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Department of Geography
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Department of Geography
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UC Santa Barbara Geography / News & Events / Department News

September 13, 2014 - California Blue Whales Have Made an Historic Comeback

In a September 5 University of Washington News and Information article titled “California blue whales rebound from whaling; first of their kin to do so,” Sandra Hines states the following:

“The number of California blue whales has rebounded to near historical levels, according to new research by the University of Washington, and while the number of blue whales struck by ships is likely above allowable U.S. limits, such strikes do not immediately threaten that recovery. This is the only population of blue whales known to have recovered from whaling – blue whales as a species having been hunted nearly to extinction.

Blue whales – nearly 100 feet in length and weighing 190 tons as adults – are the largest animals on earth. And they are the heaviest ever, weighing more than twice as much as the largest known dinosaur, the Argentinosaurus. They are an icon of the conservation movement and many people want to minimize harm to them, according to Trevor Branch, UW assistant professor of aquatic and fishery sciences.

‘The recovery of California blue whales from whaling demonstrates the ability of blue whale populations to rebuild under careful management and conservation measures,’ said Cole Monnahan, a UW doctoral student in quantitative ecology and resource management and lead author of a paper on the subject posted online Sept. 5 by the journal Marine Mammal Science. Branch and André Punt, a UW professor of aquatic and fisheries sciences, are co-authors.

California blue whales are at their most visible while at feeding grounds 20 to 30 miles off the California coast, but are actually found along the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean from the equator up into the Gulf of Alaska. Today, they number about 2,200, according to monitoring by other research groups. That’s likely 97 percent of the historical level, according to the model the co-authors used. That may seem to some a surprisingly low number of whales, Monnahan said, but not when considering how many California blue whales were caught. According to new data Monnahan, Branch and another set of co-authors published earlier this summer in PLOS ONE, approximately 3,400 California blue whales were caught between 1905 and 1971.

‘Considering the 3,400 caught in comparison to the 346,000 caught near Antarctica gives an idea how much smaller the population of California blue whales was likely to have been,’ Branch said. The catches of blue whales from the North Pacific were unknown until scientists – in particular Yulia Ivashchenko of Southern Cross University in Australia – put on their detective caps and teased out numbers from Russian whaling archives that once were classified as secret but are now public. The numbers Russian whalers had publicly reported at one time were incomplete and inaccurate - something that was admitted in the late 1990s – but there wasn’t access to the real numbers until recently.

For the work published in PLOS ONE, the scientists then used acoustic calls produced by the whales to separate – for the first time – the catches taken from the California population from those whales taken in the western Northern Pacific near Japan and Russia. The two populations are generally accepted by the scientific community as being different. Places where acoustic data indicated one group or the other is present were matched with whaling catches. In the subsequent Marine Mammal Science paper just out, the catches were among the key pieces of information used to model the size of the California blue whale population over time – a model previously used by other groups to estimate populations of hundreds of fish and various other whale species.

The population returning to near its historical level explains the slowdown in population growth, noted in recent years, better than the idea of ship strikes, the scientists said. There are likely at least 11 blue whales struck a year along the U.S. West Coast, other groups have determined, which is above the 'potential biological removal' of 3.1 whales per year allowed by the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The new findings says there could be an 11-fold increase in vessels before there is a 50 percent chance that the population will drop below what is considered “depleted” by regulators. ‘Even accepting our results that the current level of ship strikes is not going to cause overall population declines, there is still going to be ongoing concern that we don’t want these whales killed by ships,’ Branch said.

Without ship strikes as a big factor holding the population back – and no other readily apparent human-caused reason (although noise, chemical pollution and interactions with fisheries may impact them) – it is even more likely that the population is growing more slowly because whale numbers are reaching the habitat limit, something called the carrying capacity.

‘We think the California population has reached the capacity of what the system can take as far as blue whales,” Branch said. “Our findings aren’t meant to deprive California blue whales of protections that they need going forward,’ Monnahan said. ‘California blue whales are recovering because we took actions to stop catches and start monitoring. If we hadn’t, the population might have been pushed to near extinction – an unfortunate fate suffered by other blue whale populations. It’s a conservation success story.’”

Image 1 for article titled "California Blue Whales Have Made an Historic Comeback"
A California blue whale 65-feet-long swims off Baja California. California blue whales are also known as eastern North Pacific blue whales. J Gilpatrick/M Lynn/NOAA; from the University of Washington article
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California blue whales – the cow is 76 feet long and the calf is 47 feet – swim near the California Channel Islands. J ilpatrick/M Lynn/NOAA (Ibid.)
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A blue whale skull measuring 5.8 metres (19 ft) in the collections of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History (Wikipedia: Blue whale)
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As one of only five complete Blue Whale skeletons in the United States, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s iconic 73-foot long phenomenal specimen is more than just a noted Santa Barbara landmark, it also represents a rare opportunity for children and adults to gain first-hand exposure to, as well as an appreciation of, the world’s largest animal. After a few decades of being on display and exposed to the elements, the skeleton had deteriorated and required some much needed "R&R" (repair and restoration). On March 12, 2010, the Blue Whale skeleton was dismantled for a "migration" north to exhibit design company Academy Studios in Novato, CA, where it underwent a thorough restoration. Only the skull remained as it had deteriorated beyond repair. The Museum replaced the "old" skull with a harvested "new" skull from the first 2007 Blue Whale stranding. After nearly nine months of meticulous restoration by Academy Studios in Novato, California, and preparation of a new skull and mandibles by staff from the Museum’s Vertebrate Zoology Department, the Museum’s Blue Whale skeleton returned on Monday, November 10, 2010. Articulation and installation of the skeleton was completed on Friday, November 19, 2010, and it is the most anatomically correct Blue Whale skeleton display in the world. The restored skeleton, which weighs nearly 7,700 pounds, is 98% real bones and is a composite of four specimens.

