a double-take at finding out how quickly demand has driven the rapid growth of dispensaries that have sprouted up around greater Seattle:

Dispensaries in Washington


For this inventive appropriation of the Google Maps API and the ranked range of selectivity that might best suit the searcher of legalized cannabis, we have to thank the folks at “weed maps” for the mash-up, even if one wished they used an OSM base map, whose “open access” options might allow easy mapping of the proliferation of future sights of sale.  Even though recreational use of marijuana is not legal in 48 states of the union, Weed Maps CEO Justin Hartfield, a visionary and a man on a mission, projects annual earnings of upwards of upwards of $30 million, and uses his mashup as something like a crusade to keep marijuana in the hands of user.

The iconography of mapping marijuana’s availability can get curious as an early mashup.  Often, for example, despite the inventive and unconsciously playful iconography, one gets some nice visuals, but most maps are often all too crowded–as one can already see in those of the Bay Area, with information and odd juxtapositions, as in the proverbial New Jersey delivery truck seeming poised to carry cannabis to Manhattan through the Holland Tunnel–


Some of the Iconography is Cool

The API reveals some nice “weed islands” that will be useful to note, even in states where legalization is the norm, as Rhode Island.


Weed Islands?


While quite rudimentary in design, the proliferation of push-pins pointing to places to purchase pot posit a pivot in themselves in the changing topography of cannabis in the new millennium.  More than anything, it just shows the relative rapidity with which marijuana is openly on the map. So, go forth and map?  It’s a lot easier to negotiate the topography.  Hartfield himself boasts at having lit up “almost every day” for fifteen years, as a medical marijuana customer who was impressed with the extreme openness of information about pot options at his local dispensary, which gave him the idea of mapping quality and availability, so that “people can do their own research.”

Mapping such a mashup seems a start for revealing something like a new landscape:  if legalization advances, of course, as advocated quite recently by the New York Times, the newspaper of record, and the ranking of quality reaches mainstream consumers, the WeedMaps ratings system might merge with or be overwhelmed by Yelp–although the data already accumulated, and the audience that they’ve reached, seems to put them a leg up.  “We know more about the plant and love the plant,” Hartfield observed, perhaps with something of a sly smile, “than anybody else.”

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Filed under Google Maps, Google Maps API, mapping cannabis, mapping marijuana legalization, weedmaps

Mapping the Wobbliness of the Polar Vortex

Since we use the conventions of map making to endow solidity, or reify, even the most abstract ideas, it is interesting to examine how the ‘Polar Vortex’ has spread across the mass media as both a meme and icon of the current weather patterns of the new millennium.  Rather than map place by a matrix of fixed locations alone, maps of the Vortex offer a visualization of temperature variants that reveal an anomalous weather conditions that track the Vortex as it moves, intersecting with place, across the stratosphere into our own latitudes, tracking not only a “cold front” but, globally, the disruption of the path of the circumpolar winds, or splitting of the vortex from the north pole.  We are most likely to “see” the Vortex as an incursion into our own map, effectively dividing the country (yet again?) this summer into regions of cold and heat.  The currency of visualizations of the Vortex reveals not only a meme, but a model for encoding multi-causational weather maps.  Indeed, the mapping of the divergence from usual temperature range reveals the anomaly of a north-south weather front with the solidity of a national divide, raising deep questions of its forecast of extreme weather throughout the year more than offering something like a “poor man’s vortex.”



As the term has gained wide currency as a challenge within data visualization world for throwing weather systems into legible relief, it set a new bar for producing visualizations that are challenging to fully comprehend.  The Polar Vortex is mapped as it moves, as if on its own, across the stratosphere into our own latitudes, condensed in a range of data visualizations of stratospheric or tropospheric low-pressure fronts, in ways that map onto current quandaries of atmospheric and climactic imbalance.   The animated superimposition of weather patterns condensed in a range of data visualizations of stratospheric or tropospheric low-pressure fronts themselves map onto concerns about climate change, and conjure narratives of global atmospheric change and climactic imbalance:  the disruption of the usual harmony of the polar jet stream perhaps maps onto both notable rises in polar temperatures or torrential rains off the coast of Japan, but whether due to a spike in northern pacific offshore typhoons or openings in polar ice cover, the markedly increasing waviness of the vortex has allowed increased amounts of cooler air seep south once again, in an eery echo of last January’s mid-winter chill, that has lead weatherpersons to scramble for clarifying narratives about the return of that green blob.  (To be sure, back in January, the naysayers of climate change parsed weather maps as counter-evidence to global warming, allowing them to indulge in alternate meteorological realities, before they were batted down in two minutes by the President’s Science and Technology Advisor, Dr. John Holdren.)


Weatherman scrambling to gloss




Offering a marvelous array of vowels and pattern of assonance, with a name befitting a Marvel comics super-hero as much as a weather pattern, the Vortex is a touchstone of climate change and a great case of how we have yet to ken the global as intersecting with the local.   But we have unfortunately trended to oscillate, as it were, in our maps between national weather maps, where the Vortex made such a splash as a newsworthy low-pressure pattern, to maps of patterns in global environmental change, that might better direct attention to changing meteorological realities.

Part of the problem is adopting a point of view on the weather that we are tracking–or of viewing the Vortex as a stratospheric phenomenon around the polar regions, or charting a weather pattern forecast as occurring within our nation’s bounds.  The reprise of the spill of northern air into the upper United States returned the Vortex into national news this July has provided a basis of the latter, to judge by this new visualization that projects the cooling temperatures in the northern United States, as a deep wave in the Jet Stream brought colder air to the Northeast.  Even if the cooling air that arrived was not arctic, the pattern of its arrival to the continental US this summer has prompted some significant debate among meteorologists who have glossed the map in alternate ways, almost entirely still focussing, oddly enough, in a reprise of the mid-January news blip on the Vortex, on the unit of weather in the United States in isolation from a global context.  The anomaly of the “Vortex” has become something of shorthand for a southern swing of cold air from north of the Great Lakes, produced by a decreased disparity between polar and sub-polar continental temperatures that lower the latitude of the jet stream, according to some research that has been endorsed by the National Academy of Sciences, and increased its waviness as the Arctic warms.  The maps serve to embody the increasingly newsworthy weather in the Northeast, reaching down to the southern states as if an invading army as much as a meteorological cold front, placing the anomaly of the displacement of cold air against the screen of an iconic national map on which it has been superimposed.




The map recalls a similar dispersion of circumpolar winds from the arctic into the lower forty-eight already called the “most upsetting” data visualization of the winter of 2014.  The drift of circumpolar winds at stratospheric levels offers a compelling means to understand the arrival into the Midwestern states of cold air once more from the north during the mid-summer of 2014.  Rather than only being a meme of the media, or being coined as a manifesto a group of avant-garde modernist meteorologists who found energy in the abstraction of weather forms, the term tracks the dispersion of the circumpolar whirl usually uniformly swirling about the pole offer both a rogue arrival into our national climate and a sort of emblem of an imbalance of circumpolar stratospheric harmony by pushing down the arrival of winds from the Pacific ocean.



The benefits of shifting iconography to the global are immediately apparent if only because they reveal the divergence of the weather system from a meteorological status quo.  The cycle of wind, usually located in the mid- to upper troposphere, has apparently begun to split or splinter from it usual centers above Baffin Island and Siberia as its air warms, and moves below the arctic regions.  The displaced vortex, which migrates below the arctic circle in the stratosphere, reflects the warming of temperatures at the poles, creating currents able to funnel the figurative migration of arctic air currents to sub-arctic latitudes, even if the air in question this July might more likely be northeast Pacific more than arctic in its provenance.


