DESICCATION OF THE EARTH? THE CLIMATE CHANGE THAT SURVEY EXPEDITIONS IN CHINESE CENTRAL ASIA MAPPED FROM THE 1900S TO THE 1930S

P. Foret

ETH Zurich, Institute of Cartography, Zurich, Switzerland

foret@karto.baug.ethz.ch

 

The exact meaning given to the cartographical information collected on Central Eurasia just after Halford J. Mackinder called the region the geographical pivot of world history is fascinating because it forces us to reconsider the role played by maps in the development of climate and environmental studies. I am especially interested in seeing how Pyotr Kropotkins theory on climate change, which the Royal Geographical Society of London vigorously debated in 1904 and 1914, was validated by the map-based study of the relief and climate of Chinese Central Asia. Kropotkin believed he had found in its receding lakes and growingly arid landscape evidence to support the Desiccation of Eur-Asia.

 

More attention should thus be granted to the cartographic work done by Europeans in Mongolia and Turkestan (the provinces of Inner and Outer Mongolia, Ningxia, Gansu and Xinjiang) during the first three decades of the 20th century. This paper, which will retrace the history of the survey of the region, will illustrate, update and thematize the chronological account that Erik Norin gave in Vol. 48 of the Sino-Swedish Expedition. I will attempt to:

1. Describe the various expeditions sent to comprehensively map the terrain and document the environmental history of the region,

2. Explain how maps led the contemporary debate on climate change, and how they were read by the preeminent geographers of the time (Kropotkin, Huntington, Hedin, and Gregory, especially),

3. Ascribe a cause to the discrepancy I have noticed between assumptions on climate, the topographical observations made in situ, and the resulting maps and atlases,

4. And conclude on the importance of positioning any cartographic enterprise within its historical context. My conclusion would amplify Chris Perkins observations in his seminal Cartography Cultures of mapping: power in practice article (Progress in Human Geography 28-3).

 

I hope this topic will generate a discussion on the rich interaction we have seen between mapping activities, scientific objectives, and political agendas. My paper may also be seen as a prelude to the history, not yet fully written, of the Chinese, Soviet and Sino-Soviet expeditions that explored the whole of Central Asia.