Archive for the ‘Geography’ Category

gavdos, crete, greece, libyan sea, mediterranean sea

Gavdos lies south of Crete in the Libyan Sea, some 260km north of Tobruk in Libya

If you were asked where the southernmost part of Europe was, would you say Spain, or Italy or Greece? The more geographically informed of you might say Gibraltar, Sicily, or Crete. One of you would certainly answer the Canary Islands. And some bright spark would argue that it was the Falkland Islands because they’re part of Britain, and Britain’s in Europe isn’t it? Well Crete is nearly right, but there’s an island off the south coast of Crete that is the southernmost part of Europe.

The island of Gavdos lies in the Libyan Sea, 48 kilometres south of Hora Sfakion, a small coastal town in the Sfakia region, the wild west of Crete. You can get to Gavdos by a ferry from Hora Sfakion, which takes two hours, though guide books warn somewhat dramatically that you can sometimes be marooned on the island as sailings can be cancelled due to bad weather so you need to come prepared.

gavdos, crete, ferry, hora sfakion

The north coast of Gavdos as seen from the ferry from Hora Sfakion

The island is roughly triangular in shape, it is 33 square km in area (about the size of Hastings or Worthing), and the highest point is Mount Vardia, 345m.

Fewer than 50 people live permanently on the island in small villages and hamlets, but in the summer the numbers can swell to several thousand, almost all of whom arrive by ferry at the harbour in Karave. There are no hotels, and not that many apartments or rooms to rent. Many of the summer visitors sleep in tents on the beaches or under the trees. There is some agriculture but tourism is the economic mainstay of the island. The rocky landscape of Gavdos is covered by low-lying shrubs but there are some pine and juniper forests, and it is an important stop for migrating birds. More information is given in this Wikipedia entry.

sarakiniko, gavdos, crete

A sleepy cafe on the beach at Sarakiniko on the north coast of Gavdos.

The attraction to tourists apart from the sun and several good beaches, is its remoteness, lack of commercial development, and the hippie-like laid back pace of life. This article gives you a good idea of why some see the island as the last paradise in Europe.



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storm surge, rising sea levels, london, flood

A scene from the 2007 disaster film Flood showing central London flooded by an extreme storm surge.
Lionsgate Films

For some people, one of the  consequences of global warming, almost unnoticed by the rest of us, is already upon them. The seas are rising, and this affects human populations living in low-lying coastal regions and on islands. While studies show that sea levels for millenia changed little until 1900, they began to climb in the 20th century. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projected in 2007 that during the 21st century, sea levels will rise another 18 to 59 cm, but these numbers did not include the impact of melting ice. More recently, the US National Research Council suggested in 2010 rises over the same period of between 56 and 200 cm ie. between half a metre and two metres. Future sea levels are notoriously difficult to predict, and different studies can show different results, but in all cases sea levels are going to rise.

This rise in sea level is a result of the thermal expansion of water due to the higher air temperatures, and the melting of land-based ice like glaciers and ice sheets, both stemming directly from man-made global warming. In addition, it may be that the seas are absorbing more of the heat of the atmosphere than was forecast. This may explain why the rate of increase in warming of the earth’s atmosphere has slowed in the last decade, but the sea is rising faster as a consequence.

The effect of rising sea levels is not felt equally across the globe. Ocean-borne storms and surges exacerbated by global warming can raise sea levels much higher than normal, causing sea water to flood inland over wide areas destroying urban development, or arable land through salt water contamination. The destruction of mangrove forests in coastal areas by human activity can dramatic alter the impact of rising sea levels. Coastal land can also be inundated or eroded far quicker where there are little or no sea defences or where rocks are softer.

