Monday, July 30, 2012


With the record heat this summer, attention is turning back toward the dormant Sun's re-awakening, and what this could do to the various electronic devices we've come to depend on. One segment of technology that would be very vulnerable to a solar storm would be satellites. Satellites themselves are used for military purposes, but are also used for communication and orienteering. How many of us now have GPS devices, either standalone units or phone-based apps, to do our navigation in the car, or on a boat? For that matter, how long are satellites in orbit going to be maintained after our industrial civilization begins to crack up?

The importance of navigation and mapping is not something new, and has been a subject of much effort over the centuries. In the time of the Renaissance, for example, early navigational books, called "Rutters," were essentially regarded as state secrets, for a person who knew how to get from one place on the globe to another would have a huge advantage in trade and military matters. We look at maps made from the age of discovery and think how laughably inaccurate they are, but forget that at the time, these were a huge leap over having no idea what was out there at all.

People will be quick to point out that maps are both a combination of physical and conceptual data. We can't readily change features like mountains or rivers, but roads and towns can vanish, be reloacted, and so on. This is particularly true of many places which have grown up simply because there was cheap money to build something there. I think most of us know of a few "roads to nowhere" that were always very lightly traveled and existed only because some politician was able to appropriate some money for it. Likewise, there are "bedroom communities" that are located in the middle of nowhere, complete with a shopping mall, that exist simply because nothing else was there and gasoline was cheaper than land at the time. How quickly will these places vanish? If Life After People is a guide, maybe within a generation, and nature will have reclaimed them.

On the other hand, physical features don't change as quickly, and settlements which have grown up around them are more likely to exist and be maintained, especially around places which have running water or have been settled for access to renewable resources (good farming soil, timber, etc). This pattern of settlement was particularly true back before the invention of automobiles, when everyone had to walk or ride a wagon. Effectively, this means that we can expect that some places will still continue to have some human habitation, regardless of what is happening on a larger scale. Think of them as "buckets," where people will simply go (or stay) because it makes sense to do so.

The importance of saving maps is something which might be seen with a skeptical eye at first, but I think it is important for both practical reasons, and for cultural ones. It is in the absence of information that the imagination runs wild, for better or worse, and I'd guess it would take around a generation for people to go back to thinking the earth was flat, without any contradictory evidence. Storing history is no different -- how many people think Hitler was a Union general during the Civil War? From a practical standpoint, if we accept that we are going to rebuild to a sustainable level after a collapse, knowing what is out there, and where it's located at, is going to make life much easier for people who are trying to "re-connect" at some point.

It's worth pointing out two things that may not readily come to mind when we're putting a copy of Rand McNally on top of the heap of things to save. The first is that we should consider also preserving navigational instruments. A drafting compass, ruler, protractor, star chart, magnetic compass, etc, are also reasonably cheap and should last indefinitely if stored right. The other thing to consider is the form of the data itself. A road atlas is a convenient tool, but if I remember correctly, most of them do not include latitude and longitude as data. One possibility to explore (which would drastically cut down on storage space) would be storing maps which are lists of "vectors." A vector is a measure of angle, which usually represents force in a direction, but could also represent distance and location, meaning we could say that Town X is 45 degrees south of an arbitrary point at a distance of 40 miles. I haven't investigated enough yet to see if these are available, however.

Maps will have to be maintained, copied, and will be more prone to error as time goes on. However, we need to remember that if we are managing to make things work at a ninety-percent level, then we're still ahead of where we would be without that form of guidance. We aim for perfect accuracy in the storage of our information for future generations, but accept that anything we are doing is better than nothing at all.


  1. Interesting. I am not sure that celestial navigation will be needed for many people though. Most people, lacking cars, will have to take transportation provided by others, who will hopefully know where they are going. Those "Lost at Sea" or "Lost in the Woods" exercises so beloved of training organizations are not likely to happen often enough that any individual should invest in this knowledge except in outline. (An interesting book, Emergency Navigation by David Burch, is worth acquiring, very cheap via ABE books).

    Nautical charts are another rather anachronistic, but lovely form of knowledge. Sea levels may rise, river levels may fall, but the basic data is usually fairly stable, and will be useful for navigation, if not piloting (the difference between the two is important on rivers like the Mississippi.

    Boats is the long-term future transportation - using muscle or wind power to move cargo, people and information.

    Looking at old maps, one may think they were laughably inaccurate, but they were accurate to the level required by the users: they showed the next town to this along the coast and the next town to that and so on, plus some compass directions across the body of water. Look up portulan on Wikimedia Commons. Most navigation in the Mediterranean and Black Sea was daytime coastal cruising from port to port, with some trips by larger craft across large bodies of water in better weather, often rowing with sailing assistance. Source, Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean.

