Magazine article Geographical

Quizzical: This Month, Chris Edwards Tackles Temperature Extremes, the Size of Belgium, Categorising Nations' Development Status, the Hydrogen Bombs Dropped on Japan and the Number of People Who Speak Scottish Gaelic

Magazine article Geographical

Quizzical: This Month, Chris Edwards Tackles Temperature Extremes, the Size of Belgium, Categorising Nations' Development Status, the Hydrogen Bombs Dropped on Japan and the Number of People Who Speak Scottish Gaelic

Article excerpt

Which part of the world experiences the greatest extremes of temperature?

M Thompson, Coventry

In Verkhoyhansk, Sibera, when it gets hot, it gets pretty hot. But when it gets cold, it gets really cold. Over the course of a year, the temperature in this town in Eastern Yakutia has plummeted to--68[degrees]C and then soared to 35[degrees]C: a difference of 103[degrees]C.

The town is located just inside the Arctic Circle and has a continental climate, being more than 500 kilometres from the northern coast of Siberia. In winter, cold, dry Arctic air helps to cool things even further and this part of Siberia has become known as the Cold Pole. On average, Qimyakon, a village on a plateau to the southeast, is colder, but the two places tied for the lowest temperature recorded outside Antarctica.

Not surprisingly, the White Continent has produced the lowest temperatures ever recorded. The Russian scientific base of Vostock has seen the mercury drop to--89[degrees]C. However, the temperature at the base doesn't even reach as high as--10[degrees]C, so the range there is nothing like that seen in Siberia.

According to James Foster of NASA, the pre-1991 Soviet Union saw the greatest extremes of temperature on the same day, as areas now in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan could be hot when northern parts of Siberia were registering their lowest temperatures. Post break-up, it's now the USA that is most likely to see huge temperature differences on the same day. Indeed, on 17 August 2002, the USA recorded both that day's highest temperature and its lowest temperature outside Antarctica. The day peaked at 51[degrees]C in Death Valley, California, while a chilly--7[degrees]C was registered in Montana.

Why is Belgium so popular for area comparisons? T Doniher, Scarborough

It's curious how many things have ended up being described as being the size of Belgium. There's a good reason for it: describing things in terms of football fields or the area of a country makes it easier to fix their size in your mind than referring to so many thousand square kilometres.

Like football fields, Belgium has become accepted as a way of conveying the size of large entities. But, Belgium isn't a big country. Today, it covers a total area of 30,528 square kilometres. A circle with a diameter of 196 kilometres--the distance from London to Stafford--would cover the same area.

The world has a total land area of 148,429,000 square kilometres, which is an area of just over 4,862 Belgiums. Brazil, which is currently receiving a lot of the attention, covers an area of 8,511,965 square kilometres, or close to 279 Belgiums. The current extent of the Brazilian rainforest covers an area the size of about 167 Belgiums.

Given the ubiquity of Belgium as a benchmark, the comparisons can sometimes be a little flaky. The 26,000 square kilometres of Brazilian jungle recently chopped down to make way for soybeans was actually some 15 per cent smaller than Belgium: the Republic of Macedonia at 25,333 square kilometres and Albania at 28,748 square kilometres are better matches.

Even research papers succumb to the lure of Belgium. One described the eruption of gases off the coast of Namibia as covering an area two thirds the size of Belgium, which would actually be the area of Wales. For another about societies in the Amazon Basin, the area described as being the size of Belgium covered somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 square kilometres. So it could have been the size of Wales at the low end. For this kind of area, US citizens often prefer the size of the state of Vermont: splitting the difference nicely at 25,000 square kilometres.

The reason that Belgium turns up so often is down to what psychologists call the'memetic founder effect'. Memes are ideas that people transmit to each other--the conceptual equivalent of genes--and sometimes a meme proves so popular that other, perhaps more accurate or useful memes fall by the wayside. In this case, the idea of using Belgium for area comparisons took hold, at the expense of other potential comparisons.

