Randall Munroe buys a house (or not)

sheep_TRP_comm Consider this question: How can a cartoon drawn by a physicist in Massachusetts impact the housing market in the Lake District of southern Chile? If you thought, oh, that sounds like one of those T. Rowe Price commercials that proclaim, “We understand the connections of a complex global economy,” that’s exactly what I intended… when I wrote it.

In the case of those five commercials, however, the opening is a teaser, for example, “How can power consumption in China impact wool exports from New Zealand, textile production in Spain, and the use of medical technology in the US?” The economic secret behind each combination goes unstated, but presumably if you become a T. Rowe Price customer, you will get the decoder ring, or a white paper, that will make it all clear.

Unlike the commercials, there are no secrets here. I’m going to answer that opening question. In fact, without further delay, the simple answer is that the cartoon probably won’t have any effect on real estate in southern Chile, but it would at least be possible, if not probable. And to understand that assertion, you will have to read on.

The cartoon in question is the very recent ‘Geography’, from xkcd and the fertile mind of Randall Munroe:


Even though I’m a geologist, not a geographer, this type of illustration is very familiar. In fact, pretty much anyone who took a middle-school or junior-high earth science course, let alone anyone who took a Geo100-level course in college, has been exposed to most of this terminology — plus that perennial favorite, the oxbow lake. The picture may differ, and the details might be spread across two or three topographic or climatic sub-images, but there’s no new ground (pun intended) being broken here.

Once I got past the generic image and the features labelled in it, however, I was startled by a more intimate recognition. If you turn the cartoon on its head, that is put the sea, island, and peninsula on the left, so that you are looking from the mountains toward the lagoon, with the desert and volcano on the right, then you have a scale-free and, well, cartoonish version of coastal Southern Chile, with many of the features present in proximity to the city of Puerto Montt. Talk about a perfect location for a field trip!!


Seen (above) in Google Earth, Volcan Osorno is to the northeast; the huge expanse of the cold winter desert of the Patagonian Steppe extends well to the east and very far to the south of San Carlos de Bariloche, at least to where the Chile-Argentina border (yellow) turns to the east; on the Pacific side of the Andes, the Northern Patagonian Icefield is to the south, with the San Rafael Glacier near its northern edge; and there is the modest, but typical, delta of the Baker River to the south of that. This view and description have the conventional north-at-the-top perspective. But through the wonder that is Google Earth, a map can be rotated to any compass orientation, say, with south at the top, and then pitched to give an Earth-curvature-edged panorama:


As in the cartoon’s perspective, this zoomed-in, tilted view now has the Pacific on the right; Volcan Osorno (red pin) on the left; and the southernmost tip of Cape Horn near the “rim” just off the top of the image. It would require some imaginative and selective “stretching” of the cartoon landscape to get an exact match, but nonetheless the overall fit is surprisingly good. And if we simply move the cartoon’s “My House” about 120 degrees counterclockwise around the imagined lagoon, then it would be in the environs of the real Puerto Montt.

For all I know, Randall Munroe is a devotee of South American geography and had precisely this intimate juxtaposition in mind when he drew the cartoon. Or perhaps he was indeed inspired by some textbook drawing that was itself modelled on this part of the world. For myself, that aforementioned sense of shock was rooted in a never-published research project in which I looked at the topography of this stretch of Pacific coastline, which is the locus of the boundary between two tectonic plates, and the possible influence on the topography of segmentation in the downgoing (subducted) plate. (The project focused on analysis of drainage displacement and stream capture of trans-Andean rivers and non-glacial subsidence in the Lake District and offshore islands immediately to the south, based on a wonderful set of detailed topographic maps provided gratis by the Instituto Geográfico Militar.) As a result, my familiarity with the region is considerably more detailed than might result from, say, casual perusal of past issues of National Geographic. And my sense of recognition and surprise was correspondingly elevated!

All of this led to a fundamental question that I needed to answer in the interest of both intellectual curiosity and scientific integrity: Was I just being parochial in associating the cartoon topography with a region that was already familiar to me? Or, if I searched (literally) globally, could I find other locations that were comparable to southern Chile in matching the broad features of the drawing? Asked differently, if Randall Munroe was determined to live in “My House,” conveniently placed in Geographyland, how many options would he really have worldwide?

