Tag Archives: Cartography

Redefining the Upper Amazon River

By James (Rocky) Contos


The Amazon River basin, including dark traces for each proposed source rivers: Napo, Marañón, Huallaga, Urubamba, Apurímac, and Mantaro.  Source: James Contos

The Amazon River basin, including dark traces for each proposed source rivers: Napo, Marañón, Huallaga, Urubamba, Apurímac, and Mantaro.
Source: James Contos

A full descent of the world’s largest river can be likened to a full ascent of the highest mountain, with various natural challenges along the way. The Amazon River is generally considered the mightiest river in the world because of its incredible volume (it carries over eight times as much water as the next largest river, the Congo), its maximal length (which may be slightly more than that of the Nile), and the importance of its basin for the world’s ecology. The entire Amazon River, including its source, has intrigued the public, geographers, and adventurers for centuries.

The allure of descending the Amazon goes back at least to the time of Francisco de Orellana, whose 1540 expedition started on the Napo River. Since then, dozens of expeditions have sought to travel the entire length of the Amazon. For adventurers, the location of the river’s source is critical because it defines the route, including the most difficult part of the journey through the formidable whitewater of the Andes mountains.

During most of the past century, the source of the Amazon River was considered to be the Apurimac River, based on the belief that it was the most distant upstream extension in the Amazon basin. Initial attempts to navigate the river starting in the 1950s ended in disasters with team members drowning in the difficult rapids. Although many other would-be Apurimac-Amazon adventurers failed in their attempts, several teams have successfully made the descent – starting with Piotr Chmielinski and companions in 1985-1986.

However, our new research results published in Area demonstrate that the most distant source of the Amazon is not the Apurimac River as previously thought.  Rather, it is the Mantaro River, a neighbouring stream that joins the Apurimac to form the Ene River. These new findings change the uppermost ~800 km of the Amazon source-to-sea journey, including all of the whitewater. This result drastically changes the journey down the Amazon.

While gathering data for the article in Area, I realized that distance measurements based on topographic maps and satellite images were limited because these methods often have low resolution and sometimes do not show current river channels. Simply measuring distances on topographic maps and satellite images would not suffice, because these often have low resolution (and therefore errors) and sometimes do not show current river channels. The best way to obtain an accurate up-to-date measurement is via direct GPS tracking on a descent of the river. It is for this reason that I descended both the Mantaro and Apurimac Rivers from their sources – no easy task with the numerous class V rapids (the most severe whitewater classification) on each river.

Since my initial scientific expedition in 2012, which also included a GPS-measurement of the entire Amazon to the Atlantic, at least two other expeditions have descended the Mantaro River down the Amazon to the sea, prompting attention from the paddling community and public. Had such attention been directed to the Mantaro River decades ago, it might have prevented its desecration with pollution and damming.

About the Author: James Contos is director of the non-profit river conservation organization SierraRios and completed the Area study along with   Nicolas Tripcevich, an archeologist at UC Berkeley who has expertise with GIS software and the ancient cultures of Peru.

books_icon Contos J and N Tripcevich (2014) Correct placement of the most distant source of the Amazon River in the Mantaro River drainage. Area 47: pp-pp. DOI: 10.1111/area.12069

60-world2 Schaffer G (2013) “Fastest to the Atlantic Wins”; Outside Magazine : January 2013: 38-39.

60-world2 Moag J. (2013) “True Source”; Canoe & Kayak. June 2013: 42-50, 86-88.

60-world2 “Flood in Huancavelica, Peru.” Disaster Charter.org. January 21, 2014

Minding the Gap in Cartography: from maps to mapping practices

by Fiona Ferbrache

World Map from 1664

World Map from 1664

If the biologist’s iconic tool of the trade is a microscope, then the geographer’s might well be a map.  Both tools offer an alternative perspective of the world, but unlike the microscope, which enlarges for the biologist, the map serves the geographer through reduction.  Maps and processes of mapping are the topics of enquiry in a TIBG paper by Kitchin, Gleeson and Dodge (2012) – one of the latest pieces of work on cartography by these authors.

For those unfamiliar with the scholarly literature, it is perhaps assumed that “a map is unquestionably a map” (Kitchin et al. 2012:2) – something that exists to measure and represent the world, even through its different forms.  For example, the London Tube map, celebrated this year as part of the 150-year anniversary of London Underground, is a topographical map showing connections between stations, rail lines and fare zones.  This is different to geographically scaled maps such as the Michelin Road Atlas or Ordnance Survey maps.