If sea levels continue to rise, quite a number of cities, let alone thousands of smaller centres of population, are threatened this century by rising sea levels: Guangzhou and Shanghai (China), Alexandria (Egypt), Calcutta and Mumbai (India), Venice (Italy), Osaka-Kobe (Japan), Bangkok (Thailand), Boston and New York (USA), and Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam). Longer term projections that contemplate the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, would lead to a rise in sea level of seven metres, enough to submerge hundreds of cities worldwide including London and Los Angeles.

sundarbans, mangrove, world heritage site, ganges delta, bangladesh, rising sea levels

A map of the Sundarbans swampland and mangrove forest, a World Heritage Site and part of the Ganges delta in Bangladesh, which is threatened by rising sea levels

In Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest nations, agricultural land up to 100km inland has already  been damaged by  storm surges, and it is projected that a 1.5 m rise in sea levels would affect 17 million people and 16% of the landmass of the country. The Ganges delta is the largest river delta in the world. Much of the part that lies in Bangladesh supports one of the most densest human populations in Asia, the Sundarbans mangrove forest. It is projected that 75% of what remains of the forest will be destroyed by 2100 as a result of rising sea levels with a devastating impact inland due to flooding. Already two islands have disappeared. On the other hand, in the Netherlands, where 26% of country is below sea level and vulnerable to flooding, a massive building program is being considered to strengthen the country’s water defences against a rise in the North Sea of 1.3 metres by 2100 and 4 metres by 2200.

kiribati, pacific ocean, submerged, rising sea levels

One of the many atolls in Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean, which will be submerged as a result of rising sea levels.

Across the world however, small communities are already being destroyed.

  • Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean has a population of 102,000 on 32 low-lying atolls and one coral reef island, Most of its population has already moved to the island’s main island Tarawam, after many of the atolls disappeared beneath the ocean. The government is negotiating to buy land on Fiji to where its population could be re-located (more…)

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What living things on Earth have been in existence the longest? I don’t mean which individual animal or plant has lived the longest, such as species of coral or sponge that are known to have been living upwards of 2,000 years, or terrestrial animals such as tortoise that have lived for over 150 years. Nor plants such as the bristlecone pine from North America, one of which is 5,062 years old (measured by ring count), nor the Llangernyw Yew in the churchyard of the village of Llangernyw in North Wales, one of the oldest individuals tree in the world, and believed to be aged between 4,000 years and 5,000 years old. I mean what life forms have been in existence the longest and are still living today?

stromatolites, shark bay, western australia

Stromatolites in Shark Bay, Western Australia

The answer is Stromatolites (or stromatoliths). These are rare rock-like structures found in just a few hypersaline lakes and marine environments around the world, and which, from the fossil record, are known to have been in existence for some 3.5 billion years. They existed in abundance after the earth had been formed when there were no animals or plants.  Because they were prodigious photosynthesizers, their waste product, oxygen, entered the atmosphere in great quantities, making the earth suitable for other forms of life. Over time, organisms developed that grazed on stromatolites, and by the end of the Pre-Cambrian Period (about 570 million years ago), they numbered only 20% of their peak.

Stromatolites are created by the accumulation of photosynthesizing cyanobacteria (often incorrectly called blue-green algae). These bacteria are prokaryotic bacteria, and are neither algae nor plant. When they colonize to form a stromatolite, they number some 3 billion organisms per square metre. The bacteria secrets a mucus coating that traps sediment, and calcium carbonate precipitates from the water providing a hard, cement-like material to fuse the sediment together. New cyanobacteria grow over the sediment and over time a rock-like structure is formed.

fossil stromatolites, cross section, 1.8 billion year old, great slave lake, canada

Cross section of 1.8 billion year old fossil stromatolites from rock formations at Great Slave Lake, Canada

Scientists had long known about stromatolites from the fossil record, but were surprised to find them still in existence, when they were discovered in 1956 at Shark Bay, Western Australia (now the Hamelin Pool Marine Nature Reserve). Other places where stromatolites are found are Lagoa  Salgada, Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil and two inland sites in Mexico at Cuatro Cienegas and Lake Alchichica. Unexpectedly, there is one marine site that is not hypersaline, Exuma Cays in the Bahamas.

And according to the BBC, a very young colony of stromatolites, just a single layer thick, was found at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland in 2011.

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PointofViewHe who neglects what is done for what ought to be done sooner effects his ruin than his preservation.’  Machiavelli – The Prince – 1532

In response to the demands of the Scottish Parliament (controlled by the majority Scottish Nationalist Party) the UK Government has agreed to hold a referendum in Scotland on the question of Scotland’s independence from the UK. This is due to be held in 2014. Already the ‘NO’ camp and the ‘YES’ camp have been set up fronted by prominent politicians and personalities to campaign for their case in the lead up to the vote in 2014.

