Category Archives: The Geographical Journal

ICHC 2015: the global history of cartography

logo-ichcBenjamin Sacks, Princeton University

Antwerp, Belgium recently hosted the 26th International Conference on the History of Cartography, bringing together 150 of the world’s leading historians of cartography, geographers, spatial specialists, and young career scholars and practitioners. The biannual conference seeks to promote the critical historical study and analysis of maps, map makers and geographers, and their impact in society. conference director Joost Depuydt, Universiteit Antwerpen, and Imago Mundi, the history of cartography’s flagship academic journal, closely collaborated to bring the conference to fruition. A large Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers) contingent attended, including (amongst others) retired RGS-IBG librarian Francis Herbert, Peter Barber, the British Library’s director of maps, former British Library map director Tony Campbell, Catherine Delano-Smith, Imago Mundi‘s chief editor, early modern map expert Chet Van Duzer, Matthew Edney, director of The History of Cartography series, and Imre Demhardt, a director of the International Cartographic Association.

The week-long conference has become famous for its single-panel, single-room format, with no concurrent sessions. Each panelist presents to the entire conference. The week format also provides ample time for panels on nearly every conceivable topic in the history of cartography and the history of geography. Both Karen De Coene (Universiteit Gent) and Joaquim Gaspar (Universidade de Lisboa) articulated the longevity of maps’ usefulness: De Coene demonstrated how composite atlases remain potent sources of understanding the formation of geographical knowledge networks; Gaspar investigated how accurate the 1569 Mercator world map proved to be for maritime navigation – some two centuries before its full adoption by shipping firms.

Linda Rui Feng (University of Toronto) highlighted how textual and non-cartographic evidence (e.g., manuscripts, letters, poetry) could be used to reconstruct early maps and regain previously lost geographic knowledge. ‘The concept of map (tu) in pre-modern China was a highly capacious one’, she argued, ‘and existed as part of an interface across the genres of text, pictorial illustration (also termed tu), and painting (hua)’ (Programme 32). Her work echoed David Cooper and Ian Gregory’s (Lancaster University)’s 2011 Transactions article ‘Mapping the English Lake District: a literary GIS’. In the latter piece, Cooper and Gregory discussed the possibilities of incorporating an array of visual, contemporary, quantitative, and qualitative information – from geographical coordinates to Thomas Gray’s 1769 account of his walking tour – via GIS to create a truly interdisciplinary understanding of one of the British Isles’ most famed natural regions.

ICHC 2015 Antwerp attendees. Photograph (c)  2015 Joost Depuydt.

ICHC 2015 Antwerp attendees. Photograph (c) 2015 Joost Depuydt.

Borders, boundaries, and their complex geographies constitute an important, recurrent theme in RGS-IBG journals. In ‘Border Landscapes’ (Area June 1989) Dennis Rumley (University of Western Australia) reported on a conference held to grapple with borders’ historic and contemporary problems: combating negative perceptions of border regions as poor, peripheral frontiers (175), critically examining ongoing bilateral border disputes, and re-examining historical disputes in a search for future solutions. Alec McEwan (International Boundary Commission) took a more focused slant, carefully deconstructing a century-old African boundary dispute. In ‘The establishment of the Nigeria/Benin boundary, 1889-1989′ (The Geographical Journal March 1991) he concluded that despite two clear imperial agreements cementing the boundary, a propitious lack of accurate and readily available maps, combined with the constantly-changing nature of the Okpara River, led to a nearly a hundred years of sociopolitical headaches, antagonism, and missed diplomatic opportunities. In a similar vein, Madalina Veres (University of Pittsburgh) turned her attention to the Habsburg’s forty-year failed effort to secure late eighteenth-century Lombardy’s frontier. She concluded that despite the Habsburg Empire’s best efforts, the deft use of conflicting maps and surveying engineers by three other monarchs prevented the region from being conclusively demarcated or controlled. Catherine Dunlop (Montana State University), author of the recently-published book Cartophilia: Maps and the Search for Identity in the French-German Borderland, buttressed Veres’ and McEwan’s respective points. In her analysis of Alsace’s fractured history, she promoted the role of maps as peaceful tools of negotiation and clarity, even in regions famed for armed conflict.