September 13, 2014 - Climate Change Threatens 314 North American Bird Species

A recent article posted on by Martin Fowlie, with the title above, states that: “Climate change threatens nearly half the bird species in the continental United States and Canada, including the Bald Eagle and dozens of other species like the Common Loon, Baltimore Oriole and Brown Pelican, according to a new study published by National Audubon Society (BirdLife in the U.S.A.). The study identifies 126 species that will lose more than 50% of their current ranges – in some cases up to 100% – by 2050, with no possibility of moving elsewhere if global warming continues on its current trajectory. A further 188 species face more than 50% range loss by 2080 but may be able to make up some of this loss if they are able to colonize new areas. These 314 species include many not previously considered at risk. The report indicates that numerous extinctions are likely if global temperature increases are not stopped.

“It’s a punch in the gut. The greatest threat our birds face today is global warming,” said Audubon Chief Scientist Gary Langham, who led the investigation. “That’s our unequivocal conclusion after seven years of painstakingly careful and thorough research. Global warming threatens the basic fabric of life on which birds – and the rest of us – depend, and we have to act quickly and decisively if we are going to avoid catastrophe for them and for us.”

“The prospect of such staggering loss is horrific, but we can build a bridge to the future for America’s birds,” said Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold. “This report is a roadmap, and it’s telling us two big things: We have to preserve and protect the places birds live, and we have to work together to reduce the severity of global warming.”

Langham and other Audubon ornithologists analyzed 30 years of North American climate data and tens of thousands of historical bird observations from the Audubon Christmas Bird Count and U.S. Geological Survey’s North American Breeding Bird Survey to understand the links between where birds live and the climatic conditions that support them. Understanding those links allows scientists to project where birds are likely to be able to survive – and not survive – in the future.

While some species will be able to adapt to shifting climates, many of North America’s most familiar and iconic species will not. The national symbol of the United States, the Bald Eagle, could see its current summer range decrease by nearly 75% in the next 65 years. The Common Loon, icon of the north and state bird of Minnesota, may no longer be able to breed in the lower 48 states by 2080. The Baltimore Oriole, state bird of Maryland and mascot for Baltimore’s baseball team, may no longer nest in the Mid-Atlantic, shifting north instead to follow the climatic conditions it requires. Other state birds at risk include Brown Pelican (Louisiana), California Gull (Utah), Hermit Thrush (Vermont), Mountain Bluebird (Idaho and Nevada), Ruffed Grouse (Pennsylvania), Purple Finch (New Hampshire) and Wood Thrush (Washington, D.C.).

“We know that climate variables – including temperature and precipitation – determine where most birds live and where they don’t, because it is too hot, for example,” said Terry Root, a Nobel Prize-winning Stanford University professor who serves on Audubon’s board of directors but was not involved in the study. “The Audubon study determined the climate variables that dictate where all North American birds live today and then brilliantly used climate forecasts to project where birds will most likely occur in the future. We all will see the effects of changing climate in our own backyards. We just cannot ignore such a sobering wake-up call.”

"This new North American study is consistent with results from Europe, Africa and Asia showing that climate change will have profound impacts on the world’s birds, with many more species projected to be in trouble than benefiting", said Dr Stuart Butchart, BirdLife's Head of Science. "But it also points towards the actions that are needed to help wildlife adapt to a changing environment, including the urgent need to strengthen effective conservation of the world’s 12,000 Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas: the global network of sites that are critical for the conservation of birds and other wildlife."

Ten birds that could lose 99% or more of current range by 2080 include the American Avocet, the Black Rosy-Finch, the Brown-headed Nuthatch, the Chestnut-collared Longspur, the Black-necked Grebe, the Northern Gannet, the Northern Saw-whet Owl, the Trumpeter Swan, the White-headed Woodpecker, and the Yellow Rail. The study, which was funded in part by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has numerous implications for conservation, public policy and further research and provides a new suite of tools for scientists, conservationists, land managers and policy makers. For example, the study identifies “strongholds,” areas that will remain stable for some birds even as climate changes and are candidates for protection and management.

Audubon has launched a new web portal dedicated to understanding the links between birds and global warming, including animated maps and photographs of the 314 species at risk, a technical report, and in-depth stories from the September-October issue of Audubon magazine, which is also devoted to the topic. “Millions of people across the country will take this threat personally because birds matter to them,” said Yarnold. “For bird lovers, this issue transcends nasty political posturing; it’s a bird issue. And we know that when we do the right things for birds, we do the right things for people too. Everyone can do something, from changing the plants in their backyard to working at the community and state level to protect the places birds will need to survive and promote clean energy. We are what hope looks like to a bird.””

