Supporting geography educators everywhere with current digital resources.



I am a geography professor at Rhode Island College.

Lake Tulare Reemerging

FIGURE 1: The Central Valley is a highly modified agricultural landscape. SOURCE: Big Think

A few years ago, I was delighted to see an geographer’s rendition of what a satellite image of California would have looked if such a thing existed in the 1800s (figure 1). Back then the southern San Joaquin Valley was swampy wetland surrounding Lake Tulare, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River.  In the late 1800s, canals and dams were created to divert water from the rivers that fed into the lake to go supporting agriculture and the metropolitan areas of California.  As the very shallow lake dried up, the lakebed was converted into was converted to agricultural land, mainly under cotton cultivation. 

Figure 2: The Tulare Watershed with dry lake beds that are refilling. Source: KVPR

California and much of the wast have had far more precipitation than expected on the heels of years of drought. The existing canals and reservoirs in the watershed are overflowing and the dry lake bed with fields is getting flooded again; water doesn’t care about what is there now, it just flows downhill. Enter the 2023 version of Tulare Lake flooding farmland, roads, railways, towns, and other expensive infrastructure.

While it won’t return to its historic levels with one year’s snowpack, it’s likely that 100,000 acres (150 sq. miles) of farmland will be under water for two years, possibly more. This is a relatively lightly populated region, but some cities like Corcoran, CA (22,000 people) are on the edge of the old lake bed and might need to be partially evacuated as levees have failed to stem the tide. 

Agricultural companies and local towns are both trying to protect their lands from flooding to protect their infrastructure, equipment, homes, and people.  At times, these goals are at odds with one another, and armed guards are protecting levees and hydrologic projects. Below are two videos that are good introductions to the topic of the reemergence of Lake Tulare.   

Questions to Ponder: How has agriculture and urbanization modified your state’s geography? What are the positive impacts of these modifications? What are potential negative consequences of these modifications?

TAGS: environmental modification, California, environment.

VIDEO#1: Limited geography, but a good 4 minute local news-type explanation.
Video #2: More in-depth (15 min.), with historical background on the hydrology of the region.

EEZs in the Gulf of Mexico

If you look at maps of the Americas ranging from the 16th to the 20th centuries many of them have an island within the Gulf of Mexico called Bermeja…but on modern maps, it’s not there.” SOURCE: Geography Geek

Don’t be fooled by the click-bait nature of the embedded video title (of course the CIA didn’t make the island disappear), because this obscure topic is a nice entry into several geographic topics.  In the Gulf of Mexico, the tiny island of Bermeja (Vermeia) was listed on maps from 1539 to 1922 as Mexican territory but simply on the strength of these old maps and 16th century maritime record.  As oil exploration in the Gulf intensified, and with the passage of UNCLOS, Mexico wanted to claim as large an Exclusive Economic Zone as possible and even searched for this apocryphal island, but to no avail.  This has led to two donut-hole gaps in the Gulf of Mexico between the US and Mexican EEZs, one that has be negotiated, and one that still remains to be determined.   The island, or lack there of is insignificant, but there are 3 good geographic topics this highlights:

  • Cartographic errors that get repeated over centuries.
  • UNCLOS and the Law of the Seas.
  • Off-shore natural resource management.

The Lure of Singapore

Chinese individuals now see Singapore as the vessel that can navigate them through a series of expected storms. At the same time, they add, it is becoming an increasingly vital place for outposts of Wall Street and the global financial industry to interact with them. For many years, Singapore has liked to sell itself as the Switzerland of Asia. The new cold war, says one former top official, is finally turning that pitch into a reality. The big question, though, is how far Singapore will tolerate being Switzerland with Chinese characteristics.” SOURCE: Financial Times

Singapore is small, but it is strategically located and tightly linked to all the important players in the region.  Singapore (about 75% ethnically Chinese) has played a role in Chinese migration and wealth and more Chinese companies are choosing Singapore as a base of operations.  With many companies and countries leery about the Communist party, having a company operating out of Singapore is a safe bet for investors, so investors and Western partners are also choosing Singapore as a politically neutral safe haven for investors. This article nicely outlined the economic and geographic appeal of Singapore that has made it an economic powerhouse.    

