Things I Saw on a Beach in Oregon

Last week I went to Oregon with my family, which involved a lot of driving around and not paying sales tax, though we also spent a day, a night, and another day on the coast in a small town called Newport.  On our second morning, during low-tide, I had a chance to do some lone-man walking and thinking on the beach.  My destination was this one lighthouse in the distance that was supposed to have a golf course attached to it but it turned out to be much further away than I anticipated and I never made it.  Here’s a few low-tide curiousities I encountered along the way:

This is a dried-up sea anemone.

I generally try to stay away from things that look like this, though I found out much later that this is just kelp.

This is also kelp. I learned kelp can grow up to a foot and a half a day in some species. That bulb is called a pneumatocyst and (when the kelp is alive) is filled with gas in order to help keep it buoyant.

Kelp is an important part of coastal ecology. It provides food and shelter for a variety of animal speices, and prevents coastal erosion by damping incoming waves. Kelp has also been explored as a possible source of renewable energy due to its efficient yield of methane.

For more info on kelp check out The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s kelp forest exhibit, which includes a live kelp web cam.

The GSC and the Waukegan Harbor Citizens’ Advisory Group

The GSC has begun to partner with the Waukegan Harbor Citizens’ Advisory Group in conservation and restoration projects near Waukegan Harbor.  Following a series of three severe storms this past August, geographer and GSC Director Steve Jansen has recorded and mapped the location of downed trees in Bowen Park. Future projects will include mapping gully erosion in Glen Flora Ravine and habitat restoration areas.  This wealth of spatial information will help botanists analyze various data, such as species vulnerability and wind and run-off patterns during storms.  It is also aiding park officials participating in clean-up efforts.

Alarm Bells

We in the geography community here in Illinois recently received an alarming email from the Chair of a Social Studies Department in a medium-sized town in western Illinois. She explained that her administration is concerned that the teaching of geography, specifically where countries are located, is insignificant information.

As President of the Geographic Society of Chicago, I would like to speak to that notion.

Everyone has read the articles about Americans’ geographic illiteracy. “Six in 10 Americans cannot find Iraq on a map of the Middle East,” reported the Chicago Sun-Times in 2006. Another paper reported that “1 in 8 don’t know Alaska is a state.” The reports keep coming.  The National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” recently concluded that only 23% of fourth-graders, 30% of 8th graders, and a meager 21% of twelfth-graders were considered proficient in their understanding of geography.

Certainly, ignorance of our world map is widespread and alarming in itself. But geographic illiteracy is much more profound than being able to locate Iraq or Alaska on a map.

Undoubtedly, the “wheres” are important, but they are merely the alphabet of geography. Reciting the alphabet is not the same as learning how to read. The same is true of geographic literacy. The “wheres” are the building blocks, but the “whys”—why the world looks and functions as it does—provide the interconnecting principles for understanding our world. Geography is a study of the physical Earth, as well as a study of the world’s people.

Our citizens, the caretakers of our planet and leaders of our country, are graduating from school with little or no training in geography. Without geography, how can we understand Earth’s patterns—its climate regions, its weather systems, its cultures, its population patterns, its agricultural demands? How can we understand the effects of our actions or how these patterns can be disrupted by war, pollution, poverty, globalization, population growth, or climate change?

Geography is an integrating discipline that informs us about the world’s people and how they interact with the land we live on, the air we breathe, and the water we drink. Like a piece of fabric, geography is where all of Earth’s threads are interwoven. Pull one thread out and others unravel. We need this critically important subject to be an essential part of our K-12 curriculum. For the future of our country, we must insist that all our citizens be geographically literate.

Readers of this Geo-Blog, please add your opinions here so that we can help prevent the disintegration of geography in American classrooms.

Celeste Fraser, President
Geographic Society of Chicago

Global Climate Change

I have been following environmental issues since my college days in the late 60s and early 70s. So far, the biggest issue of the 21st Century has been global climate change. As I have traveled the U.S. teaching geography over the past 12 years, I have been asked repeatedly, “Is global warming real?” While some of the details are not yet clear, a great deal of good science has led us ever closer to the answer.

I recently came across an Associated Press article by Charles J. Hanley that gets to the heart of the answer to this question. He reports that the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said that this summer’s weather-related cataclysms fit patterns predicted by climate scientists. Specifically the WMO is referring to the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which made specific predictions in its latest assessment in 2007. In the article, Hanley goes through a litany of climate-related woes the Earth is experiencing this summer that fit the IPCC predictions. These include:

  • Russia – Prolonged drought and record heat leading to disastrous wildfires
  • Pakistan – Heaviest monsoon rains on record resulting in devastating floods
  • China – Worst floods in decades causing landslides that have killed thousands
  • Arctic – Largest iceberg calving since 1962 and second lowest ice coverage ever recorded for July

Below I have included some NASA Earth Observatory images so you can see for yourself what is happening in theses locales. If you click on the link embedded in the title of each image, it will take you to the NASA website where you can see an explanation of the images, follow these events over time, and learn more about them.

Severe Drought in Southern Russia

Smoke Over Western Russia

Unusually Intense Monsoon Rains in Asia

Flooding in Pakistan

Landslide in Zhouqu, China

Ice Island Calves off Petermann Glacier

While all reasonable climate scientists are reluctant to attribute any individual unusual weather event to global climate change, the weather events of this summer support the IPCC’s conclusions – that increases in CO2 in the atmosphere are due to fossil fuel burning, which is contributing to rising temperatures, which in turn have led to this summer’s unusual events.

According to NOAA, this past June was the hottest month on record. Arctic sea ice covered an average of 4.2 million square miles (10.9 million square kilometers) during June, the lowest June extent since record-keeping began in 1979. At the same time, Antarctic sea ice extent in June was above average, resulting in the largest June extent on record. This latter fact points out the reason that we should refer to the phenomenon as “global climate change” rather than “global warming.” The name implies that the planet will not warm uniformly but will actually cool in some places as oceanic and atmospheric systems adjust to the added greenhouse gas load. Climate change models also predict that many places will get drier while some locales will get wetter. The extreme events of this summer do not prove that models of human-induced climate change are correct, but they make it much more likely that climate scientists are on the right track in understanding the impact of our uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels.

Some skeptics of the accepted climate models point out that there are natural cycles that cause CO2 and other greenhouse gases to fluctuate widely in the atmosphere and oceans. This is absolutely true. In fact, human life on this planet was not possible until the current balance of atmospheric gases had evolved over geologic time. However, it also is certainly true that current dramatic rise in CO2 is associated with human use of fossil fuels since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Consequently I believe our continued survival depends on doing what we can to maintain that delicate balance.