Image 1 for article titled "Climate Change Threatens 314 North American Bird Species"
The Common Loon, icon of the north and state bird of Minnesota, may no longer be able to breed in the lower 48 states by 2080 (Melody Lytle; Audubon Photography Awards; (, op. cit.)
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The bald eagle could lose 75 percent of its range because of climate change. Credit: Mark Faviell/flickr; posted on
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A Baltimore oriole in an oak tree. This common backyard bird could become rarer. Credit: Henry T. McLin/Fickr; Ibid.
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The California condor once numbered only 22 birds, but conservation measures have raised that to over 300 today. Though human activities have allowed the expansion of a few species, such as the barn swallow and European starling, they have caused population decreases or extinction in many other species. Over a hundred bird species have gone extinct in historical times, although the most dramatic human-caused avian extinctions, eradicating an estimated 750–1800 species, occurred during the human colonization of Melanesian, Polynesian, and Micronesian islands. Many bird populations are declining worldwide, with 1,227 species listed as threatened by Birdlife International and the IUCN in 2009. The most commonly cited human threat to birds is habitat loss. Other threats include overhunting, accidental mortality due to structural collisions or long-line fishing bycatch, pollution (including oil spills and pesticide use), competition and predation from nonnative invasive species, and climate change (Wikipedia: Bird)
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Plate 406 of the Birds of America by John James Audubon, depicting the trumpeter swan. The trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator) is a species of swan found in North America. The heaviest bird native to North America, it also is on average, the largest extant species of waterfowl. It is the American counterpart and a close relative of the whooper swan of Eurasia, and even has been considered the same species by some authorities (Wikipedia: Trumpeter swan)
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State birds at risk. From Audubon's Climate Report, Our Data, Your Visualizations. Credit: Bonnie Berkowitz and Cristina Rivero/The Washington Post

September 11, 2014 - Illegal Land Clearing for Commercial Agriculture Responsible for Half of Tropical Deforestation

The following is a Press Release by Forest Trends: A comprehensive new analysis released today says that nearly half (49%) of all recent tropical deforestation is the result of illegal clearing for commercial agriculture. The study also finds that the majority of this illegal destruction was driven by overseas demand for agricultural commodities, including palm oil, beef, soy, and wood products. In addition to devastating impacts on forest-dependent people and biodiversity, the illegal conversion of tropical forests for commercial agriculture is estimated to produce 1.47 gigatonnes of carbon each year—equivalent to 25% of the EU's annual fossil fuel-based emissions.

"We've known that the production of agricultural commodities is a principal driving force behind deforestation, but this is the first report to show the outsize role that illegal activities play in the production of hundreds of food and household products consumed worldwide," said Michael Jenkins, President and CEO of Forest Trends, a Washington-based NGO that published the report. "Increased agricultural production will be necessary for food security and to meet the demand of the emerging global middle class. However, the world must also wake up to the scale of how much of this agricultural production is taking place on land that has been illegally cleared. Urgent action is needed to help countries where these agricultural products are being grown, both for governments to enforce their own laws and regulations, and for businesses aiming to produce commodities legally and sustainably."

According to the study, “Consumer Goods and Deforestation: An Analysis of the Extent and Nature of Illegality in Forest Conversion for Agriculture,” 90% of the deforestation in Brazil from 2000 to 2012 was illegal, primarily due to the failure to conserve a percentage of natural forests in large-scale cattle and soy plantations, as required by Brazilian law. (Much of this occurred prior to 2004, when the Brazilian government took steps to successfully reduce deforestation.) And in the forests of Indonesia, 80% of deforestation was illegal—mostly for large-scale plantations producing palm oil and timber, 75% of which is exported. While other countries also experience high levels of illegal deforestation, Brazil and Indonesia produce the highest level of agricultural commodities destined for global markets, many of which wind up in cosmetics or household goods (palm oil), animal feed (soy), and packaging (wood products).

Illegal deforestation is also rampant in most other countries across Asia, Latin America, and Africa losing large areas of tropical forest. Examples include the following:

  • In Papua New Guinea, millions of hectares of forest have been illegally licensed for deforestation in recent years; a recent Parliamentary inquiry in the country found that 90% of these licenses were issued by corrupt or fraudulent means.
  • In Tanzania, forests have been illegally razed to make way for jatropha, a plant commonly used to produce biofuels.
  • Cambodia, along with neighboring Laos, is experiencing unprecedented growth in commercial agriculture. By the end of 2012, the government handed 2.6 million hectares of land, much of it forested, to large-scale agriculture producers.
  • In Bolivia, soy—75% of which is exported—is the main engine behind illegal deforestation in the country's stretch of Amazon.

In most cases, the companies that illegally razed forests to grow these crops had some form of government permit in hand. However, the report finds that it was also often the case that these permits were corruptly issued or fraudulently obtained; that these companies were missing additional required permits and licenses; or that these companies violated laws when clearing and planting, causing significant negative impacts on the environment and the rights of local people who have lived in these forests for generations and who depend on them for their food and incomes.

"All over the tropics, companies are bribing officials to obtain permits, trampling the legal or customary rights of Indigenous Peoples and other forest-dwelling communities, clearing more forest than they are allowed, and causing pollution and environmental devastation by flouting the law," said Sam Lawson, the report author. According to the report, the international trade in agricultural commodities (beef, leather, soy, palm oil, and wood products, including paper) produced on land illegally converted from tropical forest is worth an estimated US$61 billion per year. The EU, China, India, Russia, and the US are among the largest buyers of these commodities.

Overall, exports of agricultural commodities produced on land where forests were illegally cleared drove 25% of all tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2012. The study estimates that almost 40% of all palm oil, 20% of all soy, nearly 33% of tropical timber, and 14% of all beef traded internationally comes from land that had been illegally deforested. Nearly one-fifth (17%) of Brazilian beef, 75% of Brazilian soy, and 70-80% of the palm oil and plantation wood and pulp from Indonesia were destined for foreign markets. "Five football fields of tropical forest are being destroyed every minute to supply these export commodities," said Lawson, noting that the report's figures were obtained using conservative estimates based on documented violations of significant impact. "There is hardly a product on supermarket shelves that is not potentially tainted," he added.

