North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The origins of the major Baltic Sea cities

Of the five major cities lying more or less along the 60th north parallel, four are connected to the Baltic Sea. Trading and fishing were the common threads for three of these cities which grew from humble outposts.

Some of the early groupings of peoples and societies in the Scandinavian/Denmark/Baltic Sea region during the years of 1200-1400. Note that Helsinki and St.Petersburg don't show up yet. Graphic from "Scandinavia1219" by MasterOfHisOwnDomain in Wikimedia.

Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn was an early trading center between the Russian and Scandinavian peoples. Though the town site had less than 1000 inhabitants right up into the middle of the 14th century (1350), it had become a prize and "base camp" for the Teutonic Knights and the Kingdom of Denmark during centuries-long expansion, some of which is referred to as the "Northern Crusades." These religiously inspired blends of conquest and piety occurred in the early 13th century when Christianity was forcibly imposed on the local population. Nonetheless, by the late 1400's, the population of Tallinn was 6000-7000, and well on its way to being the capital city of what we know as Estonia.

So, if nothing else, one can look up what the "Northern Crusades" was all about. By the way, name 'Tallinn' is actually derived from the Estonian words 'taani linnus,' meaning 'Danish castle.'

Stockholm, Sweden

The name Stockholm is first heard of in the Chronicle of Eric (Eriks krönikan), probably written in the early 1300s. According to this chronicle Stockholm was founded by Birger Jarl in 1252 - the name Stockholm refers to the town in between the bridges.

According to the website,, Stockholm was built much because of the waterways. "The land was high in these days, making it impossible to travel by boat or ship between Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea. Instead, everything on the vessels, brought for the purpose of trade, had to be reloaded in Stockholm. The goods transported were; iron, copper, tar and fur. Being located in a strategic spot, as it were, trade was an important factor, and, therefore, it became vital to fortify the islands of the inner city with a wall."

Stockholm (big pink area) is the consolidation point of Lake Malaren to the West, and the Baltic Sea to the East. Graphic at

Helsinki, Finland

With the two older cities now referenced, modern day Helsinki came into being when Sweden’s King Gustavus Vasa founded the town on the mouth of Vantaanjoki River in 1550 to compete with Tallinn for Baltic Sea trade. King Gustav intended the town - originally called Helsingfors - to consolidate trade in the southern part of Finland and provide a competitor to Reval (which was the name for Tallinn early on). Info from

Russia conquered Finland in the early 1800s, with Finland regaining its independence only in 1917 as the first World War commenced. Early during the Russian rule, and after a great fire in 1808 destroyed much of the town, a German architect, Carl Ludwig Engel, gave Helsinki its wide layout - known as "Empire" style, including tree lined avenues, and space between buildings, so the wooden structures would not be prone to fires. Interestingly, Engel had previously held the position of town architect for Tallinn ...

Senate Square in Helsinki, the legacy of Carl Engel. Photo from

St Petersburg, Russia

The youngest city of these major 60th parallel north metropolis's, St Petersburg was founded by Tsar Peter the Great on 27 May 1703. Saint Petersburg was capital of Russia for more than two hundred years (1712–1728, 1732–1918), before the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 moved the capital to a more distant and safer location at Moscow.

In the convoluted history of the lands bordering the Baltic Sea, Sweden held much of Estonia, including Tallinn at the time called Reval, as well as the town of Nyen. Russia gained that land and city as the new century began, and the Tsar Peter the Great took the Swedish fortress of Nyenskans and the tiny accompanying settlement of Nyen, on the Neva river with plans already in mind. Graphic from

From, we read, "Peter himself went to Amsterdam and pretended to be a simple worker serving [the Russian embassy there] - just to get the taste of real life and first-hand experience. On his return to Russia, Peter was determined to build a true European city in his own country, something like Amsterdam, his favorite at the time. He knew he couldn't improve Moscow, which was definitely Russian, so he decided to built a new city. Peter chose nice a strategic spot at the shore of Baltic Sea, which was a desolate swamp, uninhabited no man's land."

True to his decisive character, Peter ordered [...] thousands of peasants to the area and cover the swamp with the ground. Many people simply died because of the hard manual labor and cold. The obsessive attempt to replicate Amsterdam on the swampy land worked out, after years of work and several thousand deaths. After the city was built, Peter ordered the rich merchants and intellectuals to move there from Moscow. Those who refused, risked getting out of favor with the emperor, so many followed the orders. That is why nowadays St. Petersburg is sometimes called the city on bones."

