Tag Archives: geography

We should talk about ‘deepfake geography’: fake AI-generated satellite images

You may have heard about ‘deepfakes’ before. These are essentially elaborate hoaxes generated by artificial intelligence-driven technology, most typically in a video format. During these highly realistic video forgeries, an actor’s facial expressions and lip movements are superimposed over the impersonated individual’s face. This isn’t some comical Photoshop. The voice is also impersonated, leading to lifelike apparitions that are both impressive and terrifying at the same time.

Obvious targets include celebrities like Mark Zuckerberg, Barack Obama, or Vladimir Putin who were turned into realistic puppets. Many others are pornographic, mapping faces from female celebrities onto porn stars — a staggering 96% of deepfakes posted online up to September 2019 were fake porn, showcasing the technology’s ability to be weaponized against women.

Besides deepfake pictures, videos, and audio, scientists at the University of Washington now warn that maps can also be faked using this technology via augmented satellite imagery.

Deepfakes: now a geography problem

Various agents, whether state-sponsored or not, have been forging satellite imagery for years. This isn’t news. What’s more, some inaccuracies are intentionally added by mapmakers as a means to prevent copyright infringement. These include fake streets, churches, or towns that are put on purpose so if someone copies the map then the map owner knows it was you because you couldn’t possibly have mapped these fake features.

Sometimes the cartographers have fun with these spoofs and even challenge users to find them as a sort of easter egg hunt. For instance, an official Michigan Department of Transportation highway map in the 1970s included the fictional cities of “Beatosu” and “Goblu,” a play on “Beat OSU” and “Go Blue,” because the then-head of the department wanted to give a shoutout to his alma mater.

But deepfake makes are anything but funny. Bo Zhao, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Washington and lead author of a recent study that exposes the dangers of AI-forged maps, claims that such misleading satellite imagery could be used to do harm in a number of ways. This is even more concerning if deepfakes are ever applied to WorldView 3 satellite imagery, whose resolution is so high you can zoom in to see individual people.

In fact, in 2019, the US military warned about this very prospect through its National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the organization charged with supplying maps and analyzing satellite images for the U.S. Department of Defense. For instance, military planning software can be misled by fake data showing tactically important locations, such as a bridge, in an incorrect location.

“The techniques are already there. We’re just trying to expose the possibility of using the same techniques, and of the need to develop a coping strategy for it,” Zhao said.

For the new study, Zhao and colleagues fed maps and satellite images from three cities — Tacoma, Seattle, and Beijing — to a deep learning network that is not all that different from those used to create deepfakes of people. The technique is known as generative adversarial networks, or GANs.

After the machine was trained, it was instructed to generate new satellite images from scratch showing a fictitious region of one city, drawn from the characteristics of the other two.

Fake videos, now fake buildings and satellite images

One such set of fake satellite images shows a supposed Tacoma neighborhood (the base map) but with visual patterns typical of Seattle and Beijing. In the image below, slides a) and b) feature the mapping software and an actual satellite image of the neighborhood as it truly is in real life, respectively. The bottom slides show the same neighborhood with low-rise buildings and greenery you’d expect to see in Seattle (slide c) and a Beijing version with taller buildings in which the AI cast a shadow over the building structures in the Tacoma map. In both genuine and fake maps, the road networks and building locations are similar but not exact. And it is these small but misleading details that can cause mayhem.

These are maps and satellite images, real and fake, of one Tacoma neighborhood. Credit: Cartography and Geographic Information Science.

Telling apart the real satellite imagery from the fake one can be challenging to the untrained eye. This is why Zhao and colleagues also performed image processing analyses that can identify fakes based on artifacts found in color histograms, as well as in frequency and spatial domains.

In any event, the aim of this study wasn’t to show that satellite imagery can be falsified. That was already a foregone conclusion. Rather, scientists wanted to learn whether they could reliably detect fake satellite images, so that geographers may one day develop tools that allow them to spot fake maps similarly to how fact-checkers spot fake news today — all for the good of the public. According to Zhao, this was the first study to touch upon the topic of deepfakes in the context of geography.

“As technology continues to evolve, this study aims to encourage more holistic understanding of geographic data and information, so that we can demystify the question of absolute reliability of satellite images or other geospatial data,” Zhao said. “We also want to develop more future-oriented thinking in order to take countermeasures such as fact-checking when necessary.”

The findings appeared in the journal Cartography and Geographic Information Science.

How a compass works: the trusty magnetic guide

The magnetic compass has been an essential tool for navigation
Credit: Pixabay.

Before Google Maps and even GPS, people used magnetic compasses for over 900 years in order to reliably navigate around the world.

Their longstanding and widespread use is owed to a combination of factors. From a usability or UX design standpoint, the compass is a work of genius. A compass will always point north, so a user needs only to orientate themselves based on the four main points north (N), south (S), west (W), and east (E). You don’t need to know how to read or write to use a compass, which makes it accessible to all ages, classes, and nationalities.

Since compasses have been in use for such a long time, there must be something about them. Let’s take a closer look.

What’s a magnetic compass

The basic physical principle of the compass is magnetism. This fundamental physical phenomenon arises from the force between objects that produce magnetic fields that attract or repel other objects.

The most familiar example of magnetism is a bar magnet, which is attracted to a magnetic field and can attract or repel other magnets.

Every magnet has two poles, north, and south. Like poles repel, while opposite poles attract. This is something everyone probably experienced at least once in their lives while toying with refrigerator magnets pushed end to end.

The first scientist in history that investigated the properties of magnetism was Thales of Miletus around 2,500 years ago. Around the same time, the Indian surgeon Sushruta performed surgical procedures with the help of natural magnets, such as the mineral magnetite, while the Chinese first described using magnets to attract a needle in the first century of this current era.

If this last bit sounds familiar, it’s because it describes the working principle of the compass. Every compass has a small magnetic pin that is suspended in a low-friction pivot so it can move freely as it aligns towards the top of Earth’s magnetic field.