As Federico Ferretti’s 2014 study on the role of cartography in the promotion of a unified Italy keenly demonstrated (see ‘Italy: A tale of popular geographic circulation‘, Geography Directions, 15 November 2014), maps have and continue to serve as vital assets in legitimising particular conceptions of ‘the state’, while subordinating or eliminating competing visions from public and private discourse. At ICHC 2015 Zef Segal (Ben Gurion University) examined how competing German states, actors, and organisations created, promulgated, and manipulated maps to promote their particular perspective of territory generally and ‘Germany’ specifically. In so doing, his ongoing research intends to unearth the complex cartographic and geographic politics of Germany’s modern formation.

Geography is inherently global, a fact Max Moerman (Barnard College/Columbia University) kept close to heart as he embarked on his now in-press book, The Japanese Buddhist World Map: Religious Vision and the Cartographic Imagination. After identifying ships on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Japanese Buddhist world maps ‘that otherwise vehemently rejected the cartography of European exploration and its attendant cosmology of a global Earth’ (Programme 52), Moerman launched an investigation into Japanese maps’ global history. He uncovered that Buddhist map makers negotiated the inclusion of particular European and Far Eastern geopolitical and topographical elements into a ‘cartographic hybridity’ that both reflected Japan’s gradual opening to the West and Japanese efforts to rectify their position within this globalising world. Moerman’s focus on the negotiated symbiosis of ‘East and West’ fits well with current trends in RGS-IBG scholarship.

Mark Monmonier (Syracuse University) identified an area of geographical scholarship little examined in RGS-IBG journals: patents and invention. Transactions, for instance, has only discussed patents and the invention of geographic/cartographic-aiding devices in the context of agricultural efficiency (e.g., David Nally, ‘The biopolitics of food provisioning’ January 2011). In ‘Inventors and cartographic creativity’, he detailed how geography, exploration, cartography, and transportation has spurred a vast range of inventions, inventors, and gadgets, ranging from the vital to the curious.

Building off of James Ackerman’s 2009 The Imperial Map and Peter Barber and Tom Harper’s Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art (2011), Katariina Kosonen (University of Helsinki) discussed the influence of maps in popular newsprint and media. In ‘Passive resistance and raging propaganda’, she recounted the various means newspaper and magazine maps influenced or reflected charged public opinions in young Finland’s struggle to maintain independence from Soviet Russia. Kosonen tapped into a important topic of current geographic inquiry: the diffusion of geographic knowledge through mass media, how it is manipulated, and what it means for geopolitics and the discipline itself. Geography, as Frances Harris (Kingston University) wrote in a 2011 Geographical Journal commentary, is especially well suited to take an important place in media’s visual future.

Tim Hall, Phil Toms, Mark McGuinness, Charlotte Parker, and Neil Roberts’ vital January 2015 Area article ‘Where’s the Geography department?’ sounded the alarm to secure maintaining academic geography’s future as a distinct discipline in British higher education. At ICHC 2015, scholars and research librarians detailed various efforts to keep geography and cartography influential, relevant, and technologically advanced. Martijn Storms announced the successful merger, digitisation, and promotion of the Netherlands’ three most important map collections, with the intent of connecting historical and contemporary Dutch mapping and geographical knowledge to academics and policy-makers.  G. Salim Mohammed updated the academic community on Stanford University’s acquisition of the David Rumsey Map Collection, one of the most important private, digital collections in the United States. Later in 2015 Stanford will open the David Rumsey Map Center, a fully-digital geographic and geospatial library, to the public. ICHC 2017 will be held in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

books_iconCooper D and Gregory I N (2011), Mapping the English Lake District: a literary GISTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS 36: 89-108, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2010.00405.x

60-world2Ferretti F (2014), Inventing Italy and the circulation of geographical culturesGeography Directions, 5 February 2014.

books_iconFerretti F (2014), Inventing Italy: geography, Risorgimento and national imagination: the international circulation of geographical knowledge in the 19th centuryThe Geographical Journal 180: 402-13, DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12068.

books_iconHall T, Toms P, McGuinness M, Parker P, and Roberts N (2015), Where’s the Geography department? The changing administrative place of Geography in UK higher educationArea, 47: 56-64, DOI: 10.1111/area.12154.

