Author Archive

Mapping Energy Stats

July 31, 2019
Marissa Wood

I have unfortunately been stuck on a pretty mundane data updating project for the past month. It involves downloading various tables full of numbers and bringing a world choropleth map from 2012 to 2016 statistics (plus or minus a few years depending on the dataset). For the most part it’s been mind numbingly boring, but every once in a while I come across a dataset that catches my interest, mostly in terms of how much a statistic has changed in the past four or five years.

Since mapping obesity changes in the United States is too depressing (yeah, it’s bad), I thought it might be fun to play with some energy statistics which reveal the global push towards more renewable energy generation over the past four years. The US Energy Information Administration publishes a series of US and international datasets tracking methods of electricity production across multiple years, going as far back as 1980 for some variables. They have a “beta” data and map portal from which different charts can be downloaded. (I say “beta” because it’s been in “beta” form for the past few years…)

To set the stage, let’s look at total energy production, both from renewables and non-renewables for 2016. China, US, India, and Russia are the biggest producers. No surprises there and no real changes in the last four years aside from a 10% increase in total electricity production world wide.

2016 Total worldwide electricity generation in billions of Kilowatt hours per country.

But as you break the data down into its components, the push for electricity generation by renewable resources becomes visible. The major renewable components tracked by the EIA are wind power, hydroelectric generation, and solar power (data on geothermal, wave, and biomass energy production area also available).


Humans have been using the wind as a source of energy for thousands and thousands of years and converting wind power to electricity started in the 1800s. The technology has changed a lot over 7,000 some odd years, with modern wind farms being massive collections of giant wind turbines. They have their own environmental, political, and economic connotations, but facing a wind turbine close up or from afar is awe inspiring.

In 2012 only 2% of the world’s electricity generation came from wind power, and by 2016 that figure doubled and will continue to climb into the future as more countries invest in wind power. In 2016, China was the largest producer of wind power at 237 billion kilowatt hours (Kwh), but that only accounts for 4% of China’s total electricity generation. The US was a close second in producing electricity from wind power at 227 billion Kwh, but again that only counts for 5% of its total. Denmark had the largest percentage of the total electricity generation being from wind at 42%, followed closely by Lithuania at 36%.

2016 Total worldwide electricity generation from wind power.
Electricity generation from wind as a percentage of all electricity generation. Antarctica is at 100%. Go Antarctica!


People have been using water as a source of power for not quite as long as they’ve been using wind (going back to the ancient Greeks rather than ancient Egyptians), but hydropower has been a pillar of electricity generation since the beginning. Niagara Falls was recognized as an epic source of energy even as Edison and Tesla were duking it out over DC and AC power in the 1890s (Tesla would eventually win).

Because hydropower has been almost ubiquitous with electricity generation from the start, its use has remained constant from 2012 to 2016 at 17% of total energy production. China is the biggest producer of hydroelectricity at 1,151 billion Kwh. Many states rely on hydropower for almost all of their electricity generation: Lesotho at 100%, Paraguay at 99.999%, and Albania at 99.9%, to name a few.

2016 Total worldwide electricity generation from hydropower.
Electricity generation from hydropower as a percentage of all electricity generation.

Fire (okay fine, Sun)

Aside from the total dependence of all life on the sun for all time, humans have been directly converting solar energy into power for only a few hundred years. It is the most recent of the renewable energy technologies, and solar panels (and tiles and roads and etc.) have become more widely available and cheaper in the last few decades.

Solar still makes up only a small percentage of the world’s total electricity production at only 1% in 2016. In 2012 several European nations were early adopters of producing electricity from solar: Germany, followed by Italy and Spain. However, by 2016, China again takes the lead, now followed by the US and Japan. By percent of total electricity production, Luxembourg generates the most solar at 30% followed by Kiribati and Malta.

2016 Total worldwide electricity generation from solar power.
Electricity generation from solar power as a percentage of all electricity generation. It is amusing to no end that the scale of this map renders the top three countries (Luxembourg, Kiribati, and Malta) invisible.

Renewables are only a small piece of the energy puzzle, but their increase in use over the past four years reflects human efforts to alleviate the climate risks of fossil fuel use through technology improvements. It seems like that over the next four years, wind and solar power for electricity generation will continue to grow.

The Maps of Middle-earth

April 30, 2019
Marissa Wood

I can’t say that my love for Lord of the Rings led me to be a cartographer, but I do vividly remember picking up The Hobbit as a middle schooler, bored and home sick with the flu, and spending a lot of time with the map illustration tucked into the first pages before I even joined Bilbo on his journey. As a map maker, I endlessly appreciate J.R.R. Tolkien’s attention to detail, the depths he went into to build his world, and yes, I love Tolkien’s maps. I know that statement is not without controversy.

Marissa's Tolkien collection including the Lord of the Rings series, the Silmarillion, and several others.
Nerd status: my current Tolkien collection. Hopefully adding new books soon!

Ode to the Writer/Artist/Cartographer

The cartographic process was quite different when Tolkien was building Middle-earth in the 1930s and ‘40s as compared to now. Today, I spend 98% of my time on the computer, digitally drawing in Arc GIS, Adobe Illustrator, or adjusting shading in Adobe Photoshop. In 1937, cartographers were hunched over stereoplotters and maps were mass produced through lithographic printing and copper plates. Computers were barely a science fiction dream. Tolkien had a very different set of tools and process in terms of map creation than he would today even as a fantasy author.

