English Geography Omnologos

Curious Continents (Geography has still a lot to discover)

A recent tweet has inspired some curious fact-finding.

It shows that there is little dry land on Earth where the antipodes are dry land as well, instead of just ocean. This can be explained at least partially by there being only 29.2% of land.

In theory then, every piece of land has only 29.2% chance of being a place where “if you drill through the globe, you’ll hit land on the other side” (as written by a commenter on Twitter to describe the situation very briefly). However, since the land is concentrated in huge continents the actual number is likely smaller.

For example Africa covers 20.3% of the Earth’s land, i.e. 5.9% of the total surface. The simplified chance of finding land on the other side of Africa is therefore (remaining land)/(ocean surface+remaining land), i.e. (29.2-5.9)/((100-29.2)+(29.2-5.9))=22% (this is because Africa cannot be at its own antipodes).

End of story? Not quite. A comprehensive look at the situation reveals it as full of tantalizingly curious details.

The world and its antipodes

The picture above (click to enlarge -hope it’s clear enough even if a bit rough!) uses transparency to show what’s on the other side of the world (original Mercator projection by Google Maps -used here as I’m interested in directions – the map by Amazing Maps uses the Peters projection instead).

Among the amazing peculiarities:

  1. Australia seems cut out of the lower North Atlantic ocean. Its coastline follows the contours of the eastern US coast, then the coasts of Venezuela, the Guyanas and Brazil, and even partially the western coast of Africa
  2. Likewise North America has the perfect shape to fit in the Indian Ocean, roughly following the south-eastern coast of Africa and then curving as if to “avoid” Australia
  3. The northern coasts of Russia and Alaska eerily follow (on the other side of the world) the same path as much of the coast of Antarctica: what is land to the north is ocean in the south, and vice-versa
  4. The antipodes of Africa and of most of the Eurasian continent sit comfortably in the Pacific ocean. Europe manages to just touch New Zealand, and only partially so (mostly, this concerns the volcanic northern island of NZ)
  5. The entire path of India’s migration from Madagascar to the Himalayas is antipodal to and follows the contour of the ocean to the west of Mexico
  6. The odd ones out are (a) the area of Chile and Argentina, corresponding to central China and eastern Mongolia; (b) the Antarctic Peninsula, just to the south of Chile and Argentina and jutting towards them and (c) Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago
  7. Note also that almost exactly on the other side of the narrow strip of land known as Central America, there is the elongated archipelago known as Malaysia and Indonesia.

If confirmed with a more accurate map, my impression would be that there is a hitherto-hidden physical law at play here. It seems that continents cannot simply hang about at random locations, and their place in the Big Schema of the Planet depends on something that has been overlooked until now.

For example, consider that Pangea was constituted 300 million years ago and began to break up 200 million years ago. Now, if we reduced 100 million years to just one year, Earth would be spinning at more than 1,000 revolutions a second. From the point of view of a continent, our planet is like a centrifuge. This has to have its consequences.


English Europe Geography

Blondes are Mutants from Sweden and Finland

The Blonde Map of Europe” courtesy of the strange maps blog:


One wonders what happened in Apulia…

Climate Change English Environment Geography Letters NYRB Skepticism

Misleading Pictures, Wrong Caption…

And so once more Global Warming has meant the publication of misleading pictures, with a wrong caption…why oh why does the mere mention of AGW force so many otherwise thoughtful and wise people to switch their brains off?

Here a “Letter to the Editors” just sent to the New York Review Of Books:

Dear Editors

Clarifications and at least one correction are required about the pictures of the Upsala Glacier in Patagonia, Argentina, “from Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006)”, on the first page of Bill McKibben’s “Warning on Warming” (NYRB, March 15, 2007).

At the top, the 1928 photograph of a vast flat glacier; at the bottom, the 2004 ice-free landscape as captured from a similar vantage point as the one 76 years earlier (at least two peaks are clearly distinguishable).

I was surprised indeed to see the New York Review of Books reproduce without much commentary and with a wrong caption a couple of photographs that may turn out to be exceedingly misleading.


First of all: the caption is wrong. Contrarily to the published text, it is _not true_ that by 2004, “most of the glacier had melted“.

Upsala Glacier still occupies well in excess of 850 sq km (330+ sq mi), an area vastly larger than the one covered by the photographs.

You can see pictures of Upsala taken from the Space Shuttle in January 2004 at the NASA website.

A discussion of the situation 2001-2004 is available on the same site.



If one could rely on photographs alone, those of Upsala could be the definitive, final, closing, incontrovertible evidence that something has warmed up during the XX century, at least at the location of the Upsala Glacier.

Pictures, however, are not everything, as any modern consumer must have learnt one way or another by now.

Do some little research about Upsala, in fact, and more than one doubt arises about the glacier’s changes having not been mostly caused by warming, global or local or otherwise.