books_iconHarris F (2011), Getting geography into the media: understanding the dynamics of academic-media collaborationThe Geographical Journal, 177: 155-59, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4959.2010.00396.x.

books_iconInternational Conference on the History of Cartography (2015), ICHC 2015 Antwerp: Programme & Abstract of the 26th International Conference on the History of Cartography: Theatre of the World in Four Dimensions, Antwerp: FelixArchief.

books_iconMcEwan A C (1991), The establishment of the Nigeria/Benin boundary, 1889-1989The Geographical Journal 157: 62-70, DOI: 10.2307/635145.

books_iconNally D (2011), The biopolitics of food provisioningTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers, NS 36: 37-53, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2010.00413.x.

books_iconRumley D (1989), Border landscapesArea 21: 175-76.

60-world2Sacks B J (2014), Italy: a tale of popular geographic circulationGeography Directions, 15 November 2014.

60-world2Sacks B J (2015), What happened to the American geography department? Geography Directions, 8 April 2015.

Engineering Meaningful Encounters Across Difference

By Ashley Crowson, king’s College London

Since the attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris last month and the killings in Denmark last week in which a Jihadist gunman targeted those attending Copenhagen’s main synagogue, interfaith and inter-community relations have inevitably been in the spotlight.

With much of the media often keen to portray the relationship between Muslim and Jewish communities as one of out-and-out hostility centred on an irresolvable religious conflict, heartening acts of inter-community solidarity can often be overlooked. In response to the shootings in Denmark, for instance, a group of young Norwegian Muslims organised a ‘ring of peace’ around Oslo’s main synagogue. More than 1,000 people attended, linking hands to offer symbolic protection and friendship to their Jewish neighbours.

A paper by Lucy Mayblin, Gill Valentine and Johan Andersson in The Geographical Journal takes a look at similar forms of ‘meaningful contact’: “contact which breaks down prejudices and translates beyond the moment to produce a more general respect for others.” The authors argue that banal chance encounters with ‘difference’ in the public spaces of Western society have come to be regarded as an “unremarkable feature of everyday life”. They question, however, whether these “fleeting, unintended encounters” really work to bring about mutual respect and understanding.

Turning their focus away from the fact of encounter and, instead, towards the nature of contact, the authors investigate an interfaith cricket programme in a UK city, designed to bring about purposeful and meaningful contact between Jewish and Muslim young people. They found that, at the outset, many of the young participants held negative, stereotypical views of the ‘other’ group. One Muslim participant, for example, said that the only thing he knew about Jewish people was ‘that they are stingy’. Many Jewish participants thought that the Muslims would not be interested in listening to different perspectives because of a narrow focus on their own faith.

In the environment of ‘meaningful contact’ bonds formed around shared interests:

“[I]t was through sharing common interests in sports, video games, TV and films, that they often made connections. These non-religious interests, then, formed the basis for friendships… when they were ‘hanging out’ at The Project… they spoke of those things in their life which bonded them as young men.”

While the authors judged the scheme to be a moderate success, one area of weakness identified was the reluctance to address the intersection of religious and ethnic identities with class. Understandably, the organisers’ nervousness around this topic stemmed from an association of the issue with anti-Semitic stereotypes about the wealth of Jewish communities.

Discussing socio-economic issues, two young Jewish participants told interviewers, “we live on opposite sides of [the city] and so I don’t know if any of them [the Muslim participants] are going on to university” and “we’ve had quite different upbringings”. When asked if they had ever been to the part of the City where the Muslim participants live, both replied that they hadn’t.

It was these “geographical and social differences in the material circumstances of the young people” that, according to the authors, “hinder the ability of young people to influence wider community social relations, limit the sustainability and scale-ability of such connections.” Friendships made did not endure beyond the project and the authors found little evidence of the benefits of the programme’s meaningful encounters being transferred to the communities.

The paper highlights the benefits of and need for ‘meaningful encounters’ with ‘difference’, and also the need for those engineering such encounters to be mindful of intersectional approaches, taking into account the racialized, gendered, generational, religious and class dynamics of the ‘difference’ in question.

 Lucy Mayblin, Gill Valentine and Johan Andersson, 2015, In the contact zone: engineering meaningful encounters across difference through an interfaith projectThe Geographical Journal, doi: 10.1111/geoj.12128.