While the study highlights Brazil's recent success in reducing illegal forest clearance, the report also cautions that the problem of illegal deforestation for the production of commodities intended for export is now expanding to new areas of the tropics where deforestation rates have traditionally been low – and that the same illegalities seen elsewhere are being repeated. In the Congo Basin, for instance, two out of the three largest new oil palm projects currently under development have been found to be operating illegally; one of these plantations, in the Republic of Congo, is set to double that country's deforestation rate.

The report documents governance failures that undermine broader efforts to tackle tropical deforestation, including private sector initiatives on sustainable commodities and efforts by tropical forested countries to reduce legal deforestation. It argues that while the recent spate of "zero deforestation" commitments by major consumer goods companies involved in producing, trading, or consuming relevant commodities is to be applauded, illegalities relating to consumer agriculture and timber plantations can ultimately only be fully addressed by governments, and efforts to go further than legality will be held back by the need to compete with products that were illegally produced.

"Without investing in governance, our collective investments in halting deforestation and promoting forest stewardship will fail," concluded Jenkins. "Responsible companies and environmental and human rights groups are likely to be supportive of processes to reform the complex, conflicting, and unclear laws and regulations that currently govern the forest and agricultural sectors. This is a critical step, alongside improving the enforcement and compliance of national and international laws. All must be prioritized if global commitments to stop tropical deforestation are going to be achieved."

The report includes a range of recommendations for countries that both produce and import agricultural commodities, as well as corporations and investors in the commodity trade. The report advises producer countries, for example, to simplify and harmonize contradictory laws and regulations, including those pertaining to land use and securing tenure for Indigenous Peoples and other local communities to reduce conflicts. It asserts that governments should enforce these laws and hold companies investing in these countries accountable. Another set of recommendations call for actions by the governments of countries that import the commodities concerned.

The report notes that important lessons can be learned from previous successful initiatives to combat the trade in illegally sourced timber. Producer countries – particularly those developing trade agreements with the EU (FLEGT VPAs) – are clarifying regulatory frameworks that improve their ability to demonstrate the legality of wood products to their citizens. Consumer countries are instituting measures that have been shown to support the enforcement of producer countries' own laws and regulations, including the development of importing trade legislation (such as the EU Timber Regulation), public procurement policies, and investment standards. However, there has been limited analysis to date on how similar mechanisms for agricultural commodities could leverage credible legal compliance, support sustainable land use policies, and increase transparency.

"The current unfettered access to international markets for commodities from illegally cleared land is undermining the efforts of tropical countries to enforce their own laws" concluded Lawson. "Consumer countries have a responsibility to help halt this trade."

Image 1 for article titled "Illegal Land Clearing for Commercial Agriculture Responsible for Half of Tropical Deforestation"
Extent of illegal deforestation for commercial agriculture in key countries. From the full article.
Image 2 for article titled "Illegal Land Clearing for Commercial Agriculture Responsible for Half of Tropical Deforestation"
Global estimates of illegal deforestation for commercial agriculture and export. Ibid.
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Satellite photograph of deforestation in progress in the Tierras Bajas project in eastern Bolivia (Wikipedia: Deforestation)
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The last batch of sawnwood from the peat forest in Indragiri Hulu, Sumatra, Indonesia. Deforestation for oil palm plantation (Ibid.)
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Illegal slash and burn practice in Madagascar, 2010 (Ibid.)
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Fires on Borneo and Sumatra, 2006. People use slash-and-burn deforestation to clear land for agriculture (Ibid.)
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Deforestation for the use of clay in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro. The hill depicted is Morro da Covanca, in Jacarepaguá (Ibid.)
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Illegal logging in Madagascar. In 2009, the vast majority of the illegally obtained rosewood was exported to China (Ibid.)
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Slash-and-burn farming in the state of Rondônia, western Brazil (Ibid.)
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Satellite image of Haiti's border with the Dominican Republic (right) shows the amount of deforestation on the Haitian side (Ibid.)
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Deforestation around Pakke Tiger Reserve, India (Ibid.)

September 11, 2014 - China Works toward Kicking its Coal Habit

Kieran Cooke, writing for the Climate News Network on September 7th, 2014 and with the title above, comments: “There are still doubts. The statistics might be proved wrong. But it looks as if China might be starting to wean itself off its coal consumption habit. China produces and consumes nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined. Coal, the most polluting of all energy sources, has powered the growth of China’s flyaway economy. But as incomes have risen, so has pollution. The country is now the world’s No.1 emitter of greenhouse gases.

Latest figures indicate that change is on the way, spurred on by a much-vaunted government ‘war on pollution’ campaign. The state-run National Development and Reform Commission reports that domestic coal output shrank over the first five months of 2014 – the first such decline since the start of China’s rapid economic expansion back in the late 1980s.

Greenpeace, the environmental NGO, said in a recent analysis of China’s coal sector that growth in coal imports, which had been going up at an annual rate of between 13 percent and 20 percent in recent years, has come to a virtual halt. Meanwhile, the official Xinhua news agency says Beijing – a city of nearly 12 million people – will ban the sale and use of coal in its six main districts by 2020. Coal-fired factories and power plants around the Chinese capital are being shut down and replaced by natural gas facilities. Coal generated 25 percent of Beijing’s energy in 2012, and the aim is to bring that figure down to less than 10 percent by 2017. Other cities and regions are following Beijing’s lead.