Why did the USA choose Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the targets for its hydrogen bomb? T Watson, Lancaster

Although the two bombs dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the closing days of the Second World War killed close to 100,000 people, they were responsible for fewer civilian deaths than the conventional bombing campaign used by the Allies from the end of 1944. Thanks to minimal air defences on the Japanese islands, the US Air Force was able to fly wave after wave of B-29 bombers to strategic and high-profile targets. A quarter of all the bombs used in the Pacific War by the Allies were dropped on the Japanese home islands. On one day in early March, the bombers dropped enough incendiaries on Tokyo to set an area of almost 40 square kilometres ablaze. No other urban attack was more destructive; 100,000 people were killed in one night.

By the time the first H-bombs were ready, the B-29s had devastated 58 cities, as well as industrial centres and military bases. US generals drew up a shortlist of four, relatively untouched targets. Kyoto was shortlisted early on, but was later vetoed because of its cultural significance. Geography placed Hiroshima at the top of the list: nearby mountains would focus the effects of the blast on the large city, which was seen as important to any possible invasion.

Nagasaki appeared on the list in place of Kyoto, together with Niigata and Kokura. It was the result of B-29 bombing that saw the second bomb switched from Kokura, the primary target. After several attempts to find a break in smoke that had drifted above the city from a raid two days earlier on steel mills at Yawata, the pilot of the Bockscar decided to make for Nagasaki, which had clear skies above it. So few bombs had fallen on the city previously that many people didn't make for the shelters before the Fat Man dropped from the sky and exploded 300 metres above the ground.

What is the difference between a developing and a developed nation?

J Hird, London

According to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), there is no hard and fast rule for determining which countries get the tag of "developing nation"; any government that thinks its country deserves to be known as developing just has to say so. But that doesn't mean that other countries can't challenge such a request.

China's accession to the WTO in 2001 nearly didn't happen because the Chinese government demanded developing nation status. The USA, Australia and Canada, among others, blocked China's move but then relented.

In the WTO, developing nations are eligible for a number of benefits and rights. For example, they often have longer to comply with new WTO rules and they can use more subsidies to protect producers because their economies tend to be poorly diversified.

The UN has some firmer rules when it names countries as "least developed" The UN uses gross domestic product per head of less than US$900 (500 [pounds sterling]), poor life expectancy and calorie intake per person, together with a lack of economic diversification to work out whether a nation should receive least-developed country status.

How prevalent is Scottish Gaelic? J Madden, Lyndhurst

The 2001 Census saw the number of Scottish Gaelic speakers continue the decline that it has suffered since surveys began in 1891 .Towards the end of the 19th century, a quarter of a million people claimed to speak Scottish Gaelic. By 2001, that number had dropped to fewer than 60,000. However, this latest fall was smaller than in the previous 20 years, suggesting that the decline could be levelling out. Even so, based on previous trends, the language could well be dead by the middle of this century, especially as the current speakers tend to be older.

The population in Scotland in 2001 stood at more than five million people, so the proportion of Scottish Gaelic speakers is tiny. This is in contrast to Wales, where legislation has been in place for a number of decades to give Welsh the same status as English. According to the 2001 Census, about 660,000 people out of a total of 2.9 million could speak Welsh.

Scottish Gaelic is used most in the Highlands and the Western Isles, although there are pockets of usage in the Lowlands. For those campaigning to keep Gaelic alive, there are signs that the language may yet stave off extinction. An increasing number of children in Glasgow are being taught the language. In 1985, there were just 20 children being taught in newly created 'medium-education units'. The number has since climbed to more than 2,500. In spring, the Scottish Parliament also passed legislation that will boost the status of Gaelic, although the bill stopped short of giving the language the level of recognition that Welsh has in Wales.

global population watch

The world population at the time of going to press was according to:

the United Nations 6,541,444,654

the CIA 6,471,142,900

the US Bureau of the Census 6,457,162,835

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