Displaced Vortex-full color windsEarth.com

The local is, however, far more easily digestible for viewers of The Weather Channel, and the Vortex is shown as an intersection of the global with the regional weather map.  Collating data from divergences or temperature anomalies from a database covering local temperatures in 1981-2010, the spectrum of a “heat map” tracks currents of cold across the backdrop of the lower forty-eight in an easily digestible manner that packed so big a punch for folks trying to puzzle over the freezing over of roads, local lakes, or back yards:


Vortex in States


Once more thrown off-balance, it sends cooler air below the lower forty eight and forty-ninth parallel, making it national news as a dramatic aberration that marked the entry of intense cold.  Data visualizations provide new tools of making the meteorological concept legible in ways that gain sudden particular relevance for audiences familiar with weather maps, for whom immediately powerful associations of shifts in the measurements of regional temperatures will pop out at viewers of a forecast or weather map, forcing them to pay attention to the meteorological imbalances they portend.




Recent global maps of the Polar Vortex offer more than an icon of the transcendence of territorial boundary lines systems, by processing and portraying the Vortex as an expansion and  breaking off of cold air outside the restraints of an arctic air system.




The dramatic splitting of the arctic jet, due to atmospheric pressure anomalies, was mapped by NOAA in this data visualization of July 2014, of a splintering of the vortex, in apparent response to the warming of our poles, hastened by the diminishing snowfall and ice-cover that create new chilly islands or microclimates on the ends of a warming pole we often seen as lying so far away:


July Polar Vortex 2014


The disruption that results brings the displacement of arctic winds that most often sit anchored around the polar region.  A “weak” polar vortex, interacting with arctic ice-cover decline and reduced snow cover, was some time go modeled as resulting in a meandering arctic jet stream and occasional detachment of a polar weather systems and consequent decline or weakening of pressure gradients of the vortex, and consequent reconfiguration of the arctic jet stream:




Has something like this occurred?  The dynamic visualization of weather maps in five colors and striking contour lines provide clear tools to visualize its speed and energy, in ways that might even have helped resurrect a term that had languished in meteorological lexicons from at least 1853, when the “continued circular gale” was described as flying “more rapidly and more obliquely . . . carried upward to the regions of the atmosphere above,” as lying in the ambitions of a “great Air Map” but based on the recent 1851 NOAA mapping of “great undulatory beds of the oceans . . . for all practical purposes of navigation.”


great polar vortex


But now we have a recognizable image that can be tracked over a recognizable terrestrial map that concretizes the Vortex in ways that its winds can be understood as extending over a region of truly global expanse.

Tracked in terms of actual temperature anomalies, in the winter of 2014, when newscasters and NOAA (the same agency) mapped the migration of cold air southwards of the pole into our frontiers, far outside the usual path of the jet stream, in a disturbance of the weather systems worthy of national news last January, in a data visualization which tracked a green (or purple) blob whose forced migration of frigid air from the polar regions that disrupted weather patterns with national consequence as it migrated out of Canadian airspace.


500_mb_Mon_night Vortex in States


In the dramatically eye-catching graphics of television’s mass-media, as the bulge of purple and magenta of detached low-pressure systems migrate south, crossing the very same borders to which we are increasingly sensitized in our national news media, albeit at tropospheric altitudes no fence or border guards could ever patrol.  Indeed, the map suddenly suggests the increasing vulnerability of our delicate weather systems, echoed by the language with which the Polar Vortex’s “EXTREME COLD” loops invasively southward across our northern border, cutting off Pacific Air:


650x366_01161627_hd31-1 650x366_01161752_hd30-2AccuWeather


The apparent incursion of its jet stream into the bounds of our national airspace, as in this image of cold air migrating across the northern border, results in the proliferation of metaphors all too often violent in tone:  Climate Central may have only adopted the robust rhetoric of sportscasters when it described high pressure systems in quite athletic terms that “block the eastward progression of weather systems, like an offensive lineman protecting the quarterback from the other team,” allowing the air that circulates around the arctic to start “spreading tentacles of cold southward into Europe, Asia, and North America.”  Less dynamically interpreted and understood once cast in global terms, rising temperatures at the poles–the very sites where, we should note, global warming is occurring at a rate twice the global average–displaces the previously concentrated flow of a jet stream of cold air from its arctic abode.

Of course, few seem ready to tie this to the diminishing ice-cover of the north pole, which still seem a leap too far to be made logically. Oddly, the meteorological mechanics of the expanding split-off of polar winds is modeled as an incursion of weather patterns echo the metaphorics of a military situation map by tracing borders, a hold-over of national weather organizations like the NOAA:  the global image of wind velocities around the pole, depicted below, is oddly absent from what is actually a global phenomenon.



But we are all too used to interpret and read weather maps with both a sense of voyeurism for our friends and relatives, but from a subjective lens.Despite the adoption of globalized images from our friends at National Geographic, who used Mass FX Media’s animation to visualize circumpolar air flows, and despite the continued live monitoring of wind-flows at “Earth,” the isolation of the nation in the maws of the vortex is so readily discussed as the “most upsetting map of the winter,” as if the migration of the pool of arctic air into the northern United States were best understood as a disturbance of national temperatures.

The similar narrative about the Vortex in national forecasts stands in contrast to the maps of rising temperatures, but create a visual modeling of a meteorological distribution that almost resembles an invasion.  Even though the distribution and speed of the Vortex in summer is usually slow, the polar air however seems to be arriving from across the border with unstoppable velocity, the below global visualization, also based on a similar distribution of deviations from average temperatures craft a similarly compelling large-scale weather pattern–albeit one occurring some 3,000 feet above the earth’s surface–in which, rather than reveal a lack of equilibrium, arctic air dips south across the forty-ninth parallel and past the Mason-Dixon line, confirming its occurrence as a shift of national consequence.




Because the “most upsetting map of the winter” tracks the pooling of arctic air into the northern United States created a disturbance of national temperatures into the Eastern United States and much of the central region of the country.

Wasn’t it once more reassuring to understand the polar regions, its topography unknown, as somehow removed from the atmospheric currents than being mapped around the world?




The wonderfully protean animated map of disequilibria in the harmony of stratospheric currents of cold polar air within the jet stream opens breaches across national boundaries, albeit at considerable elevation, and also offers a way of tugging at one atmospheric phenomenon to unpack a web of inter-related phenomena.  Unlike maps of habitation or land-surface, the map traces a low-pressure system at high altitudes far above the settled or occupied land, but intersecting with it in ways that conjure a failed ability to contain colder air over the polar regions.  (Taking the iconography of weather maps as transparent, the blogosphere has suggested the adoption of charges of circumpolar intoxication.)

The distribution of stratospheric air whose flow is charted in global map as an irregular anomaly of temperatures’ spread, is perhaps most concretely rendered by the iced-over bodies of water it left in our own upper latitudes.  The striking freezing over of the Great Lakes, covering some 88% of the lakes’ surface area by mid-February, a greater proportion of seasonal ice-cover than ever registered, and surpassing the 82% record of 1996, according to Caitlin Kennedy of NOAA, which render the striking concentration of ice in frozen lakes a concrete map of the local effects of truly polar weather.





The material manifestation of the cold on the surfaces of those five lakes–all frozen solid, to appearances, save Lake Ontario, seem as concrete a result of the consequences of climactic change one might have in a chart, by placing the ice-covered lakes in a local landscape.

