At the Intersection of Physical and Human Geography

Climate change requires us to think in new ways about how physical and human geographies intersect: how does the one impact the other?  How do human artifacts built for one set of circumstances react to the change in conditions?

Simon Dixon notes on Geography Directions:

We are undeniably living in the age of humankind, the “Anthropocene”, but we are still coming to terms with what this means for the planet and for ourselves. Researchers and policy makers have begun to consider the social and environmental impacts of our increased urbanisation. There are also efforts to understand the impact human activity is having on the surface of the earth more broadly – for example, through the creation of anthropogenic landforms like open-cast mines, and by changing erosion processes in rivers through human activity. However, so far there has been little attention paid to the way earth surface processes are slowly altering and morphing the fabric of our cities to create new, startling and potentially dangerous features.

As his blog post illustrates, using the subject of urban sinkholes, climate change is also a fruitful area of research for geographers and social scientists, because these processes are also happening at/impacting human artifacts and structures.  Remember the giant sinkhole in Japan late last year?

Hakataekimae Avenue near Hakata Station caved in on November 8, 2016, Hakata Ward, Fukuoka City, Fukuoka, Japan. The sinkhole is filled with water. Wikimedia Commons user: Muyo took this photo at the rooftop of Hakata Station JR Hakata City. CCA-SA 4.0

As this post was being written, the nightmare of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey began to unfold, as did the unusually intense monsoon rains in South Asia.  As it affects literally millions of people simultaneously, these events are an even more powerful reminder that physical and human geography intersect in ways that are increasingly unfamiliar.

Houston is a very flat city, as is explained in WorldView Software’s World Geography Case Study: Human Migration: Texas.  Its prosperity has come from the way humans have modified this surface, with railroads, ship channels, and pavement.  However, this makes it prone to flooding when its bayous cannot empty into the Gulf of Mexico.  In a prophetic 2016 series, Pro Publica and the Texas Tribune teamed up to explain why Houston was going to be in dire straits sooner rather than later:

As millions have flocked to the metropolitan area in recent decades, local officials have largely snubbed stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over crucial acres of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater. That has led to an excess of floodwater during storms that chokes the city’s vast bayou network, drainage systems and two huge federally owned reservoirs, endangering many nearby homes…

This lack of zoning regulations is one of the factors that made Houston America’s fourth-largest city, attracting builders to the area.  But zoning and environmental planning can be useful in a disaster: see WorldView Software’s Civics and U.S. Government Project: Environmental Impact Statements.  As Ian Bogost writes in The Atlantic,

The natural system is very good at accepting rainfall. But when water hits pavement, it creates runoff immediately. That water has to go somewhere. So it flows wherever the grade takes it. To account for that runoff, people engineer systems to move the water away from where it is originally deposited, or to house it in situ, or even to reuse it. This process—the policy, planning, engineering, implementation, and maintenance of urban water systems—is called stormwater management.

On top of that, climate change enters into the picture when it raises the water temperature of the Gulf: higher temperatures make it easier for the air to contain more moisture and for storms to generate more power.  For example, precipitation totals have demonstrably risen the past several decades in the North Atlantic.

The intersection of geographies raises many questions that your students will have to answer in their lifetimes.  How would you deal with a disaster? Check out World Geography‘s Internet Project: The Devastation of Katrina for starting points on imagining yourself in a crisis.  Because the sooner we start imagining the unimaginable, the safer we can make our future.

[See this list compiled by The New York Times for reputable organizations if you want to help the Harvey victims.]


BulbgraphOnOffHelp ELL students acquire vocabulary by using the glossary’s audio files. Definitions + pronunciation = oral and textual word recognition.


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History of Science Videos

For your end-of-summer delectation, courtesy of The Scholarly Kitchen, here are two videos about how science is and should be conducted.  First up is Cell Theory and the Feuds Behind It:

[Fun video dramatizing the personalities and politics behind cell theory in biology. For more information on the history of science during this era, check out WorldView Software’s World History A, Chapter 25: Nineteenth Century European History.]

Followed by Richard Feynman on the Scientific Method:

[Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman explains how science REALLY works — hint: if you’re looking for absolutes, you won’t find them in science!  And it’s important to remember that much of what he says also applies to the social sciences and humanities.]

Both are timely reminders of the importance of the scientific method in this society’s continued well-being, and how fragile our grasp of it remains.

Spring Equinox

The March equinox is when the days and nights are of equal length as the days get longer and the nights get shorter in the northern hemisphere and vice versa in the southern hemisphere.  This change in the angle of the sun is the result of the earth’s orbit, which causes its tilting axis to point in a different direction.  And it means that spring is starting in the northern hemisphere and fall is starting in the southern hemisphere.  In 2017, the vernal equinox falls on Monday, March 20th.