    Living near a navigable body of water is important. Living elsewhere is probably untenable without modern conveniences.

    1. Sue,

      Any place that requires power to live is probably going to be out of luck (L.A., Las Vegas), except for a tiny population. The thing to look for is places that either have wells or relatively clean water nearby.

      Don Paul's compass course ( is probably the last word on emergency navigation, from wht I've seen. However, I agree that the "lost in the woods" scenario is probably a byproduct of an industrial mindset, where we have the luxury of being able to travel to/over places we would be lost at, being far enough away from familiar ground.

      In the end, I think you're right -- places that sit like oases on the high plain will be long forgotten and places near lakes, oceans, and rivers will still thrive.

  2. Maps are high on my list too - I wonder how they got those very accurate maps of Antarctica in the 15th century. We need a map of time. You know, map making could be a very important skill to learn from scratch for the first time, once again. Do we start with stick and mud?

    I think i have an event that i can develop a score from - which would provide another metric and evolve the complex society that we need to function biologically. Look at the lemme avatar - most often, i use the chrysalis, a man/butterfly crop circle. Bing - ping - circuit on overwhelm - flash pop (okay - ya blew up doc's brain - now i have to send to acme to get another back-up : sign - being a resident genius is hard work - an the rabbit gets all the credit - wile E. ) Beep- Beep : ping

    Okay - doc back - thanks for the moment. JHK didn't send folks here - but he spoke well of our druid friend. My game has a cash aversion, but behind it is an economic generator that should allow us to rebuild - post whatever the ptub toss at us.

    Look at the July 25th crop circle moon calendar that targets Aug 4/5. I like my circle better - who makes the crop circles? Do we have a map of Great Britain where we can superimpose the crop circle glyphs and get the long lat coordinates? Hmmm - a game develops within the game within the game. Thyme to go burn some brain circuits.

    1. The thing about map-making is that it is a mental representation of a physical thing. If I had to guess, I'd say that the earliest written representation of anything would have been a map to where game could be found, or where camp was, if people were returning to it.

      Can't speculate about the crop circles and Antarctica maps, although anything from quantum leakage to ancient astronauts would not surprise me.

      Cash is an abstraction. I think we'll always have a medium of exchange, though. Hard to carry a cow around.

  3. JHK made a very large error in omiting yur terrific blog!

    1. Thanks, though it probably fits into the "too many to mention category." I started kicking around the idea for the LS site/blog after reading "The Long Emergency" and not easily finding a lot of holes in his thinking. The blog pretty much belongs to everyone, anyway, and is just here to plant the seeds of "survival of knowledge" in as many minds as possible.

  4. JHK sent me. I've seen your link every week for years.

    I've got a plastic tub overflowing with old National Geographic Maps from the past 40 years. Do you suppose that someday they'll be worth something? Like food? Won'that be nice.

    Our ozone air pollution is shutting down photosynthesis. Our carbon pollution is warming the planet. Planting trees to stop deserts won't work if the trees don't grow because of that air pollution. Dust storms, wild fires, deluges, food riots, landslides, mass migrations, mudflows, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, roving mobs of looters, melting icecaps and methane-releasing melting permafrost. Meanwhile the oceans continue to acidify. And after that it gets really bad. I guess I'm saying that any constructs of what the future will bring will be true in some places at some times but not true everywhere or true anywhere for all times. There can be no sustainable settlements in such a world. Only by surviving, mostly through circumstance, will people view the true horrors that await.
    The real Revelation is only that the good and the lucky will die first. The bad and the unlucky die later.

    It was nice while it lasted.

    Wit's End Gail Zawacky

    ClimateProgress Joe Romm

  5. There's one major ramification I don't see being mentioned if your vision of the future pans out; a culling of the herd, i.e a dieoff.

    It's a delicate subject, but implicit in an abrupt regression in our technological state will be the attendant reduction in the planets population. Quite simply, there's little possibility that the human race could support even half its present population should the scenario you infer play out.

    The quicker the regression, the greater the systemic shock and dieoff. A pronounced SHTF situation that causes a cascade event worldwide would result in significant disruptions in food and energy production (even without major war).

    Getting through the first 5 years or so could be the most difficult part as initial scarcity will lead to desperate folks ... acting in desperation. After the culling there would be less contention for resources. Your writings seem geared to this period and appear to skip over the gruesome intervening years.