What seemed the displacement of the frigid polar air to the Great Lakes became something like a confusion of the local and the global in the news media that was played out in weather maps.  Of course, the meteorological mapping of this winter’s Polar Vortex in Canadian outlets seemed more the status quo, with most of the country facing sub-zero temperatures:




The US “low temperature map” used a slightly different temperature spectrum, but preserved a more alarmist image of anomalous weather conditions even in the National Digital Forecast:


temperature spectrum us vortex

The striking visual by far was from a site located exactly on the US-Canada border, an  eye-catching a frozen Niagara Falls, that icon of liminality:




The distributions that charting the mid-July summer chill newly arrived in the Midwest and much of the East coast of the United States from Canada is less striking, even if it will bring dips of twenty to thirty degrees form the normal.  NOAA omits Canada completely from its prognostications of the arrival of the coming cold, as befits its role as a national agency, and restricts its purview to United States coastal territories, even though it would make the graphic far more credible to offer a greater coverage.  It provides something of a summertime counterpart, however, in which the probability of lower temperatures than usual seem to create a ring about the same lakes, radiating almost to the Atlantic coast:




Where is the center of this new system of cold air? With roots in Hudson Bay–where else?–the polar air will be spinning southwards at the upper levels of the atmosphere, spinning southwards toward the United States. There were past migrations of arctic air over Quebec and Maine, back in late January, 1985:




The Detroit Free Press even seized on a recent NOAA projection of a similar displacement of arctic air, that locates the center of cool air migrated toward Michigan, forming a pool of air that had descended into the central United States, as if to cast the event as something like local news, even as it suggests the rise of two weather systems:




The occurrence isn’t strictly polar, or arctic, in its origin.

But the results are the consequence of a sort of distorting decentralization of the polar cold air outbreak that hovers around the arctic circle, running around the pole and allowing or protecting cold air from drifting south, containing cold air or not it its high altitude low-pressure system.  (Of course, the west coast is poised for a dryer and hotter-than-normal week.)  The decline of snow and ice around the Pole, combined with the warming of the wobbly gulf stream, will allow the chilly polar air to spill southwards to the plain states, covering not only Canada but spilling outside the low-pressure system and over to the seaboard, in a sort of nervous breakdown of meteorological model behaviors.

The disturbances of equilibria in our weather maps makes it worthy of more than symbolic note. The increasing variability that the waviness of the outer line of the low-pressure system, or jet stream, related to the declining snow cover in the far north, in the a “warm Arctic-cold continents” pattern, where the compact containment of colder airs was broadly breached.




The lack of equilibrium in the stream of polar winds–distinct from the widening polar ozone hole–opens up more of the terrestrial surface to chilling shifts in temperature. As much as the embodying a low-pressure system, the map is a narrative of the disruption of climactic harmony, and view toward the future of weather systems world-wide.  The results of the wavy polar vortex, joined with rising world temperatures, create a map of bizarre spottiness in average world temperatures that is difficult to conceive or map, precisely because its high-altitude distribution is difficult to transfer from a spherical to a flat surface, and because its distribution unfairly privileges the tracking of cold air in ways that seem, misleadingly, to fly in the face of the maps of our overheating world.  This past January, NOAA crafted a digital globe that displayed the distortion of local temperatures distorted beyond the norm, with cold displaced from its polar resting place, resulting in a cognitively useful modeling of a disjointed jigsaw of cold and warm air, where the warmer deviations of global temperatures spick not only over western Russia and Alaska, but at the polar regions itself.



polarvortex_airtempanom_610NOAA Climate.gov


The result is a jigsaw reveals the breaching of cold air from the cap of winds that encircle the polar cap has a enough of touch of biomomorphism to echo ecofeminism; the forcing of warmer air patterns resembles a blurry sonar image of curled-up embryonic twins resting in a womb as if evoking the shape of future weather systems, offering a biomorphic visual metaphor for something like an eery augur of a future holding limited possibilities for an afterlife–and of the unknown future of our planet’s atmosphere.




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Filed under climatology, ecofeminsim, Great Lakes, meteorological maps, Niagara Falls, NOAA, polar vortex, weather maps

The Betrayal of Sykes-Picot? Mapping the Expansion of Violence in Syria’s Civil War

In the shadow of two large, formerly centralized states–Iraq and Syria–the “Islamic State” has spread across their common confines in ways that seem to re-write the map of the Middle East.  The surprising success of the ISIS in Syria has been striking in the face of fatigued fighters of the Free Syrian Army, who, exhausted by fighting three years after the uprising began, have enjoyed considerable success in the face of the attrition of rebel fighters.  Even as the Assad government worked to retake significant ground in the country’s center and north, the new stability of ISIL has drawn on Sunni ties and allegiances deeper than national ties, and promised greater regularity in food supplies that have enjoyed wide appeal in a worn-torn country.  How to map the bases of this appeal, and how to chart the entity of the Islamic State has frustrated western cartographers and news maps alike.

The boundaries between Syria and Iraq drawn for the interests of occupying British and French powers at the end of World War I and fall of the Ottoman Empire at the Sykes-Picot Accord of in 1916, is being altered in the region’s current map:  yet the deep destabilization created across the former provincial regions of the Ottoman empire reflect problems in defining allegiances in a map.  The increasingly tenuous ties across the region are tied as often to the provision of bread or the guarantee of temporary security in regions which have suffered ongoing lack of stability in past years–or any ties of food or health security–as they are to the effective tolerance of an ongoing civil war that has destroyed national infrastructures.  The severe instability across Syria that has ramped up support of ISIL, making the Islamic State a credible opposition to Bashar al-Assad, that reflect less the undue carving of the Ottoman Empire’s expanse than continued juggling of a system of alliances to secure oil, with little attention to the country’s inhabitants, that have allowed us to tolerate or suspend attention to the deep instabilities revealed in Syria’s civil war, and to the effective implosion of its state.

The newly centralized state that has emerged after the truncation of its name from the “Islamic State of Syria and the Levant” to “ISIS” transcends the notion of national boundaries.  As much as reject the reconfiguration about the littoral region of the Levant, in pivoting from the Mediterranean region of the Levant, ISIS has tried to assume the status of a state that is able to recuperate the notion of a mythic caliphate as a point of resistance.  But it is deeply rooted in the Syrian revolution, and a good portion of ISIS fighters have not only come from Syria, but have left the Syrian Free Army for ISIS, a more credible opposition to Assad’s regime, dissatisfied with their own leaders, and attracted by the clear vision of a state that the Islamic State provides.  The declaration of a New Caliphate not only “seeks to redraw the map of the Middle East, but dismantle the shortcomings and misadministration that is associated by earlier mappings of the region, and with the corruption of the Syrian state.

Its future survival however raises questions what sort of unity and coherence exists within a region out of the deep instability of Syria’s civil wars.  There is a clear tension in articulating a “State” in dialogue with extant maps, including the many maps drawn and redrawn across the region since World War I, in the hope of securing more fixed territorial bounds than existed in the Ottoman Empire, and a rejection of the territorial entities that seem to have been created in a colonial past for the ends of replicating a Eurocentric balance of powers, as much as the needs or allegiance of local residents.  Although ISIS promises to promote “justice and human dignity” for Muslims everywhere, the creation of such universal claims to over-write existing formerly centralized states in the region–dismantling any pretense of unity or national centralization that used to exist in Iraq, or of the imploded state of Syria–only mask a deep fracturing as individual oil companies back the break-up of oil-rich northern regions of the former Iraq in ways that may yet happen in other regions of the Middle East.