Different again is the set of maps (cartograms) comprising the Worldmapper collection, available online (see below).  These are based on a flat map of the world and territories are re-sized according to particular variables e.g. total population, fruit exports, disease, internet uses and migration.

Kitchin et al. challenge the idea of a map as something complete, fixed and stable – that which they refer to as being “ontologically secure”.  Instead, they rethink mappings as processual (thus the importance of using the verb ‘mapping’ rather than the noun ‘map’): practices that are never complete but unfold out of and into specific relational contexts.  Their paper is written from a more-than-representational standpoint to challenge the assumed ontology of maps and then consider what this means epistemologically for cartography.

The theory behind this article can be applied to other visual materials – photography, for example.  However, Kitchin et al. will hopefully inspire you to look again and rethink how you understand those maps blue-tacked to the wall in your teacher’s room.

60-world2  Mind the map: London Underground turns 150. BBC News

books_icon Kitchin, R., Gleeson, J. and Dodge, M. 2012. Unfolding mapping practices: a new epistemology for cartography. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi/10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00540

60-world2 Worldmapper collection

The Map Precedes the Territory

Martin Mahony

The new map at the centre of a geopolitical dispute

Geographers and critical cartographers have long acknowledged that maps do not simply and unproblematically represent the territory depicted by their lines, symbols and shading. Rather, maps participate in the very construction of such territories in the first place. Historical studies have shown the production of maps to be central to the space-claiming activities of European colonial powers, and have highlighted how maps function as tools of political power and even oppression. The representational and world-constructing power of maps does not originate in their accuracy or precision, but in their positioning within webs of practices which at once reflect and produce  the cultures and societies in which maps are situated.

Some of these dynamics were powerfully illustrated by a recent diplomatic controversy around new Chinese passports. The documents feature a map of Chinese territory which included Taiwan and the entire South China Sea – large swathes of which are claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia. The map also included the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and the Aksai Chin region of Kashmir. This straightforward act of representation was at once an act of geopolitical brinkmanship – the drawing of a line is inseparable from the politics of such lines ‘on the ground’, in the form of border posts, militarized zones, contested resources and cultural identities.

The always-already political nature of this cartography was highlighted by the response of the countries who had lost territory to the Chinese map. Complaints were lodged at Chinese embassies, Vietnam refused to stamp the new passports and, most notably, the Indian embassy in Beijing began stamping the passports with their own map which made a counter-claim to the countries’ disputed lands. India and China went to war over their border in 1962, and recent naval movements by the Chinese military have prompted some observers to speculate about the potential for future territorial skirmishes in the region.

Incidents such as these point to the centrality of cartography to modern statehood. Maps are key to the nation-state’s image of itself, in terms of its territorial extent, its geopolitical relationships, and its political character and identity. Sarah Radcliffe makes just such an argument in her 2009 paper in Transactions, in which she explores the relationship between cartography and the state in Ecuador. She argues that spatial information compiled in the form of new digital cartographies has helped produce a neoliberal property system which is central to the ongoing transformation of the postcolonial state. In the Chinese and Ecuadorian cases maps are being used in very different ways, but in both cases with the aim of transforming the relationship between geographical space and political power.


Sarah A. Radcliffe, 2009, National maps, digitalisation and neoliberal cartographies: transforming nation-state practices and symbols in postcolonial EcuadorTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34, 426-444

Chinese passport map causes diplomatic disputeThe Guardian, 27 November 2012globe42

Who’s Behind our Maps?

Jen Dickie

Map of the world, prepared by Vasily Kipriyanov From http://libraries.theeuropeanlibrary.org/RussiaStpetersburg/treasures_en.xml Begining of the 18th century Category:Old maps of the worldThe headlines this week demonstrate how ubiquitous maps have become; yesterday alone there were at least 5 maps being used by The Guardian and the BBC to illustrate information to their audience.  It is clear that both the type of information and the way it is being visualised are evolving but also that map makers and map users are diversifying.

With the Gaza conflict dominating the news, The Guardian is using data provided by reporters, officials and the general public alike to create a current, interactive Google Map of airstrikes and explosions in the war zone, which is constantly being updated as information unfolds.  This emerging method of data collection, known as ‘crowdsourcing’, is largely facilitated by social media and is, notwithstanding accuracy and reliability issues, concurrently increasing in popularity and accessibility.

