New Island Emerges from the Red Sea

Red Sea Island Images

Top Image: October 24, 2007. Bottom Image: December 23, 2011. NASA Earth Observatory images created by Jesse Allen, using EO-1.

These NASA images show the planet’s newest island, created by an eruption of lava along the Red Sea rift zone earlier this month. This rift separates the African and Arabian tectonic plates, which are slowly moving apart. Seafloor spreading allows the creation of new ocean crust and, occasionally, a new island. The top satellite image from October 24, 2007, shows nothing but open sea between Haycock Island and Rugged Island. The lower image, showing the plume of volcanic ash and water vapor rising from the new island was acquired on December 23, 2011. Cartographers might want to hold off on updating their maps of the world, though. According to the Short Sharp Science blog from New Scientist, many new islands such as this one ultimately are unable to withstand the destructive action of sea waves. Whether or not the new island is built to last, this is a rare and dramatic view of plate tectonics in action.


2011 Geography Quiz

The San Francisco Chronicle has published a fun and informative Geography Quiz. Put on your thinking cap–and no peaking at the atlas–and see how many of the 50 questions you can answer. Here is a teaser: What is the only country in which you can see cheetahs and penguins in the wild? Find the answer and the other questions at the SFGate website.

New from NCGE: AP Human Geography

AP Human Geography CoverAP Human Geography: Engaging Students in Constructing an Understanding of Human Geography by Jody Smothers Marcello examines the importance of synthesis, inquiry, and spatial data in the AP Human Geography course. This set of lessons fills an important niche in preparing students for the free-response section of the AP exam by demonstrating ways to guide students in synthesizing ideas presented throughout the AP Human Geography course. Order your copy from the NCGE Store.

New from NCGE: A Geographic View of World History

A Geographic View of World HistoryA Geographic View of World History, a new NCGE publication by Herb Thompson, features 32 lessons designed to supplement and enhance a high school world history class by adding the geographic perspective to the study of world history. The lessons can be used as presented or adapted to fit your unique classroom needs. They are suitable for students in advanced middle school courses and high school courses (including AP). Adding the unique geographic perspective to history will enhance students’ understanding of history and aid the development of a deeper understanding of geography. Order your copy from the NCGE Store.

Canadian Tar Sands Controversy

Proposed Keystone XL PipelineBy Dr. Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, with Jane Nicholson. Reprinted with permission of

At the end of the summer, protestors lobbied in front of the White House to fight a 1,700-mile-long pipeline running from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast. The Keystone XL, as the pipeline is called, would carry oil from Canada’s tar sands, one of the largest but dirtiest sources of oil on earth.

Tar sands, also called oil sands, actually contain no tar. They are instead deposits in the earth made of clay, sand, water, and bitumen, a heavy, black, viscous crude oil, much like cold molasses. The bitumen cannot easily be separated from tar sands’ other components. Instead, it must be extracted from the tar sands, an expensive and complex process. Additionally, it requires two tons (1.8 metric tons) of tar sands to create one barrel of oil.

To extract the bitumen, tar sands are normally strip-mined or mined with open-pit methods. Alternatively, steam is injected into deep deposits to heat the sands, thus reducing the bitumen’s viscosity. This allows the bitumen to be pumped out like conventional crude oil.

Bitumen, however, is not ready to be refined when it leaves the earth. Because it is so viscous, bitumen must be diluted with lighter petroleum before it is transported by pipelines to ultimately be upgraded into synthetic crude oil.

Large deposits of tar sands exist in many countries, including the United States, Russia, and Middle Eastern countries. Canada and Venezuela, however, have the largest deposits of tar sands in the world. Together, they are estimated to hold about 3.6 trillion barrels
of oil. Comparatively, the world’s known crude oil reserves equal about 1.75 trillion barrels.

With about 1.7 trillion barrels of oil in Canada’s tar sands, also called the Athabasca oil sands, the country has moved ahead of Mexico and Saudi Arabia to become the largest supplier of oil and refined products to the United States. Currently, the United States imports about 780,000 barrels a day of tar sands oil from Canada, 60 percent of Canadian production.

Whether or not the United States should ramp up oil imports from Canada is the big question. Doing so would mean completion of the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline from northern Alberta to refineries in Texas.

Few people can argue that importing oil into the United States from Canada is better than importing it from the Middle East. According to a recent article in The Bellingham Herald, the Canadian government, the oil industry, and many in the U.S. Congress support increasing Canadian tar sands oil imports to the United States, including construction of the pipeline.

Nevertheless, while the United States undoubtedly needs plenty of oil, many, including the protestors in Washington, D.C., question whether it should come from Canada’s tar sands. There are two main arguments against the Keystone XL.

First, making liquid fuel from tar sands keeps the United States dependent on a very polluting source of energy. According to the Bellingham Herald article, the process required for steam injection and refining generates two to four times the amount of greenhouse gases per barrel of oil as conventionally produced oil.

The second argument is against the pipeline itself. While the Keystone XL could transport another 700,000 barrels of tar-sands oil to the United States every day, it carries substantial risks. Tar-sands oil is more corrosive in nature than conventional oil. Opponents of the Keystone XL say the tar-sands oil could corrode the pipeline leaving it at an increased risk for spills.

The article reports that the pipeline would stretch across the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska. The Ogallala is a shallow aquifer, one of the largest sources of freshwater in the world and crucial for the $20 billion agricultural operations of the region.

As controversy swirls around tar sands and the Keystone XL pipeline, Americans struggle to strike a balance between their energy needs and environmental pollution.

Neal Lineback is professor emeritus of geography at Appalachian State University. Co-author Mandy Lineback Gritzner is also a geographer. Technical editor Jane Nicholson is Appalachian State’s news director.