The very first compasses were made of a magnetized needle attached to a piece of wood or cork that floated freely in a dish of water. When the needle settled, the marked end would point toward magnetic north. 

Our planet essentially has one giant bar magnet built inside it. The planet’s outer core is formed of liquid iron which constantly moves as the planet’s interior gradually cools down. This motion creates electric currents as electrons move through the liquid and, in the process, the energy of the fluid is converted into a magnetic field. If we imagined that Earth’s magnetic field is similar to a bar magnet (or dipole), then we can locate a geomagnetic north and south pole. This is an oversimplification of the complexity and variation of Earth’s true magnetic field but for the sake of this particular subject, it will do.

You might be scratching your head a little considering what I just explained — i.e. opposite poles of magnets attract and the like poles repel. This confusion is owed to the fact the planet’s magnet is reversed, with its magnetic south pole orientated upwards near Earth’s geographic north pole and vice-versa. So a compass technically points to Earth’s magnetic South Pole, but for navigation purposes, we’re interested in the geographic North.

Why a compass doesn’t point towards the true North Pole

A compass doesn’t point towards the exact location of Earth’s geographic north pole, which is the “top” of the planet relative to its axis of rotation (imagine it as a kind of invisible rod that passes through the planet). Instead, it points towards the magnetic north pole (technically the magnetic south pole but for the sake of avoiding confusion we’ll use the same designation), which today lies somewhere in the middle of the Arctic.

Earth’s northern magnetic pole isn’t fixed but, rather, is in a perpetual motion driven by the movement of the planet’s liquid outer core. In the last couple of decades, scientists have noticed that the northern magnetic pole has been shifting away from the Canadian Arctic toward Siberia at an unprecedented rate. Compared to where it was a century ago, the magnetic North Pole has moved about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers).

Credit: University of Kyoto.

Up until the 1950s, the north magnetic pole had been moving at a rate of about 11 km (7 miles) per year but since the 1990s, this rate has jumped to about 54 km (34 miles) per year. Strangely, the south magnetic pole has shifted very little during this time.

The difference between the magnetic north Pole and the true north pole is known as the angle of declination. Every compass is fitted with a declination scale, which you can adjust based on your location and the map you use so the compass always points towards true north.

However, if you’re not navigating a ship and are just hiking through the woods, considering the angle of declination is more often than not overkill. Most of the time, you’ll do fine treating the north a compass shows as though it were the precise indication of the geographic north pole. However, if your destination is hundreds of kilometers away, declination becomes mighty important to factor in — otherwise, you could miss your target by tens if not hundreds of meters.

How to read a compass

The magnetic compass wasn’t formally invented for navigation until the 11th century in China and 1187 in Europe. Its design hasn’t changed much since, apart from some non-essential improvements. If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it, the old adage goes. Although it should be mentioned that very sophisticated compasses exist such as gyrocompasses, astrocompasses, and radio compasses.

Your typical compass, however, is very simple. It will help you figure out which direction is north and, when paired with a map, it becomes a powerful tool for navigation. No batteries or internet connection required.

While entire books about navigating with a compass have been published, anyone can learn the basics with just a few simple concepts.

First, it’s good to get a handle on the main components of a compass. The most important part is the red needle which spins and points to the magnetic north pole. Other components you should know are:

  • the direction of travel arrow shows the direction that you want to travel along or the bearing you are taking. It is fixed parallel to the sides of the base plate and aligned with the fixed index line on the edge of the compass housing.
  • the degree dial, also known as the azimuth ring, is a twistable dial surrounding the housing with units of degrees.
  • the orienting lines are lines within the housing that run parallel to the orienting arrow.
  • the orienting arrow is fixed on the baseplate, aligned to the ‘north’ marking.
  • additionally, some compasses have scales along the edge of the base plate to measure distances on maps, as well as luminous strips and a magnifying glass to assist navigation.

Now that you know what each component does, it’s time to hold the compass correctly. Place it flat on your palm or right on a map placed on a flat surface.

Turn the degree dial until the orienting arrow lines up with the magnetic arrow so both point north. Now when you look at the direction of the travel arrow, you’ll learn the direction you’re facing. For instance, the direction of the travel arrow is between N and E, which means you’re facing northeast. If you want a more accurate reading of the direction, write down the degree markers on the compass.

It’s a good idea to correct for declination. Remember declination compensates for the offset between the location of the geographic north pole and the magnetic north pole. You can correct for declination by either adding or subtracting the declination amount from your bearing in degrees, depending on whether or not you’re in an area with east declination or west declination. The declination amount should be specified in your map but just make sure you use a recent one because it changes significantly every few years.

To accurately follow the direction of the travel arrow, look straight down at the arrow, then focus on a distant object like a tree or telephone pole. Use this as a guide.

To navigate by map, mark your current position as best as you can, as well as your intended destination. Draw a straight line between the two points. Now, line up the edge of your compass on this line so that the travel arrow is the direction you wish to travel. Twist the degree dial until north on the map and the orienting arrow are aligned. Once you place the compass in your palm, turn until the orienting arrow and the red magnetic needle are lined up. Congrats, now you’re in the right direction.

Advanced technology such as GPS has made navigation effortless. But it’s also made us very bad at orientation. If you’re an explorer at heart, then you’ll want to own and learn how to use a compass.

How many countries are there in the world?

Credit: Pixabay.

It might sound like a simple question with a straightforward answer, but nothing is really straightforward when it comes to state politics.

If you ask different countries across the globe ‘how many countries are there in the world’ you’ll find that the numbers don’t match one another.

The number of countries in the world according to the U.N.

There are 193 members of the United Nations (U.N.) plus two non-member countries with permanent observer states, the Holy See (The Vatican) and the State of Palestine. So, according to the U.N. there is a grand total of 195 sovereign states in the world today.

As such, the total number varies depending on the source. To complicate a seemingly simple question even further, some people use different definitions of what a country is.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a country as “a nation with its own government, occupying a particular territory.” A country may also refer to a certain population with its own identity, traditions, and common cultural background. For the purpose of this article, we’ll define a sovereign nation as a state with its own borders and ability to sign treaties, as well as the ability to operate diplomatically with other countries.

Most crucially of all, a nation needs to be recognized by other members of the United Nations in order to be considered a country. Otherwise, anyone with an island could proclaim themselves the sovereign leader of their own fabricated country, which isn’t to say it’s never happened before.

Since 1990, 29 new countries have appeared on the world map. Almost half of these came about from the break-up of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. The last time the number of full U.N. members changed was when South Sudan joined in 2011 while Palestine became a UN Observer State in 2012.

The number of countries in the world with partial recognition

Skyline of Taipei, capital of Taiwan. Credit: Pxhere.

There are some gray-area states — let’s call them country candidates — which aren’t members of the U.N. but which have nonetheless been recognized by at least one U.N. member. In official parlance, this is referred to as diplomatic recognition. The reason why these countries haven’t been officially endorsed by all U.N. members is usually because there are territorial disputes.

The six states with partial recognition are Taiwan, Kosovo, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus, and Western Sahara.

Taiwan and its surrounding islands govern themselves as the “Republic of China” (ROC), whereas mainland China is referred to as the “People’s Republic of China” (PRC). In fact, until the 1970s, the Taiwanese ROC held China’s seat at the U.N. and was thus considered the legitimate government of China by the majority of the world’s countries. However, the 1971 UN General Assembly replaced the ROC with the PRC.

Since 2019, only 15 countries representing 8% of UN members and one UN observer state (Vatican City) recognize the Taiwan-based ROC government. Nowadays, the Taiwan government doesn’t have formal ambitions to be recognized as the rightful government of all China but rather to be recognized as a sovereign nation in its own right.

The political situation surrounding Taiwan is slippery, to say the least since mainland China insists that themselves and Taiwan are inseparable. As such, China is known to cut ties with any country that sets up diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Due to this pressure, the number of countries that “recognize” Taiwan is steadily decreasing every year. Some of the last countries to cut ties with Taiwan include Panama (2017), Dominican Republic (2018), Burkina Faso (2018), El Salvador (2018), Solomon Islands (2019), and Kiribati (2019).

Kosovo has also suffered revocations of recognition due to international pressure from Serbia and Russia. The self-proclaimed state of Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. However, due to Serbia’s opposition, 15 states have withdrawn Kosovo’s recognition, including  Madagascar, Suriname, Burundi, and Papua New Guinea. Today, 98 out of 193 U.N. member states (51%) recognize Kosovo as a sovereign country.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia are disputed territories in the Caucasus, which split from Georgia in the aftermath of the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. The territories are recognized as independent states by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Syria.

Northern Cyprus is only recognized by Turkey. The northern portion of the island was occupied by Turkey after a failed coup d’état in 1974, performed as an attempt to annex the island to Greece.

Western Sahara is a disputed territory claimed by both the Kingdom of Morocco and the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario Front), which is an independence movement based in Algeria. Since the end of 2019, ten African states have opened diplomatic services in Western Sahara under their mission to Rabat. The Republic of Western Sahara is supported by a number of countries across the world, including Algeria, Mexico, Libya, Jamaica, Iran, and Guatemala.

If you add these countries to the UN members list, you end up with a total of 201 countries.

More de facto states and micronations

Besides these six partially recognized countries there are more “de facto states” — political entities that lack international recognition — that aren’t recognized by any U.N. member at all.

These include Transnistria, Somaliland, Cabinda, and Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), as well as the separatists Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic in Ukraine.

Transnistria is a thin strip of land wedged between Moldova and Ukraine, home to more than 500,000 people. The tiny sliver of disputed territory split from Moldova in 1992 after a brief military conflict, in which the separatists seem to have been aided by Russia. But not even Russia, which still has troops stationed in the region and regularly conducts military exercises there, recognizes Transnistria.

Officially known as the “Republic of Somaliland”, Somaliland is a self-declared country on the coast of the Gulf of Aden. Somaliland declared independence after the overthrow of Somali military dictator Siad Barre in 1991. Tens of thousands of people were killed in the fighting during the secession. Although Somaliland isn’t recognized by any other state in the world, it has working government institutions and even its own currency. Many also believe Somaliland is more stable and less prone to violence than the larger Somalia, which is a U.N. member.

Nagorno-Karabakh made headlines this year after the disputed territory reignited an old feud between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The landlocked region in the South Caucasus, which stretched over 4,400 square km (1,700 square miles), claimed independence from Azerbaijan in 1992, branding itself as the “Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh”. Since then, the former autonomous region has held several elections, as well as a 2006 referendum that approved a new constitution. However, it never received any international recognition. On September 27, Armenia and Azerbaijan engaged in armed conflict over this disputed territory, which quickly ended on November 9 with a cease-fire brokered by Russia. The devastated Armenia agreed to relinquish its control over Nagorno-Karabakh. Russian peacekeepers will guard the region for the next five years.

Valery Bolotov, a Ukrainian militant leader known for his involvement in the Donbass War in eastern Ukraine, proclaims the Act of Independence of the Lugansk People’s Republic, May 12, 2014. Bolotov was found dead on 27 January 2017 in his own home in Moscow, Russia. The causes of his death are currently being investigated. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic declared independence from Ukraine following an unofficial status referendum in May 2014. The two separatist movements resulted in armed conflict with Ukraine, which is still ongoing. Although no other country recognizes the two self-proclaimed states, Russia accepts identity documents, diplomas, and other certificates issued by the two governments.

The Republic of Cabinda is located in what is presently Angola’s Cabinda Province. The Front for the Liberation of the State of Cabinda-Exercito de Cabinda (FLEC) proclaimed independence from Angola in 1975. The unrecognized enclave state has since been running guerilla warfare with the Angola government in order to exert its autonomy.

