One of the major issues in our world today is that we’re a people of specialties. This means that we don’t have basic interpretative frameworks in which to place novel facts. Because of the abstruse and formal nature of the discipline, this is probably starkest in the domain of science, but it is not restricted to only science. Consider geography. In many ways this is “low hanging” cognitive fruit in the shallow part of the learning curve which mostly consists of assembly of facts, but because of the shifts in emphases in American education geography has tended to get short shrift. This means that whenever there’s a foreign policy crisis middle-brow journals of record such as The New York Times have to commission pieces about nations such as Libya which read like a “first book” for six year olds on that nation (and on political weblogs commenters proudly brandish their “first book” level of knowledge).
But a bigger general issue seems to be in relation to climate. “Climate Change” is in the news constantly, but the average person on the street seems to have zero historical perspective on events such as the Medieval Warm Period, the Little Ice Age, let alone more obscure epochs such as the Younger Dryas. Fair enough, it isn’t as if Deep Time is ever going to be broadly interesting. But more disturbing to me is the total lack of perspective when it comes to current spatial patterns.
For example, a friend who has college degrees in history and philosophy, has traveled to Europe, Canada, and is planning a trip to Thailand and the Philippines, thought China was further to the north than Europe. Take a look at this map:
New York City, Madrid, and Beijing, are all at the same latitude. The average low in Beijing in January is -8.4 °C. For New York City it is -3.22. And finally, for Madrid it is 2.6. Why the difference? Barcelona, to the north and east of Madrid, on the coast, has a mean low of 4.4 °C. This tells us what’s going in the most general sense. Continentality. My friend’s ignorance was understandable; Beijing has a much more frigid clime than southern Europe. China as a whole is much further south than climate without context would suggest, while Europe is much further north than most expect. All that has to do with the rough shape of the continents (and possibly the Gulf Stream for Europe, though this might be overdone taking into account the generally mild character of western upper temperate regions of continents). But first, let’s look at another example.
Finally, here are some pictures I took today. It was way too hot and humid when we first got to Taiwan, but now we’re getting some lovely winter weather – Taiwan is about the same latitude as Hawaii It sure doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving or Xmas around here!
One aspect of the East Eurasian temperate zones is that they are far to the south of the West Eurasian temperate zones. Cork, Ireland, at about the same latitude as Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka, and eight degrees further north than Vladivostok!
But since Steve brought up Hawaii, let’s compare highs and lows in Honolulu, and Hanoi, two cities at 21 degrees north. On the literal margins of the tropics: