In geography circles, the publication of The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World is an event akin to the Olympics. It happens every four years with great fanfare, and all the world's nations are represented.
The 13th edition of the Times Atlas was published today (it will be available on October 1st here in the U.S.), and aside from all the geopolitical changes (South Sudan is now an independent nation state, for instance), it's the the geophysical changes -- many due to climate change -- that I find most fascinating.
"We’re having to revise coastlines, remap ice shelves, and change lakes that are shrinking in size on maps,” says Jethro Lennox, a senior editor of the Times Atlas.
The Greenland ice cap is significantly smaller than it was in the 2007 edition, yielding a much "greener" Greenland in the new version. Cartographers erased roughly 15 percent of the ice shelf that was once thought to be permanent. [See update on the 15 percent number below.] Off the east coast of Greenland, a new island exposed by a retreating glacier and fittingly named "Warming Island" (or Uunartoq Qeqertoq in Greenlandic) was deemed large and permanent enough by the map's editors to be drawn and named for the first time.
The great seas of the Middle East and Central Asia -- including the Aral Sea and the Dead Sea -- have new, tighter coastlines as the water bodies shrink. The breakup of the Larsen B and Wilkins ice shelves in Antarctica are portrayed, along with the "ice bridge" that once joined Charcot Island to the continent's mainland.
The Times Atlas view of Greenland in 2007 and 2011
While it's no news flash that these changes are occuring, it still feels somehow important and potentially persuasive when a presitigious tome like the Times Atlas -- widely leafed through and perused by folks from across the political spectrum -- puts them down on big old sheets of paper.
This also isn't the first time the Times cartographers have had to redraw the maps to account for climate-related changes. Back in 2007, the atlas's editors were already attributing coastlines changes and the shrinking of the Aral Sea to global warming. But this year's revisions are, without question, the biggest set of climate-related changes ever recorded in the Times' four-year research and publishing span.
At 1:35 in this video, Lennox talks specifically about how the cartographers and researchers were forced to address climate change:
Now I'm an unabashed cartography geek and total map obsessive. And I'll admit that I still love that tactile experience of spreading a map wide or flipping through pages of an atlas. So these changes in the Times Atlas resonate pretty strong with me, and I can't wait to drop this book with a thud on my kitchen table and spend a few hours pouring through it. But it has to be said that more and more of the public's consumption of cartography is moving online, and services like Google Earth and open GIS programs are far more dynamic, portable, and user-friendly than a 12.5-pound, 18-inch-by-12-inch hardcover published every four years.
The publishers of the Times Atlas would be smart to invest seriously in migrating some of their information and services online. While I'm still thrilled whenever a new volume comes out, the world isn't going to wait four years from today to see how this planet of ours continues to change.
Update 9/20/2011: Commenter and glaciology PhD student Caroline Clason shared a letter (PDF) from the scientists at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge. The scientists question the "15 percent" (shrinkage of the Greenland ice shelf) figure that the Times Atlas publishers have been stating and argue that it's based on bad data, or confused map editors. I am following up with the SPRI scientists, the Times Atlas publishers, and the National Snow and Ice Data Center, where the Times Atlas's data came from.
Update 9/27/2011: The Times Atlas publishers apologized through a press release for their "incorrect" statement suggesting that the Greenland ice sheet had melted by 15 percent since the 1999 edition. Though they stand behind the accuracy of the maps themselves, the publishers acknowledge the error in the press releases and publicity campaign. In the Guardian, glaciologist Poul Christoffersen applauds the work of scientists responding to the erroneous claim, calling it "a lesson in how scientists should mobilize" and a marked improvement over the collective response to 'HimalyaGate.'"
Ben writes about climate, energy, and sustainability for numerous publications and is the former environment editor at GOOD. He's the author of "The Big Green Apple: Your Guide to Eco-Friendly Living in New York City" and currently lives in Vermont. A bicycle enthusiast, Ben has...Ben writes about climate, energy, and sustainability for numerous publications and is the former environment editor at GOOD. He's the author of "The Big Green Apple: Your Guide to Eco-Friendly Living in New York City" and currently lives in Vermont. A bicycle enthusiast, Ben has ridden across the United States and through much of Europe.MoreClose