If you were to also add these de facto states, there would be 207 nations in the world.

Additionally, there are more than 400 “micronations” — territories that claim to be independent or sovereign nations, often with a population ranging from a small village to a single household, but which haven’t been formally recognized by other states. These include the Principality of Seborga, which encompasses a small village on the border of France and Italy, founded in 1963 on the initiative of Giorgio Carbone, a flower farmer, who then became known as Prince Giorgio I.

Austrian artist Edwin Lipburger declared independence when his spherical house displeased authorities, refused to pay taxes and began printing his own stamps. Credit: Peter Gugerell/creative commons.

Some micronations have been founded as social experiments, such as the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands, which was self-proclaimed in 2004 in response to the Australian government’s failure to recognize same-sex marriages. Other micro-nations started as art projects, such as The Grand Duchy of the Lagoan Islands, founded in 2005 by a school teacher from Portsmouth and consisting of a pond and three tiny islands. The more recently formed Liberland was founded in 2015 as a libertarian paradise on an unclaimed parcel of land near the Croatian-Serbian border. The Free Republic of Liberland has a government of 10 members and an economy based on bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies.

The number of countries in the world that participate in the Olympic Games

Credit: Pixabay.

Every two years, athletes from all countries of the world gather to compete in the Winter or Summer Olympic Games. For many people, this monumental sporting event is their first encounter with some of the smaller, lesser-known countries of the world.

The International Olympic Committee as National Olympic Committees claims 206 members, although there are only 195 U.N. recognized countries. That’s because the Olympics is less rigid in its definition of what constitutes a nation, and allows some dependent territories that are partially self-governed to take part in the games.

These include American Samoa, Aruba, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Cook Islands, Guam, Hong Kong, Palestine, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Similarly, FIFA — the foremost authority for football (soccer) and the organizer of the World Cup — recognizes 211 affiliated associations. That’s a bit more than the Olympic Games because, besides dependent territories, FIFA also includes Gibraltar, as well as England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, which are allowed to compete as separate teams despite the fact they’re all part of the U.K.

If you’re a citizen of a maverick micronation, forgive us for not listing you here. Give your republic a shoutout in the comments. Glory to ZMElandia!

Sand dunes communicate with each other

Dunes in the Joshua Tree National Park. Image credits: NASA.

Try to picture a sand dune — it’s not alone, is it? It’s hard to imagine a singular sand dune not surrounded by others of its kind. Saying that dunes are “social creatures” would be taking the metaphor too far, but according to new research, they can “communicate” with each other.

Not fond of neighbors

Although they might not look like it, sand dunes are very active. They shrink and grow, migrating from place to place. They also seem to develop in particular ways — whether in deserts, sea beds, or rivers, dunes usually appear in large groups, either in fields or corridors.

Wanting to better understand these processes, researchers set up an experimental ‘racetrack’, where they monitored how two identical dunes developed near a controlled stream. They found that although the two dunes started out exactly the same, they didn’t seem to like eachother that much: as time passed, they moved farther and farther away, pushed by turbulent swirls coming from the upstream dune.

It’s as if the dunes communicate and don’t get along very well.

“There are different theories on dune interaction: one is that dunes of different sizes will collide, and keep colliding, until they form one giant dune, although this phenomenon has not yet been observed in nature,” said Karol Bacik, a Ph.D. candidate in Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, and the paper’s first author.

“Another theory is that dunes might collide and exchange mass, sort of like billiard balls bouncing off one another, until they are the same size and move at the same speed, but we need to validate these theories experimentally.”

Sand dune in experimental flume setup. Credit: University of Cambridge

This is not just a theoretical study. Dune migration is an important process for desertification, which is an increasing threat as global warming continues to take its toll. In the shorter run, moving dunes can threaten shipping channels and infrastructure such as roads and highways.

This is why several research groups are studying dunes, modeling their behavior numerically and understanding the complex processes associated with dune formation and migration.

But numerical data can only get you so far — that’s why Dr. Nathalie Vriend and her lab at Cambridge University designed a unique experimental facility that actually allows them to observe the long-term behavior of dunes.

Communication breakdown

In the latest setup, they mimicked a flume: a man-made water channel with walls raised above the surrounding terrain (as opposed to a ditch, for instance). The circular flume was meant to allow researchers to observe the interaction between dunes.

Credits: University of Cambridge.

“Originally, I put multiple dunes in the tank just to speed up data collection, but we didn’t expect to see how they started to interact with each other,” Bacik said.

When the two identical dunes started out, researchers were expecting them to move in a similar way. The migration speed of dunes is related to their height, so it makes sense to expect them to behave similarly. But they didn’t.

At first, the front dune moved faster, although it did somewhat slow down. As the experiment progressed, the dunes moved apart, until they formed an equilibrium on opposite sides of the circular flume. Their speeds then became quite similar, and they remained on opposite sides of the circle.

“The front dune generates the turbulence pattern which we see on the back dune,” said Vriend. “The flow structure behind the front dune is like a wake behind a boat, and affects the properties of the next dune.”

The next step is to start putting numbers on these processes. Quantitative evidence for such complex mechanisms is never easy to obtain, but researchers want to incorporate field and satellite observations to this purpose. They also want to study how dunes develop in other types of environments, such as dry deserts — where satellite observations will be particularly useful.

The study was accepted for publication in Physical Research Letters.

Prairie stream.

Earth is much more rivery than we’ve suspected, satellite data reveals

There are a lot of rivers on Earth — many more than we’ve assumed.

Prairie stream.

Image credits Alex Hu.

Previous estimations of river- and stream- cover on our planet haven’t exactly been accurate, according to new research from the University of North Carolina. Excluding land covered with glaciers or ice sheets, our planet is braided with about 300,000 square miles (773,000 square kilometers) of rivers and streams — 44% more area than previously estimated.