Regional stability seems likely determined less by either e arrogant declarations of territorial rights or local self-determination, sadly, than the outside support that new regions can muster to support their coherence in a badly destabilized region.  It is impossible to map as a political entity, or without taking account of the recent destabilization across the Middle East, and the implosion of Syria’s civil society as its leader, Bashar al-Assad, has clung to his role as titular leader.  Indeed, it was within the Syrian civil war’s destabilization that the organization of ISIL first emerged as a way to reject Assad, first in the far northern city of Aleppo and Raqqa, among other rebel groups, but that has grown into the Islamic State.  The foundation of an Islamic state was far removed from the goal of the Syrian Free Army or other rebel groups:  after being ejected from the Free Army this past January 2014, the group moved east along Syrian’s borders, seizing towns and capturing money and munitions with the aim of remapping the former state of Syria and crossing the Iraq-Syria border, to achieve a new Islamic state, and expanding into the Anbar province and oil-rich zones of northern Iraq, the region controlled by the “Islamic State” has created a conundrum for cartographers as it breaks from existing national boundary lines, and depends on decidedly post-national allegiance.  Even as the current fracturing of Iraq into sectarian regions backed by different sources, post-national maps of the region depend on the reconciliation of the arrogance of ISIS in staking claim to possess the region by natural right in near-Iliadic violence with attempts to meet the limited resources or scarcity and deep destabilization on the ground that has been increasingly attempted to be mapped–but whose deep underlying causes remain difficult to represent adequately.


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What the territorial constellation of an Islamic State would be is difficult to map–as is the cartographical basis to map such a “state”, now expanding  along the Euphrates toward areas around Baghdad, which has destabilized any sense of the centralized nation that once existed in the region.  At the same time as selling formerly Iraqi oil to the Syrian government, and growing its command from former Iraqi prisons like Abu Ghraib, ISIS seems to rewrite the bounds of a “mappable” state, as much as to rewrite the boundaries of states in the Middle East, in ways that raise deep questions of the meaning of territoriality and territorial coherence across the region.  While boundaries of an Islamic State seem destined to remain unclear for some time, the rhetoric of purification and restoration that is animating the logic of a “New Caliphate” strongly draws on rewriting on wrongly imposed boundary lines that are the vestiges of imperialism.  Indeed, the new divisions forged in the landscape of a civil wars in Iraq as in Syria, whose claims for legitimacy increasingly derive not from a civil solution to a multi-ethnic cosmopolitan state, but from the invocation of a Sunni successor to Mohammed respond to a longstanding destabilization of the map across both countries which deserves to be mapped.  Invoking a Sunni heritage of transcendent harmony that would void the authority of all civil states, erasing divisions in an area extending from the Mediterranean to the Gulf, responds to ongoing destabilization brought by ongoing and mutating civil war.  Rarely has a state conjured up a map both with such rapidly shifting and somewhat hypothetical frontiers, and so clearly both engaged with multiple traditions of mapping, even as it rejects the notion of fixed frontiers to define its own unity across two states.

The apparent endgame or sectarian standstill have made it particularly difficult to map either the boundaries, continuity or coherence of Syria as a region.  Maps of the region’s destabilization offer a point to engage with the newly announced Islamic State than any maps we might devise, for the expansion of this new Caliphate seems to lack clear frontiers as it lacks clear models of civic engagement and indeed the execution of Christians and members of other religions to an extent unimaginable in western civil society.  From having seized the rebel-held city of Raqqa, now its capital, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) transcends the category of “Syria” in the struggle against the Assad regime–or threatens to usurp it, based on the reconstruction of a different map than has ever existed in the region.  Despite the attempt to create a sense of mythic unity through their own media organization, producing compelling dramatic videos for viewing on YouTube, and calling for an Islamic State purified of other religions, and cleansed of colonial legacies, by demanding obedience to a region without bounds, the group appeals to an imagined map of the region’s unity, and indeed an imagined collectivity–unlike the Free Syrian Army or existing Syrian state–and the dismantling of the civic structure of Syria or Iraq as a nation-state.  The appeal of a broadly defined religious unity so powerful among foreigners rejects civic participation, but follows a notion of purification of an imagined state, detached from the very historical events and influences tied to threats of destabilization.

It can perhaps be best mapped, indeed, by the results of destabilization in the region, as much as imagined as a continuous or uniform entity.  Indeed, such a program of mapping would need to take as its primary scope the inverse of the usual objectives of maps–uniform coherence, continuity, and stability–and might do well to track instability (and acknowledge its causes) as the focus of future informational situation maps.


1.  The Challenges and Limits of Recent Regional Maps

The problem seems to map “Syria” onto borders in which its citizens can believe is quite urgent.  Recent American commentators tie the implosion of the Syrian government to the imposition of “false” colonial boundaries uniting multiple linguistic and ethnic groups.  But such mapping of ethnic divides fails to reveal the fragility created by recent destabilization of the nation.  For while Syria’s cosmopolitanism lay in its diversity, mapping “divides”  of religion, language, and ethnicity only start to imagine the failure of Syria as a state.  Indeed, the failure to examine the true contest on the ground in Syria continues with the sectorization of Syria as if uniting disparately fragmented ethnicities and linguistic groups, in maps that openly seem to undermine the coherence of what was long a fairly cosmopolitan collection of urban metropolises, towns, and more rural regions.


Levant Map of EthnicitiesWashington PostAugust 27, 2013

The  static nature of such splintered maps provide little basis to understand local or regional unrest.  Recent data visualizations better excavate the levels of instability on the ground.  Given the depths of instability that continued civil war has created across Syria, maps of the Syrian conflict suggest the fragility of the region’s future as a state in ways that the “Islamic State” would undermine.  This is not to say that the state is destined for dismemberment or decline, but that its unity has been systematically undermined.  While the ISIL forces seek to erase the border between Syria and Iraq reached at the Sykes-Picot Accord that divided the countries’ borders to benefit European interests in securing allies in the region, the continued destabilization of the Syrian civil wars increasingly evident in recent news maps.  The continued breaching of Syria’s own boundaries, and the displacement of populations within its failed state, provides tinder for the illusory harmony of the Caliphate as ending the level of violence that has already become endemic across the land.

The mapping of divisions within Syria and on its borders suggest the deep failure of the Syrian state.  The Islamic Caliphate’s stated aim of undoing “the partitioning of Muslim lands by Crusader powers” resurrects a largely theocratic inheritance removed from the divisions of civil life.  To be sure, the region has been multiply re-mapped since ancient Roman times.  But calls for an “Islamic Caliphate” that would incarnate a unity of values and principles parallel the disintegration of Syria as a nation–which, notwithstanding the continued tenacity of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, has more imploded s failed state since Assad’s deadly crackdown on the Revolution from 2011.  Despite promises to step down “in a civilized manner” back in 2012, the Assad regime has only been perpetuated by an open “shadow” war between the Syrian Free Army, a government supported by Teheran, and the ISIL:  the extremity of his government’s violations of civil and human rights have made him one of the most wanted men in the region.  Indeed, calls for Sunni unity respond to the destabilization across a region that created through the radical exacerbation (or fabrication) of increasing sectarian divides. We’re apt to see the region through the coherence it had in the Ottoman Empire–an administration undone after the close of World War One at the secretly concluded 1916 Sykes-Picot Accord that transformed three administrative regions to zones of European influence.  But the resurrection of an imagined region extending from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates in the Caliphate respond to the destabilization of its coherence on multiple fronts, and seek to conjure an imagined unity across divides increasingly evident in maps.

Indeed, the results of the failure of Syria as a state from 2011 are themselves quite terrifying to map, given the huge displacement of civilians into neighboring states.  The internal displacement of some 1.2 million Syrians and refugees in Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey has created a humanitarian crisis of incalculable proportions and duration.  In fact, charting maps of instability across the region would offer a better basis to track its emergence than define its boundaries in the situation maps and news maps we produce. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria seems an impossible cartographical construction in an ongoing stalemate across Syria that is already difficult to grasp.  Even as we finally have more accurate maps of the civil war’s spread across that arc around the desert lands at the Syrian interior–many of which exist thanks to the courageous Cédric Labrousse, any resolution of its divides seems only more far away.  We remain unclear about the strength of the rebel forces as relations between Islamist groups and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, not to mention the coherence and ambitions of an entity of an “Islamic State,” but feel their presence in the creation of a new Syrian and Iraqi geography.

