I’ve long maintained that I write the Twelve Mile Circle primarily for myself although I’m glad other people seem to enjoy coming along for the ride. Case in point, why else would I devote five separate articles to my recent Dust Bowl Experience when I know that 12MC readers prefer geography contests and the like? Nonetheless I’m afraid that today I’m going to sound like I’m ranting just a little bit and there’s no way around it. I’ll try to get through it quickly and then reward you for bearing with me.
I’m displeased at the moment with reddit, particularly the content model used for its MapPorn subreddit. I have no disagreement with its intent to make a wide audience aware of great maps. That’s a worthy goal. It’s their means of sharing information that frosts me. It links to original images, to maps created outside of reddit, but not to the underlying articles where they appear.
That means content creators, the very people who worked hard to produce these maps, are on the receiving end of hundreds or thousands of hits on the image they created without receiving a single new visitor to the website itself. Many other subreddits link directly to website articles — no complaints there and in fact a big "thank you" because I’ve benefited from that in the past — so my issue is only with the subreddits that lift images without giving something back to the people who created them. It’s frustrating to see an image that one has created resonate very broadly with a large audience and have no way to attract the audience to one’s larger body of work.
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Here’s the Little Trouble Maker
Exhibit A: the 12MC article on Alternate Rhode Islands that I posted in May 2012. It generated about an average amount of attention at the time and resulted in a handful of comments. Someone posted the image on the MapPorn subreddit a couple of months ago where it created a large amount of interest and 225 comments as of this morning. It would have been nice if the original article I wrote had attracted a similar level of attention. I did the work. Reddit got the benefit.
Then it spread to several other subreddits. I changed the map to deliver a little passive-aggressive notation after I watched the first few thousand hits suck away my website bandwidth, "Dear reddit: if you’re gonna keep using this image, could you at least visit the website?" Perhaps one person noticed that addition and threw me a bone because I did get a comment on the article recently. Thank you, random visitor.
The final straw happened when people started creating derivative works with the same underlying theme, expanding the analysis to apply to other small states. I noticed one such example was created for Connecticut. Independently, Steve over at the ever-wonderful Connecticut Museum Quest sent a copy to me, noting that he’d pulled it from a Connecticut radio station website. The idea was spreading and once again 12MC got bupkis.
It’s time for me to play North Korea to reddit’s USA, by acting all crazy and belligerent and sucking the fun from their thread. Before anyone can create further derivative works, I hereby present the map of ALL U.S. counties larger than ANY U.S. state.
You’ll want to open this in another tab to see it at normal size and in its original glory.
First, let’s talk about source data. Square mileage at the county level came from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder. State level data came from the U.S. National Atlas.
That second source created a minor change from my earlier version that I’d pulled from the Rhode Island Office of the Secretary of State. One would think that two official government sources would agree, but they did not. Rhode Island said it had 1,214 square miles (including water) while the U.S. said it had 1,231. I went with the U.S. figures this time because I wanted a consistent source across all states. Several counties dropped from the earlier list as a result (Mobile, AL; Lycoming, PA; Costilla, CO; Starr, TX, Brown, NE; Atascosa, TX; Mineral, MT; Slope, NC). I adjusted the map accordingly.
Next, I took the states by size and plotted them on a spreadsheet to compare to county sizes. I posted it in a shared Google Doc if you’d care to take a look. It’s "view only" so don’t worry about breaking it. The document will be fine.
I used those data to put counties into distinct classes. For example:
- Rhode Island-class counties remained in the familiar red color. Those were counties larger than Rohode Island, but only Rhode Island. This was the most common category
- Delaware-class counties became a grayish-blue. Those were counties larger than Rhode Island or Delaware. They were also quite common.
- Connecticut-class counties began with what I guess is sort-of a tangerine color. Those were counties larger than Rhode Island, Delaware or Connecticut.
- And so on…
One can also interpret this going in the opposite direction. Want a map of counties larger than Rhode Island? Every colored county qualifies. A map of counties larger than Delaware? Remove the red counties. Larger than Connecticut? Remove the red and grayish-blue counties.
California’s San Bernardino County (the largest in the Lower 48) was rendered in dark blue which made it larger than Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont or Maryland. That’s impressive although still somewhat reasonable. Contrast that with Alaska’s Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area which is larger than all but four states: Montana, California, Texas and Alaska itself.
I might as well elaborate on Alaska since I know I’ll get comments otherwise if I try to duck the issue. I do realize that Census Areas in Alaska are artificial constructs intended to deal with the uniqueness of the Unorganized Borough. If I were to look at the Unorganized Borough in totality then it would be larger than 49 states. By the way, the largest organized borough, North Slope Borough, is larger than "only" 39 states.