Just how meaningful these cutbacks in coal use are is difficult to gauge. Air pollution – much of it caused by the burning of low-grade thermal coal − is not only a big environmental issue in China but also a political one as well. China’s leaders have promised a population increasingly angry about the low quality of the air they breathe and the water they drink that the government is determined to tackle pollution.

Yet coal-fired power plants are still being built at a considerable pace, and many more are planned. Some analysts argue that the present slowdown in China’s coal consumption is only temporary, the result of a dip in industrial output that will be reversed as soon as the economy roars ahead again. Others say the decline in coal consumption is part of a long-term trend. As China’s economy matures, becoming less dependent on heavy industrial goods and embarking on more hi-tech and service-oriented projects, the country will become ever more energy efficient – and less reliant on coal.

China might be the world’s biggest emitter of fossil fuel emissions, but it also has fast become a global leader in hydro, wind, and solar power. No one is suggesting that coal is going to be absent from China’s energy mix anytime soon. The lung-jarring pollution of many of China’s cities is likely still to be evident for some years yet. But coal is no longer king. That’s bad news for big coal exporters to China, particularly Australia and Indonesia. But it’s potentially good news for millions in China who crave clean air. And it’s very good news for the planet.

Image 1 for article titled "China Works toward Kicking its Coal Habit"
Signs are hopeful that China, the world’s No.1 emitter of greenhouse gases, aims to become less reliant on the polluting coal that powered its rapid economic rise. Credit: Shella/flickr; from the Climate Central article
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A coal-fired power station at Yangzhou in China’s central Jiangsu province. Latest figures indicate that change is on the way for China. Credit: Vmenkov via Wikimedia Commons, Climate News Network
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A miner waits for his brothers at a flooded coal mine where 22 miners were trapped underground on April 7, 2014 in Qujing, Yunnan Province of China. ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images; from,
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Between 2002 and 2012, the amount of carbon-dioxide emissions that humans emit each year rose by about 8.4 billion tons. More than half of that growth — 4.5 billion tons — came from China's increased coal use. Image: Greenpeace; from, op. cit.

September 10, 2014 - Geography in the Workforce: Good News to Share

The following is a recent letter from Jerome E. Dobson, President of the American Geographical Society, with the title above:

If ever there was any question that geography is foremost among professions, the last shred of doubt has been dispelled by reports on employment trends over the past decade. The U. S. Department of Labor, The Guardian newspaper,, Money Magazine, and stated our case better than we geographers have. Let’s start with the most recent and work backward in time. in its Money section on May 5, 2014 covered “America’s most and least common jobs.” Geography was among the least common, and I’ll talk about that aspect later, but there was good news too: “Still, some of these uncommon jobs do have growth potential and include relatively high salaries.” The data cited by came from the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS): “The average geographer earned more than $75,000 annually as of 2013.” What’s more, “The BLS forecasts that these jobs will grow by 29 percent…between 2012 and 2022.”

On April 22, 2012, Debra Auerbach of wrote about “10 jobs with above average salaries.” Then at $74,170, geographers were second highest, and all jobs on the list were projected to grow more than 29 percent over the subsequent decade. Auerbach explained, “Geographers study the earth and its land, features and inhabitants. They also examine political and cultural structures as they relate to geography. This is a good occupation for lovers of travel, as geographers often travel to conduct fieldwork.”

In 2010, The Guardian published a poll showing that geography graduates had the very lowest unemployment rate of all disciplines in the United Kingdom (source). Among the previous year’s graduates, 7.4 % of geographers were unemployed in January 2010, compared to 16.3 % of information technology (IT) graduates. “What makes…geography grads the most employable?” Alison White asked, and the answer came from Nick Keeley, director of the Careers Service at Newcastle University: “Studying geography arms graduates with a mix of skills employers want to see: Geography students generally do well in terms of their relatively low unemployment rates. You could attribute this to the fact that the degree helps develop a whole range of employability skills, including numeracy, teamwork through regular field trips, analytical skills in the lab, and a certain technical savviness through using various specialist computing applications. Also, the subject area in itself cultivates a world view and a certain cultural sensitivity. These all potentially help a geographer to stand out in the labor market.”

For many years the U.S. Department of Labor has recognized geospatial technology as one of the three top growth industries today, alongside nanotechnology and biotechnology. "Over 500,000 professionals in fields ranging from environmental engineering to retail trade analysis are asked to use GIS in their jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics show that surveyors, cartographers, and photogrammetrists (a subset of GIS occupations) are experiencing faster than average employment growth – anticipating growth at 19 percent between 2008 and 2018” (source).

Money Magazine and placed “geographic information system analyst” in its list of the "Top 100 Best Jobs in America" in 2010. The 2011 list of the "Best Jobs in Fast-Growth Fields" included various careers that utilize GIS.

Why, you may ask, with all these striking figures high salaries, rapid growth, low unemployment, aren’t students beating down the doors to get into our classes? Why are geography departments not booming in every university in the country? Why, in fact, are geography departments closing at a disturbing rate? Why do parents routinely ask, when their sons and daughters announce they want to study geography, “How on earth will you make a living?” Most puzzling of all, why are departments changing their names to attract students concerned about employment? The answer is pure, unadulterated ignorance among the U. S. public. Geography is one of the least common professions because few employers know to call geographers “geographers.” Few know to advertise for a geographer when that’s what they need to hire. Our students, however, find high salary jobs, seldom called “geography,” because we give them skills and attitudes that warrant high pay.

Clearly, we geographers aren’t making our case as convincingly as we could and should. We aren’t informing students of the disciplines true potential of employment. We aren’t informing employers that there are plenty more good prospects like the ones they have already hired, if only they will support our programs and seek our graduates.

