Weekly Links

The Best Maps of the Year Might Be the Most Boring

Weekly Links: brief commentary on local, state, and national stories from (roughly) the past week


Environment/Urban Planning

Exposure to Pollution Increases Chances of Alzheimer’s, Particularly Among Older Men

From The New York Times. A recent Chinese study showed a correlation between exposure to certain pollutants found in the air and cognitive decline. The authors of the study analyzed scores from tests taken in 2010 and 2014 by people across China and compared the results to local pollution and weather data. The authors found a pronounced decline in scores when air pollution increased, particularly among older, less educated males. This is concerning for reasons beyond the immediate decline in cognitive skills since reduced cognition among older people is a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease.

The results of the study are hardly surprising. Not only have other studies found similar results, but any child would likely hypothesize the same result if asked whether breathing the contents of car exhaust will hinder their ability to think. A 2014 study in London found that increased pollution from traffic caused cognitive decline among study participants who had an average age of 66. Other studies have suggested a link exists between declines in dementia and laws banning lead in gasoline. Some studies have even suggested that the dramatic decline in crimes rates in the United States seen throughout the 1990s was the direct result of federal laws banning lead in gasoline.


The Best Maps of the Year Might Be the Most Boring

John Nelson’s ‘Eastern Pacific Ring of Fire’ shows tectonic activity along the west coast of North and South America as well as in the Carribean

From Atlas Obscura and Scientific American. The North American Cartographic Information Society will soon release the 2018 Atlas of Design, their 4th compilation of the year’s best maps. The Society received over 300 submissions, but only published 32 maps. Since maps combine elements of science and art, readers tend to have highly subjective views of what makes a good map. Something that may please one reader may turn off another.

At the end of the day, a map should accurately and quickly convey information. While art is an essential element of achieving those goals, style shouldn’t overshadow the substance. The map pictured to the left is beautiful and striking, but the luminous feature used to show the tectonic plates distracts from the rest of the map. On the other hand, the appealing design may prompt someone to look at information and consider an issue they otherwise would have ignored.

But boring can often be better. Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy recently developed a new two-color scale that makes maps more readable, particularly for those who are color blind. While colorful maps are great for catching the eye, they can often be misleading. An alarming study found that when researchers replaced the traditional rainbow-colored models of arteries with a less exciting red-to-black color scale, doctors’ accuracy in identifying heart disease jumped from 39% to 91%. So colorful maps are often not just misleading to the general public, but to trained professionals who regularly work with charts, maps, and models.

The problem is that we aren’t great at ascertaining the value of random colors. We also naturally assume that brighter colors or greater luminosity represents higher values and peaks. In a rainbow scale, however, brighter colors are often found in the middle of the scale. Simpler scales based on variations of a single color are more intuitive, though they result in maps that are much less flashy.

Ultimately, a map should be tailored for the intended audience. If the reader is a doctor or climate scientists then perhaps the cartographer needs to focus more on the reader’s ability to instantly ascertain the information being conveyed and less on the aesthetics. If, however, the reader is an elementary school student then catching the reader’s eye with colorful images may be the best way to get the reader to pay attention to something that they may find interesting.

Since the reader may not understand how they best perceive information, cartographers should be given leeway to use their professional judgment just like doctors, lawyers, or engineers. That often means a cartographer should use a scale based on the gradients of single color rather than a scale with many different colors even though their client may deem the latter to be more provocative thus preferable. Either way, the imagery should ultimately lead the reader to an understanding of the information.


Environment/Urban Planning

Sea Level Rise is Dampening the Value of Coastal Area Homes

From The Washington Post. As Hurricane Florence barrels towards the US East Coast, a recent study shows that homes along the coast are appreciating at lower rates than similar homes not located near the coast. The culprit is the increased flood risk that comes with rising sea levels. Federal climate studies show that seas have risen 8 inches since 1990 with the rate accelerating in recent years. Several inches sounds harmless, but a study done by Lloyds of London found that 30% of the storm surge damage caused by 2012’s Hurricane Sandy could be attributed to the 0.7 foot rise in sea levels since 1900. This equates to $2 billion in damage that could have been avoided and 11% fewer affected people had the sea remained at 1900 levels.

Researchers at the University of Colorado – Boulder and at Penn State found that homes vulnerable to flooding due to sea level rise sold for 6.6% less than similar homes that aren’t vulnerable. The most vulnerable homes – those that stand to be flooded with a one foot increase in sea levels (as expected by 2030) – sold for 14.7% less. So homes aren’t dropping in value yet, but they are appreciating at much lower rates than homes in areas less vulnerable to sea level rise.

As more data arrives, the denial of climate change by politicians and citizens makes less and less sense. Markets, insurance companies, and investors aren’t ignoring the data and it will become more expensive to live in areas that will be impacted by flooding, fires, and drought. Unfortunately, those areas are only expanding in size. Without federal dollars to support insurance and community protection, more and more people (many of whom are climate deniers) will find it difficult to get by.


Cover Photo: Gravity map of the Oriental basin on the Moon by NASA


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