Learn more about how the earth’s orbit and axis tilt work in WorldView Software’s World Geography Chapter 2: The Earth.  For example, you can use this graphic (with introduction and questions) to spark class discussion, or as a starting point for a demonstration:

Screen grab from World Geography

The equinoxes (like the solstices) are events that have huge impacts on life on earth (think: growing food).  And given that importance, they’ve had a tremendous impact on the development of methods to keep track of and predict their occurrence: mathematics.  For example, it’s thought that Stonehenge’s purpose is tracking solar and lunar movements:

Screen grab from World History A

WorldView Software’s World History A also has a terrific series of tutorials explaining how mathematics based on observance of astronomical phenomena developed in different civilizations:

  • Ancient Chinese Science, Technology, and Mathematics
  • Ancient Indian Science and Mathematics
  • Greek Accomplishments in Science, Technology, and Mathematics
  • Math and Technology in the River Valley Civilizations
  • Science, Mathematics, and Technology in the Islamic Caliphates
  • Technical Trends in Pre-Columbian Latin America

Use the equinox as a springboard into history!


BulbgraphOnOffUse the chronology entries to gain context for an event or an era, or as a starting point for further research.


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Famous Women Inventors for #WomensHistoryMonth

For Women’s History Month, check out one of the inventors profiled at Famous Women Inventors.  For example, Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr (pictured above):

Although better known for her Silver Screen exploits, Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr (born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler) also became a pioneer in the field of wireless communications following her emigration to the United States. The international beauty icon, along with co-inventor George Anthiel, developed a “Secret Communications System” to help combat the Nazis in World War II. By manipulating radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception, the invention formed an unbreakable code to prevent classified messages from being intercepted by enemy personnel.

Lamarr is a great example of someone who doesn’t fit the geek stereotype, which can lead to a fruitful classroom discussion.  And hat tip to Gringa of the Barrio for alerting me to this resource!

[Image is a publicity still from the movie Comrade X (1940). By MGM / Clarence Bull – eBay item 262147225708 – Archive copy at the Wayback Machine (archived on 18 November 2015), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45092010%5D

At the Intersection of Math, Geography, and Politics

Which would you rather have, a town council made up of at-large members or a town council made up of representatives from specific districts? The first is where each one is elected by the entire town and the second is where a council member is voted for only by residents in that district. If the answer is the latter, then you need to consider how the districts should be drawn.

That’s the work that Professor Moon Duchin at Tufts University is doing: applying research in the field of metrical geometry on mathematical measures of compactness to the problem of drawing political districts. She says:

People just have the idea that it means the shape shouldn’t be too weird, shouldn’t be too eccentric; it should be a kind of reasonable shape. Lots of people have taken a swing at that over the years. Which definition you choose actually has stakes. It changes what maps are acceptable and what maps aren’t. If you look at the Supreme Court history, what you’ll see is that a lot of times, especially in the ’90s, the court would say, Look, some shapes are obviously too bizarre but we don’t know how to describe the cutoff. How bizarre is too bizarre?

When districts are drawn compactly, they are fair.  When they aren’t you get gerrymandering, as in this example:

map showing two discontiguous areas making up one district
Illinois’ 4th Congressional District, 108th Congress

Learn more about redistricting (also known as reapportionment) in WorldView Software’s U.S. Government Map: Massachusetts 4th Congressional District.

[The featured image is the original cartoon of “The Gerry-Mander”, the political cartoon that led to the coining of the term. The district depicted in the cartoon was created by Massachusetts legislature to favor the incumbent Democratic-Republican party candidates of Governor Elbridge Gerry over the Federalists in 1812. By Elkanah Tisdale (1771-1835) and originally published in the Boston Centinel, 1812.]


BulbgraphOnOffWhen assigning students an internet project, remind them they can refer to the “Internet Research Primer” tutorial for help.


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Tiny Fish Brain GPS

What’s the value of discovering that fish larva, about the size of my thumbnail, has a compass in its brain?

Source: Tiny Fish Brain GPS

[Great post that ties together basic and applied scientific research, and the importance of both for policy.  Recommended for starting discussions for civics, U.S. government, and economics classes.]

Top Ten Posts in 2016

These were the posts on WorldView Software’s blog that were most popular over the past year:

  1. Home page / Archives – See the latest post here
  2. American Ancestry in Maps – there are LOTS of people with German ancestry
  3. Transgender People in History – definitions, historical examples, and more
  4. The Museum of Lost Objects – documenting antiquities lost to war
  5. How Do Polls Work? – when is a poll a valid measure of public opinion?
  6. Economic Indicators – non-traditional indicators of economic well-being (or not)
  7. Phases of the Moon – why we keep track of the moon
  8. Could You Come up with $1,000 for an Emergency? – a personal financial literacy issue
  9. Secular Homeschoolers – why WorldView’s materials are a good fit
  10. Using Pokémon Go to Teach Local History – how to work the fad into your lesson planning

Have a happy new year, and thanks for reading!


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