There are plenty of fun anomalies buried in these data too. I love that Hawaii includes a Delaware-class county due to the overwhelming influence of the "Big Island" even though it’s the fourth smallest state. Also, Maine has multiple Rhode Island-class and Delaware-class counties, plus a Hawaii-class county even though it’s the twelfth smallest state.
Take that MapPorn subreddit!
Something has to be the smallest. Most of us, or at least those of us in the 12MC audience from the United States, probably know that Rhode Island claims this honor for the U.S. Exactly how small is it though? One hears frequently of individual counties within the United States as being "larger than Rhode Island." It’s certainly true but is it a rare occurrence or is it something altogether more common?
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Little Rhody makes up for its diminutive size by having a much longer official name though, "Rhode Island and Providence Plantations." Some might consider that a bit of a Napoleon Complex although the truth is rather mundane. The name represents the merger of two predecessor colonies, so take heart that Rhode Island could have been even smaller than it is today. Rhode Island formed after the banishment of Roger Williams from the Massachusetts Bay Colony due to religious differences in 1636. Tucked into a corner as it were, Rhode Island didn’t have the same opportunities to gather or solidify territorial claims further west. It became even more of an outlier as the new nation formed and expanded to the Pacific.
Rhode Island encompasses 1,214 square miles (3,144 square kilometers). Actually, I’m being generous since that calculation also includes its territorial waters. If one were to examine only dry land it would cover only 1,045 square miles. However, for the sake of comparison, I wanted to give Rhode Island the full benefit of the doubt and chose to inflate its size to the largest plausible number.
From there it was pretty easy to consult the U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder where I downloaded square mileage and population numbers for each of the 3,143 individual counties and county-equivalents. I knew Rhode Island was small but I didn’t realize just how small it was until I calculated the results and created a map. There are an astounding 504 counties in the U.S. that are larger than Rhode Island. That total would jump to 622 counties if I considered only Rhode Island’s dry land.
Rhode Island — including its territorial waters — is smaller than each of the counties marked in red. Practically every county west of the Great Plains is larger. There are others scattered around the eastern half of the nation including one that actually borders on Rhode Island itself: Worcester County, Massachusetts (map).
I’ve not calculated this as a percentage of the overall United States landmass although it’s safe to say it’s considerable. Eyeballing it I’d conclude the larger counties cover somewhere between a third to a half of the Lower 48 states. Throw in Alaska where only a tiny handful of boroughs are smaller than Rhode Island, and I’ll bet it represents at least half of all U.S. acreage.
You can open that image within another tab or window if you’d like to take a closer look. I’ve shrunk it down to fit into the size limitations of this article even though the underlying graphics file is considerably larger.
This got me thinking about "Alternate Rhode Islands." Surely, the preponderance of larger counties contain thousands of empty acres with nary a soul living amongst them. It’s unfair to compare Kenedy County, Texas and its 416 residents (which we’ve discussed before) to Rhode Island’s population of 1,052,567, as an example. Let’s set those sparsely-settled counties aside.
I still felt that there were probably a decent set of counties both larger than Rhode Island and greater in population. A quick data sort revealed a dozen instances. Each of these could easily become a standalone state based upon Rhode Island criteria. I’ve also proposed a potential capital city for each of these fictional states:
|Potential State …
||Derived from …
||Capital City …
||West Palm Beach
Additionally, I could add a couple of counties that are " near misses" with populations just below Rhode Island: Pima County, Arizona and Fresno County, California.
I then added a final dimension in an attempt to determine which of these counties were most like Rhode Island in terms of population density. Rhode Island has about 867 people per square mile. Some of the counties had considerably greater population densities. Los Angeles and Harris both had nearly triple the density of Rhode Island. Imagine the behemoth of a state either one of those could become should they ever split away.
The best Rhode Island proxies are King and San Diego. King is probably the better example. It comes quite close to being of similar size and population to Rhode Island. I’ll bear that in mind the next time I’m in Seattle. It could legitimately anchor another Rhode Island-like state.
I’m fascinated by the concept of population centers. In the United States the U.S. Census bureau defines the Mean Center of Population as: the point at which an imaginary, flat, weightless, and rigid map of the United States would balance perfectly if weights of identical value were placed on it so that each weight represented the location of one person on the date of the census. Over time that point will change. The U.S. calculation shows a steady westward march with a distinct bend towards the southwest in the last half-century.
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons in the public domain
I’m not going to focus much more attention on the U.S. mean center of population. I think it’s already pretty well understood. If you’d like to explore this set of issues in further depth you can watch the Census Bureau map animation and head over to their dedicated site. It includes everything you’d possibly want to know including how they calculate it.
Instead, I’ll take things down a layer and examine some individual state centers of population.