My river runneth over

To find out just how much ‘river’ you need to make one ‘Earth’, the team — University of North Carolina hydrologists George Allen and Tamlin Pavelsky — drew on thousands of images recorded by NASA’s Landsat satellite. Using software that Pavelsky designed specifically for this task, they took over 58 million measurements of rivers, streams, and other similar waterways. The researchers estimated river shapes by measuring their widths. Finally, they added all of them up to calculate the total surface area they cover.

To make sure that the software wouldn’t foul the measurements, the team recruited “a small army of undergrads” to monitor the program as it went about its task. One of the team’s main concerns was that roads or other similar structures could be treated as rivers by the program, but this turned out not to be the case.

Aside from finding those extra 300,000 square miles of river (roughly the same size of Texas, to put it into perspective), the researchers also report that rivers were both narrower and more sparse in developed areas. This could come down to seasonal variations, water drainage for agriculture, habitat removal (such as drainage of swamps), or the corraling of rivers for hydroelectricity. The team can’t say for sure what the cause is, however, and call for further research into the area.

Not only will the findings send fishing enthusiasts cheering for their rods, it also has some more worrying implications. Namely, it influences how we study and deal with climate change. Waterways are a prime source of greenhouse gas exchange between the surface and the atmosphere, especially when waters are polluted.

For a very long time, people were content to let rivers soak up pollutants completely secure in the belief that these compounds will wind up in the ocean. It was a simpler time when we thought we could afford this. Over the past decade, however, researchers have wisened up to the fact that rivers instead help break down this waste, and release greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Some of the most common river-borne pollutants are fertilizers, sewage, and drainage from soils — and the wet, relatively oxygenated, and biodiverse backdrop of a river is an excellent place for these to break down. As they break down, they release gasses such as methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Even if they do wind up in the ocean, that is by no means a get out of jail card.

If rivers cover up more area than we assumed (and the 44% more this paper reports on is significantly more) then our current calculations regarding how much greenhouse gas they release need to be re-crunched.

“If you look around the world, rivers look different from place to place,” Allen told Gizmodo. “They might be braided, or sinuous, or meandering. And for the most part, current technology doesn’t take into consideration the actual morphology of rivers. This data set is the first of its kind to do this at a global scale on high resolution.”

This global map of rivers might also help predict floods and it will be an invaluable resource in the future, when we’re trying to keep track of how rivers behave as the Earth warms up.

The paper “Global extent of rivers and streams” has been published in the journal Science.

Atlas on display.

Watch the (2nd) biggest book in the world get digitized, all thanks to the British Library

This mammoth of an atlas is so big that you need two people to flip the pages. It’s so heavy you need even more people to move it around. And now, almost three and a half centuries after its creation, the Klencke Atlas has been fully digitized.

Atlas on display.

The Klencke Atlas on display at the British Library.
Image credits British Library.

The Klencke Atlas is instantly recognizable, and for good reason — this atlas is the crown jewel of the British Library’s cartographic collection and dwarfs lesser tomes, towering an incredible 1.75 meters in height (roughly 6 ft) by 1.9 meters wide when stretched open (about 6,5 ft). Since its creation in 1660, the atlas has been the biggest book on the planet, likely the whole Solar System all the way up to 2012 when Millennium House’s gigantic publication Earth Platinum claimed the title with a .5 meter advantage.

Creation of the book is attributed Dutch Prince John Maurice of Nassau, but it’s named after Johannes Klencke who in 1660 presented it to King Charles II of England to celebrate his restoration of the throne. At least, that’s the official reason — rumor has it that the Dutch delegation, mostly made up of sugar merchants, aimed to secure a favorable trade deal with England with the Atlas, as Charles was a known map enthusiast.

Like maps do you? Gonna love this.
Image credits British Library.

And boy oh boy a kingly present it was, indeed. The Klencke Atlas isn’t an atlas in the strictest sense of the word, since it wasn’t intended to be read and enjoyed as a regular book — the size alone made that a very challenging, rather infuriating task. Rather, it represents a collection of maps meant to removed from the spine and displayed on walls. It contains 37 maps which held the sum of geographical knowledge in Europe at the time — Britain and other European states, Brazil, South Asia, and the Holy Land — transposed onto 39 beautifully executed, detailed, and engraved sheets. The sheer size and complexity would send a clear message to anyone who saw it: king knew and ‘owned’ the geography of the world.

Luckily for us, the king liked it so much that he kept it among his most prized possessions in the ‘Cabinet and Closset of rarities’ in Whitehall. There it was kept safe and well cared after for until 1828, when King George III gave the hefty atlas to the British Museum as part of a larger donation of maps and atlases. There it was re-bound and extensively restored in the 1950s, and is currently held by the museum’s Antiquarian Mapping division, keeping watch on the entrance lobby of the maps reading room.

Since it is so old and so evidently unique, the Klencke Atlas has usually been left to rest out of the spotlit. The only time the public could see it with its pages opened since its creation 350 years ago was in April of 2010 at an exhibition organised by the British Library. But such a book shouldn’t be kept hidden — and yet, to keep it from being damaged, one must keep it very safe. What do to?

Klencke Atlas Europe.

Image credits British Library.

Well, one solution is to copy it. Just last month, the British Library teamed up with Daniel Crouch Rare Books to digitize the whole book. It which took several days of several people transporting the book, mounting it into an XXXL stand to take the shots, flipping the mammoth pages, and days of photographing each page so every map was fully recorded.

The online version can be viewed on the British Library’s website. They also put together this cool time-lapse video so you can see how the whole process went. Enjoy!


What’s the tallest mountain in the world? Hint: it’s not Mt. Everest

It can take weeks of hard work to climb the dangerous summit of Mt. Everest, but at least you can feel like royalty knowing you were among the few to ever reach its peak if you manage it. 

