With the advent of commercial satellite imagery and freely available tools to use it, we can now analyze landscapes with a clarity previously reserved for spy agencies.  Google Maps/Earth has been a rather useful option not only for armchair geographers, but also for those of us who prefer doing field work.  To laymen, this tool allows an unprecedented access to Earth’s exploration from above.

In the context of the geography of conflict, to be able to “visit”—via satellite imagery—regions and countries engaged in territorial issues can be extremely rewarding.  At the same time, it is also a confirmation of the world’s cultural geographic complexity.  Each visit to a region in conflict answers many questions, yet almost always generates even more new questions.  This is the beauty of doing geographic research and analysis—it never becomes old or boring!

To illustrate my point, allow me to take you on brief exploration to various corners of the world.  But remember, no individual will ever “see” and certainly will not connect the spatial aspects in exactly the same manner as another.  People from different cultures, countries, political philosophies, or from any other background do indeed draw differing conclusions and opinions about the issues people face within a geographic region.  Thus, not only what we look at matters, but also how we understand and interpret it is extremely significant.

Figure 1(Link). Borderlands between Israel, Egypt, and the Gaza strip.  Note the zone of separation, sharp differences in urbanization patterns, and overall land use.

Figure 2. A view from the ground, looking westward from Israel to Gaza. (Photograph by the author.)

Figure 3 (Link). The island of Cyprus has been divided since 1974 into Greek (southern) and Turkish (northern) parts.  Can you identify the United Nations’ administered buffer zone that divides the two sides?

Figure 4 (Link). Georgia’s breakaway republic of Abkhazia has de facto independence with Russia’s support.  This and other nearby conflicts (e.g., South Ossetia) are among the unfortunate outcomes of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, still affecting Georgia a quarter century later.

Figure 5 (Link). Khyber Pass and the Torkham Gate on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  This is one of the most important transportation corridors in the region and, unsurprisingly, is an area of significant importance to various sides in Afghanistan’s seemingly never-ending conflict.

Figure 6 (Link). The North and South Korea borderland is the one of enormous difference.  It is impossible to not notice where one Korea ends and another begins.

Figure 7 (Link). Northern Ireland’s toponyms (place names) play an important role depending upon whether one is Irish Catholic or an Irish Protestant.  The view is of Londonderry/Derry, a city divided not only by a river.  Emotions here can run high when discussions about the Troubles arise.

Figure 8 (Link). Border dispute between Croatia and Slovenia in the Gulf of Piran is yet to be solved after a quarter century of debate since the countries’ independence from Yugoslavia.  A good amount of current conflicts and border disputes worldwide can be attributed to incredible past oversights in delineating boundaries (without geographers present) to avoid future issues.

Figure 9 (Link). Another oversight in delineating the boundaries: Point Roberts, United States.  Unknown to many Americans this is the only part of the “lower 48” that in order to visit by land requires leaving the country. Gone are the days when the United States considered a war against Canada in order to gain entire control of the Juan de Fuca straight.  Also, gone are the days when we could drive to Canada and back only with a driver’s license, expecting no annoyance at the border.

Figure 10 (Link).  Territorial claims and disputed territories, like the Falkland Islands (Malvinas for the Argentinians), are burning issues in the geography of conflict.  No region is immune from at least some sort of a territorial issue and, if the past is any indicator, this trend will continue for a long time. Tensions are always more heightened in the areas with potentially abundant natural resources like the Falkland Islands (oil and gas).

Moving Right Along

Each of the above examples has a very interesting historical background and is worth exploring further.  Do not stop there, because there are many other interesting corners of the world waiting to be visited through the Google Maps/Earth.  Keep in mind, however, that this is only a supplemental tool for true exploration, not a replacement for boots on the ground and a map in hand.  That is, assuming your willingness to be an enemy of a State.

Differing Landscapes of Conflict Viewed from Low Earth Orbit