The imperative of mapping provides one of the few ways to retain coherence of an increasingly contentious, bitterly divided, and fragmented region.  The divisions between areas held by Syria’s failed regime and the forces of rebels and ISIS troops have been as difficult to grasp, given many covert divisions.  The destabilization of the region is evident in an aggregate map of civil disturbances in the Syrian conflict from 2011 to 2013, most concentrated inland of the country’s more heavily settled western coast, which presents a difficult picture of a land long divided; the useful interactive visualization from the New Scientist, which effectively illustrates widespread civil conflicts across the country as a heat-map of ongoing unrest to suggest the difficulty of mapping local allegiances or consensus–in a suitably (if rare) black base-map of the region designed to foreground such disruptions, particularly useful since it is able to be searched from 2011-13.


Aggregate Civil Conflict mapped in Syria


On the one hand, the invocation of the mythic promise of restoring a “new Caliphate” suggests an illusory harmony that would be more present on a map than on the ground.  Its invocation no doubt reflects a desperate search for a “more just world” by a symbol of sacred unity, it is a hope for a more just path to modernity.  How can we understand the solutions that such an invocation of a mythic state allows?  When we continue to project deep ethnic divisions at the base of this strife into maps, we make it harder to stock both of the political vacuum in the region, made all the more evident with the demand to transport gas and petroleum through a region which has already been deeply destabilized. Indeed, despite attempts to discuss the lay of the land only by noting its sectarian divides as battle lines, or the revival of sectarian hostilities in the region that are nearly as old as Islam,” the implosion of the political map of the region seems a redrawing of the territorial tensions assuaged within the former Ottoman Empire.  The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, once relegated to the history books, has however begun to haunt the endgame of Syria’s civil war with the dismantling of the boundaries defined only at the Sykes-Picot Accord that in 1916 constructed Iraq and Syria as national states from the  former Ottoman Empire.  The below reverse-visualization reveals a sort of ‘cartographical archeology” of the Empire’s former administrative regions, imposed on the region’s current map: and if the  spectre of the “militant group currently marching across Iraq” trying to seize the territory to create an Islamic state” suggests territorial ambitions, we might better map its progress in terms of the destabilization across the area.


Rand McN CompositeNew York Times; using drawing based on Rand McNally 1911 world atlas’ map of administrative districts of Ottoman Empire


It has become increasingly difficult to ask what sort of map might relate to a political resolution of the deep divisions that have spun out in an ongoing conflict that claimed over 150,000 lives and promises to claim many more–or, more importantly, imagine what sort of map better serve its residents.  Yet it is clear that we can map the depth of the sources of instability across the regions of Syria and Iraq.  The nation-states clearly don’t correspond to a tapestry of the faiths of believers, nor do  divisions across the regions only respond–or constitute the precarious endgame–of timeless animosities western media read into the deep-set conflicts across the region and have often invited us to use to interpret them–and read the maps of sectarian violence.


Area map of mid-east ethnicity



We have only begun to be provided with accurate maps of the Syrian conflict, perhaps now made more imperative with the declaration of the “Islamic State” by ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levantine.  The truly terrible and horrific costs of such sectarian strife were long either difficult to note or absent from most maps of the region, even as lines of the ongoing civil war are contested, difficult to define, and hard to mark by clear lines:  boundaries are blurred in even the best  maps of mid-2012 and mid-2013, tagged as if by an air-brush or graffiti spray paint, reflecting an ongoing problematic mapping of a state for at least four years, as westerners puzzled at what the boundaries of that state might be. Rather than mapping the unity or continuity within Syria in a uniform manner–for that uniformity has been lost–the mapping of Syria poses problem of representing the nation’s future identity and unity, as well as the continued costs of ongoing statement of its civil war.  The declaration of the “restoration of the caliphate” by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levantine runs in the face of how we are apt to create states on maps and use maps to frame questions of state-formation.  Indeed, the troubles of mapping Syria–and the destruction the unity of Syria in the revolution make it increasingly difficult to envision the extent of the destabilization of its ongoing civil war to a potential resolution.




2.  ISIL’s Rise and the Fragmentation of Syria’s Civil Wars

The multiple situation maps devised to depict the contested region over the past year implicitly respond to the deep question of what pathways American or foreign assistance or intervention in the region might take, at the same time as what a potential exit strategy would look like, rather than embody the group that still possesses no clearly recognized boundaries, even if it has retained its Facebook page as a terrorist group (ISIS) until June 16. The very difficulty of mapping contested boundaries now seems a sort of inevitable prelude to the declaration of an “Islamic State.”   Even though the evocation of that entity has made great claims to represent all Islam, and the leader of the Caliphate of all Muslims is only rumored to have appeared in a video, filmed in Mosul’s largest mosque, with the declaration that all nearby Shia shrines had been destroyed.  The raging of war has been mapped til recently as a “civil” war, within the confines of the Syrian state–whose shifting divisions are not often clear, or so clearly able to be mapped onto ethnic and spiritual divides, but are focussed on Syria’s most settled regions in the north and along the Euphrates river, although this seems to be ceasing now with the arrival of ISIL troops.  Beyond Syria’s own boundaries, the illusory harmony of the Caliphate as a restoration of a lost harmony responds to the cultural and religious diversity that has been long characteristic of Syria’s cities.

The broadening of areas of military contestation, particularly along the Euphrates, is suggested in the below maps, as well as along the border with Iraq, in northern areas with Kurdish militias, and to a lesser extent on the border with Jordan, as the cities have emerged as battlefields.




Map by Evan Centanni, August 2013

Can one map destabilization by its effects?  Despite the absence of horrific violence in these maps, there is a desperate attempt to register the cumulative effects of war in the synoptic maps that tally displaced persons created in the civil war in offset boxes, although they only skim the surface of the war’s disastrous effects on the regions of a divided Syria:


Costs of Syria's War US Department of State, Jan 14, 2014 (Congressional Research Service report: Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response)

Or this declassified map of the numbers of Syrians fleeing violence of 2012:


People Fleeing Internal ViolenceUS Department of State, Humanitarian Information Unit 13, June 13 2012

An expanded detail of the unclassified 2012 map for the US Department of State reveals the strong concentrations of refugees and displaced Syrians on the recognized borders of the country, both along and near recognized crossing of international boundaries with Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq, which is particularly telling, but which notes the far greater number of displaced within the Syrian “state”:


Borders and Refugees-  Syria and Surroundings


The far greater regions of contention reveal a country that was, as of December 2013, not only sharply divided but some of whose largest cities–Homs and Aleppo–remained divided within themselves:


contested areas

Map by Evan Centanni, December 2013

(More current maps of the region, that include the spread of the ISIS in the north of Syria and along the Euphrates, are accessible from Political Geography Now, who have tried to provide current maps of events in the region.)

A similarly striking interactive map of the deep and ongoing costs of civil war has been constructed in ongoing fashion each day, collated daily on the website Women Under Siege, in an effective depiction of endemic violence for many of Syria’s inhabitants–in live crowd-sourced mapping of violence against women and children, where all sexualized individual or group attacks committed by Syrian military against men, women, and children in the region, localized in a Google Map format, as soon as they are reported:


Women under siege


These costs are absent on other maps of regional division that suggest the region’s destabilization.  The tactical “situation maps” that we consult condense information in easily legible formats to parse varieties of assaults and strategic battles–but omit all those attacks not so far confirmed–but presents a contemporary up-to-the-minute image of the high costs of the violence of sustained civil war.  Much is always, of course, omitted from these attempts to chart the results of a terrifying civil war that has claimed untold lives and created refugee crises across the region.  Even as the Syrian government seemed to have won control over a large area of the coast from Damascus to Homs, a situation map released by the BBC this March 2014, using five colors with two different shades to suggest the varied limits in government’s increased control of regions save in its East and North.   (The BBC map met be a bit misleading, given the town-by-town nature of the current conflict, but suggests the difficulty of establishing any boundaries or clear frontiers in the regions.)


