Shifting Outlines

How a map is drawn says more about the interests and intentions of the cartographers than it does about the space it describes.

Take, for example, these various maps of the Arctic. For most of human existence, the Arctic has been a place of myth, fascination and exploration. For a very few, it’s been home.

Mercator-Hondius Map of the Arctic (1606). Source: Wikipedia

Mercator-Hondius Map of the Arctic (1606).
Source: Wikipedia

This first map is perhaps more interesting for its cartographical innovations (the use of the Mercator Projection) than its speculative geography that posits a whirlpool swirling around a black rock that represented the magnetic north pole. Note how closely identified and labeled the claimed territories are, how open and blank the rest is from the perspective of a European map maker.

This next one gets closer to my point of discussion today.

1715 map by Dutch cartographer Frederick de Wit. Source: Canadian Geographic

1715 map by Dutch cartographer Frederick de Wit.
Source: Canadian Geographic

It shows outlines of the Arctic continent based on survey reports, and leaves out the parts that likely were not yet verified. More intriguing than the map itself are the surrounding illustrations of the riches to be found in the territory. Whales. It’s no surprise that this map is of Dutch origin.

Around the beginning of the 18th century, the Dutch moved many of their whaling operations from bays into the open sea. The Arctic, territory of ice and water, had a major energy resource for that era: whale blubber.

It was only later, when cheaper fuels took its place, that whale oil lost its primacy as an energy source (although it was still being used until the 1970s as, for example, automatic transmission oil in the United States and as a base for margarine).

Which brings me to this map, newly released by National Geographic. Actually, it’s modern and informative for a couple of reasons.

A GIF of National Geographic atlases from 1999 through 2014 shows how Arctic ice has melted over time. Go here for a discussion of the criteria used to create this map. Caption/Image: National Geographic

A GIF of National Geographic atlases from 1999 through 2014 shows how Arctic ice has melted over time.
Go here for a discussion of the criteria used to create this map.
Caption/Image: National Geographic

First of all, in its GIF presentation, it shows a trend rather than a static snapshot.

Second, that trend is concerned with the shrinking size of the Arctic, which makes this map a pointed commentary on climate change as much as it is a description of territory.

How that commentary is interpreted in other maps again illustrates our interests and desires.

Because the Arctic is shrinking, many assumptions made over the centuries can be re-evaluated. For example, the existence of a Northwest Passage, the long-sought sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that is only now becoming truly navigable by large ships.

The ice shrinkage also means that more is accessible than new waterways. The sea bed, buried under ice, is now available for exploration. More importantly, for exploitation.

Arctic Ocean Seafloor Features Map: International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean annotated with the names of seafloor features.  Caption/Image: Geology.com

Arctic Ocean Seafloor Features Map: International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean annotated with the names of seafloor features.
Caption/Image: Geology.com

The Arctic has always been subject to territorial claims, but climate change renders those claims much more interesting to the five Arctic-bordering nations: United States, Denmark, Canada, Russia and Norway. All have been in the process of staking out the extent of their extended continental shelves for some time now, some more vociferously than others.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), these five countries can claim an extended continental shelf. If the claims are validated, the countries gain exclusive rights to resources on or below the seabed of their respective extended shelf area.

Which brings me to this map, which outlines potential oil and gas reserves on the Arctic sea bed.

Arctic Oil and Natural Gas Provinces Map: The United States Geological Survey estimates that over 87% of the Arctic's oil and natural gas resource (about 360 billion barrels oil equivalent) is located in seven Arctic basin provinces. Caption/Image: Geology.com

Arctic Oil and Natural Gas Provinces Map: The United States Geological Survey estimates that over 87% of the Arctic’s oil and natural gas resource (about 360 billion barrels oil equivalent) is located in seven Arctic basin provinces.
Caption/Image: Geology.com

And this, really, is what it’s all about.

The Arctic region has been estimated to hold up to one-quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves – energy resources almost as outdated as whale oil.

Small surprise, then, that Russia dropped a flag on the Arctic sea bed in 2007. The country has been pushing to claim 1.2 million sq km (463,000 sq miles) of the Arctic shelf.

Which is to say, all of it.

What better way to take advantage of the effects of climate change in the Arctic than by mining it for the very fuels that are causing climate change in the first place?

It looks like the changing Arctic outlines could force a redrawing of the maps in more ways than one.

The Shape of Absence

Absence of information has the curious characteristic of being innocuous as long as it goes unnoticed, and undeniably intriguing once it becomes apparent. Once you notice something is missing, you can’t stop looking at the hole where it should be and wondering what should actually be there.

For example, a recent report published by the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) shows just how little data is publicly available on the subject of oil and gas company spills and other violations in the United States.

RIP Great Auk: After John Gould (1873/ 2014),  from the series Frameworks of Absence, a collection of historic prints and publications printed at the time in history when the depicted species became extinct, with the extinct species cut out of the image. Artist: Brandon Ballengée

RIP Great Auk: After John Gould
(1873/ 2014)
From the series Frameworks of Absence, a collection of historic prints and publications printed at the time in history when the depicted species became extinct, with the extinct species cut out of the image.
Artist: Brandon Ballengée

I noticed this some time ago when I posted comments on the large 2013 Tesoro oil spill in North Dakota that took over a week to report to the press (and which is still in the clean-up process, 18 months and $20 million later).

I looked for data on oil spills across the 36 U.S. states with active oil and gas installations, but information was difficult to find. I attributed that difficulty to my own lack of time and online savvy, but as it turns out, the reason runs deeper.

Neither state nor federal regulatory agencies provide this data in any consistent form, and if corporations have extensive monitoring and data on spills, they are keeping it to themselves for the most part.

RIP Sloane’s Urania Butterfly: After W.F. Kirby (1897/ 2014) Frameworks of Absence Artist: Brandon Ballengée

RIP Sloane’s Urania Butterfly: After W.F. Kirby
(1897/ 2014)
Frameworks of Absence
Artist: Brandon Ballengée

According to the NRDC study, many violations are never reported at all. It should be added that many violations aren’t considered report-worthy because of lax standards and enforcement found in many states.

What happens when no consistent records are kept?

There can be no true accountability of the impact of oil and gas industry operations and activities on the communities and environments in which they conduct business. Noncompliance with safety standards and construction requirements becomes difficult to enforce due to the lack of a track record. The same goes for on-site worker safety regulations and compliance.

Companies with an (invisible) history of violations can skirt notice and supervision. The true boundaries of pollution and damage can be minimized or even denied.

The NRDC report makes for interesting reading and now I can’t stop looking at the empty space where all the information should be.

'RIP Audubon's Bighorn Sheep' (18492014) Frameworks of Absence Artist: Brandon Ballengée

‘RIP Audubon’s Bighorn Sheep’ (1849/2014)
Frameworks of Absence
Artist: Brandon Ballengée