By Joseph J. Kerski, Geographer & Education Manager, ESRI. firstname.lastname@example.org
We humans have explored above, on, and below Earth’s surface to just about every conceivable place. Yet although the highest, lowest, iciest, and strangest places have all been explored, the spirit of discovery is far from dead. Now, people journey to places that are unique because of artificial means, such as to geocaches, to places one can stand in three or more states or countries simultaneously, or to intersections of latitude-longitude lines. The latter activity is called “confluence hunting” (http://www.confluence.org).
In 1996, 21-year old computer programmer and entrepreneur Alex Jarrett passed near 43°00’00” North 72°00’00” West on his daily commute in New Hampshire. Wondering what would be at that spot, he and a friend journeyed there on bicycles with Alex’s new GPS receiver, and posted their photos to Alex’s new website. Others began visiting points near where they lived, and by 2009, over 11,000 people have visited over 6,300 confluence points. To be “on point” means within 100 meters for the visit to be considered complete. How tenacious are these visitors? A visitor to 70° North Latitude, 29° East Longitude stood on the shoreline 110 meters away, gazing across a chilly Norway fjord. This prompted the next visitor to swim to the point using a wet suit!
There are 64,442 latitude and longitude degree intersections in the world, and obviously, most are in the oceans. The Degree Confluence Project‘s database includes over 24,500 of these points. Of these, 21,723 are on land, 2,700 are in water (usually within sight of a shoreline), and 395 sit atop an ice cap. Currently there are still over 18,000 of these degree confluences yet to be visited. You are closer than 78 kilometers to your nearest confluence, but use caution: Many points are difficult to reach, are dangerous, or are on restricted lands. Secure permission if you decide to visit one on private land, bring batteries, a GPS, a paper map, and standard survival gear. Colin Irvine and Ken Long visited 18° North 46° East, describing the “Empty Quarter” of the Rub`al-Khāliy in Saudi Arabia as “a nice neighborhood which has no rush hour traffic and one of the lowest crime rates on the planet.” Besides the GPS, the 75 kg of ice that they had purchased certainly helped.
Given the Earth’s movement, GPS satellite movement, GPS inaccuracies, the stepping left, right, forwards, and backwards in order to capture the moment when all the decimals on the GPS equal zero has been dubbed the “confluence dance.” If the point is under heavy tree cover, near buildings, or in a canyon, you may never achieve this moment of zero nirvana.
A Portrait of the Earth
Through the Degree Confluence Project, we have a portrait of the Earth as it truly is—not how the travel brochures say it is, or pictures where people happen to live portray. The 84,000 photographs taken by confluence hunters show that while human impact is evident in most places, we haven’t yet paved over all of Planet Earth. Remote points still exist, such as 21° South 26° East on Sua Pan in Botswana. The visitors who recorded that confluence reached it by quad bike after their vehicle became stuck. My own loneliest was 33° North 97° West in a half-abandoned Dallas, Texas USA, industrial park. The most hazardous was my trek to the grounds of a power plant outside of Mobile, Alabama, USA. Escorted by a guard, I declined to wade into the asbestos dump for the final 200 meters.
The highest confluence point is considered to be 30° North 81° East in Nepal, near India and China, at 5,845 meters (19,177 feet). Greg Michaels and Mitch Dion attempted this point in 2008. After weeks of preparation and days of alpine hiking to within 37 km of the confluence, government officials forced them to turn back. The planet’s lowest lies at 78 meters (255 feet) below sea level at 30° North 27° East in Egypt, and is far easier to visit. The highest confluence point in the USA lies near the summit of Mount Wrangell, Alaska.
My visits to 200 degree confluences have allowed me to get far off the beaten path. I have attempted perhaps the world’s steepest confluence point, at the rim of the Grand Canyon (36° North 112° West). The trek that I made to 41° North 112° West into the marsh in the dark at the edge of the Great Salt Lake took honors as my wettest point. The most beautiful may be 39° North 107° West in Colorado or the yellow field of canola at 52° North 0° in England. The levee behind the New Orleans industrial park at 30° North 90° West may have been my “creepiest” point. The loudest might be 40° North 83° West near Ohio State University. During 2006, while wandering a new subdivision in Virginia, I found that for $699,900, you could have purchased 38° North 79° West and had it in your very own backyard.
My visits have allowed me to meet and travel with wonderful people. I have walked over grasslands with the Tribal Land Officer for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, trekked through Michigan woods with a dune buggy driver, and hiked through Colorado forests with a Backpacker magazine reporter. I have walked along a canal on the Prime Meridian with a geography professor, crawled through Texas thorns with a GIS professional, and walked the Santa Fe Trail with a park ranger. I have shadowed the footsteps of Lewis and Clark with a USGS cartographer, talked to local farm animals with a Missouri Botanical Garden educator, and motorboated on the Gulf of Mexico with a university biologist. I treasure the local folks too: The two elderly gentlemen joking with each other in Alabama; the odd character living in a combination curio shop and junkyard in Texas, fishermen who took us into the English Channel, New Zealand dairy farmers, and Ohio State University students playing in their kiddie pool.
Lawrence and Seng encountered a swamp, leeches, thistles, heat, exhaustion, and border guards, and lost their glasses and a leather business card holder during a nighttime tromp to 4° North 102° East in Malaysia. Rainer Mautz was escorted by police to 14° North 44° East in Yemen. A military escort accompanied me to 34° North 78° West on a military base in North Carolina. The group motoring in a Land Cruiser across the Sahara Desert in Algeria toward the border with Niger after finding 23° North 10° East was stopped by a group of armed men, who fortunately gave them bread, cookies, and yogurt. Greg Michaels’ quest for the last four points in Bosnia and Herzegovina was riddled with land mines.
A black mamba snake came centimeters from killing one of the 7° North 2° West explorers in Ghana. But the group trudged onward to 6° North 3° West, only to be assaulted by a swarm of army ants. Polar bears were seen by those traveling to Svalbard, Norway, while Magne Svensen walked to 4° South 36° East amongst carnivorous animals in the Tarangire National Park, Tanzania. Peter Mosselberger found an idol fence at 5° North 7° East in Nigeria which read, “If you enter this territory without properly sacrificing an animal, you’ll be afflicted with an incurable sickness.” Peter declined to enter.
The confluence project offers a means of examining location, place, human-environmental interaction, movement, and regions—the five themes of geography. How have humans modified the land? What signs of water exist, and what forces act to change the area? You may be surprised to find rocky cliffs in Saudi Arabia, rainforests in the USA, and cactus in Russia. Besides showing what places are really like, the project also provides a research tool for those seeking to verify land cover data. Wander along the Equator or Prime Meridian to observe changes in vegetation or landforms. Notice changes over time, such as Russian wildfires and Las Vegas urbanization. The project also is a testament to the human spirit—not just of the explorers, but the local people: From Iran to Mexico, people have opened their homes to the explorers.
The project represents a meeting of the global community, to encourage stewardship for the land and respect for its people. To touch these points is to be connected to the International Meridian Conference in 1884 that established the Prime Meridian. Humans are explorers. They want to explore with a goal, even if that goal is to visit an arbitrary point defined by lines set down by people long since departed. Even if the final point is never reached, the project has created a global database that provides a portrait of our planet like no other.