And now, I’m going to burst your bubble. Not to nitpick, but the summit of Mt. Everest is the highest point above sea level; it’s not, however, the tallest mountain on the planet.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

World’s tallest mountain

Mt. Everest, at 8,850 meters (29,035 feet) above sea level, undeniably claims the point of highest altitude in the world. The title of “tallest mountain in the word”, however, as measured from the base to its peak, belongs to Mauna Kea which has an altitude of only 4,205 meters (13,796 feet) above sea level.

The catch: it’s a dormant volcano on the island of Hawaii with the base about 19,700 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. In other words, more than half of it is submerged. When you add everything up, Mauna Kea is over 10,000 meters tall, way taller than the 8,850 meters of Mount Everest — making it the world’s tallest mountain. It’s also the tallest volcano on Earth.

Credit: Pixabay.

Mauna Kea is only a million years old, and formed after the Pacific tectonic plate moved over the Hawaiian hotspot. A huge plume of liquid magma welled up from deep inside Earth forming Mauna Kea as it cooled. Despite this, the volcano has stayed dormant for a long time now, having last erupted 46,000 years ago.

The skyline view during the night from Mauna Kea. No wonder there's a huge astronomical observatory here. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The skyline view during the night from Mauna Kea. No wonder there’s a huge astronomical observatory here. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Mauna Kea is famous for another distinction, as well: it is home to the world’s largest astronomical observatory, the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope. At this elevation, the summit is above 40% of Earth’s atmosphere, which helps improve the view. The extremely dry and almost cloud-free conditions also help, making it an ideal spot from which to make astronomical observations.

World’s highest point

Earth is not a perfect sphere. Credit: Giphy.
Earth is not a perfect sphere. Credit: Giphy.

Our planet is not a perfect sphere. It is an oblate spheroid — it looks kind of like a beach ball that someone sat on. The Earth bulges outward at the equator and flattens near the poles, so people in countries like Ecuador, Kenya, Tanzania, and Indonesia can up to 13 miles closer to the moon than people living on the North or South poles.

An alpaca with Chimborazo in the background. Even though the mountain is very close to the equator, it is high enough to support a year-round snow cap. Credit: International Alpine Guides.
An alpaca with Chimborazo in the background. Even though the mountain is very close to the equator, it is high enough to support a year-round snow cap. Credit: International Alpine Guides.

Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador — an inactive volcano in the Andes — has an altitude of only 6,310 meters (20,703 feet), which is way less than Mt. Everest. It’s not even the highest peak above sea level in the Andes mountain range.

But because Chimborazo sits just one degree south of the equator, its apex is the “world’s highest point from the center of the Earth” at about 21 million feet (3,967 miles) away from the core. It is the closest point to the Sun on Earth. Everest on the other hand, located at a latitude of 28 degrees north (nearly one-third of the way to the pole) doesn’t even make it in the top 20 highest points as measured from the center of the planet.

It’s no clear how Chimborazo got its name, but according to some accounts, it could come from a combination of the words schingbu, which means “women” in the Cayapa language, and razo, which is Quichua for “snow”. Essentially, that would translate as “Women of Snow”, but natives know the mountain as Urcorazo or “Mountain of Ice,” so those accounts might not be very reliable.

Still, what we do know for sure, according to local anthropologists, is that Chimborazo “has been venerated since pre-Columbian times” and is “still a sacred mountain thought to be close to God.”

Despite not being as difficult to climb as Mt. Everest, it has its challenges. Climbing Mt. Chimborazo takes about two weeks after getting acclimatized. You should be aware that Chimborazo is heavily glaciated and subject to severe weather and avalanches, so be very careful if you want to climb to the highest spot on this planet.

Editor’s note: Article edited on the 26th of May 2020 for style and spelling errors.

The dead center of North America is serendipitously located in a small town called Center, North Dakota

Credit: Travel Blog.

Credit: Travel Blog.

Peter Rogerson, a professor of geography at the University at Buffalo in New York, claims he’s found North America’s bull’s eye. According to his calculations based on a novel method Rogerson developed, the center of the continent lies in a North Dakota town called Center. The town’s 570 people residents now have a reason to rejoice for few can boast they live in the very heart of the continent.

Balancing North America on the tip of a needle

Since the 1930s, geologists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have tried to establish the continent’s center with limited success. Beyond the technical challenges, it wasn’t always clear how to draw the boundaries of the continent. Should we take into account only the landmass of North America or also its islands? What method should we use?

In a 1964 report, the USGS seemed to have completely given up after it stated: “There is no generally accepted definition of geographic center, and no completely satisfactory method for determining it.” The USGS isn’t alone either. Many distinguished researchers echoed much of the same sentiment, but that didn’t keep Rogerson from trying.

“There are all these people out there saying, ‘There’s no real good way to do this,’” says Rogerson, a SUNY Distinguished Professor of geography in UB’s College of Arts and Sciences. “As a geographer, my feeling is that if we want to come up with a good way of defining a center, we can and we should.”

One early method of establishing a geographic center involved balancing a cardboard cutout of a region on the tip of a needle-like point. Some might find this funny, but I actually think it’s very ingenious. We can all agree, however, that it can’t be accurate when attempting to find the center of a continent with confidence.

This is one of the reasons why the center of North America was moved by the USGS from Rugby, North Dakota (population 2,900), which was initially given the crown in 1931, to a small lake 20 miles southwest of Rugby in 1995. Suffice to say, the residents of Rugby were not happy at all having lost a sense of civic pride, but also tourism income.

Nope, not anymore. Sorry, Rugby!

Nope, not anymore. Sorry, Rugby!

The success of Rogerson’s technique depends on two key things. Firstly, like other models before him, Rogerson defines a geographic center as the spatial equivalent of the center of gravity in physics, meaning its location minimizes the sum of the squared distances to all other points in a region. Secondly, a good map projection is of the essence, meaning transferring the 3-D sphere that is our planet to a 2-D map. For his calculation, the geologist used the azimuthal equidistant map projection, which can preserve many important characteristics of 3-D objects when projected as a flat, 2-D surface.

