During their first United States tour in 1964, a reporter asked Ringo Starr, “How do you find America,” The Beatles drummer didn’t miss a beat and replied, “Turn left at Greenland!”

Well, perhaps it was that simple for Mr. Starr and his friends, but sometimes geography isn’t quite that straightforward, which is why I find it the most fascinating of subjects to contemplate.

Geography is so much more than just maps and locations.  Geography poses questions about who we are and how we got to be this way.  In fact, it’s impossible to truly understand history and geopolitics without first having a basic understanding of geography.

It’s been said that geography is the “mother lode” of sciences.  Meteorology, climatology, ecology, geology, oceanography, demographics, cartography, agriculture, economics, and political science can all be related back to geographic factors.  But geography isn’t tidy and just how contiguous land masses and large bodies of water are categorized isn’t always simple.  For example, why do we have North, South and Central America, but only two of those ‘Americas’ are “official” continents?

We need look no farther than our own borders to see the effect geography has had on making us the nation we are today.  Unlike anywhere else on earth, our system of navigable waterways, from the Erie Canal in New York State through the Great Lakes and to the rivers of the Mississippi Valley, i.e., the inland and intercoastal waterways, have served to unify this country economically, and culturally, and is a primary reason we congealed into one nation stretching from sea to shining sea.

By the way, exactly what is a “shining sea?”  Obviously, the term is a colloquialism relating not to “seas” per se, but to an arbitrary division of the world’s oceans—the Artic, Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific.  While I listed the names of four oceans, one would be equally correct if they said there were five oceans, because Nat Geo cartographers now say the swift current circling Antarctica keeps the waters there distinct and worthy of their own name: the Southern Ocean.

Taking this a step further and if you REALLY want to get technical, and who doesn’t want technical accuracy, a good argument can be made that there’s just one ocean, i.e., the great sheet of salt water that comprises about 72% of the earth’s surface and surrounds the planet’s great land masses.

And speaking of oceans, how many of us know the differences between an ocean and a sea?  This can be a bit confusing because a sea is actually a part of an ocean.  Ah, you say, but then wouldn’t that make the Gulf of Mexico a sea?  And what about the Hudson Bay, isn’t that a part of the Arctic or Atlantic Oceans, making that a sea as well?

Before you drive yourself crazy, allow me to illustrate the difference between a gulf and a bay, which isn’t always so clear either.  Normally, a gulf is a body of water that’s larger than a bay; but it can also be a body of water with an extensive inlet penetrating far into land such as the Persian Gulf, which has now become a “region” that seems to keep popping up in the news.

To convolute matters further, some gulfs and bays are larger than seas, and just how did they come to be classified?  Earth scientists classify seas as “large bodies of saltwater partially enclosed by land and subdivisions of the world’s oceans.”  The earth has eleven (11) principal seas:  1) The Mediterranean Sea, the world’s largest sea, whose name means “Middle of the Earth.  2) The Caribbean Sea named for the Carib Indians but made famous by Johnny Depp’s 2003 movie release, “Pirates of the Caribbean.”  3) The Bering Sea, which lies between Siberia and Alaska and may once have supported a land-bridge between continents.  4) The Sea of Okhotsk, another large body of water in the northern Pacific few people except sailors and Russian fishermen are aware of and 5) The South China Sea—an arm of western Pacific, bordered by such exotic places as Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia

Then of course there’s the East China Sea (#6) which lies between China and Southern Japan; #7 is the Sea of Japan, located between the Japanese islands and Korea; #8 is the North Sea and where the Brits get most of their oil and #9 is the Baltic Sea, which lies between Scandinavia and north-central Europe.

But didn’t I just indicate there were eleven principal seas, what about the other two?  Well, the last two seas aren’t even called seas.  One is the Gulf of Mexico (a gulf is an extensive ocean inlet penetrating far into land) and the other is Hudson Bay, the massive “inland sea” in north-central Canada that merges seamlessly with the Atlantic and Artic Oceans.

Of course, there are the Black, Red and Yellow Seas, as well as the lesser-known Java, Sultawesi, Chukohi, Arafura and Timor Seas amongst numerous others, but it’s the Aral, Dead and Caspian Seas that lead to even more geographic confusion because these three aren’t really seas at all—they’re lakes with misleading names.  In the strictest of geographical terms, a lake is any large body of water surrounded by land.

The Caspian Sea is the world’s largest lake with 144,000 square miles of surface area.  (It also lies 90 feet below sea level—but let’s not go there just yet.)  And for those of us who would prefer to focus our attention closer to home, there’s Lake Superior, one of the five “Great Lakes,” located in the upper Midwest between the U.S. and Canada that represents the largest body of fresh water on earth (32,000 square miles.)

Nevertheless, it is Lake Baikal in southern Siberia that to my mind represents the most fascinating of the world’s “great” lakes (that’s great with a small “g.”)  Baikal is the deepest and oldest lake on earth.  And while it constitutes less than one ten thousandth of one percent of the earth’s surface water, it contains almost a fourth of the world’s fresh water.

Codifying the earth’s features isn’t always as simple as it appears and as I stated at the top of this commentary, geography is a topic of endless fascination.  And now that we’re clear about oceans, seas, and bays, does anyone want to examine the differences among arroyos, canyons, crevasses, gorges, gulches, gullies, gaps, and ravines?

Quote of the day: “When he told me he grew up in New Mexico, I told him I thought it was cool that people from other countries played football”—Terry Bradshaw


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