Category: Geography


Alaska is America’s last frontier.  The origin behind this nickname came from its isolation from the rest of the continental United States.  Alaska is a vast region with rugged terrain and harsh climates, bordered by Canada and several bodies of water.  Many resources can be found in this remote land, but one of these resources, oil, has started controversy among its environmental impact and as a result has plagued this region.
Approximately 50 years ago, Alaska was admitted as the 49th state of the United States.  Europeans first discovered this land in 1741 when a Danish-born navigator, Vitus Bering, who was serving in the Russian Navy, was on an expedition around the northern Pacific Ocean.  During this expedition, he sighted land on the southern coast of Alaska, in an area known as Kayak Island, in addition to the Aleutian Islands.  Another vessel, captained by Aleksei Chirikov, was sailing along side of Bering’s ship when a storm separated them.  Chirikov continued to explore and traveled to various points along Alaska’s coast until his crew became ill and the journey could no longer continue.  From this point, the Russian’s occupied the Alaskan territory; however much of it was unexplored.  On October 18, 1867, the land was purchased by the United States for approximately $7.2 million dollars.  Alaska has many geographic landscapes within its boundaries; some of which have helped its economy and others which may it difficult for settlements to survive.  Gold and oil have had a significant impact on Alaska’s geographical landscapes, while the climate has prohibited development in many places across the vast region.
Alaska’s economy has improved over time due to an abundance of resources.  Timber, oil, sea foods, and tourism have all contributed to this growth.  Furthermore, Alaska was first attracted to Americans by the gold rushes of Juneau, CircleCity, Klondike, Nome, and Fairbanksin the late 1800’s.  Over 30,000 people flocked to these areas in the hopes to strike gold; however, with the increase in population, Congress had to start applying laws to the territory to keep order.  After the gold rush had ended, many of the people who originally migrated to Alaskaended up staying there which resulted in Alaska’s population quickly increasing.  Small settlements grew into big towns, such as Fairbanks, Juneau, and Nome.  Also, the development of a railroad system in Alaskawas built to connect mines throughout the territory to the port of Seward, located on the southern coast of Alaska, which allowed the flow of goods and resources to be dispersed.  The Alaskarailroad connected the towns of Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Seward.  Eventually, as time progressed, the railway was growing with the increase of military personnel moving supplies and other resources in increasing demand.  The economic, cultural, and political geography of this land had transformed greatly after the discovery of gold.  Economically, the gold rush contributed to a growing economy that assisted in the establishment of many new settlements during the turn of the century.  Culturally, the area of Alaska with gold deposits was predominately Native Americans.  The gold rush expanded the culture with the massive amounts of people migrating to these areas.  New customs, religions, and beliefs contributed to the socio-economic way of life that was originally not available.    Lastly, the political geography of Alaskawas slowly changing in order to cater to the growing population.  Congress and the United States started recognizing Alaska; instead of being a vast open land, it was seen as an area of the United Stateswith an abundance of resources.  This observation provoked many changes in the laws of Alaska.
                   Figure 1: Map published in 1898 and covers areas abundant in gold and coal
Another major improvement to Alaska’s economy was the opening of vast oilfields in northern part of the state.  In the 1970’s, the United States authorized a pipeline to be built to transport the oil from the Arctic Ocean at Prudhoe Bay to the Gulf of Alaska at Valdez.  The pipeline, which is called the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, runs approximately 800 miles between these two areas and has transported over 15 billion barrels of oil since it was built.  In Valdez, the oil is then shipped from the port of Valdez to the mainland of the United States for further refining.  Supposedly, there is also a great abundance of oil that can be found in the Arctic National Wildlife Refugee (ANWR), located in northeastern Alaskaand other areas of the Arctic; however, environmentalists continually fight the possibility of drilling in this tundra region.  In an article by Mitchell, he states “much of the debate over whether to drill in ANWR rests on the amount of economically recoverable oil, as it relates to world oil markets, weighed against the potential harm oil exploration might have upon the natural wildlife.”  Some of the animals, birds, and mammals in these habitats that would be affected include caribou, polar bears, walrus, and whales, among other species.  In addition to damaging the habitats of these animals, there is also political and cultural landscapes affected.  Politically, the Canadian government opposes anytime type of drilling in this area due to the shared boundary with the Yukon Province.  Two Canadian national parks, Ivvavik and Vuntut are located in the vicinity of the opposed drilling sites and also provide refugee for various types of animals, especially caribou.  These parks have banned any type of industry from developing these lands and expect the United States to treat these lands with the same respect.  Since the discovery of oil in Alaska, it has become a major revenue of the state, in addition to income for many Alaskans.  The residents of the state along with the Alaskan government are for the idea of drilling in these protected lands because it will increase profit and revenue for them from the oil leasing.  The Native Americans of the geographic region have split views on whether to drill or not depending on where they live.  For instance, the Inupiat Eskimos who live north of the mountains named Brooks Range, are for onshore drilling, but oppose to offshore drilling; where as the Gwich’in Indians, south of the Brooks Range, pose the drilling as a threat to their environment.  Other supporters of the drilling argue that the oil able to be salvaged beneath northern Alaska’s tundra could equate to many decades of importing oil from the Middle East.  This would decrease our dependency on oil from foreign countries and reinvest our money in our own economy vice in a foreign government.  Regardless, of the aforementioned pros and cons, there still has not been enough research to determine how the drilling would really affect the geographic landscape of northern Alaska.  Many of the geographic landscapes affected by the extraction of petroleum have had similar results to Alaska’s economy as in the gold rush.  Petroleum extracts make up the majority of revenue for the state of Alaska.