Space and Violence in the American Jail

By Karen M. Morin, Bucknell University, USA

One of the greatest misconceptions about prisons and jails today is that the violence that occurs within their walls originates solely in the individual; that criminals are locked up because they are bad or unfortunate people, driven to crime and trouble from some indelible social or psychological cause, and that their criminal nature will follow them wherever they go, including inside the prison.

Photo credit: JoshuaDavisPhotograpy CC BY-SA 2.0

Photo credit: JoshuaDavisPhotograpy CC BY-SA 2.0

Actually though, prison violence is most often a product of the carceral system, not an explanation for its need. Many methods of prison control – both physical structures and their related penal philosophies – have the perverse effect of increasing levels of fear, terror, and ultimately violence in prisons. The increasingly typical institutional response over the past several decades in the U.S. is to isolate, lock down, or crowd prisoners, which simply creates further stress, frustration, and fear. Many politicians and court officials, particularly those who advocate a “tough on crime” stance, often camouflage these kinds of institutional factors and seek instead to simply extend the prison sentences of offenders who commit crimes while incarcerated – and this in the name of keeping our streets and communities safer.

I work with a local nonprofit prisoner rights group that receives hundreds of letters each month from inmates experiencing intensive “crackdowns,” which led me to understand how ineffective they are at stemming prison violence and how urgent the need is to consider alternatives. Ultimately my curiosity took me inside one large U.S. county jail in Omaha, Nebraska, to study violence and safety within an alternative, ‘progressive’ jail design called direct supervision. This design features, among other things, open architecture and a philosophy of free movement of inmates and staff that proponents argue creates safe, stress-free environments for both inmates and staff. Approximately 350 of the 3,300 local jails in the U.S. incorporate design features and principles of direct supervision today.

As geographers we know that space and spatial design can impact social relations and practices in myriad ways, for better and for worse. Different kinds of spaces can enable and/or inhibit different kinds of experiences and interactions. Prisons in particular are fundamentally reliant on spatial tactics to confine and control people and their movements. My study of direct supervision (see my article in The Geographical Journal) showed just how complex and multi-layered the space and design question can be. Among other findings, most of the men in the study reported never feeling in danger at the facility, and approximately one-third related unit design and layout to these feelings. Yet of those, 17% felt this as a positive impact (feeling protected and safe) but 13% as a negative – that the open architecture actually increased their sense of vulnerability. Most significantly, 70% reported that the availability of open, interactive spaces allowed ample opportunities for them to share information and life experiences, and talk of their basic rights with one another.

Ultimately this design turn towards construction of direct supervision jails is a more civil, humane direction in corrections. But this should not seduce us into believing, as Swan argued, that we can ‘build our way out of the prison problem’.

About the author: Karen M. Morin is Professor of Geography and Associate Dean of Faculty at Bucknell University, Pennsylvania, USA. She is co-editor of Historical Geographies of Prisons: Unlocking the Usable Carceral Past (with Dominique Moran), due out in June 2015 (Routledge).

books_icon Morin, K.M. (2015) The Late-Modern American Jail: Epistemologies of Space and Violence. The Geographical Journal.

60-world2 Swan, R. (2013) Punishment by Design: The Power of Architecture Over the Human Mind. San Francisco Weekly, 21 August.

Reconciling humans and nature through ‘green infrastructure’

By Joseph Bailey, University of Nottingham, UK.

The Los Angeles River, and its iconic concrete channels, made the BBC news last week following discussions of a ‘greener’ LA River catchment by researchers at the American Geophysics Union (AGU) Fall Meeting in San Francisco. The idea of ‘green infrastructure’ (or ‘blue-green infrastructure’) is proliferating internationally and essentially aims to reconcile humans and nature in urban and suburban settings, as opposed to employing previously favoured ‘hard engineering’ (i.e building man-made structures) strategies against flooding and other environmental threats. Green infrastructure initiatives have already begun on certain stretches of the LA River (e.g. see this National Geographic article from July 2014), however, this recent BBC article focusses on the complexities of such strategies.