The tidy look of this map of St Petersburg hides the cost of its construction. Nevertheless, the Tsar had his modern city on the Baltic Sea, here looking west through the Gulf of Finland. Graphic from For a more detailed history of St Petersburg and its Swedish roots, read here.

As we leave these four major cities, we should remember that Sweden in its glory days looked eastward to the Baltic Sea where it's empire collided with Russia's western expansion plans. The other major northern city, Oslo, Norway, was the center of the Norwegian vikings, along with their Denmark "cousins." These peoples looked westward for their expansion and have a different history.

Another post for that city and people ...

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Five far north cities

Previously, we looked at the 60th parallels - 2/3s of the way from the equator to either the north or south poles. A cold and stormy ocean is found in the South, while in the north, mainly wilderness and small villages.

But there is an amazing regional exception - five major cities, four of whom are capitals of nations, are located in a cluster along the 60th parallel north.

Oslo, Norway; Stockholm, Sweden; Helsinki, Finland; Tallinn, Estonia, and the major Russian city of St. Petersburg. All lie in a nearly straight line close to the 60th northern parallel. Their combined population is approximately 10.3 million individuals (Oslo is 1.5 million, Stockholm is 2.1 million, Helsinki is 1.2 million, Tallinn is .4 million, and St Petersburg is 5.1 million) Graphic from

Once we realize how unique these population centers are, in that they lie so far north, we can appreciate anew the concept of the "Nordic" countries, and for that matter the Baltic sea with which they all touch.

While Oslo, Norway, technically is situated on the east edge of the North Sea, the rest are on this shallow Baltic sea. Photo from

Urban life in these major population centers is much like any other modern metropolis, though nowhere else do such large numbers of people live with dark cold winters, and celebrate with such fervor the summer solstices. (Teatree notes, of course, that there two smaller, but still notable cities: Anchorage, Alaska, and Reykjavik, Iceland.)

Helsinki citizens celebrate the summer solstice with historic costumes and symbols. Photo from

Stockholm, Sweden, like any other major modern city, experiences tensions of income inequality, and more recently, rising ambivalence towards an unending stream of immigrants that soak up social benefits. Photo from

It is not all spectacular summers and touristy scenes, as this modest Oslo neighborhood in winter shows. Photo from

At least a sunny day during the winter, here in St Petersburg, lifts the spirits during the "frozen months." Photo from

And Christmas in these lands (Tallinn, Estonia) is the quintessential setting. Photo from

There are likely a few more nuggets of interest in this concentration of northern population before we leave them behind.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The 60th parallel north

When looking at a globe, the 60th parallel north is pretty far up the curve towards the North pole, in fact 2/3rds of the way. The Arctic circle is still further north, its parallel is 66 + degrees and it is the line where the sun disappears for 24 straight hours in the winter and stays above the horizon for one full day during the summer.

In Canada, the 60th parallel north is also the line delineating the country's territories from its provinces. Graphic from The Economist.

What is most interesting is to compare the 60th parallel south with that of the north. Looking at the globe again, there is essentially no land mass on the 60th parallel - just ocean. (Though the continental Antarctic land mass of the Southern pole is rather phenomenal itself.)

The 60th parallel south is all cold water ... Graphic from

Another thing about the 60th parallels - both north and south. This latitude is where the Arctic and Antarctic polar air masses sink to the earth in a somewhat closed cell or loop (see graphic below). And where there is no land mass to interfere with or influence that sinkage, ie. the 60th parallel south, it is also especially windy besides being cold. A fascinating read on the science of south swells here.

Warmed air on the equator is eventually mixed with the cold polar air. Their mixing tends to occur most dramatically at certain latitudes.

One last point. Earth's land masses at the equator are traveling a lot faster than their counterpart masses at the 60th parallel north (as there are no land masses at 60th parallel south), because they have a lot more distance to travel in a 24 hour period. Hence, the very quick sunrise and sunset at the equator - a matter of 15-20 minutes from dark to light and vice versa. That is on top of the length of daylight varying little compared to that experienced at the 60th parallels.

The Peter and Paul Fortress at St Petersburg, Russia, in front of a long lingering sunset due to the city's 60th parallel location. Photo from