However, it is not only quantitative data that can be mapped effectively; an interactive Google Map published by The Guardian yesterday depicts their news coverage of the ‘Sahel food crises’ over the past year.  Whilst this form of representation and design may give professional cartographers nightmares, this method of visualisation opens up new ways of identifying spatial and temporal connections and relationships from qualitative data sources.

In an article for Transactions, Rob Kitchin, Justin Gleeson and Martin Dodge argue that cartographic theory has seen a shift from a “representational to a processual understanding of mapping” and discuss what this means for cartographic epistemology.  Using their experience of mapping ‘ghost estates’ in Ireland, a public geography project, Kitchin et al. demonstrate how maps “unfold through a plethora of contingent, relational and contextual practices” and show how maps are being made (and re-made) in diverse ways as solutions to everyday problems and tasks.

Cartographic theory is evolving and maps are becoming fashionable again.  To me, one in particular highlights the exciting developments and opportunities maps can provide – Paul Butler’s map of Facebook connections.  This does not map Facebook membership or borders and boundaries, yet the world, albeit a slightly distorted one, is clearly visible – a map of human relationships.  As the journalist, Simon Garfield, states in his book ‘On the Map’  – “It was a map of the world made by 500 million cartographers all at once”.

 Rob Kitchin, Justin Gleeson and Martin Dodge, 2012, Unfolding mapping practices: a new epistemology for cartography, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00540.x

 Sahel food crisis – how the Guardian is covering the story, The Guardian, 19th November 2012

 Gaza-Israel crisis 2012: every verified incident mapped, The Guardian, 19th November 2012

 Simon Garfield, 2012, On the Map: Why the world looks the way it does, Profile Books Ltd, London

When is a ‘map’ not a map? When it’s a Sat Nav!

By Stephen Axon, Janet Speake and Kevin Crawford

Dangerous, fun or pretty sweet? Attitudes towards Sat Nav use
(Artist: George Sneyd)

The rapid popularisation and extensive distribution of Sat Nav technologies represents the first widespread adoption of location-aware systems for journey planning and navigation. Sat Nav technologies illustrate the advancement and accessibility of technology used for journey planning and navigation. Despite the advantages, the media tend to focus on the negativities of over-dependence on the technology, reduced spatial awareness as well as the potential hazards of Sat Nav use.

The first Sat Nav summit in London convened by the Department of Transport in March 2012 started to address the blunders associated with Sat Nav use. The key issues discussed at the summit were to identify solutions to problems of out-of-date Sat Nav technologies. The Sat Nav summit sought to address concerns that old information on Sat Nav systems is leading inappropriate vehicles down inappropriate roads.

In our paper, ‘At the next junction, turn left’, we explore geography undergraduates’ attitudes towards, and experiences of, Sat Nav use as well as its impacts on spatial awareness and cartographic literacy. In doing so, we have started to address a major gap in the geographical literature.

The navigational capacities and technological aspects of Sat Nav are regarded positively whereas its technological, safety and financial attributes are considered negatively. Distinctions are made between traditional navigational technologies such as paper-based maps and Sat Nav. Crucially, the digital spatial representations of Sat Nav are not perceived as maps but as a distinctive navigational tool. Concerns are also expressed that Sat Nav could reduce the ability to read paper-based maps and interpret spatial data.

Sat Nav use is intrinsically changing people’s wayfinding behaviour, processes and practices of navigation, and understandings of what ‘maps’ are and do. Fundamentally, Sat Nav is not viewed, or used, in the same way as more traditional technologies of navigation. We argue that geographers should engage more actively with interdisciplinary dialogues on people’s changing perspectives on wayfinding, navigation and map design.

The authors: Stephen Axon is a doctoral candidate in Geography, Dr Janet Speake is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography and Dr Kevin Crawford is a Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography at the Department of Geography, Liverpool Hope University.

