The Schoolboy's Old, Red English Atlas: Part I

By Luis Martínez-Fernández

February 27, 2021 6 min read

I have a passionate love affair with books. It's a love I learned from my father, who, many a Saturday during the late 1960s, took me to one of Lima's bookstores. I was not even 10 years old.

Of the couple thousand books in my personal library, there is one that I have held on to for the longest time. It has survived all of my moves and the sporadic weeding of my home and office library stacks.

I have it in front of me. It is a 64-page, red-covered 54th-edition "Philips' New School Atlas," published by George Philip & Son in 1966. First issued in 1903, the atlas is now in its 99th edition.

My parents bought me that atlas around 1969; it was required reading at my primary school, San Marcos Apostol, a Catholic school that followed the British National Curriculum.

My old Philips' atlas captures what French Annales school historians called the longue duree, slow-changing climate patterns, ocean currents and the like, as well as shorter-term changes such as the post-World War II decolonization process and founding of scores of new nations portrayed in the volume's political maps.

As far as the size, shape and location of the world's land masses, not much had changed in the previous 5 million years. Tectonic geological changes are among the slowest; they are barely perceptible. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge, for example, expands by around 1 inch per year, and the Himalayas grow taller at the rate of 2 feet per decade, not enough to render my childhood atlas obsolete or make Mt. Everest's peak harder to reach.

Because it has gone in and out of so many U-Haul boxes, my atlas shows signs of stress. Its covers are coming undone, despite the masking tape I applied to its spine at some point in the 1970s. Like its owner, more than five decades later, it is showing signs of aging, including some foxing (humidity spots) as a result of spending a substantial part of its life in humid places like Puerto Rico; foxing is the equivalent of liver spots that appear on the skin of humans once they get as old as my red atlas.

The atlas begins with six pages of average surface temperature and rainfall graphs, one for each continent. The average temperature was 58 degrees Fahrenheit during the coldest month of the year in Lima; almost 10 degrees higher in my birthplace, Havana; and a chilling 37 degrees F in London, where the book had been published. At 48.5 inches, Havana had the highest amount of rainfall, twice as much as London and 23 times more than Lima.

It is — well, it should be — undeniable that the world is undergoing accelerated climate change. The average temperature across the globe in 2019 was 1.71 degrees F higher than the 20th-century average. This January, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed that 2020 was the second-hottest year on record and that 10 of the hottest years ever have occurred since 2005. With regards to temperatures and precipitation, the 1966 Philips' atlas is indeed outdated, and we humans are the only ones to blame.

Curiously, when the atlas was published, the main climatological concern was the opposite: Global cooling that began in the 1940s attributed to the widespread use of aerosols.

One degree more or less may not sound like a lot, but it has been enough to cause global havoc: hotter and more frequent heat waves; melting of polar ice caps and concomitant rise of ocean levels; widespread flooding; droughts; and more instances of extreme weather, including hurricanes.

Since the 1960s, Peru's average temperatures have risen, particularly ocean temperatures, made warmer by periodic El Nino events, which have led to substantial drops in plankton levels, resulting in shrinking fish populations. According to the World Bank, Peru's climate change doubled the number of "intense rainstorms, mudflows and forest fires."

Turning the page to the Caribbean, we find a dramatic rise in the number of Atlantic-named storms and hurricanes. The yearly average number of hurricanes rose from 4.7 from the 1950s to 1970s to 5.8 from the 1980s to 1990s, jumping to 7.3 in the next two decades. With 30 named storms and 13 hurricanes, 2020 was the stormiest year on record.

And in Great Britain, where Philips' and Son is poised to publish the 100th edition of the school atlas, heat waves and flooding have increased dramatically. The U.K.'s Met Office reported that in August 2020, the country endured "five tropical nights" during a record-breaking hot spell.

To be continued in next week's column.

 Photo credit Luis Martinez-Fernandez.
Photo credit Luis Martinez-Fernandez.

Readers can reach Luis Martinez-Fernandez at [email protected] To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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