The present concrete channels are vital in protecting Los Angeles from flood events by rapidly moving water away from the city and its residents, as outlined by one of the scientists interviewed in the article. This same scientist also notes that redesigning such a huge structure in the middle of a highly densely populated area is very difficult if the primary function to prevent flooding is to be maintained into the future as storms become more intense under climate change.

About a month prior to the focal news story of this article on the LA River, there was another story discussing droughts in the wider California area, with reservoirs and ground water supplies running dry as the state endures its third year of drought. This may sound like a wholly separate issue to flooding but a more integrative environmental management agenda implementing green infrastructure can contribute towards a host of environmental management foci, not just flood prevention. Indeed, one option discussed in the LA River article is to capture more water by creating a greater number of catchment basins to replenish groundwater supplies. However, this would ‘almost certainly’ necessitate moving people, homes and businesses, thus proving costly.

Here in the United Kingdom, Jones and Somper (2014) discuss integration of green infrastructure in London, highlighting the importance of collaboration between businesses, government and local communities and of making the socio-economic advantages of such infrastructure clear to investors. Jones and Somper provide examples of such collaboration, including Camden Council, who are actively encouraging the community to engage with ‘green issues’. Of course, expert opinion from geographers and others also has a large part to play alongside such collaborations. Indeed, research within the green infrastructure theme is thriving. For example, the Blue-Green Cities project emphasises the potential of such green strategies to provide resilience to flooding through adaptive management.

Overall then, green infrastructure seems to be able to offer much towards protecting people from environmental threats both now and into the future, while also encouraging a more harmonious relationship between people and nature in presently unnatural urban areas. If the known complexities of green infrastructure can be overcome to produce environmental solutions that make for a better future for both nature and humans (both practically and aesthetically), then this should surely be encouraged.

—–

books_icon Jones, S. & Somper, C. (2014). The role of green infrastructure in climate change adaptation in London. The Geographical Journal, 180 (2), 191–196.

Utopia and saving the African rainforest – should Bob Geldof board this train?

By Emmanuel Nuesiri, University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, USA

Bob Geldof. Photo Credit: Eric Roset. Available via CC BY 2.0

Bob Geldof. Photo Credit: Eric Roset. Available via CC BY 2.0

Bob Geldof is in the news again attempting to ‘save Africa’ from Ebola through Band Aid. While his original effort 30 years ago against famine in Ethiopia was welcomed, his current effort has been criticized by many as ill-conceived. However, Bob Geldof is not alone when it comes to visions of saving Africa. There is a history of individuals and institutions in the developed world, inspired by a utopian impulse to save African peoples and societies from real and imagined troubles, and usher in peace and prosperity.

Take Africa’s forestry sector during the colonial era. The utopian impulse to save Africa’s ‘edenic’ and aesthetic forests led the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire (SPWFE) to lobby for the setting up of protected areas. I show in my article in The Geographical Journal, ‘Decentralized forest management: towards a utopian realism’, that today, the utopian impulse to save the African forests has morphed into a discourse about reforming governance in Africa. Thus decentralised forest management, the forestry paradigm in place today, which has resulted in initiatives like community forestry, is not only presented as good for the forest, but as also necessary for moving Africa towards ‘good governance’. This utopian impulse to engineer an ideal society through forest sector reforms was given voice by community conservation advocates and amplified by bilateral and multilateral donors.

In 2006, as part of my doctoral studies investigating the transformative potential of community forests, I visited the Bimbia-Bonadikombo community forest (referred to as BB) in south-west Cameroon. During forest walk with BB forest patrol officers, we stumbled on artisanal loggers operating without license. The patrol officers accosted them and a violent scuffle broke out and the police were called in. The artisanal loggers protested strongly that from when BB was created in 2002, they have been restricted from using the forest and this has hurt them financially. So they are fighting for survival as they have no other source of regular cash income. In spite of its rhetoric of justice, fairness, empowerment and poverty alleviation, community forestry in this place provoked violent resistance.

Decentralised forest management might be aiming to produce a best possible world, a utopia for local forest people, but in countries like Cameroon, it has also produced strong opposition at national and local level. The romantic utopian might view this with resignation and even nihilism. The utopian realist would view opposition and even failure as grounds to revisit programme and project design, while not letting go of the utopian impulse for a just, fair, and post-scarcity society. Decentralised forest management programmes like Bob Geldof have taken some huge hit as it seeks to make a difference in Africa. However, its utopian and transformative power for a just and fairer society should continue to inspire. Where there have been failures let’s get back to the drawing board and re-examine our a priori design assumptions.

