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The Year in Geography

by Ben Keene

Looking back at the last twelve months, the publisher’s mind reels trying to keep up with changes to borders, placenames, and shifting populations. Inspired by the multitude of year-end round ups, I decided to collect some of the most noteworthy geographical developments in a short—but incomplete—list of my own. Just to emphasize the pace of change in cartography in recent years, it’s worth pointing out that over 30 new nations have been created since 1990, making maps a mere decade old anachronistic curiosities. With a steadily growing database of digital cartography, Oxford strives for currency and accuracy by drawing on the most up-to-date geographic information available and we’re confident that our new Atlas of the World: Deluxe Edition meets these ambitious goals.

The European Union continued accruing additional nation-like characteristics that are likely to expand even further in the decade ahead. Ten new central and eastern European countries joined in 2004 bringing the total number of participating states to 25 but a Constitutional Treaty, scheduled to take effect in November of 2006, was rejected in France and the Netherlands this year, thus suspending the ratification process.

To the East the spigot on the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline which extends 1,094 miles across Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey opened earlier this year. The pipeline, a $3 billion investment, carries approximately one million barrels of crude per day from rich Caspian oil fields to the Mediterranean Sea for delivery to world markets.

Moving south to the Middle East, Israel’s decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and steady progress on their multi-layered security fence were very significant events for political as well as geographical reasons and with consequences for approximately 3.6 million Jews and Palestinians.

The ongoing conflict in the three Sudanese states that make up the Darfur region has led to the displacement of over four million people, more than any other country on the planet. Tens of thousands have also lost their lives since the situation here worsened in 2003, and this persistent problem is likely to be felt throughout Africa for years to come.

Elsewhere on the continent, further name changes were made in three South African provinces, continuing the process of replacing the old colonial name forms with Africanized names that began several years ago. Most notably, the capital city Pretoria became Tshwane, meaning “we are the same” in 2005.

Whether we are the same or not, the affluent and mobile members of society typically rely on air travel to traverse states, countries, and entire continents. And with over 49,000 airports around the globe, you might think the world has enough runways to land a plane just about anywhere. The addition of five new airports in Japan, Iran, Thailand, Kazakhstan and the United Kingdom suggests otherwise and speaks to the increasing global importance of air travel.

In other transportation news, last year witnessed the opening of the final 1,350-mile stretch of the Trans-Siberian highway between Chita and Khabarovsk, completing an extraordinary 6,200-mile link to Vladivostok, the equivalent of driving from Seattle to Miami and back again. In a similarly strategic accomplishment this year, workers finished the highway extending from landlocked southwestern China to the river port Bhamo in northern Myanmar.

Myanmar_pyinmana_yangon_large
Myanmar, a country located between India, China, and Thailand also made the news when its secretive and often paranoid government decided to move the entire capital city along with its official inhabitants from Rangoon, or Yangon, to isolated Pyinmana in the Mandalay division.

China on the other hand, presently leads the world in output, and like other Asian economies that continued to prosper this year, chose to reclaim land from the sea in densely populated areas to allow for further expansion. In September of 2005 for example, Hong Kong Disneyland opened at the mouth of the Pearl River on Lantau Island by filling in part of Penny’s Bay.

After creating five new provinces in 2004 Indonesia added yet another, Sulawesi Barat, this year. Indonesia now has 30 provinces and continues the process of decentralizing the country’s administration that began in 2001. Afghanistan also added two new provinces in the central part of the country in 2005: Daikondi and Panjshir.

The earthquake in the Indian Ocean last December generated massive waves that reached heights of 65 feet. When they reached land, these destructive tsunamis often altered coastlines throughout the region, and in the case of the Republic of Maldives, effectively erased about ten percent of the nation’s 200 inhabited islands from the map.

And finally, we arrive at the Western Hemisphere. Here, on the Gulf coast of the United States, New Orleans in particular, people have begun to return to the city and to take steps toward recovering from Hurricane Katrina, the worst natural disaster in the history of the country. The tropical storm left a wake of destruction in early September of 2005.

Ben Keene is the editor of Oxford’s atlas program. He also writes a weekly column, ‘Ben’s Place of the Week,’ for World Hum.com an online travelogue.

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