2007: The Year of Mapping Dangerously

Travel Blog  •  Ben Keene  •  01.04.08 | 5:03 PM ET

threegeorgesPhoto of China’s Yangtze River by Praziquantel via Flickr, (Creative Commons).

As an editor of the Oxford Atlas of the World, I spend a good chunk of my time following geographic changes around the globe. And the last year saw more than a few worth noting, from borders shifting—or even disappearing—to names changing and islands suddenly appearing. Herewith, my favorites from ‘07, starting with some good news.

* In Niger on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, a grassroots effort has led to the gradual re-greening of areas northeast of the capital city Niamey that have long suffered from drought, famine, and desertification.

* Another positive development in Africa: three countries have quietly worked together for the last seven years to create the massive Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, literally removing physical as well as political barriers in the process. Noting in their stated objectives that “political borders very rarely respect ecological systems,” Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe proved that progressive thinking and creative action can “re-establish historical animal migration routes and other ecosystem functions disrupted by fences and incompatible legislation.”

* Elsewhere on the planet, Warming Island, or Uunartoq Qeqertoq for those of you who speak Inuit, made the news when satellite imagery confirmed what eyewitness reports from Greenland had previously reported: this ice-covered peninsula was actually an ice-covered island. The real news here, however, is, that more islets like Warming Island are likely to appear in the years ahead as the sheet of frozen water covering the world’s largest island continues to melt.

* The North Pole also made headlines this summer when Russia tried to assert its territorial claim to Lomonosov Ridge, part of an undersea mountain chain extending from the New Siberian Islands to the northern edge of Greenland and Ellesmere Island. Hoping to prove ownership of the Arctic Ocean’s floor—and the potential gas and oil reserves beneath it—Denmark, Norway, Canada and the U. S. conducted geological surveys of their own.

* Back on dry land, Romania and Bulgaria officially joined the European Union this year, upping the number of member states to 27 and extending the territorial reach of this supranational organization from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea. The countries within the Schengen area also increased in 2007, widening the limits of passport-free travel by ending internal checkpoints and border controls across much of the continent.

* Meanwhile, as Americans on television struggled to decide whether Europe was in fact a country or a continent, the Dutch Flemings and French Walloons questioned the very idea of carrying on together as the Kingdom of Belgium as they’ve done since 1831. I imagine a sizable number of beer and chocolate connoisseurs hope it will last until 2009.

* Further confusing geography students, more new place names cropped up in India this year (some may remember that Bangalore, Bombay and Calcutta have already gone the way of the dodo): Mysore became Mysuru, Mangalore changed to Mengaluru, Belgaum will now appear as Belgavi and Shimoga added three letters to transform into Shivamogga. Beyond India, Simbirsk, Russia has gone back to being called Ulyanovsk. The city on the Volga is the birthplace of Vladimir Lenin.

* The Philippines introduced the world to their two newest provinces this year. Together with the Dinagat Islands, the addition of Shariff Kabunsuan, the other political entity to be voted into existence, brought the total number of provinces in this Southeast Asian nation to 81. Further east, the Indonesian province Irian Jaya Barat on the island of New Guinea became Papua Barat. Ecuador also named two new provinces in October.

* Water supply was an issue many nations faced in 2007. China continued its quest to harness the hydropower of the mighty Yangtze, and Sudan came closer to finishing the Merowe Dam near the Nile’s fourth cataract. In the U.S., residents of Atlanta really began to sweat when a severe drought caused Lake Lanier, a reservoir supplying water to approximately 3 million, fell to record lows. Unless 2008 is especially rainy, Georgia may be in for more of the same this summer. 

* What will the coming year bring? Time will tell, but if roughly 2 million Kosovars get their way, atlas publishers could be adding yet another country very soon.

Ben Keene is the editor of the Oxford Atlas of the World.

Ben Keene has appeared on National Public Radio, Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio as well as other nationally syndicated programs to discuss geographic literacy and his work updating a bestselling world atlas. Formerly a touring musician, he has written for Transitions Abroad and inTravel.

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