The American Geographical Society will continue to fight to get this message out: Geography is the key, not only to understanding, but also to success.

Editor's note: Many thanks to Professor David Lopez-Carr for bringing this material to our attention.

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Jerome E. Dobson, American Geographical Society President. Dr. Jerome E. “Jerry” Dobson is awarded University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) Fellow status to recognize his outstanding contributions to geographic information science (GIScience) and his service to UCGIS. Jerry was an early researcher and pioneer who helped establish the field of GIScience. He earned an AA from Reinhardt College, AB and MA from the University of Georgia, and a Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Tennessee. In 1975, he began his career with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, continuing there until 2001 when he joined the faculty in the Department of Geography at the University of Kansas. Jerry’s outstanding career has provided him significant honor and affiliation including current positions as President of the American Geographical Society, Jefferson Science Fellow of the National Academies, Senior Scientist in the U.S. Department of State, Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and member of Sigma Xi. His previous affiliations have included Distinguished Research and Development Staff of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, contributing editor and Board of Directors of GIS World (later GeoWorld) where he wrote a popular column for 14 years, and U.S. Delegate and Expert to the International Organization for Standardization. His honors include the Robert T. Aangeenbrug Distinguished Career Award from the GIS Specialty Group of the Association of American Geographers, and the Cartography and Geographic Information Society’s Distinguished Career Award for Lifetime Achievement (
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AGS logo. The American Geographical Society (AGS) is an organization of professional geographers, founded in 1851 in New York City. Most fellows of the society are Americans, but among them have always been a significant number of fellows from around the world. The Society encourages activities that expand geographical knowledge, and the interpretation of that knowledge so that it can be useful to geographers and other disciplines, especially in a policymaking environment. It is the oldest nationwide geographical organization in the United States. Over the century and a half of its existence, the AGS has been especially interested in three regions: the Arctic, the Antarctic, and Latin America. A signature characteristic of the AGS-sponsored exploration was the requirement that its expeditions produce tangible scientific results (Wikipedia: American Geographical Society)

September 10, 2014 - Are Google Maps and GPS Bad for Our Brains?

Despite their undeniable usefulness, the burgeoning popularity of internet search engines, computer maps, and global positioning system devices has been criticized for everything from lowering reading skills and diminishing spatial literacy to crippling our navigational skills and increasing our long-term risk of dementia (see the Washington Post article by Nicholas Carr). Are such responses simply a form of Luddism in this brave new world of digital devices?

“Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains” (alternatively, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?”) is a magazine article by technology writer Nicholas G. Carr highly critical of the Internet's effect on cognition. It was published in the July/August 2008 edition of The Atlantic magazine as a six-page cover story. Carr's main argument is that the Internet might have detrimental effects on cognition that diminish the capacity for concentration and contemplation. Despite the title, the article is not specifically targeted at Google, but more at the cognitive impact of the Internet and World Wide Web. Carr expanded his argument in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, a book published by W. W. Norton in June 2010 (Wikipedia: Is Google Making Us Stupid?).

On another level, some critics see Google as an Orwellian threat to our freedom of choice and privacy: “Although they [Google] are doing a great job, full of passion and love for software, they are not hiding the extreme desire to control all of us. They are constantly buying new products and expanding in new areas. What I am saying is that they are killing the market, there is no competition. If you want to build a product and if Google decides to compete with you, your service will be dead in less than a year (if you are not Facebook). Further, they are collecting a huge amount of data from the plus button and from our daily queries on the service. Are they using their own motto against themselves? (‘Don’t Be Evil’)" (source).

Internet mapping services and GPS navigation systems are extraordinarily helpful: “They guide us to distant and out-of-the-way places that were once a hassle to find. They quickly get us back on course when we take a wrong turn. Listening to instructions from a GPS device certainly beats wrangling with a big paper map while trying to steer a car. In extreme situations, GPS units can even be lifesavers. Just ask anyone who's been lost in the wilderness during a hiking or camping trip. But even though our gadgets seem magical, they don't know everything. As most of us have discovered, navigation systems can give bad advice as well as good. You may not get hit by a car, but you could find yourself driving in circles or stuck at a construction site or marooned in a dodgy part of town” (source).

Henry Grabar, writing for, comments: “Spatial thinking helps us structure, integrate, and recall ideas. It's less an independent field of study than a foundational skill; a 2006 report from the National Research Council called spatial literacy the ‘missing link’ in the K-12 curriculum at large. Navigating is among the greatest incubators of that ability. A sophisticated internal map, as a famous study of London cab drivers showed, is tied to greater development in the hippocampus, the brain region responsible for spatial memory. In another study, participants with stronger hippocampus development tended to navigate with complex cognitive maps, while those with less developed spatial memory memorized turn-by-turn directions” (source). But could that mean that Carr is right, that our hippocampi will shrink if we rely on GPS instead of mental and paper maps, and that such shrinkage could even lead to dementia, as suggested in his Washington Post article?