Although there are 17 elements listed in the cartoon, it is easy to aggregate them into a much smaller number of filters for this search. The obvious first cut is “sea,” which I take to mean some part of the global ocean system. (So the Mediterranean would be included, but the Caspian would not, nor would the Great Lakes of North America.) Proximity to this system eliminates a lot of land area. At the other extreme, a dozen of the terms — bay, delta, forest, hills, island, lagoon, lake, mesa, peninsula, plain, river, and strait — are near-universal. Their size may vary (see below), and the terminology may differ slightly, but they are widespread outside of polar regions (which aren’t in play in any case) and thus not of much discriminatory value. That leaves the three most useful and distinctive features — desert, glacier, and volcano — and the most ambiguous — mountains. If we take the cartoon literally and are looking for mountains high enough, in either elevation or latitude or both, to be debouching a glacier, then we’re talking “substantial” mountains. No Appalachians or Nilgiris or Snowdons need apply.

Combining the presumed ocean and mountain criteria narrows the possibilities to the circum-Pacific. And that is also consistent with the volcanic “ring of fire” around the entire Pacific margin (shown in this global map of volcanoes, red symbols):


After this cut, the distribution of glacial ice allows only a few regions — the coast of North America from southern Alaska through British Columbia to the Pacific Northwest; the central and southern Andes; the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Siberia; and South Island, New Zealand (along with the volcanoes in North Island):


The final and sharpest filter is deserts. As this map shows (sorry about the watermark, but it was free!), Kamchatka and New Zealand are out; and there is only slight hope (not evident in the map, but I’ll come back to this at the end) for the west coast of North America:


The lone survivor for all of the filters is the west coast of South America — for sure the region in southern Chile from the Lake District to the Northern Patagonian Icefield that I’ve already discussed; and perhaps, but only perhaps, the region from northern Chile into Peru where the desert essentially reaches the Pacific. The “perhaps” qualifier is because of an interesting irony: the Atacama Desert is described as “the driest place in the world,… so arid that many mountains higher than 6,000 metres (20,000 ft) are completely free of glaciers.”

In other words, it has just enough ice to show up on that global map, but maybe not so much that we ought to recommend it to Randall Munroe if he was actually planning a move to Geographyland. Here is a detailed map from the comprehensive Satellite Image Atlas of Glaciers of the World, published as U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1386:


This tells us that, if you simply want to find some glacial ice, plus desert and volcanoes, near an ocean, you could choose anywhere in coastal Peru or Chile between roughly 20° and 50° S latitude. But if you want the whole thing, close to the idealization in the cartoon picture, then you should fly to Puerto Montt and look for a house that could become My House. If Randall Munroe alone were to follow this suggestion, then the impact on the local real estate market would be minimal. But if, as the Wikipedia article asserts, “he and the webcomic have developed a cult following,” then there is the possibility of a Pied-Piper effect inducing a literal following. Housing prices in Puerto Montt would presumably increase accordingly. T. Rowe Price, please take note.

There we would leave things if we were taking this whole process seriously. “Seriously”? Ha! Since this is all total fantasy anyway, let’s make up one other scenario. Let’s say that Mr. Munroe really does want to move to Geographyland, but he doesn’t want to leave behind the comfort and proximity of his family, language, and culture, or the familiarity of CNU, ESPN, the IRS, and other features of our alphabet-soup landscape. What then?

I alluded above to the “slight hope” for the Pacific Northwest, which has some volcanoes and scattered glacial remnants. But it failed on the desert filter, with the Great Basin Desert being a little too distant. If we relax the criterion to “near desert,” however, then we open up Eastern Washington and the High Desert of Oregon.

Rather than quibble over finding a location with the minimized average distance from the other topographic features on the cartoon’s checklist, or debating the cultural merits of Portland or Spokane or some other city or town, I will use my blogger’s prerogative to suggest Seattle. Although I haven’t done the measurement, my guess is that the near-desert terrain of Eastern Washington is much closer to Seattle than the Northern Patagonian Icefield is to Puerto Montt; and for sure, it would be more easily accessible. Can you say “I-90”?

Here are a few of the surrounding features — volcano, island, glacier, peninsula, strait, and of course sea — for illustrative purposes, with north at the top:


There is even a delta! I grant you that it’s not the Mississippi or Nile or Mekong, but the Skokomish River Delta has every aspect that the geography textbook would describe.

Looks perfect to me, since Seattle is my favorite city in pretty much the whole world. There is one thing that would make it more perfect, however, which is perhaps hinted at by the fact that I am writing this midday on Super Bowl Sunday: “Go Hawks!”

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