BBC Situation Map March 2014


The divisions are often mapped in more shorthand ways.  Just a bit more recently, this far more simplified map, less credibly dividing the region in coherent blocks, remind us of the remove of our own attitudes to the area, even as we discuss sending munitions to the “rebels” with greater ease–and indeed as we want to make that prospect seem credible, firm divisions between “Opposition rebels” and “Government forces” more clear, and Kurdish forces more consolidated–the “Government-held lands” in this 5-color visualization which omits the fact that most of the Syrian “Government’s” territory consists of desert land:


Syrian Civil War March 14

Such empyrean maps of course betray the more complicated situation of affiliations on the ground, if they indicate the major players involved. The eagerness to declare some sort of entity joining Anbar province with ISIL-occupied areas of Syria, recently hoisted up for public view on Wikipedia as if it were a flag, since deleted, as if it offered confirmation of a state along the regions of the Euphrates; the vision of territorial unity was far more imagined and displayed online than every existing in fact as a set of boundary lines.


Bad Wikipedia %22ISIS%22 MapWikipedia


The newly invented unity has now been expanded so that it fits far greater imagined parameters, as if it constituted a nation-spanning-two-borders, despite the hypothetical bounding a block of solid color; such cartographical conjuring covers over the continuing conflicts on the ground, and belies the attempt to expand across frontiers at a greater rate than ISIL seems able to sustain:  the appearance of a bridging of a unity of parts of Syria and Iraq, linking the Tigris and Euphrates, risks gaining an exaggerated coherence in many on-line maps that all but obliterate sovereign distinctions by rather ineffectively superimposing it on a generic Google Maps template with absolutely no sense of local opposition or ongoing struggle:


July 7 BBC


Such cartographical sleight of hands of erasure belie the far more limited web or skein of points of revolutionary resistance, and reflects, in the bounds of this amorphous identity, the seizing of individual villages as much as a growing state-within-two-states.  The danger of truncating the designation of the region to the “Islamic State”–and linking it to a new Caliphate–not only runs against the recommendations of Osama bin Laden, but concretizes the materiality of the territory in misleading ways, inflating both its stability and permanence in ways that seem misleading.

Indeed, the continuity within the surrogate “government” belies the fragmentary control over individual townships that characterize the newly proclaimed state.  So much is made more evident in a map of the strongholds on July 7 2014, which suggests the limits of its occupation or territory in Syria or Iraq, although they really depend on the local allegiances of Mosul, Kirkuk, and Qaim to Abu Kamal, along the Euphrates to ISIL, as much as to rebel forces, but seems to unnecessarily conflate the two, as much as the emergence of ISIL from the Rebel forces:


BBC July 7


The most recent–and compelling–New York Times map of the anti-state of local allegiance to ISIL casts the spread of its holdings along the Euphrates as an anti-territory, creating a conglomerate both of funding from oil monies and revenues that provide the basis for and the grounds for recent attacks and for the displacement of Kurdish and other residents in ways that have only begun to be mapped.  It is far more circumscribed than the airbrushed blobs of rebel resistance of earlier situation maps, or the sectorization of the region.  (And it is reflected in the strategic airstrikes and deliveries of food and supplies that the Obama administration now advocates.


from Caerus Associates, Long War Journal Aug 7 2014from Caerus Associates/NY Times (August 7 2014)


The aim of “remaking a Caliphate” ISIL promotes is less directed to the merging of Syria and Iraq, or the uniting of these states, as if to hearken back to a Caliphate of worldly dimensions.  In a bogusly attributed map widely circulated online, if far less precise in measurement, placing the enlarged states of “Sham” and “Iraq” at the heart of a worldly empire in this bogus map, an image of territorial expansion deriving from earlier fabrication of fascist parties is falsely credited to ISIL.

Part of the shock value of this map, which has occasioned comment as it circulated in western news media, for its erasure of the names of places we knew, as it entirely erases Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, not to mention Israel, and in reclaiming the Andalus seems to impose its own world-vision or Weltanschauung on our maps, in an image far more evocative and ideological than objectively construed, and widely circulated some time ago by neo-fascist parties:


Isis Rempas Middle East


Yet the projection of such propaganda suggests the deeply embedded cartographic stakes of the newly expanding Syrian civil war and ongoing instability in Iraq, by expanding the region of Khurasan as a new spectra that encroaches on all North Africa and Europe–or at least the odd intersection between the claims of the neo-fascist groups who have distributed this map, including the Syrian National Socialist Party, which rather than providing insight into “the goad of a unified #Islamic #Caliphate” respond, and the quite confused apprehension of the territory of “Islamic countries” and the demands of ISIL–which openly disdains all varieties of Islam that call for religious coexistence–within the destabilized situation on the ground in much of the “greater” Middle East.  Indeed, if the declaration by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi goes beyond the cautionary warnings bin Laden left against rushing to the establishment of a caliphate lest one raise the specter of looming adversary for enemies, the specter of the expansive map, menacingly filled with swirling Arabic abjad seems to have circulated to stoke fear of an expanding other, in ways that may have indeed encouraged military involvement in a destabilized region, as it evoked the specter of an Islamic crusade.




The map attributes a misleading monolithic shadow-figure of the total otherness of Islam that hardly exists, and masks the fragmentation that US-backied intervention has largely created on the ground, and which now finds the religious diversity in Syria so abhorrent, and seeks to enforce a new vision of religious uniformity as its foundation, purifying a previously heterogeneous land, but less able to be mapped as a uniform color.


3.  What about the Map Devised at the Sykes-Picot Accord?

At the same time that we adopt such situation maps to try to grapple with the military situation that has unfolded on the ground, the Anglo-Irish scholar Malise Ruthven recently glossed the quite prominent role one map has played in the social media of the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant–a significance Ruthann went to considerable lengths to unpack.  He traced a compelling genealogy of the concerted engagement of Syria’s boundary line in a quite provocative short article some have found to give greater weight than necessary to the role of Europeans in shaping the region after World War I, based on the prominence given to the destruction of the old line of territorial division in ISIL’s social media. To be sure, ISIL  has prominently celebrated the bull-dozing of the Syria-Iraq border by troops, redrawing the map imposed on the region as a way of purging the region of its colonial past, or to destroy the memory of the line established with the 1916 Sykes-Picot Accord, secretly concluded between British and French governments by the French diplomat François Georges-Picot with his British counterpart Mark Sykes after World War I:




Yet does one deny some of the autonomy of the demands to emerge as a state not existing on a map by increasing the proportions of the significance of the Sykes-Picot Accord in most jihadists’ minds?  Does this vehemence really rest on the redrawing of the Eurocentric boundaries determined at the 1916 Sykes-Picot Accord? It is something of a striking conundrum that at the same time as our news outlets increasingly rely on a profusion of detailed logistical maps to grapple with the shifting role of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant–or, in a more mysteriously evocative acronym, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria–we might be missing how Sunni forces have seized upon the symbolic destruction of a map of artificial and utopian social division by which Europeans carved up oil-rich lands along divides which never existed as abstractly neatly surveyed lines that cut across the rivers running through each region into the parsing of a near-perfect polygon. The image of the tweeted image featuring the destruction of the boundary line is something of an advertisement of the ISIS forces to redraw the map of the Middle East, affirming, no doubt, a less secular model of the state that approximated a theocratic order in place of the abstract line that the two early twentieth-century diplomats arrived at in an attempt to paper over anxieties about the fall of the Ottoman state, and what could take its place of administering what were already recognized as oil-rich lands.