They may be the result instead of the behavior of a large glacier when subjected to particular mechanical stresses.

See for example “Historic Fluctuations of Outlet Glaciers from the Patagonian Ice Fields” at the USGS web site.

That web site reports a picture from “Thinning and retreating of Glaciar Upsala, and an estimate of annual ablation changes in southern Patagonia“, by R. Naruse, P. Skvarca and Y. Takeuchi (Annals of Glaciology, Vol. 24, 1997).

In that paper, it is suggested that “considerable retreat due to calving may have resulted in reduction of longitudinal compressive stress exerted from bedrock rises and islands near the glacier front, causing a considerable decrease in the emergence flow.”

R. Naruse repeated similar considerations at the 2nd International Symposium on Arctic and Antarctic Issues, at Punta Arenas, Chile, in November 1998 (“Dynamic features of glaciers in Patagonia“).

More recently, in “Recent behavior of Glaciar Upsala, a fast-flowing calving glacier in Lago Argentino, southern Patagonia” (Annals of Glaciology, 36, 2003), P. Skvarca, B. Raup and H. De Angelis proposed again that “drastic glacier retreat in the last two decades” may be explained “partly due to the release of back stress when the glacier retreated beyond the islands in Brazo Upsala […] which acted as pinning points.”

You can also read an earlier paper by Mr Skvarca: “Significant Ice Retreat in the Region Patagonia – Antarctic Peninsula Observed by ERS SAR” (ESA ERS 1997 Workshop, 1997) by H. Rott, W. Rack, M. Stuefer and P. Skvarca:

It cannot yet be assessed if the ice retreat in Patagonia […] indicates just regional changes of the atmospheric circulation patterns or can be assigned to global climatic change.”

Last but not least, Upsala is not the only glacier in Patagonia.

Surely if the dramatic retreat of Upsala were related to global warming, all the other glaciers would be retreating too? And yet that is clearly not the case.

Read “Recent Fluctuations and Damming of Glacier Perito Moreno, Patagonia” by H. Rott, M. Stuefer, T. Nagler and C. Riedl (ESA Envisat and ERS 2004 Symposium):

The satellite data, in synergy with field measurements, confirm the stability of the [Perito Moreno] glacier, showing only minor front fluctuations and indicating an approximately balanced mass budget since many years.”

Furthermore, they report the Pio XI glacier as having experienced a “net advance of about 10 km […] from 1945 to 1995“.


Some revealing considerations should be made about Perito Moreno glacier indeed, the advancing glacier whose pictures have been used by Frank Capra in 1958 and by Al Gore in 2006 to demonstrate the retreat of glaciers due to global warming: but those will have to wait for a future article or letter.

For the time being, I am confident the above makes the main points clear:

(1) Most of the Upsala glacier has not melted.

(2) The Upsala glacier 1928-2004 pictures can only be seriously understood with an in-depth commentary of what is being shown, including “what lies beneath”.

And there are all the indications that the local characteristics of the terrain, rather than “Global Warming”, have had a major role in what has been happening.


Given the reputation of the New York Review of Books then, I will be expecting a prompt publication of this letter and of all the necessary explanations.

Keep up the good work


Maurizio Morabito

UPDATE: The NYRB went only as far as admitting the caption was wrong (read it here)…

Borders Culture English Geography Letters

Borders that matter

From "A Muso Duro" (Marco Belpoliti, La Stampa, 20 June 2006 (in italian)):

In truth the geographic divide in the Italian Peninsula is not between the North and the South, but between East and West. The Italian "Boot" is more tilted than it appears in classrooms' maps, and it is possible to travel from North to South on the Adriatic side without crossing any mountain: from Venice to Bari there is no separation clear border, apart from the Po, which it is not a true dividing line between North and South (are Emilia and Romagna regions of the Italian South?). The geographers have explained to us for a long time that the true geographic difference in Italy is that between the Adriatic and the Tyrrhenian sides, even if it is obvious that the cultures follow the "geographic quotas", and the differences between the villages placed East or West of the Appennini are never clear-cut

This is not just a phenomenon of the Appennini

Think of the Alps, where cultures have diffused among the mountains: therefore distributing themselves across the watersheds, instead of considering those like border lines

Mountain chains all over the planet (look at the Caucasus, the Himalayas, the Rocky Mountains), looking to the modern eye like "natural borders", have been demonstrated time and again as lines of union, and not of separation

A "geographic border" with more important social consequences exists, and it is the border between those within easy approach of great ways of communication, and those far away or on the periphery: the wealth of the Po Valley instead of the history of poverty on the surrounding mountains; the powerful economy of the close-to-Europe Italian North, instead of the perennial crisis of the faraway Italian South; and looking at other countries, the opulence of Paris and London instead of the marginalization of their peripheries