In addition to being a literary genius, Tolkien was an amateur artist and sketched as he visualized the world he was creating. The escape of the Hobbits in The Fellowship of the Ring, something I could so clearly visualize as they struggled to get out of the Shire, Tolkien had mapped as he wrote. Later, as the story of Lord of the Rings grew more complex, he maintained a map to scale of the various journeys of the characters to keep track of when and where they were in space and time so that the ring could be destroyed in Mount Doom as hope for victory dimmed at the Black Gate. And then all could be save by the eagles. Again. Wired did an article on The Art of the Lord of the Rings, a book which I have now added to my personal wish list.

Tolkien visualized and detailed his world, down to the sketch of a contour and the runnel of a little stream, but he passed his maps on to either his son, Christopher Tolkien, or professional artist, Pauline Baynes, to adapt for the reader. Baynes was an English artist who spent time as a child in India. During World War II, Baynes’s skills as an artist were pressed into service, and she found herself making maps and nautical charts for the British Admiralty. It was during this time that she was first introduced to Tolkien, and they began collaborating. Tolkien loved her art and found it to be the perfect companion for the worlds he was creating.  While the original plan of having Baynes fully illustrate the entire Lord of the Rings became unwieldly, her adaptations of Tolkien’s scribbled maps aided the reader through adventures of Elves and Rangers. For more information on the incredible life of Pauline Baynes, see this article.

An original Tolkien sketch of Middle-earth on graph paper with detailed contours and rivers and a variety of notes in different colors.
A Tolkien sketch on graph paper from the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford/Wired article.

Modern Criticism

Some people have managed to look at the maps of Lord of the Rings with a degree of skepticism and disapproval. Not me. But the critics do raise a few interesting points. One of the big complaints is over the actual geographic make up of Middle-earth. Alex Ack, for, goes so far as to say “Middle-earth’s got 99 problems, and mountains are basically 98 of them” because of the rules of geomorphology and plate tectonics. He’s got a few good points. Mountains definitely “don’t do corners.” But still others, including Jeffrey Peters, have responded to Ack, calling his position an oversimplification. I see both sides of this argument. I think, unlike Ack, that Tolkien had a good understanding of geography, but unlike Peters, who attempts to link the geography of Middle-earth with Europe (after various rotations and mirrorings), I would guess that Tolkien utilized the idea of cartographic conveniences to move his story along.

The map of Middle-earth with red highlights emphasizing the corners of the mountain ranges.
Alex Ack’s mountains of the Lord of the Rings doing corners.

Modern Reinterpretation

More than just me alone think the maps of Lord of the Rings are wonderful. Callum Ogden went so far as to develop a methodology to convert a modern map into something that would belong tucked into Bilbo’s copy of There and Back Again. He used Scotland as his example and the image manipulation program GIMP, but one could also use Adobe Photoshop or other photo editing tools. I think his map is beautiful and am very much looking forward to a rainy day to play around with his process.

A map of Scotland illustrated to match the style of the Lord of the Rings maps (sepia tones, textured mountains, little tree illustrations).
Callum Ogden’s map of Scotland in the style of Lord of the Rings.

I love Lord of the Rings and have found Tolkien’s attention to detail and style an inspiration in my writing, but Tolkien’s works have also played a role in my development as a map maker. As a cartographer, I am always trying to emulate the balance and simplicity of design of the maps and illustrations of Middle-earth despite my usual subject matter being situated very much in reality.

A Cartographer Visits the Prime Meridian

May 9, 2018
Marissa Wood

Like any dedicated mapmaker, visiting the Royal Observatory at Greenwich and the Prime Meridian were at the top of my tourist to-dos on a recent trip to London.

Today, the Prime Meridian is located in the yard of the Royal Observatory at the top of the hill in Greenwich Park. One can look “down” the marked line, due north, and take in the National Maritime Museum and Queen’s House, the Thames, and London shimmering in glass in the distance. I found the view incredible, especially on a rare, sunny March day. But the Prime Meridian itself was a bit of a letdown. Sure, it’s neat to straddle the line and have a foot on either side of zero. And yeah, its cool to stand at the precise longitudinal location from which time was standardized. But it’s really just a metal ribbon slicing through an old stone courtyard.

However, if one turns around and glances back at the Observatory, things start to get a little interesting. Due south of the Prime Meridian, just a few feet—I mean about a meter—away is a great big telescope, the Transit Circle telescope constructed by Sir George Biddell Airy in 1850 to be exact. Airy’s Transit Circle telescope was used to precisely measure the movements of stars as they crossed the Prime Meridian.

There is another telescope to the left of Airy’s, and then another smaller, older one. Following the view of these earlier telescopes toward London back into the yard, one’s eye catches another prime meridian to the west of the Prime Meridian and yet another stone marking yet another important meridian to history. Each of these meridians were used to chart stars and measure longitude and time. But with each new telescope, more precise and accurate than the last, the Prime Meridian was pushed to the east by a few yards (meters) as the building was extended to accommodate the latest equipment.

I was struck by how arbitrary the location of the Prime Meridian is. 0˚ is located at the top of a hill outside of London because it was convenient for an astronomer of history to put it there. The world decided that this line, several iterations after the original, was the Prime Meridian at the International Meridian Conference in Washington DC, in 1884. Adopting the Prime Meridian as an international standard allowed for time to be consistent amongst nations and made maritime charting and navigation more accurate.

Then a third truth struck me. Standing with feet on either side of zero, I checked the GPS on my phone, and it placed me ever so slightly to the west of 0˚. Apparently, the Prime Meridian as marked isn’t even the Prime Meridian anymore. It was moved unceremoniously about 100 meters to the east based on standardization of Earth’s geodesy in 1984. It was yet another arbitrary move; although, probably even more math went into this adjustment than Airy’s original placement of his telescope in 1850.

Twitter Facebook Linked In YouTube
Subscribe to our newsletter! SUBSCRIBE