        Figure 2: Map published in 1999 by the State of Alaska’s Oil and Gas Division
The physical geography of Alaskais mostly mountainous with 14 ranges covering the majority of area within the state, along with hills, valleys, and rivers.  Natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanoes are known to have helped shape the geography of Alaskaover the past millions of years.  In addition, Alaska is surrounded by water on three of its sides: Arctic Ocean to the North, Bering Sea to the West, and the Pacific Ocean to the South.  The total area of these three bodies of water consists for 43,887 miles of the coastline.  However, most of Alaska’s physical geography is very remote and inhabitable and covers approximately 590, 804 square miles.  It is extremely cold making it very difficult for any type of agriculture, cultivation, extensive development, or permanent settlement for most people.  The largest city, Anchorage, does not have more than 300,000 people residing in it.  Most of the northern lands are tundra and permafrost.  Permafrost consumes about 80% of Alaskaand impacts the physical infrastructure of Alaska.  Constructing buildings over permafrost could cause it to melt resulting in the buildings to partially sink.  Similarly, roads in permafrost areas can cause the subsurface to melt resulting in road depressions and expensive repairs.  Since it is so inhabitable, the region has not been explored in great detail; however, in addition to what has already been found, it is possible there may be even more resources in gold and oil that have not been found and which would be very beneficial to Alaska.
In conclusion, many industries have been established in Alaska.  Gold, copper, and coal mines have been created from the abundance of resources located within or near the various mountain ranges in this geographic region.  In addition, oil and gas pump stations have been created from various regions in the north.  Since the land is so remote, railroads and pipelines have been built to transport theses resources to other parts of the country, mainly through the ports of Valdez and Seward.  Unfortunately, between the northern and southern regions of Alaska, the land is extremely rugged and unstable, with three mountain ranges, permafrost, rivers and streams, and many migration paths for animals, in addition to active fault lines.  As a result, the geological activity between the north and the south has caused many problems for the pipeline, as well as the railroad, which does not travel as far north.

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This will be my last post in this series of my Military Geography awareness postings.  I had fun researching and writing this topic.  In this last posting, I want to highlight the effects of weather, climate, and terrain on military forces and how geography plays an instrumental role in this.  A couple of years ago, I read book entitled Battling the elements: weather and terrain in the conduct of war by Harold Winters.  This book was not only intriguing to me, but also interesting at the same time in how it depicts various scenarios on how geographies played a crucial role in winning or losing battles.  This posting is a conglomeration of my thoughts with historical facts contained within this book.
Military operations have continuously been effected by various climates that have posed many problems for militaries in foreign lands.  Ground, naval, and air forces each are affected by climate in different ways, but also have some similarities among them.  Those forces that conduct an offensive battle in another climate have usually resulted in a decisive loss.  In order to counter the threat that the climate poses in a foreign land, military strategists and climatologists must do their part to educate their own military force to be effective.  This can be done by understanding the seasonal changes and how terrain and soil will be impacted by the temperatures and precipitation.  Though no strategy will be completely perfect since the weather within the climate may change from year to year, individuals can still study the historical commonalities over time to establish trends and patterns that will benefit their military force.  The impact of a climate in a foreign land has had devastating results on the movement and logistics of a military.
Intruders into a foreign region may be deceived by the weather in an area and not understand the long-term climatic effects.  Climatic factors that have affected historic campaigns consisted of temperature and precipitation as the primary forces.  Ultimately, these effects of nature have disintegrated armies in the past.  In Russia, temperature levels greatly rise in the summer months, but as the year progresses, the temperatures fall drastically.  In the past 300 years, three armies attempted to invade Russia regardless of its climate.  The Swedes, French, and Germans have all suffered greatly as a result of Russia’s weather and climate.
Temperature can be broken down into extreme heat and cold.  Each extreme affects military forces in several different ways depending on the climate the invading country originated from previously.  Extreme heat is preferably more favorable than cold.  For example, most military campaigns against Russia have began in the summer months since the movement of ground forces was somewhat more formidable than in the winter.  The climate in Western Europe relies mainly on air that originates from the nearby ocean which allows for more moderate temperatures.  This climate is very different than in Eastern Europe, where the ocean cooling and heating occurs at a slower rate since it is further inland.  In addition, Russia is a vast territory in size which allows for four major climates that affect its physical environment: tundra, subarctic, continental, and temperate.