TAGS: Singapore, economic, SouthEast Asia.

Indonesia Tightens Religious Freedoms

Indonesian lawmakersunanimously passed a sweeping new criminal code on Tuesday that criminalizes sex outside marriage, as part of a tranche of changes that critics say threaten human rights and freedoms in the Southeast Asian country.” SOURCE: BBC

Classical liberal values (free speech, rights for minority groups, fair elections, freedom of press, etc.) have grown in most places in most times, but that isn’t a guarantee that it will always be so or that it will in all places it will be maintained.  Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim majority population with a diverse set of religious traditions emmeshed.  Indonesia, with thousands of islands, is also home to great array of linguistic diversity.

Indonesia, at the end of 2022, outlawed sexual interactions outside of those legally recognized marriages.  The government framed the old laws as vestiges of an old colonial legacy that will allow them to return to traditional cultural values of the country, while others feel that this is conflating what is considered sinful with the criminal.  This with likely impact the tourism industry as those traveling abroad that are not in marital unions will likely head to other tropical Southeast Asian destinations. A week after the law was passed, the governor of Bali (a noted travel destination for Australians and Europeans) went on record that tourists would not be investigated under this law.  

Additionally, the Indonesian government has also strengthened blasphemy laws.  The majority of the convictions of the blasphemy laws are usually members of minority faiths, and human rights groups fear that this politically and culturally erodes religious freedoms.        

TAGS: Indonesia, religion, political, SouthEast Asia.

Balikbayan Boxes

Massive numbers of Balikbayan boxes are sent around Christmastime. SOURCE.

A Balikbayan box is a huge cardboard box (often weighing over 100 pounds) that Filipinos living all over the world send to family members who are still living in the Philippines. The word Balikbayan literally means homecoming in Tagalog. 400,000 thousand of these Balikbayan boxes arrive in the Philippines from around the world per month. But the holiday season is the busiest, with mothers sending to sons, brothers to sisters, and hundreds of thousands waiting in the Philippines for their box.” SOURCE: 99 PI Podcast

The sending of remittances is an important inter-regional economic flow concept and there is no better example than the Philippines. This 99 Percent Invisible podcast is an excellent portrayal of the cultural and economic impacts of the Balikbayan boxes, with a full transcript, good video clips, and nice images.

With unemployment high after WWII, the Philippines made an active economic strategy of remittances by encouraging citizens to work abroad and to send money back home. Filipinos went to the United States, the Middle East, Hong Kong, Singapore and throughout the Pacific. But the government didn’t enter trade agreements to grant them full citizenship in the new country as whole families, but often as individual temporary workers which meant that they always kept one foot (and their heart) in the Philippines. 

Balikbayan means “homecoming” or “return of our people.” The people that left, the Balikbayan, are treated with an elevated status upon returning and often feel a sense of responsibility to those that they left behind.  The Balikbayan boxes are care packages that they send back home to loved ones in the Philippines, but so much more so.  Huge boxes loaded with commercial goods like chocolate, electronics, toothpaste, and yes, SPAM (SPAM is especially loved in the Filipino community for some fascinating cultural and historical reason). Christmas is celebrated for several months in the Philippines and the busiest time for Balikbayan boxes to be sent from all over the world.   

TAGS: Philippines, economic, migration.

Packed with goodies, Balikbayan boxes bring consumer goods to their loved ones.

Why didn’t the Ottomans Colonize the Americas?

Why didn’t the Ottoman Empire colonize the Americas? Mostly, it was geography and a confidence that it wouldn’t change the balance of power.” SOURCE: History Matters on YouTube

I do enjoy counterfactual history questions and to imagine how the world would be different is something did (or didn’t) happen.  These “what ifs” are usually a thought exercise in imaginary worlds that often hinge on a single point that might be lead to a pivotal shift in the unfolding of events. For example, “What if Hitler was assassinated before WWII?” or “What if Columbus never crossed the Atlantic?” The question about the Ottoman Empire is different because in the 21st century, it seems apparent that colonization would be the answer for every power seeking to maintain their power in the 16th-18th centuries. This question is getting us to understand the geographic realities and political factors in a new historical context. The Ottoman Empire, because of its distinct geographic context, had a great set of land options available to them, and a more constrained set of maritime resources for the open seas.