The historical Accord of 1916 was, of course, primarily intended to imagine a similarly viable construction of “buffer zones” and “spheres of influence” to replace the Ottoman regime and secure British authority, rather than to frame a national identity in ways that reflected the situation on the ground.  The idea was to project a balance of power, rather than build a state, and maintain a viable status quo as seen from the eye of European powers–without much regard, in other words, for local inhabitants or populations, by carving clearly divided colored blocks:


sykes-picot-19164.  Re-Examining how ISIL Re-Maps Syria

The region of Syria was, as a province, divided and re-divided by colonizing powers since the Roman Empire, for whom it was an important entrepôt and shipping center, but the recent ISIL denunciation of “crusader partitions” is a response to the difficulties of imposing divisions on the territory but the increased intervention in a region whose governments don’t respond, propped up as they are by the West, to local needs.  As images displayed on social media, the invocation of old maps also response to a search for newly powerful symbols to inaugurate a new era.  To be sure, guilt about the Sykes-Picot Accord may be haunting the West, in ways akin a return of the repressed–and of the forgotten figures of state who negotiated these territorial divisions in the wake of World War I, short-changing their inhabitants–but also provide tools of inciting opposition and to search for new forms of government.

ISIL leaders assert they are in the process of dismantling and destroying the imposition of a false map on the region that fighters are poised to destroy. Such demonization of the colonial may in itself be a bit of a smokescreen for a call designed to mask or suppress sectarianism in the name of fighting against and repulsing a common enemy:  deep tensions within competing parties are choosing a foil to rally around, it seems likely, and a lingua franca of resistance to imposed categories evident in an old map of the same region:  rather than protect clearly ethnic enclaves or promise a more stable social map of the region, given the pronounced hostility that has been shown to Shia shrines and mosques, and extended to the desecration of graves, in what seems a new form of terrorism: “desecrating [the] graves of saints.”  The increasing news reports of the destruction of dozens of ancient shrines of prophets revered in Islamic, Christian, and Jewish traditions in but one region controlled by ISIS and Shiite militants are an extension of its return to theocratic rule, and a deep rewriting of Iraq’s and Syria’s cultural geography, as historical cultural monuments now deemed heretical have targeted in ways that seek to rewrite the region’s landscape, from tombs to minarets.


banknote 10000 iraqi dinar reverse


Such widespread destruction of a historical sacred space in the region promises a clear disorientation in and usurpation of the region.   In Syria alone, both the Syrian government’s forces and those of revolutionaries have engaged in the desecration or near-demolition of shrines in Aleppo, Damascus, Raqqa, Tal Maruf in northern Syria near Tel Hamis and elsewhere in the country, vandalizing Sufi shrines that Sunni scholars have long recognized as worthy of reverence, mirroring how Wahabi groups responded to the power vacuum of the Arab Spring. The destruction of graves has gained a new outlet, to be sure, on social media, as Nusra front rebels polemically displayed on YouTube the exhumation of the thousand-year old grave of Hujr ibn Adi, a revered Shiite figure, and an attack on the shrine of Muhammad’s granddaughter, in ways that have radically further destabilized the region and its inhabitants, as has ISIL’s attack on shrines of Owais al-Qami and Ammar bin Yasser, an early companion of Muhammad revered both by Shia and Sunni muslims alike. Can we get some data journalists to map the destruction of such a topography of centuries-old sites of reverence, if only as a destruction of historical memory?   Such long-revered holy sites are destroyed after being attacked by Wahabi groups who week to expunge them their memory as a pagan legacy, and widely displayed to audiences on social media with destabilizing intent.  The broad expansion of violence appears less the manifestation seventh-century theological debates than of how representatives of different theological sectarian stripes have been demonized by their association with foreign powers and political parties.


protest   ISIS Shrines   Execution squads Destroyed Sufi Shrine


Calls for religious, ethnic, and national purity are in short aimed at destroying the civic space that the civil war and Syrian Free Army are fighting to preserve.


5.  The Perils of Re-Mapping Syria’s Changing Space

Something closer to the destruction of the very stability of the map as a flat surface bound by clear lines seems to be occurring with the rejection of political parties and existing systems of political representation.  Longstanding cross-border raids on shrines have been mobilized and ramped up both with calls to arms are relayed by social media.  The desecration of Islamic shrines has blossomed to the denigration of human life. We are faced with huge problems of mapping the divisions within the region, but might do better to look at the situation on the ground. The problems of mapping what the Economist in April 2014 termed the “ebb and flow of horror” tried to capture the complexly contested struggle on the ground that approaches pitched battles of resistance between fracturing rebel forces and mutual restarts to torture and kidnap, in this complexly delineated mid-April 2014 map of the contested territory that still lies between Aleppo and Damascus, and the Golan Heights, reflecting the odd geographical situation of Syria and the plagued nature of its status quo, and suggesting little sense of potential resolution, and reminding us of the low density of population outside the Western cities and the Euphrates:


Syria divided in Economist April 19 2014


The division of Syria into an ongoing endgame only broadly maps onto the divisions between Shia and Sunni groups that have consumed the region.  For Syria has become a battleground of the different political possibilities that started to play out in the “Arab Spring,” when Assad first demonized protestors as Sunni terrorists.  (Assad’s inflamed rhetorical posturing no doubt led to a tabled plan to invade the Syrian state.)



The pitched positions held by opposition rebels along the Euphrates and select pockets of the country’s north, suggesting the huge cost of contested lands, and defining the distribution of the Islamic State along the rebel-held areas on the banks of the Euphrates:


Rebel Strength along Rivers


But the political divisions suggest the broad manipulation of sectarian groups for political interests, exacerbated by the reliance on religious networks to create state entities not only in Shiite Iran, but the US ally Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria, in ways that have given new vitality to the ISIS or ISIL as an opposition group. The more current conventions adopted within the New York Times to rewrite blocks of regions as if securing enclosed fortified redoubts might be more accurate representations of the piecemeal back-and-forth that we now think of as the advance of the ISIL, and a situation on the ground where lines of control are less clearly understood as blocks of territorial administration, but as villages that either accept–or came to doubt as occupiers, in a negotiation of apparent lesser evils.  Indeed, the ongoing civil war has come down to a battle over individual villages and cities, it is clear, that have threatened to implode the very nature of Syria’s future unity:




Invoking the imposition of th e Sykes-Picot as an explanation of current events–for all the appeal of its cartographical neatness and cross-cultural misunderstandings that underpinned the deal which gave the Arabs less say over the determination of their boundary-lines–may be beside the point.  It casts Syrians as actors who react to European cartographers.

What effect was there in Sykes-Picot than the inscription of false boundaries of territoriality among new nation states?  Previously to when Sykes-Picot inscribed these boundaries so optimistically in the land, a clear organization of the provinces that make up the current Iraq existed, but which offered greater respect to divisions of settlement as well as religious and ethnic bodies:




Indeed, calls for a “New Caliphate” on Sunni grounds conjure an illusory harmony that would be more present on a map than on the ground in somewhat romantic and somewhat desperate ways that would be a legitimate representative of the Islamic faith. The expansion of the unity of administration of the region was understood less in terms of notions of territorial possession and coherence, in this 1873 pre-WWI Arab world as a province of Syrian possession in this Arabic map, which labels the Palestinian area as the “Province of Syria” and cast the current region we associate with “Israel” as part of that Province.  But the map is not an equivalent to the expansionist hopes of the current Syrian National Socialist Party:  it rather uses mapping formats to create an undifferentiated waqf that freezes property rights of a privileged few in an administrative region, with only superficial resemblance to the notions of territoriality–which we are tempted (wrongly) interpret as if it possessed territorial boundaries:




But it didn’t have such territorial divisions as a waqf.  Maps of course quite capably conjure imagined social bonds of unity for the West, even across a region where boundaries were perhaps far more fluidly understood, and the attribution and imposition of coherence is particularly difficult at a time when the declaration of a New Caliphate has prompted some soul-searching in social media, and not only among Middle-Eastern intellectuals and religious scholars about how and why this new entity has materialized.  Regional coherence is something more akin to a speculative creation in this 1895 Rand McNally atlas, where “Syria” is prominently noted, but seems to lack clear administrative boundaries, as well as extending to the East Bank of the Dead Sea, abutting Aleppo, Palestine and Lebanon, and the cross-cultural Mesopotamia of particularly fluid bounds.  But to call this administrative map a model or precedent for a divided set of sectarian regions seems too easy an alternative.




