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.

How Should World War I Be Taught?

On August 5th, 1917 The New York Times published a rotogravure pictorial spread for their Sunday supplement, leading with General Pershing inspecting a shell factory in France (the top image).

The most alarming picture in the entire 7-page spread is the one in the lower left-hand corner (closeup below) showing French soldiers wearing gas hoods operating a truck-mounted gun (right under a picture of Gen. Pershing getting a rose from a Parisian munitions worker):See the whole thing at the Library of Congress.  And don’t miss reading the ads at the back — items such as “Armi-Khaki” brand trousers and skirts were for sale for the discerning yet patriotic young woman.  And check out the other newspapers in this collection: the New York Tribune had far more accurate pictures of life in wartime.

Compare that sanitized version to the present.  The lede on this Associated Press article about the centenary of the third Battle of Ypres (which occurred about a week before the Times thing was published) shows how reporting has changed:

Dismembered soldiers sucked into cesspools of mud. Shattered tree trunks and the waft of poison gas hovering over the wounded who were awaiting their fates on the scarred soil of Flanders Fields.

The featured image for this post shows a nightmare scene from Ypres that never made it into a contemporary newspaper, but that could definitely be used for that AP article.  It shows soldiers of an Australian 4th Division field artillery brigade on a duckboard track passing through Chateau Wood, near Hooge in the Ypres salient, 29 October 1917. The leading soldier is Gunner James Fulton and the second soldier is Lieutenant Anthony Devine. The men belong to a battery of the 10th Field Artillery Brigade. (Photo by Frank Hurley, available from the Collection Database of the Australian War Memorial under the ID Number: E01220.)

The recent centenary of the U.S. entry into World War I on April 6th has prompted a similar bit of soul searching about how that war is represented in our classrooms — and in our textbooks.  The state standards for U.S. history courses vary widely, but most emphasize teaching WWI as part of the narrative of rising U.S. power and its global projection, while the standards for world history courses emphasize impersonal forces such as nationalism, militarism, and imperialism.  (I say most, even though the author only surveyed three large states, as I’ve done or supervised correlations for dozens of sets of state standards over the years.)  Author Kyle Greenwalt thinks this is due to the differing aims of the courses (creating citizens vs. navigating global connections), but that they can be reconciled:

In my own view, it seems incomplete to teach just one of these conflicting views of World War I. Instead, I would recommend to history teachers that they explore competing perspectives of the past with their students.

What do you think?   If you compare WorldView Software’s American History II, Chapter 8: America Becomes Involved in World War I with our World History B, Chapter 8: Causes, Course and Conclusion of World War I, you should see elements from both the narratives represented.  For example, in World History B, you’ll find Wilson’s Fourteen Points presented from the American point of view, as well as a map detailing the extent of imperialism in 1915.

And it matters today because we see the same urges to isolationism and internationalism: The recent Bastille Day celebrations in France included the French president hosting the American one:

But Mr. Macron is hoping that his invitation will mark a turnaround: that Trump’s positions on trade, borders, security – and key from the French president’s vantage, the Paris climate accord, from which the US pulled out – could get a rethink after his state visit. After all, if President Wilson won the 1916 American election on an isolationist pledge, he entered “The Great War” just weeks after his inauguration, a key to the Allied victory a year and a half later.

It’s too early to tell whether this tack will work, but it shows that at least Macron is determined not to let history repeat.


BulbgraphOnOffWrite unguided essay outlines together in class, using the guided essay model. Have class discuss and select main and supporting ideas.


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Just for Fun: History in Color

If it’s too hot to think, grab some ice water and coloring pencils and relax by coloring images from historical collections. The #ColorOurCollections initiative of the New York Academy of Medicine was in February, but don’t worry if you missed it: the coloring books created for the social media event are still available online at http://library.nyam.org/colorourcollections/.

There were 120 institutions from around the world participating, including the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Vatican, the National Museum – The Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, and Bodleian Libraries.  Be realistic or get as fantastic as you like!

And finally, a small bonus online activity: color in a page of the Gutenberg Bible at the Ransom Center at UTAustin

Page of Gutenberg Bible colored in online.

Resource Highlight: Fragile States Index Data

Data used in the Fragile States Index from The Fund for Peace can be used to create many different kinds of visualizations and explorations: scores and rankings, country dashboards, comparative analyses, trend analysis, FSI heat maps, and so on.  Use it to see which indicators FFP says are getting better or worse in a country, to argue over the political importance/relevance of those indicators, and to spark discussions about methodology.

For example, the United States is a stable country, but according to the index it has been worsening over the years:

Data from the U.S. country dashboard

(One irritating thing about the site is that it’s not responsive, so you will have to enlarge the window until the whole thing fits if you don’t want to continually scroll side-to-side.)

The Mayans Wrote Books, Too

The manuscript itself is a map of linguistic evolution. Four different languages are represented. It would be only natural to find Latin and Spanish. But two native tongues of the Mayan Empire, K’iche’ and Kaqchikel, are also part of this written record…The existence of this language into the modern age is a testament to a people who vehemently resisted the Catholic Church’s attempts to convert them and the efforts of Europeans to assimilate them.

Source: The Mayans Wrote Books, Too

Great post about the political meaning of the Libro de Sermones Varios en Lengua Quiche (1690).  It’s the oldest manuscript in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives, and has been recently digitized (for more on the book, see the links in the post).  For more information on Mayan culture in general, see WorldView Software’s World History A, Chapter 12 Pre-Columbian Latin America.

Resource Highlight: the IT History Society

The IT History Society http://www.ithistory.org/ is an international group of over 700 members working together to document, preserve, catalog, and research the history of Information Technology (IT). One of their most useful things for students and teachers on their site is an International Database of Historical and Archival Sites, where you can look up and research everything from pre-Apple history to ZZT-oop (an early in-game scripting programming language). The databases are listed alphabetically, and can be sorted by institution or country.