New Maps of Rising Seas

From the public domain source, the US EPA (2014): “This figure shows average absolute sea level change, which refers to the height of the ocean surface, regardless of whether nearby land is rising or falling. Satellite data are based solely on measured sea level, while the long-term tide gauge data include a small correction factor because the size and shape of the oceans are changing slowly over time.
[…]The shaded band shows the likely range of values, based on the number of measurements collected and the precision of the methods used.
. By US EPA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Of all the changes that are impacting the globe with climate change, few will be as overwhelming as sea level rise. Some cities, such as New York, are trying to address the problem head on. As Orrin Pilkey has described, North Carolina is taking a different approach; in that state business lobbyists have fought hard to create doubt about global warming. But regardless of what people say, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere continues to rise, the average global temperature increases year after year, and the mean sea level will be increasing over the coming decades.

Denise Lu and Christopher Flavelle’s have a wonderful (October 29, 2019) article in the New York Times titled Rising Seas Will Erase More Cities by 2050. The piece describes how new research shows that the sea level rises by 2050 will have a much greater impact than previously estimated. What is most powerful about their work are the maps. As the authors’ describe, most of Southern Vietnam will vanish by 2050. It is one thing to read those words. It’s another to see the map, and to imagine what that will truly mean. Similarly, most of Bangkok, Thailand will go beneath the waves. While much of Shanghai will survive, many nearby cities will disappear. …

Coronavirus and Quarantine

Health education poster, Hong Kong. Photo by Shawn Smallman

As I write these words nurses in Hong Kong are on strike to protest the fact that the Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, will not close the border to China. To be clear, the executive has sharply restricted entry to Hong Kong, closed most crossings, and forbidden entry from the most affected Chinese state, Hubei.  But there are still strong calls for a complete border closure coming from within Hong Kong’s medical community.  Similarly, the United States has restricted flights from China to U.S. citizens only; some U.S. airlines had already canceled service to China. All such quarantine measures are controversial.

On social media, such as Twitter, and in the press, a number of experts have denounced all quarantines as being not only ineffective but also in violation of WHO guidelines. These authors worried about panic overcoming good judgement, the economic costs of restricting travel, the stigma imposed on those from affected areas (Chinese in particular, but also all Asia), and the importance of upholding International Health Regulations. These are valid and important points. Some authors have also pointed to studies based on computer models showing that quarantines are ineffective with highly contagious respiratory diseases.

Recently the tone has shifted in the discussion, as it has become clear that some cases of the virus are being spread asymptomatically. The number of cases has grown quickly. Some apparent facts (such as no human to human transmission) that seemed true in mid-January are no longer true. So the stridency of the debate about quarantine has declined, but the debate continues.

So is there any role for quarantines to manage such a pandemic? And is there some other way to make a judgement that relies less on computer models? I would suggest that looking at the past history of respiratory pandemics, such as the 1918 influenza pandemic, might be useful. Can history suggest particular circumstances in which quarantines may work? …

The South China Sea

Are you looking for an online resource that students might use to quickly understand the South China Sea dispute between China and its neighbors? You could do much worse than this brief video that was shared on Twitter. I know that we sometimes think of Twitter as the host for emotional oversharing, Russian bots and disinformation campaigns, but @9DashLine and @SCS_news are good feeds to follow if you want to keep abreast of the latest information on the South China Sea issue.

Shawn Smallman, 2020

The Mystery Woman of the Baltimore

Captain’s quarters of an 18th century sailing vessel, such as that in which the mystery woman was found. Photo by Audrey Smallman, 2018.


Every Halloween I discuss an international mystery, or an aspect of folklore such as the ghost stories of southeastern China. This year will be different, because I am going to do three posts dealing with mysteries or the supernatural. With this post, I want to discuss the strange ship the Baltimore, a mystery with threads that reach from Ireland to Canada, and from the United States to Barbados. In his book, Maritime Mysteries: Haunting Tales of Atlantic Canada, Roland H. Sherwood tells the story (pp. 24-29) of how the ship mysteriously appeared in Chebogue, Nova Scotia. The local people wondered where the brigantine had come from, and why no people were seen on deck, even though someone had anchored the vessel. They sent ships, and people called out to those aboard, but no answer came. When local men boarded the ship on December 5, 1735 they saw signs of a struggle, including blood splattered all over the deck. There must have been a terrible battle aboard the ship. But of the crew there was not a trace. Seemingly, every single crew member had vanished. And everything valuable had been stripped from the ship. Then they heard the moaning within the cabin. They tried to open the door, but it had been barricaded shut. On that blood-soaked ship, they must have feared what they would find inside. When they burst through the door they found a woman on the floor, the only survivor. She said that her name was Susannah Buckler. Could she tell them what had happened to the ship’s crew? …

Book Review: Retreat from a Rising Sea

Citation: From the public domain source, the US EPA (2014): “This figure shows average absolute sea level change, which refers to the height of the ocean surface, regardless of whether nearby land is rising or falling. Satellite data are based solely on measured sea level, while the long-term tide gauge data include a small correction factor because the size and shape of the oceans are changing slowly over time. […]The shaded band shows the likely range of values, based on the number of measurements collected and the precision of the methods used.
By US EPA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Pilkey, Orrin H., et al. Retreat from a Rising Sea : Hard Decisions in an Age of Climate Change. Columbia University Press, 2016.

As I’ve worked on the previous editions of our textbook with Kim Brown, I’ve become increasingly convinced that it’s important for educators to recognize that our task is not only to teach about how humanity can prevent global warming, but also how humanity will need to adapt to climate change. There is now so much additional CO2 in the atmosphere that we are committed to global warming for generations to come. Perhaps no environmental impact will affect people as much rising sea levels, which is the central theme of Retreat from a Rising Sea. …

Sea level rise in Asia

Casinos in Macau, China.
中国澳门的赌场 Photo by Shawn Smallman

I think that we have reached the point with global warming where we can no longer pretend that we’re going to meet our goals. That doesn’t mean that citizens globally can stop the effort to limit climate change. There is a vast difference between the worst scenarios and the best. There are also reasons for hope, from the plunging cost of solar power, to the rapid development of offshore wind power. At the same time, in the end it’s not enough. Given the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the changing albedo of the Arctic due to declining ice cover, and the warming of our oceans, global warming will be continuing for centuries. At this point, human societies will be adapting to climate change far into the future, especially coastal communities. …

A Hidden Wonder in Brazil

It’s not true that the age of discovery is over, and everything worth knowing has already been found. We live in an age of revelations, such as the resting site of one of the ships from the lost Franklin expedition, an immense canyon in Greenland, and an unknown tapir in the Amazon. How can an mammal that travels in groups and weighs 200 pounds have remained undiscovered for so long? What is remarkable is the pace of the discoveries.  A new species of wolf has just been revealed in the Himalaya. Three new species of lemurs were discovered by researchers at the University of Kentucky. Multiple new species were just discovered in the ocean off of Atlantic Canada. Still, all of these discoveries are less surprising than the recent announcement that a coral reef exists at the mouth of the Amazon. The reef is the size of Delaware. Part of the reason that it hasn’t been studied before was that nobody thought that such a reef could exist in the fresh water and heavy sediments that pour into the ocean from the river. If we can miss an ecosystem 600 miles long (965 kilometers) long, what else is out there that we’re missing?

If you are interested in Latin America, you might wish to read either my book on the region’s AIDS epidemic, or my study of military terror in Brazil.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

Hakai Magazine

In International and Global Studies departments we often organize our curriculum by geographic region. At Portland State University, students in International and Global Studies can complete tracks in the major with a focus on Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. In many programs there is now a move towards focusing on topics in the curriculum, rather than geographic regions. For example, in my own department we created a track in development studies three years ago, and it is now the most popular track in the major. How might we organize information if we decided not to begin with geography as defined by our traditional boundaries?

Perhaps one answer might be that we would look at what unites regions at a truly global level. Hakai Magazine, for example, provides content about the world’s coastal regions and our oceans, with an emphasis on the environment and coastal populations. There is a good mix of long and short form material, and a truly global perspective. For anyone with an interest in the world’s oceans, this is a great resource.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

Maps and the South China Sea

With the possible exception of Ukraine, there is perhaps no place in the world today so likely to see a localized conflict expand into a global war as the South China Sea. Business Insider has recently published a collection of maps that seek to explain tensions in the area. The maps themselves were originally produced by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, which has done an important service by documenting the economic, political and geographic issues that are shaping geopolitical tensions throughout the region. Therese Delpeche, who sadly passed away in 2012, argued in her important book, Savage Century: Back to Barbarism, that the political situation in Asia now resembles that in Europe in 1914. This idea was not new, and has been controversial within Political Science, but after reading her work it is difficult not to see historical parallels. For anyone who wonders why these ocean waters have engaged so many different nations, these nineteen maps explain what is at stake. The maps would also be a great teaching tool in an “Introduction to International and Global Studies” class.

For a critical look at U.S. policy in the region, and its implications for Australia, please see my review of Michael Fraser’s Dangerous Allies. For a broader look at the issue, please see my book review of Robert Kaplan’s work, Asia’s Cauldron.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

Cod and Tuna: overfishing in Canada and the Mediterranean

"Sashimi Meal With Tuna And Bass" by artur84 at freeditigalphotos.net
“Sashimi Meal With Tuna And Bass” by artur84 at freeditigalphotos.net

This week I had my students watch a documentary, The Cost of Sushi, which describes how overfishing is endangering the tuna stocks in the Mediterranean. The reasons why are familiar from past disasters: the real needs of local communities and fisherman, the development of new fishing technologies and factory ships, the demand from foreign markets, the vast sums of money involved, and the uncertainty about how much fishing the stocks can actually take. In the case of the Mediterranean, what is clear by the end of the documentary is that much of the problem lies not only with the level of the quotas themselves, but also with the vast amount of illegal fishing that takes place. While the documentary clearly shows that huge amounts of tuna is being taken illegally -which environmental activists document both by tracing ships, and by genetically sampling tuna in markets- at no point are any corporations or individuals shown being held accountable. Given that a single tuna has sold for $1,76 million dollars (the current record), and the size of the waters involved, its easy to understand the difficulties that fisheries inspectors and activists face. Globally, the Atlantic blue fin tuna and Southern blue fin tuna are, respectively, endangered and critically endangered. Sadly, it seems that the local fishing communities, which have relied on this resource for many generations, will be the ones to suffer. …

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