This slightly subsequent 1911 Rand McNally map of administrative divisions is difficult to read as a guideline or model for what might emerge, especially because of the sustained violence that has emerged in the region. But what, for that matter, is Syria?  Although the costs of war always resist mapping, the involvement of foreigners on sectarian grounds in the country’s civil strife that make boundaries and territoriality subvert any clear mapping of the war.  The hidden motion of military materiel across boundaries have  as Ban ki-Moon has recently astutely observed, escalate the military violence in the region in ways that upend any narrative of victory:  as aerial bombardment of civilians continue, while others are starved, and flows of refugees grow, the massive costs of war are pushed down the road. Is this search for a map in any way able to be compared to the impact of the destruction of sovereignty or territory and regional destabilization that was accomplished in the Iraq war? Of course, a scrabble to inscribe such divisions in order to administer or effectively organize the region for exploitation and commerce emerged after World War I, with the Ottoman Empire’s demise. The image of the area could have, of course, been quite different, and were actively proposed on repeated occasions, with the promise from the English that Arabs were worthy of greater territory for joining combat against the Ottoman Empire.  Multiple acts of cartographical conjuring exist:




For boundary lines know no inherent bounds in the region, and are not themselves the basis to generate its unity.  As recently as 2011, the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party evoked the expanse of Syrian lebensraum, appealing to the unity of a catalogue of ancient semitic tribes of Mesopotamia, addressing linguistic and cultural divisions in the region by defending the “organic unity” of a “greater Syria” that occupied the Fertile Crescent as one region that “blended Canaanites, Chaldeans, Arameans, Assyrians, Amorites, Hiffites [sic], Metanni and Akkadians.”   This oddly erudite neoclassical spin on the ancient world as bound by the Taurus and Zagros mountains around Mesopotamia is pictured below.   The recent map of Syria’s Social Nationalist Party indeed enacts its own cartographical fantasia, by encompassing modern Israel in its bounds, and renaming the Mediterranean as the “Syrian Sea” that adopts a vision of the region from Damascus which oddly perpetuates the Sykes-Picot myth that all sovereign bodies are to take more modern form as territorialized nation states by mapping their frontiers on clear lines, yet also to try to reconfigure the map of the Mid-East around a mythical-historical image of “Syria”–and treating the map as an explicit vehicle for national propaganda.




6.  Remapping Syria?

How to even consider boundaries based on the return to a potentially endless redrawing of lines? There is currently much talk of the necessity of partition and even support for partition from Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, since the geopolitical world of post-WWI Europe is not alive, nor the Cold War détente that inherited it after WWII, in hindsight it is incredible that spheres of influence weren’t seen as perhaps just the wrong way to continue to conceptualize the region, and even buffer-zones, which tend to misunderstand the on-the-ground divisions in terms of a jigsaw puzzle of a map that isolates what we define as potential radicalism.  

Especially as the considerable stakes for geopolitical control of regions of oil and gas supplies become obscured in the very mapping of ethnic or religious diversity. With increasing atrocities on the rise in Iraq, any prospects for a peaceful resolution more distant, subverted by regional violence across Iraq, the needs of refugees and people have been obfuscated–as have the different divisions of faith.  And ISIL has emerged as a uniquely border-crossing state, linking both Syrian and Iraqi sides of the Euphrates and using border crossings as sites to exchange personnel, war materiel, and munitions, linking two nations separated for a century by a border line as a new entity, as well as to hold potential energy sources–like the Haditha Dam or Falluja Dam–on which so many Iraqis depend. How can one map destabilization without reverting to a map dismembered by ethnic divisions?

The re-writing of the border between two states once were constructed by Europeans is an active re-writing of the political topography of the region, to be sure, although it is difficult at this point to know how it would translate into a map, or be translated into a pragmatics of mapping.  The discussion of remapping the region in ways that would respond to the tensions between groups’ relation to Islamic religion don’t bode all that well. In Iraq, it increasingly seems that the potential canonization among Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish factions, the disintegration of the territoriality of a bounded state provides a poor analogy for the sorts of sectarian division that we are likely to see:  while it might be opportune for the West to imagine an oil-rich Shiite stronghold in the heart of Southern Iraq, would the concentration of wealth or resources in any way benefit the society as a whole or at large? If, as Robert Worth has suggested in the New York Times, “greater power . . .  ultimately . . . devolve to provinces and cities — a process that has already been underway since the Arab uprisings,” is the sort of de facto partition of Iraq, a nation that has existed some ninety years, into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish districts.  This is the same sort of sectarian war that ISIL–or ISIS–seeks to incite. Such increased parcellization of regions not only risks the stoking of ethnic animosities, but if analogous to the sort of “controlled burnings” of forest fires, to destabilize the region rather than serve the interests of its inhabitants.  We surely seem to impute a oppositional divisions among Shia militias and Sunni groups than may in fact exist.

These divisions are not at all so clear on the ground, or perhaps so clearly beneficial to anyone in the long- or short-term:  there seems to be a fomenting of religious divisions among a region, but perhaps the continued resort to a drawing and redrawing of lines to create a sense of unity offers the least chance of clarity or resolution. We have, in the West, perhaps performed something of a sense of collective amnesia, in our evocation of Sunni and Shia animosities, and Kurdish separatism, of the huge divisions of destabilization that we have so readily performed on the same territory in the more immediate past. Even the most recent invaders of the region appear unlikely to remember the instability and geopolitical disruptions that have so deeply undermined the region’s political coherence.  One might more meaningfully and profitably look at far more recent maps to begin to map the continued destabilization that has recently played out across the region as a whole.  For these divisions not only re-wrote the administrative divisions between the regions in the Ottoman state’s provincial borders–although it recalls the division between Mosul, Zor, Basra, and Baghdad, now redesigned to encompass the desert regions west of the Euphrates around Baghdad as if it were Berlin–but failed to respect the differences on the ground that Iraqis faced in seeking to act as administrators of a “new” land of ancient divides.


Division of Irq 2004 by forces


The above map of the occupying forces of Iraq were not explicitly directed toward Syrian territory or sovereignty, but created a site of desirability and destabilization from which future divisions of the region–and the relative success and difficulty of ISIL (or ISIS) must be mapped, as well as the hunger for a New Caliphate.  For what is a New Caliphate, but a recuperation of an ancient dream of peaceful unity?  Some years ago, Syria’s 92-year-old mufti quickly issued religious edicts that called for Syrians to fight in Iraq and sanction suicide operations against the Americans and their allies even though he was a renowned man of peace, as his words, with those of other clerics, inspired men from Aleppo, Damascus, and elsewhere in Syria who became the prime exponents of a jihadist movement.  Their maps of regional organization, as much as the maps of military control, are worth our attention and investigation.


Coda for Syria?


Filed under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Bashar al-Assad, ISIL, ISIS, Islamic State, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Malise Ruthven, Mapping Syrian Civil War