About the author: Emmanuel Nuesiri obtained his DPhil. in Geography from the University of Oxford. He is a research scholar with the Responsive Forest Governance Initiative (RFGI) at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, USA. His research interests include forests and climate change governance.     

 Nuesiri, E. O. (2014), Decentralised forest management: towards a utopian realism. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12104

 Guardian, The (2014) Band Aid 30 becomes fastest-selling single of 2014. 18 November

 Gordon, B (2014) Why Adele was right to ignore Bob Geldof and Band Aid. The Telegraph 18 November

So what sort of climate do we want? Thoughts on how to decide what is ‘natural’ climate

By Chris Caseldine, University of Exeter

With the meeting in Copenhagen to releasing the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change synthesis report produced by Working Group I  in early November, it is timely to consider not only our response to likely changes in climate but also to look at just what sort of climate we are hoping to achieve (Caseldine, 2014). Possible implementation of various climate geoengineering schemes (Hulme, 2014), especially those under the banner of SRM (solar radiation management) which seek to mimic the cooling effects of volcanic eruptions to offset anthropogenic warming, has invigorated debate on the rights and wrongs of interfering with the  climate system. The ever increasing concentration of Green House Gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere (Friedlingstein et al., 2014) has though already built  climate change into the earth system for the next century so whether we like it or not choosing to reduce GHGs, or deciding to allow concentrations to rise will also impact on global climate.

Stranded iceberg calved from Dawes Glacier, Alaska, 2014. Photograph credit Chris Caseldine.

Stranded iceberg calved from Dawes Glacier, Alaska, 2014. Photograph credit Chris Caseldine.

Because of our increasing understanding of the climate system we are now in a good position to assess the likely effects not only of various forms of geoengineering but also of reducing or indeed increasing GHG emissions – so what sort of climate do we want and what do we understand by ‘natural’ climate? Palaeoclimate studies using a range of sources have provided evidence of climate characteristics before human interference and climate models can now exclude the human factor and determine likely future climate patterns should nature take its course. If however you look at the sort of climate envisaged for a low carbon world it does not easily translate into the sort of climates, and weather, that will be experienced, it is usually defined in terms of global mean temperature, levels of GHGs or increasingly in terms of climate stabilization, a term that is rarely formally defined – usually considered as the prevention of dangerous change, the possibility of exceeding some critical climate threshold or tipping point leading e.g to the total loss of Arctic summer sea ice and subsequent major reorganization of circulation patterns.

However much we manage to reduce GHG emissions or prevent the implementation of geoengineering schemes, climate, especially global climate will not though be more benign, it may not be climate as before, but can only be understood in the context of our knowledge of past climates. There is a real need to understand and explain what a move back to a more ‘natural’ climate will mean, and why if technology is seemingly available to tackle climate problems, to provide what is euphemistically called ‘climate solutions’, we should not adopt such procedures. We need a clear understanding of what we are aiming to achieve climatically, the grounds for following that trajectory and what it means for global populations.

About the author: Chris Caseldine is Professor of Quaternary Environmental Change in Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences at the Penryn Campus of the University of Exeter. He is a palaeoecologist and has carried out research into palaeonvironmental reconstruction, principally over the Holocene, in a range of environments including Iceland, Ireland, SW England and Southern Norway.

 Caseldine, C. 2014, So what sort of climate do we want? Thoughts on how to decide what is ‘natural’ climate. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12131

 Friedlingstein, P. et al. 2014. Persistent growth of CO2 emissions and implications for reaching climate targets. Nature Geoscience, 7, 707-715

 Hulme, M. 2014. Can science fix climate change? Polity Press, 158pp.