View 2010 Centers of Population in a larger map
The U.S. Census Bureau calculates state centers every decade so it’s easy enough to drop the lat/long coordinates into a simple Google Map. I did this for the 2010 calculations (blue push pins), and just for fun I did the same thing for the 2000 calculations (red push pins). I’ve embedded the resulting tiny map above for illustrative purposes. You’ll probably want to open this in another tab if you’d like to explore it further. You’ll find two pins per state if you drill down far enough. I haven’t forgotten about readers in Alaska and Hawaii either. Zoom out and you’ll find those too.
The differences in location between the red and blue pins signifies a movement of the mean center of population for each state over the prior decade. Bear in mind that these represent two points in time. They might suggest a basic direction and a possible magnitude but don’t consider them too precisely. Obviously I could improve this by adding a few more decades like the U.S. map but I didn’t have enough time to enter several hundred more data points this morning. It might be worth trying that for a few select locations in a future article if anyone is interested. I’ll have to think about that (not sure where I’d get all the data at the moment).
My mind naturally wanders towards anomalies.
View 2010 Centers of Population in a larger map
A large metropolitan area in an otherwise sparsely-settled state will pull the center of population closer towards its orbit. The effect is particularly noticeable for dominant cities located near state boundaries. Some of these are intuitive. Las Vegas dominates Nevada from the extreme south, even with a couple of smaller cities like Reno and Carson City to the west trying to offset it. The population center still gravitates towards Las Vegas. Similarly, the Salt Lake Valley pulls Utah’s population center towards the north-central end of the state, to the outskirts of Salt Lake City itself.
Oregon surprised me a bit. I realized that southeastern Oregon was vast and empty so I fully expected the center to land closer the Pacific coast. I didn’t realize how far Portland would pull it north, though.
View 2010 Centers of Population in a larger map
Nebraska and Kansas confirmed my suspicions. Omaha and Lincoln dominate Nebraska. The football stadium at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is sometimes called the state’s "third largest city" on game day; a clear demonstration of that skew. The Kansas City metropolitan performs a similar function in Kansas.
Many of the Great Plains states follow this pattern. They are transitional areas in a sense. They straddle eastern and western parts of the U.S., with people concentrated towards the east and open grasslands towards the west. The population continues to move towards the cities which are found in the east.
New York clearly shows the greatest imbalance for Atlantic coastal states. New York City and Long Island pull the mean center of population appreciably towards the southeast.
View 2010 Centers of Population in a larger map
Again, let’s bear in mind that I’m using only two points of data. Nonetheless, one can observe fairly meaningful movement in West Virginia and Virginia. Both are feeling the gravitational tug of the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Northern Virginia experienced tremendous growth over the decade. The same was true for the three eastern panhandle counties of West Virginia (Morgan, Berkeley, and Jefferson) which grew at about 25% between 2000 and 2010.
Alaska provides another interesting case study. The mean center of population moved quite a bit albeit it’s a large state that shows greater movement in terms of pure mileage anyway. Anchorage tugged the center towards its borders as one would expect. There’s also a significant northward component I hadn’t anticipated that demonstrates the growing pull of the Mat-Su Valley. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough north of Anchorage is a rapidly expanding exurb of the city. It jumped from 60,000 people in 2000 to 90,000 people in 2010 — a phenomenal 50% growth. That might not seem like a lot of people in terms of raw numbers but it creates a meaningful impact to a low-population state like Alaska.
By contrast, the northeast United States displays very stable centers of population. Connecticut’s center, as an example moved maybe 1,500 feet over the decade.
Anyone Want to Visit?
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
People visit confluences, highpoints and directional extremes, so why not centers of population? Best of all they change every decade, refreshing the list and providing plenty of opportunities to return to each of the 50 states. Some of these are tough spots in remote areas or even out to sea as in the case of Hawaii. I think one of the tougher locations, if not the toughest, might be Nevada. The population center lands squarely on the Nevada Test Range. The military might not look too kindly upon interlopers unless one wants to see the center of population at Guantanamo Bay.
There are plenty of easy occurrences near roads in well-developed neighborhoods. I’d argue that Minnesota is easiest of all: the spot appears to fall directly upon Interstate 94 northwest of Minneapolis. It’s not just near I-94 or adjacent to I-94, but right on the very road surface of the westbound lanes. Thousands of people visit Minnesota’s exact mean center of population every day. I wonder if anyone every realizes it?
I’m going to crown Nevada as the grand champion of state population centers. It’s skewed heavily away from the geographic center (towards Las Vegas), it’s moving rapidly (again, fueled by Las Vegas) but it’s remote and inaccessible (middle of the desert on a military facility).
I couldn’t feature every peculiarity. Doubtless there are other interesting stories waiting to be uncovered between the push pins if you choose to hunt for them.