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A Special Ben’s Place of the Week: The Year in Geography

A look back at some of 2006’s major events

The passage of another calendar year signals many things to many people, not least for those in the map business, a noticeably different world. Borders shift, populations grow or shrink, and place names are altered over time. Even with the versatility of digital cartography, the pace of global change poses a challenge for publishers committed to currency. At Oxford, evidence of this commitment can be found in our new 13th edition Atlas of the World, a reference that draws on the most up-to-date geographic information available to portray our planet as it appears to its 6.56 billion inhabitants. Given that we will soon be reminded of the best books, films, and music released in 2006, I thought I would compile my own short—and consequently incomplete—list of some of the most noteworthy geographical developments that have occurred in the last twelve months.

Over the summer in the United States, President Bush designated roughly 140,000 square miles of Pacific reefs and atolls as a National Monument. This act makes the Northwest Hawaiian Islands—which cover more surface area than 46 of the 50 states—the single largest protected marine sanctuary on Earth, just edging out the 133,000 square miles of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Europe also helped make the year a particularly eventful one for geographers this June by welcoming the nation of Montenegro (formerly the Republic of Serbia and Montenegro), which replaces East Timor as the world’s newest country. Prior to 2003, and following many years of unrest, both Serbia and Montenegro had been a part of Yugoslavia.

Elsewhere on the continent, New Forest National Park, the largest area of lowland heath in Britain, appeared on the map as England’s first park to be created in the last 50 years. And across the North Sea, the Danish government decided to reorganize its 14 counties into five larger regions, a major reform that will go into effect on January 1, 2007.

Drifting further south, the conflict in Darfur continued to smolder in 2006, and has given Sudan the distinction of having more displaced people than any other country on the planet: roughly six million to date. The loss of life has been estimated in the hundreds of thousands with a similar number of refugees fleeing to neighboring Chad. Until the African Union and the larger international community address this crisis with the sense of urgency such a catastrophe demands the deadly toll of this genocide can only increase.

In a more encouraging development on the continent however, the landlocked nation of Lesotho unveiled a new flag in October, 40 years after gaining independence from the United Kingdom. Its three colors which represent, rain, peace, and prosperity remain unchanged, but a black hat symbolizing the country’s indigenous people replaces an image of a traditional African shield that appeared as an emblem on the previous flag.

Recurrent changes to place names and their transcriptions (a fact that certainly helps keep mapmakers employed) occurred in several locations around the globe, replacing once-familiar labels with new words and spellings that will require additional memorization from Geography Bee contestants in the months ahead. South Korea officially revised its Romanization of the language in part to preserve phonetic differences, while in India, Bangalore elected to follow in the footsteps of other cities throughout the Deccan Plateau by dropping its colonial moniker in favor of Bengaluru.

China completed the highest railway in the world ahead of schedule, finishing a 695-mile length of track that links with the rest of the Chinese network and now enables travelers to journey from Beijing to Lhasa by train in less than three days. Climbing to an elevation of 16,640 feet, the route carries riders in oxygenated cars across the enormous and inhospitable Tibetan plateau. Following on the heels of the completion of the Trans-Siberian highway last year, this achievement continues to make travel in Asia easier.

As urban populations in Latin America, Africa, and Asia continue to rapidly expand, governments must develop new infrastructure to meet the needs of citizens sharing crowded citiscapes. Taiwan for example, where nearly twenty-three million inhabitants occupy a mountainous island, opened Asia’s longest road tunnel this year as a way to more efficiently move goods and people to and from the growing metropolis of Taipei.

But people aren’t doing all of the building. Even as destructive tsunamis swept across the Indian Ocean in late 2004, reshaping coastlines and, in the case of the tiny Republic of Maldives, removing some islands from the map altogether, new landmasses appear on other parts of the globe. The Kingdom of Tonga, another archipelago in the South West Pacific, is currently in the process of adding a new island near Home Reef, roughly 160 miles from Nuku’alofa, the capital city.

And finally, one last bit of sobering news. Updated cartography of the poles confirms what climate scientists have been trying to tell us for years: the ice caps are indeed shrinking. A consensus about the best way to curb the carbon emissions that are at least partially responsible for this trend has not been reached, but there is little doubt that consequences such rising sea levels loom in the foreseeable future. So while a reduction in the extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic could offer benefits like shorter shipping routes and the possibility of exploring for new resources, it also promises disadvantages that we should be thinking about too, and that means changing more than just our atlases.


Ben Keene is the editor of Oxford Atlas of the World, the editor of the Oxford atlas program and a contributing editor at World Hum, an online travel magazine. Check out some of his previous places of the week.

Recent Comments

  1. bill ecenbarger

    TO: Ben Keene
    FM: Bill Ecenbarger, Reader’s Digest

    I’m writing an article on changing place names.

    It seems to me that currently we are literally all over the map on geographical names. Overnight, our new atlases become yesterday’s mashed potatoes. In a globalized economy, it is no longer enough to memorize all those European and Asian capitals. Now we need to know where Kinshasa is, be able to book a flight to Ouagadougou, and make sure we spell Llubiljana correctly. The simple fact is that nearly every place in the world used to be called something else.

    Are we in an global orgy of name changing? Have then been more chnavges in the past 10 years than any other times in history?

    I’m interested in your general comments on the topic. When are changes justified? When are they not? What are some of the problems with changing names?

    Plus I invite you to weigh in on specific topics–Peking to Beijing, Bombay to Mumbai, the post Soviet Union changes (especially St. Petersburg vs. Leningrad, Sea of Japan vs. East Sea, Pretoria vs. Tshwane, other African changes, Burma vs. Myanmar, Persia and Iran, etc., etc., etc.

    Although I am seeking serious information, humor is welcome. For example, in my lifetime, I have seen the present capital of China spelt Peiping, Peking, and Beijing (depending on whether Chiang, Mao, or Deng held sway, and which Chinese dialect was to be dominant). Peiping and Beijing notwithstanding, Peking duck is still on the menu in fine restaurants in the capital. And the little dog, originally bred at Beijing’s summer palace, is still a Pekinese.

    We can do this via email, or I can telephone (I am located in the U.S.). Your input will be appreciated.

  2. Away With Words

    Word of the Year

    Macaca? Zerotasking? No, the New Oxford American Dictionary’s 2006 word of the year is carbon neutral. Okay, that’s two words, but they’re the lexicographers, so they get to write the rules. Here’s how the OUP blog defines and defends its

  3. Daniel Kostelnik

    Regarding place name changes:
    The mountains of Montana have seen some renaming lately, for reasons of intercultural sensitivity and marketing. A couple of examples come to mind.
    1 The Jack Creek drainage was sold to a developer and became Moonlight Basin.
    2 Someone claimed that the original meaning of the word “squaw” was not “native american woman” but rather a vulgar term for female genitalia. The english equivalent would be the “c-word.” This launched a campaign to rename everything formerly known as “Squaw” in the State. This, in turn, launched speculation and debate about what to name all these creeks, peaks, islands etc. Possibilities abound, bringing up the question, “What makes an acceptable place name?”

  4. Caitlin

    Love the roundup of geographical events. I’ve link to this page from http://gislounge.com

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