Probably not. “As printing expanded the industry, cartographers deployed their talents in hundreds of new ways. Of equal importance, however, was the revolution in access. Before 1800, few people would have seen a map of their city or town. By the middle of the century, such objects were commonplace. By the early 20th century, they were distributed for free at gas stations. That development changed the way our ancestors thought about space. It certainly enhanced their understanding of the world. Something similar may be happening today. While cartophiles are alternately entranced and worried by the technological progress within maps, the more significant change may be in our collective exposure to geographic information. We no longer have to ‘read’ maps as we once did. But it seems nearly certain that we spend more time looking at them. For every cognitive scientist watching connectivity diminish our talents of perception, cognition, and problem-solving, there are many more kids exploring the earth from their laptops. ‘I think the parallel with the 19th century actually says the addition of the digital dynamic is going to expand context, make people more geographically literate, says David Rumsey, whose extensive map collection testifies to the cartographic trends of past generations. ‘I don't think it leads to a loss of spatial consciousness—I think it's exactly the opposite’” (, op. cit.).

Editor’s note: Many thanks to Geography grad student Mike Alonzo for drawing out attention to the article. As Mike put it, “This article is a little all over the place, but there's some good stuff in here.”

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Cover page in The Atlantic issue "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?" (Wikipedia: Is Google Making Us Stupid?)
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Graphic from which considers Google to be part of “the growing tide of Big Brother technology in the United States.” Read more at
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Cartoon by Pirillo and Fitz, from Michael Gaigg: Uber UII/UX Design (

August 29, 2014 - Mystery of the Sailing Stones of Death Valley Finally Solved

Sailing stones are a geological phenomenon found in Death Valley’s Racetrack Playa. The stones slowly move across the surface of the playa, apparently without human or animal intervention, and they leave telltale tracks as they go. They have never been seen or filmed in motion—until now.

“Over the years, scientists and laypeople offered all sorts of theories to explain the sailing stones. Some said the stones were blown by strong winds or pulled by magnetic fields. Others blamed pranksters -- or even aliens. Not satisfied with those explanations, a group of researchers and volunteers in 2011 attached GPS units to 15 rocks and placed them in Racetrack Playa -- the dry lake formation where the moving rocks are found -- and sat back to see what would happen. One of the researchers, Johns Hopkins University physicist Dr. Ralph Lorenz, called the project ‘the most boring experiment ever’” (source).

Boring or not, “Two researchers now say the rocks - which can sometimes be heavy and large - are propelled along by thin, clear sheets of ice on breezy, sunny days. They call it ‘ice shove.’ ‘I'm amazed by the irony of it all,’ paleobiologist James Norris tells the LA Times. ‘In a place where rainfall averages two inches a year, rocks are being shoved around by mechanisms typically seen in arctic climes.’”

“The findings are based on a lucky accident by James Norris and his cousin Richard Norris - while they were studying the sliding rock phenomenon. They actually witnessed the boulders moving in December when they went to check their time-lapse cameras in the valley. ‘There was a pop-pop-crackle all over the place in front of us, and I said to my cousin, 'this is it,'" Richard Norris says in the science journal Nature. They watched some 60 rocks sail slowly by, leaving the well-known snaking trails in the ground. 'A baby can get going a lot faster than your average rock,’ Norris notes. The rocks also don't slide around very often - scientists estimate only a few minutes out of a million - which is why the event has not been noticed before” (BBC News From Elsewhere).

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A sailing stone in Racetrack Playa. At Racetrack Playa, these tracks have been studied since the early 1900s, yet the origins of stone movement were not confirmed and remained the subject of research for which several hypotheses existed. However, as of August 2014, timelapse video footage of rocks moving has been published, showing the rocks moving at low wind speeds within the flow of thin, melting sheets of ice. The scientists have thus identified the cause of the moving stones to be ice shove (Wikipedia: Sailing stones)
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Tracks are sometimes non-linear. Tracks are often tens to hundreds of feet long, about 3 to 12 inches (8 to 30 cm) wide, and typically much less than an inch (2.54 cm) deep. Most moving stones range from about six to 18 inches in diameter (Ibid.)

August 27, 2014 - Check UCSB Geography Out on Facebook!

On January 24, 2014, the UCSB Department of Geography got “with it” in terms of online networking and joined Facebook (check it out here). Computer Network Technologist Bryan Karaffa and undergraduate Geography major Scott Yehl set things up, and, to date, our page is getting some serious attention. Okay, we haven’t exactly gone viral, but 355 likes to date is a start (and beats not having any).

Speaking of starts, the venture into social media was long overdue and was finally precipitated by our 40th Anniversary activities and a need for a signup system. We began by posting a notice about a Gaucho GeoHunt, and that first posting reached 3,559 people, our largest number reached to date. At any rate, check out the UCSB Geography Department on Facebook and don’t be shy about giving the editor some feedback about our page and handing out lots of “likes”!

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Screenshot of our Facebook page on August 27, 2014

August 26, 2014 - Severe Drought is Causing the Western U.S. to Rise

The following UC San Diego News Center press release is by Mario Aguilera, dated August 21, 2014, and titled “Severe drought is causing the western U.S. to rise: Scientists use GPS technology to track uplift from recent massive loss of water, estimated at 63 trillion gallons”:

The severe drought gripping the western United States in recent years is changing the landscape well beyond localized effects of water restrictions and browning lawns. Scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego have now discovered that the growing, broad-scale loss of water is causing the entire western U.S. to rise up like an uncoiled spring.

Investigating ground positioning data from GPS stations throughout the west, Scripps researchers Adrian Borsa, Duncan Agnew, and Dan Cayan found that the water shortage is causing an “uplift” effect up to 15 millimeters (more than half an inch) in California’s mountains and on average four millimeters (0.15 of an inch) across the west. From the GPS data, they estimate the water deficit at nearly 240 gigatons (63 trillion gallons of water), equivalent to a four-inch layer of water spread out over the entire western U.S. Results of the study, which was supported by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), appear in the August 21 online edition of the journal Science.