It was then a matter of plugging the projection into a computer program which can find the centroids of 2-D polygons. Eventually, the model outputted the location of Center, North Dakota as the dead center of the continent. The town which was founded in 1902 got its name from its location near the geographical center of Oliver County. Apparently, it’s the exact center of North America which sounds a lot more fitting.

Previously, in 2015, Rogerson made a list of the centers for each U.S. state using this method. Back then, he took into account both land and interior waters, like lakes, as well as islands. For the center of North America, however, Rogerson used only the main landmass of the continent, ignoring the outlying islands.

Yet despite using state of the art topographic data and computers, the true center of North America might not exactly Center, North Dakota. For instance, Rogerson said his calculations consider the Earth as a sphere when in reality it’s slightly ellipsoidal.

A lot of people won’t mind, though (unless you’re from Rugby, North Dakota), and we can expect thousands of geography buffs to flock to Center just to take a selfie.

“It’s quirky. I think some people are just really interested in facts and the details of things,” Rogerson says. “For some people, the obsession is sports statistics, and for some people, it’s places.”

SPA Genetic Mapping: Model-based mapping convergence with random initialization. Colors represent the true country of origin of the individual (also represented by country internet code). (a–d) A map generated by SPA. Iteration 1 starts with random positioning of individuals (a). By iteration 4, the northern and southern populations are separated (b). By iteration 7, the positioning of individuals is close to convergence (c). In iteration 10, individuals have reached their final positions (d). (e) A map generated by PCA9. (f) Map of Europe.

Spatial genetic method can pinpoint an individual’s geographic origin

Genetic diversity is what keeps species evolving, helps them tackle diseases and is a prime pre-requisite for natural selection. Understanding genetic diversity is imperitive for scientists in the field, whether it’s about identifying associations between genetic variants and diseases or highlighting interesting aspects of human population history. One of these aspects is geographical location.

Remarkably, an international team of scientists comprised of researchers from UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, UCLA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Israel’s Tel Aviv University have successfully and quite accurately managed to pinpoint the geographical origin of an individual on the basis of their genetic information alone.

SPA Genetic Mapping: Model-based mapping convergence with random initialization. Colors represent the true country of origin of the individual (also represented by country internet code). (a–d) A map generated by SPA. Iteration 1 starts with random positioning of individuals (a). By iteration 4, the northern and southern populations are separated (b). By iteration 7, the positioning of individuals is close to convergence (c). In iteration 10, individuals have reached their final positions (d). (e) A map generated by PCA9. (f) Map of Europe.

SPA Genetic Mapping: Model-based mapping convergence with random initialization. Colors represent the true country of origin of the individual (also represented by country internet code). (a–d) A map generated by SPA. Iteration 1 starts with random positioning of individuals (a). By iteration 4, the northern and southern populations are separated (b). By iteration 7, the positioning of individuals is close to convergence (c). In iteration 10, individuals have reached their final positions (d). (e) A map generated by PCA9. (f) Map of Europe.

To achieve this, the scientists developed a radical approach to the study of genetic diversity called spatial ancestry analysis (SPA), which allows for the modeling of genetic variation in two- or three-dimensional space. Using this novel method,  researchers can model the spatial distribution of each genetic variant by assigning a genetic variant’s frequency as a continuous function in geographic space. Genetic variant frequency relates to  the proportion of individuals who carry a specific variant (change in the chemical structure of a gene).

“If we know from where each individual in our study originated, what we observe is that some variation is more common in one part of the world and less common in another part of the world,” said Eleazar Eskin, an associate professor of computer science at UCLA Engineering. “How common these variants are in a specific location changes gradually as the location changes.

“In this study, we think of the frequency of variation as being defined by a specific location. This gives us a different way to think about populations, which are usually thought of as being discrete. Instead, we think about the variant frequencies changing in different locations. If you think about a person’s ancestry, it is no longer about being from a specific population — but instead, each person’s ancestry is defined by the location they’re from. Now ancestry is a continuum.”

That’s not to say that the method can tell you where you’re from simply based on your DNA; it’s based on a probabilistic model after all, but it’s still surprisingly accurate. The scientists involved in the study believe the method could be used to infer geographic origins for each individual using only their genetic data with surprising accuracy. “Existing approaches falter when it comes to this task,” said UCLA’s John Novembre, an assistant professor in the department of ecology and evolution.

SPA is also able to model genetic variation on a globe.

“We are able to also show how to predict the spatial structure of worldwide populations,” said Eskin, who also holds a joint appointment in the department of human genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “In just taking genetic information from populations from all over the world, we’re able to reconstruct the topology of the global populations only from their genetic information.”

Funding for the study was provided by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. The findings were presented in the journal Nature Genetics.

source: SciGuru

lake vostok drilling

Subglacial lake surface reached after drilling through 4km of Antarctic ice – ‘alien life’ expected

It took 30 years, an enormous amount of effort and patience, and drilling through 3,768 meters of thick ice for scientists to finally reach the surface of the Vostok, a unique subglacial lake. Just as large as the great Ontario lake, the Vostok is thought to be 20 million years old, and due to the fact that it’s been completely isolated from the outside world, researchers believe the lake might provide invaluable information on what to expect from an alien world. Who here senses a bit of “The Thing“-induced paranoia?

lake vostok drilling Hailed as one of the greatest geographical discoveries of modern times, the Vostok lake is considered to be a completely unique formation. Drilling first began around the Vostok Station in the Antarctic in the 1970s, but curiously enough, it was only in 1996 that Russian and British scientists discovered with sonar and satellite imaging what later proved to be one of the world’s largest freshwater reservoirs. Well, it’s not like they could’ve missed it, since it’s the size of Ontario lake.