Axon S, Speake J and Crawford K 2012 ‘At the next junction, turn left’: attitudes towards Sat Nav use Area DOI: 10.1111/j.1475.4762.2012.01086.x

BBC News 2012 Sat-nav summit to tackle blunders 6 March (Accessed 8 March 2012)

Department for Transport 2012 Government’s first Sat Nav summit 6 March (Accessed 8 March 2012)

Syria at a Crossroads

Contested Syria: the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin Sacks

HOURS AFTER Syrian president Bashar al-Assad addressed a nation overwhelmed by protests and violence, British foreign secretary William Hague retorted that ‘if President Assad is to restore any credibility the Syrian people need to see concrete action [of reform], not vague promises’. Syria, Hague implied, is at a vital crossroad in its history. The future presents many questions, but few (if any) concrete answers. Will al-Assad maintain his family’s forty-year grip on power? Or will democratic opponents force the Ba’ath Party from Damascus? Can the West really impact Syria’s fate through international sanctions? One fact, however, is certain. Syria’s convulsions lie not only with its current socio-political crisis, but also in its geo-historical position, particularly with Turkey.

Syria, as Sir Leonard Woolley pronounced in the June 1946 issue of The Geographical Journal, ‘indeed occupies a wonderfully central position’ (p. 12). Situated in the heart of the Middle East’s ‘Fertile Crescent’, and bounded by the Mediterranean Sea, Syria stretches across Turkey’s southern border, down along Iraq’s western frontier, before reaching its contentious boundary with Israel, near the Sea of Galilae (Lake Tiberias).  The earliest known civilisations spread across the Syrian heartland, fostering some of the world’s oldest cities: Antioch (third century BC), Damascus (second century BC) and Aleppo (first century BC). The most important east-west trade routes passed through Syria, connecting India and the Orient with Europe and North Africa (Carruthers 1918, pp. 157-58). Syria enjoyed tremendous wealth from the Age of Antiquity through the Renaissance.

Syria’s wealth and location also targeted the region for conquest. Turkey’s vital contemporary role as arbiter between Syria and the international community is the result of centuries of Turkish influence (and, more often than not, interference) in Syrian culture. Syria lay at the centre of the Ottoman Empire; its political and economic importance underscored Turkish power. As Ottoman power waned at the turn of the twentieth-century, Western powers stepped in. Syria proved to be the most contentious region. The Royal Geographical Society, in its dual capacity as learned society and imperial instrument, initiated a series of excavations and survey projects. After the outbreak of war in 1914, the Royal Geographical Society increasingly pressured the British Government to ignore France’s own Syrian claims (formally enshrined in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement). The Society’s cartographers, as well as those seconded from the Army and Navy, produced numerous topographical and military charts of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the eastern Mediterranean coast. Unfortunately, so much conflicting data was submitted to the Society’s cartographers that their maps’ intelligence information was often out-dated by the time they reached front lines (Heffernan 1996, pp. 515-16).

Competing Anglo-French claims, however, did not entirely extinguish Turkish and Arab objectives. Syria lost Antioch in 1939 when France, its protector, transferred the region to Kemal Ataturk. Syria continues to claim the province. In 1958, Syria joined Egypt in short-lived ‘United Arab Republic’, intended by nationalists to assert a strong Arab federation. More recently, Turkey protested Syria’s tacit support for separatist Kurds; the Syrians had viewed the Kurds as compatriots against the Turks since at least the First World War (Hogarth 1915, p. 459).  Geography, for better or worse, has forced the fates of Syria and Turkey together. Although relations are often fraught with difficulty, modern Turkey remains Syria’s most important partner, a state that enjoys the rare privilege of favour in both Western and Arab diplomatic circles. History suggests that Turkish-Syrian relations will be crucial in solving Damascus’s populist crisis.

 Douglas Carruthers, ‘The Great Desert Caravan Route, Aleppo to Basra’, The Geographical Journal 52.3 (September, 1918): 157—84.

 William Hague,  ‘President Assad’s Speech Today was Disappointing and Unconvincing’, The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 20 June 2011, accessed 22 June 2011.

 Michael Heffernan,  ‘Geography, Cartography and Military Intelligence: the Royal Geographical Society and the First World War’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 21.3 (1996): 504—33.

 D G Hogarth,  ‘Geography of the War Theatre in the Near East’, The Geographical Journal 45.6 (June, 1915): 457—67.

 Leonard Woolley,  ‘Syria as the Gateway between East and West’, The Geographical Journal 107.5/6 (May-June, 1946): 179—90.

Also see: 

 Felix Driver, Geography Militant: Cultures of Exploration and Empire (Oxford and Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2006).

 Felipe Fernández-Armesto,  Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature (New York, London, Toronto and Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 189.