While poring through various sets of data of ground positions from highly precise GPS stations within the National Science Foundation’s Plate Boundary Observatory and other networks, Borsa, a Scripps assistant research geophysicist, kept noticing the same pattern over the 2003-2014 period: All of the stations moved upwards in the most recent years, coinciding with the timing of the current drought. Agnew, a Scripps Oceanography geophysics professor who specializes in studying earthquakes and their impact on shaping the earth’s crust, says the GPS data can only be explained by rapid uplift of the tectonic plate upon which the western U.S. rests (Agnew cautions that the uplift has virtually no effect on the San Andreas fault and therefore does not increase the risk of earthquakes).

For Cayan, a research meteorologist with Scripps and USGS, the results paint a new picture of the dire hydrological state of the west. “These results quantify the amount of water mass lost in the past few years,” said Cayan. “It also represents a powerful new way to track water resources over a very large landscape. We can home in on the Sierra Nevada mountains and critical California snowpack. These results demonstrate that this technique can be used to study changes in fresh water stocks in other regions around the world, if they have a network of GPS sensors.”

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Detrended daily vertical displacements from 771 continuous GPS stations in the western USA, decimated to weekly intervals for plotting (gray lines). The thick red line is the median value of all data for each day and the light red lines indicate the standard deviation computed from the interquartile range. The uplift that began in 2013 is remarkable for the period after 2006, when the number and distribution of GPS stations greatly expanded across the region with the building of the Plate Boundary Observatory (blue line shows the number of stations used in the analysis) (from the Science article)
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Spatial distribution of displacements from the timeseries on March 1 of 2011 through 2014. Uplift is indicated by yellow-red colors and subsidence by shades of blue. Gray region is where stations were excluded in the Central Valley of California. Adrian Borsa, an assistant research geophysicist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego (Ibid.)
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Maps of estimated loads and predicted and residual displacements: (A) Loading estimate for the western USA in March 2014. Redder areas indicate negative loading (mass deficit relative to the 2003-2012 mean), bluer areas indicate positive loading (mass surplus), and white areas are unchanged. (B) Vertical displacements corresponding to loading model in left panel, at the locations of the GPS stations used in this analysis (compare to actual displacements in rightmost panel of Fig. 2) (Ibid.)

August 21, 2014 - Heat Islands Cooking U.S. Cities

Rising temperatures threaten public health and are tied to higher levels of ozone air pollution. The following is a Press Release by Climate Central:

Urbanization and climate change are teaming up, turning up the heat in cities faster than rural areas. These hotter urban temperatures raise the risk for dangerous ozone air pollution, according to a new report, "Summer in the City," from Climate Central, a research and journalism organization.

With 80 percent of Americans living in metro areas, these urban heat islands, where city temperatures are much hotter than surrounding rural areas, could cause serious health issues for millions of people. Heat is the No.1 weather-related killer in the U.S., and the hottest days, particularly days over 90°F, are associated with high levels of air pollution that can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks, and other serious health impacts.

“Climate change is warming the entire planet, rural and urban areas alike,” said Alyson Kenward, lead author of the report. “But thanks to the dual action of urbanization and climate change, cities are not just hotter, they are getting hotter faster: 45 of 60 cities we analyzed were warming at a faster rate than the surrounding rural land.”

Climate Central’s analysis of government temperature records since 1970 for 60 cities found: 1) Cities have many more searing hot days each year; since 2004, 12 cities averaged at least 20 more days a year above 90°F than nearby rural areas. 2) Single-day urban temperatures in some metro areas were as much as 27°F higher than the surrounding rural areas; on average, across all 60 cities, the maximum single-day temperature difference was 17.5°F. 3) In 50 of 51 cities with adequate data, increasing heat was statistically correlated with more ozone air pollution; higher urban temperatures caused by climate change and urban growth are undermining hard won improvements in air quality and public health.

The top 10 cities with the most intense urban heat islands, measured as the greatest difference in average temperatures between urban and rural areas over the entire summer, were: Las Vegas (7.3°F), Albuquerque (5.9°F), Denver (4.9°F), Portland (4.8°F), Louisville (4.8°F), Washington, D.C. (4.7°F), Kansas City (4.6°F), Columbus (4.4°F), Minneapolis (4.3°F), and Seattle (4.1°F). Nights are warming even faster than days, with an average 4°F urban-rural difference at night, compared with the average difference in daytime temps of 2.5°F, across all cities analyzed.

“Urban heat islands have hotter days, far hotter nights, and more extremely hot days each summer than adjacent rural areas,” Kenward said. “Without greenhouse gas reductions, cities will continue to get hotter, with potentially serious consequences.” The report contains data and rankings for all 60 cities.

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Urban heat measured by satellite in Los Angeles, CA (Climate Central article). “An urban heat island (UHI) is a metropolitan area that is significantly warmer than its surrounding rural areas due to human activities. The phenomenon was first investigated and described by Luke Howard in the 1810s, although he was not the one to name the phenomenon. The temperature difference usually is larger at night than during the day, and is most apparent when winds are weak. UHI is most noticeable during the summer and winter. The main cause of the urban heat island effect is from the modification of land surfaces, which use materials that effectively store short-wave radiation. Waste heat generated by energy usage is a secondary contributor. As a population center grows, it tends to expand its area and increase its average temperature. The less-used term heat island refers to any area, populated or not, which is consistently hotter than the surrounding area” (Wikipedia: Urban heat island)
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Correlation between higher temperatures and higher ozone levels in Los Angeles (Climate Central article)
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