This question helps us explore the geographic factors that led to powerful empires over the centuries.  Geographically and historically, the importance of certain resources might have been incredibly important, but not so in a different era or in a different regional context (e.g.-naval power, overland networks, gold, oil, or iron deposits). So what are the three most important reasons why the Ottoman Empire didn’t colonize in the Americas?

TAGS: empire, Turkey, historical.

Why China’s population is shrinking

For the first time in six decades, China’s population is shrinking, and it’s predicted it could create a demographic crisis. That’s because China isn’t just shrinking, it’s also aging. And the majority of Chinese couples are not considering having more than one child. Because of this, China is predicted to lose nearly 50 percent of its population by 2100. China’s population decline can be traced back to the restrictive family-planning policies launched in the 1970s and an impressive economic boom fueled by China’s huge labor force. China’s modernization brought rapid urbanization, rising income levels, and better education to large parts of China. Combined, these policies and growth have given China one of the lowest birth rates in the world. Today, China is trying to reverse its population decline. Not just because an aging population is hard to sustain economically, but because China’s impressive economic growth, until now, has relied on its people. As China’s population challenges deepen over time, it might have to rethink how to grow its economy and care for its citizens. SOURCE: VOX

China’s population is officially declining now (at least, last year the population dropped and indications are that 2022 is likely to be the first of many).  Given that China’s population is 1.4 billion, there will be many ramifications to their population trends and it is worth understanding their demographic past that brings us to the current situation. 

Agriculture and Politics in the Netherlands

Dutch Farmers protesting in 2022, Source: DW

I was surprised to learn that the 2nd leading agricultural exporter in the world is the small country of the Netherlands.  The Netherlands!  Roughly the size of the state of Maryland today, the Netherlands has a rich tradition of technologically expanding their land into the sea to boost agricultural productivity (17% of the country today is on reclaimed land). The Netherlands exports many agricultural products mainly to other EU countries and are the global leader in the floral industry.   

Netherlands Agricultural Exports, SOURCE: OEC

 One of the keys to the economic productivity of the agricultural sector is the intensive nature of the production; they add technological inputs that expand the economic efficiency and productivity of the land, including artificial fertilizers and pesticides.  As a part of the European Union provides enormous economic benefits, and those benefits come with the costs associated with being a member of a supranational organization.  The EU has target goals to reduce nitrogen emissions among other environmental, regulatory goals.      

During the pandemic, the Netherlands government led by PM Rutte’s party, passed some laws to limit nitrogen emissions to advance the environmental aims of the EU.  Large-scale protests began with farmer’s arguing that the country’s government was listening more to international organizations than protecting the interests of their citizens.  They started the BBB party just a few years ago to combat these policies since they see these quick changes to farmer’s access to artificial fertilizer because of these regulatory policies will “obliterate their livelihoods.” Now that party is a force. Agriculture, economics, politics, and environmental are all intertwined in this complex geographic issue. 

The Geography of Military Operations

Geography is the stage on which the play of History unfolds.  As a kid, I loved studying the great wards of history and—not surprisingly—I was drawn to the maps that showed flanking maneuvers, bottlenecks, marching around mountains, getting lured into marshlands, etc.  I especially was intrigued when a local force used superior knowledge of the local terrain to defeat a superior, invading force. 

This video shows the geography of the Crimean Peninsula through of the Russian occupation of the peninsula.  Before 2014, the land was controlled by Ukraine and Russia has controlled and annexed the land.  The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine was a continued expansion of these territorial ambitions, and if Ukraine’s full goals are to be achieved, reclaiming the Crimean Peninsula would be an final step.  The naval stronghold of Sevastapol, the tiny narrow neck of land, the swampy lagoons, and the Black Sea are all discussed in this video looking at the Russian advantages in maintaining control and Ukraine’s difficulties in trying to recapture this territory.   

Tags: Russia, Ukraine, geopoliticspolitical.

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