 McGrath M 2014. IPCC preparing ‘most important’ document on climate change BBC

Après le deluge: the UK winter storms of 2013–14

By Klaus Dodds, Royal Holloway University of London

Spurn Head on the Humber being broken by the December 2013 Storm Surge Photo Credit: Environment Agency (reproduced with permission)

Spurn Head on the Humber being broken by the December 2013 Storm Surge Photo Credit: Environment Agency (reproduced with permission)

The UK winter floods of 2013-14 were unquestionably severe caused by winter storms that brought with them record levels of rainfall and long standing flooding to southern England, most notably the Somerset Levels. Other parts of the UK were also affected, coastal towns in Wales were battered by stormy weather and parts of the Scotland also recorded some of the highest levels of rainfall ever recorded. Political leaders of all the main parties were swift to visit affected areas, and the government organization responsible for flood management the Environment Agency and its embattled chief Lord Smith endured a barrage of criticism for late and or inadequate flood preparation, warnings and responsiveness. For weeks, stories and images of the flood and its impact on communities and infrastructure filled the airwaves. Some communities were affectively cut off while others lost their homes and possessions. The insurance industry estimated that the cost of the flooding exceeded £1 billion but it was lower than the estimated cost of the 2007 summer floods, which were put at over £3 billion.

As a recent themed section on the UK winter floods 2013-4 published in The Geographical Journal argues, there is a great deal more analytical work to be done in terms of how we make sense of such extreme events and what we might learn in the aftermath. One noticeable element in the 2013-4 winter storms was the presence of social media and the role that tweeting and Facebook played in raising flood awareness (#floodaware #thinkdontsink) and the sharing of images and stories relating to the flooding. This autumn the Environment Agency has taken again to social media to warn audiences about flood risk and prevention measures. Citizens, in potentially affected areas, are encouraged to check the real time mapping and monitoring of rivers and coastlines.

Combining historical and cultural geographers with fluvial geographers and hydrological modellers, the themed section ruminates on the social, economic, political and physical geographies of the flooding and the storm surges. It poses questions not only about how flooding is understood (both scientifically and culturally) but also how it impacts on communities and landscapes, some of whom enjoyed greater publicity than others. Campaigners for the affected Somerset Levels were particularly successful in generating media attention, as were home-owners and businesses along the River Thames. Flood geographers, as we might term it, are also in the thick of things when it comes to flood forecasting and advising agencies on how government and communities should prepare in the future for such extreme events. Preparedness combined with individual and communal resilience have been championed as indispensable and perhaps social media provided a resource of sorts for such resilience as people shared advice and experiences of flooding.

But as our themed section also shows that rivers including flood plains are complex and lively spaces. They vary in terms of flood risk vulnerability and this is as much to do with their materiality as it is due to historic and contemporary patterns of human occupation. For centuries, humans have intervened in such environments and introduced flood embanking, channel dredging, and manipulated the volume and flow speed of rivers. Moreover coastal environments have experienced a patchwork of interventions from hard to soft forms of coastal engineering. We have, over the years, sought to intervene in order to mitigate, and even prevent unwelcome futures.

Lets hope if severe winter storms affect the UK again in 2014-5 we will be able to conclude that we are somewhat wiser as a consequence of our experiences in the winter of 2013-4.

About the author: Klaus Dodds is a Professor of Geopolitics within the Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London. Klaus is also the Editor of The Geography Journal.

The Geographical Journal themed section in full:

books_icon Dodds, K. (2014), Après le deluge: the UK winter storms of 2013–14. The Geographical Journal, 180: 294–296. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12126

books_icon Thorne, C. (2014), Geographies of UK flooding in 2013/4. The Geographical Journal, 180: 297–309. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12122 (open access)

books_icon Stephens, E. and Cloke, H. (2014), Improving flood forecasts for better flood preparedness in the UK (and beyond). The Geographical Journal, 180: 310–316. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12103

books_icon Lewin, J. (2014), The English floodplain. The Geographical Journal, 180: 317–325. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12093

books_icon McEwen, L., Jones, O. and Robertson, I. (2014), ‘A glorious time?’ Some reflections on flooding in the Somerset Levels. The Geographical Journal, 180: 326–337. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12125

books_icon Clout, H. (2014), Reflections on The draining of the Somerset Levels. The Geographical Journal, 180: 338–341. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12088

Other references:

60-world2 Ugwumandu J (2014) Severe winter weather to cost UK insurers £1.1bn, says ABI The Actuary, 13 March 2014

60-world2 Gov.uk (2014) Check flood warnings and river levels