Moreover, extreme cold temperatures create hazards for military forces that are unprepared when traveling from less extreme climates.  For example, the lack of seasonal uniforms that were worn by the Germans during their invasion of Russia forces major delays in their advancement into Russia’s heartland, because of their need to warm their troops and equipment.  In addition, soldiers can become frost bitten which allows soldiers to be more susceptible to death, injuries, disease, or desertion if they are inadequately dressed.  Therefore, climatic temperature can have a great impact on a military forces’ physical and mental well-being when traveling across great distances.
On the other hand, precipitation and moisture can cause damage to any military force regardless whether it’s hot or cold.  In summer months, continuous thunderstorms cause the soil to loosen which results in the ground turning to mud.  Climates that rapid cooling occurs in leads to temperatures dropping dramatically; therefore, colder regions of the world endure large quantities of snow.  In Russia, the large amounts of snow cover allows for reflection of the sun’s energy, ultimately prolonging the arrival of spring.  These conditions were quite different than in Western Europe’s winter and both the German and French armies were not prepared for the Russian winter.
The aforementioned climatic factors have ultimately decided the outcomes of military campaigns.  Every military force that decides to invade or fight against another nation in a different climate needs to understand the geographic setting and how the weather will impact their mission.  In addition, historic military forces typically have not been prepared with plentiful supplies, resources, and vehicles in order to carry out their mission in an efficient capacity.  A prime example of military forces that have operated from one climate zone to another during a seasonal change was the German and French invasion of Russia.  These two military invasions based their planning and operations during summer and fall months for their movement into Russia in the hopes for a short battle.
Both militaries expected to return to their respected home countries prior to the arrival of winter.  As a result, each army did not plan for the harsh winter which became their ultimate demise.  Regardless, both armies traveled eastward during the pleasant weather conditions in Western Europe in the summer months.  As the early autumn months arrived, harsh thunderstorms created mud conditions which drastically slowed down the army’s trafficability.  In 1812, autumn was shortened by frigid temperatures as well as extreme cold and snowy conditions.  In 1941, the Germans encountered a long wet autumn which then transitioned into similar harsh conditions that the French faced.  Inadequately equipped soldiers and limited shelter became more damaging to the invaders than any other force.  Overall, both armies were forced to retreat because the French and Germans were not match for the brutal climate in Russia.
Militaries have traveled great distances into unfamiliar climates throughout history in order to gain territory or show superiority to another region of the world.  During a campaign under these pretenses, militaries encounter dust, mud, frost, chill, and hot conditions.  Each of these climatic factors can weaken soldiers and their trafficability as well as affecting their logistics.  These factors also impact the maintenance and functionality of weapons and equipment.  Visibility can often be impaired by such climatic conditions for ground and air operations.  Moreover, air warfare is also impacted by cloud coverage and fog which also contributes to reduced visibility, especially in geographic regions where this type of atmospherics are prevelant.  In combining these factors along with the terrain, many foreign armies can expect conditions harsher than in an actual battle.
All climatic factors impact ground forces’ movement and maneuverability in several different ways.  The effects on trafficability change considerably with the progressions of the seasons.  Climates throughout the world vary in the levels of precipitation that is accumulated over time.  Some climates are mainly dry, while others can be consistently wet or change in the amount of rainfall every year.  The physical environment ultimately determines how a climate will impact military movement.  Constant rainy conditions often cause a muddy setting.  Mud almost always reduces travel time, and stalls machinery, vehicles, and soldiers usually by the unfavorable conditions mud creates in the ground.  This seemed to be a huge obstacle for the German and French armies when traveling into Russia.
Operation Barbossa
In higher latitudes, winter conditions also effect movement greatly.  Countries located in these climates have an edge because they are used to the harsh weather.  Foreigners that are not familiar with these types of conditions usually are unprepared in many ways.  Also, these climates have excessive snow amounts which impede wheeled vehicles and persons especially when the snowfall exceeds 12 inches.  Either of these conditions can completely halt or slow down movement, which was the case for the Germans in Operation Barbossa, and were forced to travel 12 miles in 2 days as a result of the foreign climate.  On the other hand, a benefit of higher latitude climates is when the ground freezes on open terrain, faster movement will occur because of the hardened soil which is ideal for ground forces.
Lastly, climatic conditions also have a huge impact on the logistics of an army.  For example, in June 1812, the French army traveled over the Niemen River in modern-day Lithuania and became stuck in a series of prolonged thunderstorms.  These thunderstorms caused the ground to become so muddy that they had to leave behind many heavy wagons filled with many supplies and equipment needed for the journey to Russia.  Assuming they would return to France prior to the start of winter, the French also brought a limited amount of supplies with them and as a result, the late summer and autumn months became very troublesome.  In the winter months, logistic necessities such as fuel, food, and water became scarce an armies had trouble acquiring the necessary supplies because of the harsh conditions and distance from friendly supply depots.  In addition, this results in a decrease in supplies and ammunitions and access to resources.  Since the higher latitude conditions are not favorable in winter months, most foreign armies are forced to retreat.  Overall, militaries that do not plan effective routes and a plentiful amount of supplies usually succumb to the forces of nature in foreign lands that have significantly different climates than in their homeland.
 
Lastly, another good book for anyone interested in getting an overview of military geography is Military geography for professionals and the public by John Collins.

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