A vote that could redraw the map of central Europe by joining Crimea to Russia has professional cartographers like Juan Valdes on high alert.
In the wake of a referendum scheduled for March 16, Valdes will likely convene a 10-person committee at the National Geographic Society in downtown Washington to determine how the region should be depicted on thousands of print and digital maps. Russia’s drive to annex Crimea, a region transferred to Ukraine by the Soviet Union in 1954, has drawn condemnation from the U.S. and Europe, which have threatened to impose sanctions if Moscow doesn’t back down. Today Russia warned that Ukraine’s government has lost control of the country, sparking concern the Kremlin may extend a military intervention.
While redrawing maps to reflect new boundaries is simpler in an era of electronic publishing, doing so is as politically charged as ever. In 2010, an error by Google Maps helped trigger a border dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Should the reunification be approved, mapmakers risk legitimizing one side over the other if they redraw Russia’s boundaries to include Crimea and the U.S. and the United Nations refuse to recognize the vote result.
“Maps instill a lot of passion in people, individuals, nations,” said Valdes, director of editorial research, whose honorary title is The Geographer. “So we have to be very cautious. We have to make sure that we deal with the reality of the moment.”
Unless they are propagandists, cartographers are typically a conservative bunch, according to Jim Akerman, curator of maps for Chicago’s Newberry Library, whose collections range from ancient maps to almost every atlas, road and railroad map published by Rand McNally.
“It matters where maps are made,” Akerman said. Some Russian mapmakers may be quick, following the plebiscite, to redraw borders to reassert a Russian claim to the territory dating to Catherine the Great, he said. “Others are very slow to make changes unless they’re supported by treaties.”
Google Inc.’s mapping service uses broken lines to delineate disputed territories like Abkhazia, which broke away from Georgia in 2008, Kosovo, Kashmir and disputed boundaries between Egypt and Sudan.
When dealing with territorial disputes, most U.S. mapping companies and commercial cartographers take their direction from the U.S. State Department, said Mark Monmonier, distinguished professor of geography at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.
That doesn’t always keep mapmakers out of trouble.
In a blog post, Google said flawed State Department data led to the mapping error that triggered the 2010 dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Daniel Ortega, the Nicaraguan president, wanted to dredge San Juan River to make way for an inter-oceanic canal to compete with Panama’s. The director of the dredging project told a local newspaper he used Google Maps as a guide when leading troops onto a small island claimed by Costa Rica. The border dispute still hasn’t been resolved.
During the Balkan conflict that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia more than 20 years ago, Akerman recalls seeing an influx of people from that region “rushing to look at old maps in order to justify their contemporary position,” he said. “I would expect we’ll have people coming and wanting to look at old maps of Ukraine and Russia.”
Rand McNally, a publisher based in Skokie, Illinois, isn’t planning any hasty changes to its maps, atlases, textbooks and globes and navigational tools after the Crimea vote.
“We wait for the State Department to alert us of any political changes,” said Amy Krouse, a spokeswoman.
“When recognizing claim lines we consult a number of sources and authorities such as the nation-state, UN member or by the territory whose status is recognized by one of these sources,” Google said in an e-mailed statement. “We don’t do the drawing or redrawing for borders, but work with sources to get the best interpretation of the border or claim lines.”
The National Geographic Society doesn’t shy from cartography’s gray areas. For example, its maps use shading and a detailed note to readers to connote Northern Cyprus, a territory within the island nation that is only officially recognized as autonomous by Turkey.
“Our policy is to map de facto,” said Valdes, who has spent 38 years with the mapping unit he now heads. “We map the reality of the situation, on the ground at the moment.
‘‘In such situations, we have a policy where that entity is classified as an area of special status,’’ he said. ‘‘There’s a long list of these areas, and the list may get longer before the month is out.’’
As to Crimea, National Geographic will wait to hear the outcome of the referendum, monitoring the situation very closely to see how the U.S. State Department and governments worldwide respond. Valdes will also seek out ‘‘as many new source maps as we can get our hands on.’’
‘‘I will gather all of that information, sit down with our map policy committee, which is staffed by the higher echelons here at National Geographic and decide how best to proceed cartographically with Crimea on all our maps,’’ Valdes said.
The deliberations will culminate on a vote by the committee, Valdes said, a process that dates back to the founding of scientific and educational institution in 1888. He’ll then draft a memo and a sample map outlining to staff how National Geographic’s database will be altered and how map files should be updated.
While Google’s treatment of Crimea isn’t likely to involve more than inserting a broken line around the isthmus on its Internet and Waze products, Valdes said he wishes it ‘‘were that simple.” He will have to oversee changes to thousands of print and electronic maps.