Map of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland

Map of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland

However, the debate around Scottish independence has been increasingly bothering me. It’s not that I have strong feelings either way about Scottish independence but it’s the way we’re going about it that bugs me.

Whether we live in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, we are all citizens of the United Kingdom, our nation state. As such we all elect our members of parliament from local constituencies throughout the UK and we all travel with UK passports when we venture beyond our island shores. We know that the UK is made up of four distinct nations, three of which have devolved government with their own parliament or assemblies composed of their own elected members, with the exception of England which kind of gets by without any of these legislatures.

Flag of Scotland, also known as the Saltire or the St Andrew's Cross

This road sign on the A1 road near Lamberton marks the border between England and Scotland. The sign’s design comes from the Flag of Scotland or the Saltire, a diagonal white cross on a blue background. The saltire stems from Parliament of Scotland having decreed in 1385 that Scottish soldiers shall wear a white Saint Andrew’s Cross on their person.

This network of governance seems to me to be at least some kind of bond that unites us all as part of the UK. Now I could mention the Crown and the Royal family but really that’s an entirely separate issue of interest and, for me, great concern and I shall leave that for another time.The point that troubles me here is that while I can accept the people of one or more of our existing nations can decide that they would like to break away from the UK and become independent, it surely doesn’t stop there. Don’t we all have a right to have a say on the continuing status and perhaps existence of the UK? Don’t we all have a stake in the sanctity of our nation state?

In my mind there should be a clear process to follow that respects the views of all UK citizens, or at least the majority of them. Simply speaking such a process would look something like this.

Stage 1.  The people of an existing nation and their elected representatives campaign for and get a majority in favour of independence.

Stage 2. A ballot is held of all peoples in the nation concerned to test the degree of support for independence.   If a majority votes in favour then,


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Godmanchester, Cambridgeshire

The town of Godmanchester near Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire is pronounced Gumster
© Keith Evans / Creative Commons Licence

We learn how to pronounce words before we can spell them. When it comes to place names, if we hear them day and day out, and see the name everywhere, I doubt we realise that the way we pronounce a name can quite often be different from how it is spelt.

If you were born in London, or lived there a long time, Greenwich is always Gren-nitch, Holborn is Hoe-bun, and Leicester Square is Lester Square. Though Marylebone, which is pronounced Marry-leben, still doesn’t sound right to me. If you live in Glasgow, locals may pronounce the name of their city as Glezga, though BBC Scotland announcers soften the s to say Glass-gow. But most Southerners will pronounce it as Glasgo rather than Glas-gow (as in how) without a second’s thought.

But there are many places in the UK, that if you’ve only seen the names written down on a map or in a newspaper, could well cause you embarrassment should you try to pronounce them as they are written. Here a few better known place names in England with ‘counter-intuitive’ pronunciations that often catch people out.

Beaminster in Dorset is ‘bemster’, Bicester in Oxfordshire is ‘bis-ter’, Bosham in West Sussex is ‘bozzham’, Dittisham in Devon is ‘ditsum’, Lewes in East Sussex is ‘lewis’, Loughborough in Leicestershire is ‘luff-buh-ruh’, Teignmouth in Devon is ‘tin-muth’, Towcester in Northamptonshire is ‘toaster’, Warwick in Warwickshire is ‘worrick’, and Wisbech in Cambridgeshire is ‘wiz-beech’.

The pronunciation of some English place names is also very different from the spelling.

Alnwick in Northumberland is ‘annick’, Belvoir in Leicestershire is ‘beever’, Cholmondeley in Cheshire is ‘chum-lee’, Costessey in Norfolk is ‘cossy’, Darwin in Lancashires is ‘darren’, Furneux Pelham in Hertfordshire begins with ‘furn-ucks’, Mousehole in Cornwall is ‘mou-zl’, Prinknash in Gloucestershire is ‘prinnish’, Slaithwaite in West Yorkshire is ‘slawit’, Torpenhow in Cumbria is ‘tre-penna’, Wymondham in Norfolk is ‘wind-um’, and Woolfardisworthy in Devon is pronounced economically as ‘wools-ree’.

