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Climate Change Forces the ‘World’s Most Authoritative Atlas’ to Redraw Maps

Source: OnEarth

The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World 13th EditionBy Ben Jervey, OnEarth Magazine

In geography circles, the publication of The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World is an event akin to the Olympics. It happens every four years with great fanfare, and all the world's nations are represented.

The 13th edition of the Times Atlas was published today, and aside from all the geopolitical changes (South Sudan is now an independent nation state, for instance), it's the the geophysical changes -- many due to climate change -- that I find most fascinating.

"We’re having to revise coastlines, remap ice shelves, and change lakes that are shrinking in size on maps,” says Jethro Lennox, a senior editor of the Times Atlas.

The Greenland ice cap is significantly smaller than it was in the 2007 edition, yielding a much "greener" Greenland in the new version. Cartographers erased roughly 15 percent of the ice shelf that was once thought to be permanent. Off the east coast of Greenland, a new island exposed by a retreating glacier and fittingly named "Warming Island" (or Uunartoq Qeqertoq in Greenlandic) was deemed large and permanent enough by the map's editors to be drawn and named for the first time.

The great seas of the Middle East and Central Asia -- including the Aral Sea and the Dead Sea -- have new, tighter coastlines as the water bodies shrink. The breakup of the Larsen B and Wilkins ice shelves in Antarctica are portrayed, along with the "ice bridge" that once joined Charcot Island to the continent's mainland.

New Times Atlas climate change
The Times Atlas view of Greenland in 2007 and 2011

While it's no news flash that these changes are occuring, it still feels somehow important and potentially persuasive when a presitigious tome like the Times Atlas -- widely leafed through and perused by folks from across the political spectrum -- puts them down on big old sheets of paper.

This also isn't the first time the Times cartographers have had to redraw the maps to account for climate-related changes. Back in 2007, the atlas's editors were already attributing coastlines changes and the shrinking of the Aral Sea to global warming. But this year's revisions are, without question, the biggest set of climate-related changes ever recorded in the Times' four-year research and publishing span.

At 1:35 in this video, Lennox talks specifically about how the cartographers and researchers were forced to address climate change:

Now I'm an unabashed cartography geek and total map obsessive. And I'll admit that I still love that tactile experience of spreading a map wide or flipping through pages of an atlas. So these changes in the Times Atlas resonate pretty strong with me, and I can't wait to drop this book with a thud on my kitchen table and spend a few hours pouring through it. But it has to be said that more and more of the public's consumption of cartography is moving online, and services like Google Earth and open GIS programs are far more dynamic, portable, and user-friendly than a 12.5-pound, 18-inch-by-12-inch hardcover published every four years.

The publishers of the Times Atlas would be smart to invest seriously in migrating some of their information and services online. While I'm still thrilled whenever a new volume comes out, the world isn't going to wait four years from today to see how this planet of ours continues to change.

Ben Jervey is the blog editor at OnEarth Magazine, a Climate Central content partner.


By Mauri Pelto (West Boylston)
on September 18th, 2011

A correction with regard to Greenland will have to be made.  Greenland had only a minor percentage of ice shelves in the first place not close to 15%.  And despite the ubiquitous and significant retreat of all types of glaciers, as noted in this article at Skeptical Science and yesterday for Upernavik Glacier, it is no where near 15%.  The glaciologic community in the last couple of days has been working to clarify this error in the Atlas interpretation that did not come from us. Hester Jiskoot, University of Lethbridge, Alberta has put in well.

“It is very clear that much of the new brown (and pink) results from a simple change in mapping colour to the local ice masses surrounding the Greenland Ice Sheet (mountain glaciers and ice caps peripheral to the ice sheet itself). It is hard to read the poor resolution maps in the Guardian article, and the legends are chopped off, but one of the major issues appears from the change in colour from white to pink/brown for these local ice masses peripheral to the ice sheet between the 1999 and 2011 Times Atlas map.

Although many of these regions have decreased in area and thickness over the past decade(s), reported in many recent scientific papers, the misinterpretation of enormous losses of glacierized area from these maps is far off the range in measured losses. For example, measured areal loss for tidewater terminating local ice masses in central East Greenland is in the order of only 1-2% (Jiskoot et al., submitted). If you misinterpret the change from white to pink/brown from the Times Atlas for this region, then you would misinterpret that it would have lost all (100%) of its ice, which is clearly not the case.

There is no end to correcting frequent misinterpretations of (scientific) data by the media and the general public, and our role as scientists is primarily to use our expertise to do scientific research, so that progress in understanding the earth can proceed. The major lack in most stories, including this one, is the proper reference to source data and/or peer-reviewed scientific literature. Any informed citizen has to realise that scientific experts should be consulted for the most up-to-date, comprehensive and reliable information.”

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By Andrew
on September 18th, 2011


Thanks for your comment - I think it’s becoming clear that the Atlas folks did not consult the most accurate data sources when they updated their newest edition, leading to problematic news accounts. Appreciate your input here.


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By Zicail M. (California, USA 90002)
on September 28th, 2011

We need accurate data from any source materials for a valid result. But there is a re-draw map controversy. Greenland ice mass maps causing political uproar . Greenland is losing some ice mass due to melting. The Times Atlas, however, is at the middle of a debate after publishing a map that revealed a 15 percent decrease in icemass. Environmental change due to global warming brings big changes.

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