In 1998, just 130 meters away from the lake’s surface, drilling had to be stopped. You can’t just go through with your more or less typical oil rig drill through such a delicate, and completely unknown environment. Contamination is bound to happen, and it’s enough for just a few traces of bacteria to interact with the lake to ruin everything, although few survive at Arctic temperatures. More relevant, subtle technology was needed and it eventually came in 2003, after it was developed at St. Petersburg. Work resumed in 2005 after tests.

What the scientists are especially interested in are signs of life. If lake Vostok truly is a closed system, completely isolated from the outside world, and life is found, then it will certainly provide some great insights into our planet’s past. On the contrary, if the lake is completely and utterly dead, than it will aid scientists understand how to search for extra-terrestrial life on future space trips.

Lake Vostok is believed to house the cleanest water on the planet – twice cleaner than double-distilled water.


2009 geographic study predicted Bin Laden’s whereabouts

Prediction made by UCLA geographers Thomas Gillespie, John Agnew, and a whole class of undergrads regarding where Osama Bin Laden might be hiding turned out to be surprisingly accurate, surprising scientists and authorities alike. They created a probabilistic model which concluded that there is a 88.9% chance that he is hiding in a city less than 300 km from his last known location in Tora Bora: a region that included Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was killed. But that’s not the only thing they predicted.

Modern Geography

The idea for this project came in an undergraduate course on remote sensing that Gillespie taught, who used his experience with remote sensing from satellites to study ecosystems. Using the same system, the students created a model which predicted where it’s the most likely for Bin Laden to be.

“The theory was basically that if you’re going to try and survive, you’re going to a region with a low extinction rate: a large town,” Gillespie says. “We hypothesized he wouldn’t be in a small town where people could report on him.”

Even though this study is not up his alley, he tracked down the terrorist using the same theories he uses to track down endangered wildlife.

“It’s not my thing to do this type of [terrorism] stuff,” he says. “But the same theories we use to study endangered birds can be used to do this.”

In the end, after applying many remote sensing theories and a healthy dose of common sense, they narrowed it down to the right place, and even made assumptions about which building he might be in, considering high enough ceilings to accomodate his needs, which include bin Laden’s 6’4” frame, a fence, privacy, and electricity.

The undergrads did such a good thing on the project, that everybody wanted to know more details about it, from USA today to scientific papers. However, the late Al Qaeda leader made a bad choice of real estate, in Gillespie’s opinion. “An inconspicuous house would have suited him better.”

The biggest tsunami ever recorded was taller than 500 meters

On the night of July 9, 1958, an earthquake struck Fairweather Fault in the Alaska Panhandle. The result was that about 30.6 million cubic meters of rock were loosened, being thrown from a height of 914 meters down onto the water mass. Here’s a picture so that you can get a perspective on what that means:


The impact generated a tsunami that crashed against the shoreline of Gilbert Inlet. The water hit with such power that it totally destroyed the spur of land that separates Gilbert Inlet from the main body of Lituya Bay and continued its road towards the Gulf of Alaska. It destroyed all vegetation from elevations as high as 500 meters, uprooting millions of trees. It is the biggest wave ever known to man.


Saturn’s moon full of geysers


There are many things we have yet to find out about Saturn, but the Cassini probe has definitely shed some light on the planet, and will surely do the same in the following years.

The most recent flyby showed a significant number of geysers just waiting to pop out from under the surface – even more than previously believed. The pictures taken show them in great detail, and by taking photographs across a period of time, researchers can understand their activity and overall planetary influence.

“This last flyby confirms what we suspected,” said Carolyn Porco, Cassini’s imaging team lead at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. “The vigor of individual jets can vary with time, and many jets, large and small, erupt all along the tiger stripes.”

“The fractures are chilly by Earth standards, but they’re a cozy oasis compared to the numbing 50 Kelvin (minus 370 Fahrenheit) of their surroundings,” said John Spencer, a composite infrared spectrometer team member based at Southwest Research Institute also in Boulder. “The huge amount of heat pouring out of the tiger stripe fractures may be enough to melt the ice underground.”

With the Cassini mission prolonged until 2017, we’ll definitely be hearing from the frozen giant quite soon.

Cano Cristales – the world’s most colourful river

Caño Cristales is a river located in Northern Columbia, with a length of almost 100 km and a width of under 20 meters. If you look at it, you’d be tempted to think this is some sort of illusion or photographic trick, but you’d be wrong.

Photo by Mario Carvajal.

Photo by Mario Carvajal.

It’s quite remote, and you can get there only by foot, horses and donkeys, but that doesn’t stop tourists from flooding in. There were so many of them that visiting it was actually forbidden for several years. Now it’s open, but within reasonable limits. The river is a rainbow of colors, changing from corner to corner.

Photo by Mario Carvajal.

Photo by Mario Carvajal.

Photo by Mario Carvajal.

Photo by Mario Carvajal.

The hard rocks which make most of the bottom of the river are covered with moss, which most of the year have a dull green or brown colour. In the rainy season the water is too deep for the colours to bloom, and in the dry season there’s just not enough water to support all the moss.

Photo by Mario Carvajal.

Photo by Mario Carvajal.

Photo by Mario Carvajal.

Photo by Mario Carvajal.

However, there is a window during these seasons when the water level is just right, and the dazzling display of colours appears to delight the eye.

Uno de los lugares más hermosos de Caño Cristales es el sector conocido como Los Ochos, donde se encuentran formaciones rocosas de gran belleza, llamadas Marmitas de Gigante — Licencia Creative Commons Reconocimiento 4.0 Internacional. Algunos derechos reservados, 2014 por Fotur / Fotografía: Mario Carvajal (http://www.mariocarvajal.com). Usted puede usar esta foto gratuitamente según la licencia establecida en Fotur (http://www.fotur.org), haciendo el v'inculo hacia www.cano-cristales.com

Photo by Mario Carvajal.


Photo by Mario Carvajal.

Photo by Mario Carvajal.




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