In Wales, if you can’t speak Welsh, pronunciation will be difficult anyway. Some of the more difficult place names are Caersws which is ‘car-soose’, Llandudno is ‘hlan-did-no’, Pwllheli is ‘poohh-helly’, and the little known Ponciau in Wrexham is ‘ponky’.

Scotland has Auchinleck in East Ayrshire which is pronounced ‘aff-leck’, Dalziel in North Lanarkshire is ‘dee-el’ or ‘deeyel’, Hawick in the Borders is ‘hoyk’, Kirkcaldy in Fife is pronounced somewhere between ‘kir-caw-dee’ and ‘ker-coddy’, Milngavie in East Dunbartonshire is ‘mull-guy’, and Penicuik in Midlothian is ‘penny-cook’.

There is a story of an American couple passing through Milngavie who became aware that it had a confusing pronunciation, so they thought they’d better ask a local. When having lunch they asked the waitress ‘can you tell us how you pronounce the name of this place and say it slowly so that we can pick it up’. The obliging lass said, slowly and clearly ‘B-u-r-g-e-r K-i-n-g’.

For those seeking further examples, you can do no better than to consult this list in Wikipedia.

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Map of the Fens or Fenland, Eastern England

The approximate extent of the Fens or Fenland in Eastern England is shown by the blue line. The red circle is the location of Holme Fen.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly the lowest point in Britain is in the Fens or Fenland, the area of marshland or former marshland in eastern England that lies around the coast of the Wash, most of which lies in Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. Much of the Fens was originally fresh- or salt-water wetlands, but they have artificially drained since the 17th century and are now a very fertile area of arable land, which continues to be protected from floods by drainage banks and pumps. As a result of being drained most of the Fens lie within a few metres of sea level like similar areas in the Netherlands.

Near the village of Holme in Cambridgeshire, is Holme Fen National Nature Reserve which is situated on what was the shore of the Whittlesey Mere which was drained in 1851 after years of falling water levels due to the draining of the surrounding fen. At the time an oak post was sunk into the ground alongside the minor road that runs through the reserve resting on the clay beneath the peat with the top flush with the peatland surface to monitor the shrinkage of the land as it continued to be drained.

Holme Fen Post in the Fens, Eastern England, lowest point in Britain

Holme Fen post which was sunk in 1851. Originally the pyramid at the top of the post was at ground level. The collar, to which the steel guys are attached, is 2.75m above the ground, which is close to sea level.
© Copyright Rodney Burton/Creative Commons Licence

A few years later this was replaced with an iron post, believed to have been part of the Crystal Palace. In 1957 steel guy wires were added as the post had become unstable, and four metres of the Holme Post are now exposed which provides impressive evidence of the extent to which the ground has subsided. Sea level is close to the level of the collar to which the guys are attached, and this is now the lowest land in Britain at about 2.75m (9.5 ft) below sea level.

Access to the reserve is via minor roads, first for 1km north from the B660 at Holme, and then turning right (north-west) for another 1.5km. The post is on the right hand side of the road. The town of Yaxley is seven km to the north-west and Peterborough is 12 km to the north. The grid reference of the Holme Post is TL 202 893.

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The lost counties of Britain

The lost counties of Britain

There was an interesting feature in The Independent on 24 April 2013. It said that ‘Eric Pickles, the MP, chose St George’s Day to encourage the return of Britain’s ancient, lost counties’. Headed ‘Geography’ the feature had an attractive map of the UK with fifteen ‘lost counties’ identified, such as Brecknockshire, Middlesex, Sutherland, Westmorland, with some facts, in circles, about each of them.

One ‘lost county’ shown was Rutland. Unfortunately county status was restored to Rutland in 1997, having been part of Leicestershire for the previous twenty years. Rutland is and always has been the smallest historic county in England – first mentioned as a separate county in 1159 – so its inhabitants will not take kindly to the idea of their county being ‘lost’.


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