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How elections are impacted by a 100 million year old coastline
Earth Science and Geology impact American social and political life in unexpected ways
Hale County in west central Alabama and Bamberg County in southern South Carolina are 450 miles apart. Both counties have a population of 16,000 of which around 60% are African American. The median households and per capita incomes are well below their respective state’s median, in Hale nearly $10,000 less. Both were named after confederate officers–Stephen Fowler Hale and Francis Marion Bamberg. And although Hale’s county seat is the self-proclaimed Catfish Capitol, pulling catfish out of the Edisto River in Bamberg County is a favorite past time.
These two counties share another unique feature. Amidst a blanket of Republican red both Hale and Bamberg voted primarily Democratic in the 2000, 2004, and again in the 2008 presidential elections. Indeed, Hale and Bamberg belong to a belt of counties cutting through the deep south–Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina–that have voted over 50% Democratic in recent presidential elections.
Why? A 100 million year old coastline.
During the Cretaceous, 139-65 million years ago, shallow seas covered much of the southern United States. These tropical waters were productive–giving rise to tiny marine plankton with carbonate skeletons which overtime accumulated into massive chalk formations. The chalk, both alkaline and porous, lead to fertile and well-drained soils in a band, mirroring that ancient coastline and stretching across the now much drier South. This arc of rich and dark soils in Alabama has long been known as the Black Belt.
But many, including Booker T. Washington, coopted the term to refer to the entire Southern band. Washington wrote in his 1901 autobiography, Up from Slavery, “The term was first used to designate a part of the country which was distinguished by the color of the soil. The part of the country possessing this thick, dark, and naturally rich soil…”
Over time this rich soil produced an amazingly productive agricultural region, especially for cotton. In 1859 alone a harvest of over 4,000 cotton bales was not uncommon within the belt. And yet, just tens of miles north or south this harvest was rare. Of course this level of cotton production required extensive labor.
As Washington notes further in his autobiography, “The part of the country possessing this thick, dark, and naturally rich soil was, of course, the part of the South where the slaves were most profitable, and consequently they were taken there in the largest numbers. Later and especially since the war, the term seems to be used wholly in a political sense—that is, to designate the counties where the black people outnumber the white.”
The legacy of ancient coastlines, chalk, soil, cotton, and slavery can still be seen today. African Americans make up over 50%, in some cases over 85%, of the population in Black Belt counties. As expected this has and continues to deeply influence the culture of the Black Belt. J. Sullivan Gibson writing in 1941 on the geology of the Black Belt noted, “The long-conceded regional identity of the Black Belts roots no more deeply its physical fundament of rolling prairie soil than in its cultural, social, and economic individuality.” And so this plays out in politics.
This Black Belt with its predominantly African American population consistently votes overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates in presidential elections. The pattern is especially pronounced on maps when a Republican candidate has secured the presidency as Bush did in 2000 and 2004. In Southern states where a Republican secures the nomination, almost the entirety of Black Belt counties still lean Democratic. This leads to a Blue Belt of Democratic counties across the South. Even when Clinton, a Democrat, overwhelmingly took most Southern states, the percentages of those voting Democrat was still highest in the Black Belt counties.
But the Black Belt has not always been visible on maps during elections. The Voting Rights Act, outlawing discriminatory voting practices, was passed in 1965. As result, a year earlier in the 1964 elections larger numbers of African Americans were excluded from the polls in Southern states. And, in turn, the blue band we see today was not visible.
Long heralded as the Black Belt for rich dark soils and later for the rich African American culture and population, it may equally be referred to as the Blue Belt to reflect both its oceanic geology and the political leanings that resulted from it.
About the author: Craig McClain is the Executive Director of the Lousiana University Marine Consortium. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic.
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Now we move to further data, from the original article, Geology and Election 2000: Overview, by Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences,University of Wisconsin – Green Bay
On the map of electoral returns for the presidential election of 2000 is a feature instantly recognizable to a geologist: in the otherwise pro-Bush South, an arcuate band of pro-Gore counties sweeps from eastern Mississippi, across Alabama and Georgia and into the Carolinas.
My geologist’s eye was immediately drawn to this arc because it coincides almost exactly with a series of rock units on the Geologic Map of the United States. Why would election returns follow rock outcrops?
In the map below, Cretaceous rock units (139-65 million years old) are shown in shades of green. Older rock units are in gray, younger ones in yellow. The complex NE-trending patterns in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina are deformed rocks of the Appalachians. In NW Alabama, the older rocks are flat-lying layers of the continental interior.
Comparison with the geologic maps shows that the arc actually consists of three segments.
- In Mississippi and Alabama the pro-Gore band of counties corresponds very closely with the units labeled uK – upper Cretaceous. We might suspect that the most likely explanation for this part of the arc has to do with economic patterns dictated by the soils. Most of the electoral and demographic patterns associated with the band end abruptly in NE Mississippi.
- In Georgia, the Cretaceous outcrop band is very narrow. It is surprising how clear the pro-Gore band is in Georgia considering how narrow and discontinuous the outcrop band of Cretaceous rocks is. This part of the arc may have less to do with the rocks themselves than the boundary between the Appalachians and the Coastal Plain.
- In South Carolina, however, the band of Democratic counties is well defined but is consistently seaward of the Cretaceous rock units. In fact, on some maps there seems to be a weak anti-correlation between the Cretaceous rocks in South Carolina and the political and demographic trends noted for the other three states. However, the South Carolina portion of the arc turns out to be consistent in election returns and a variety of other demographic factors.
This band shows up with varying degrees of prominence for previous elections as well. It shows the same correlation with rock units in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia and the same lack of correlation in South Carolina. It further shows strong correlation with demographic trends.
The Coastal plain rocks slope gently seaward toward the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, a structure called a homocline. I therefore propose to call the arc of pro-Democratic counties, which is reflected in a variety of demographic trends, the Cretaceous Homoclinal Arc of Demography, which can be abbreviated by an acronym that more than anything else symbolizes the election of 2000: CHAD.
(more to come)
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At less than a million miles from Pluto leading up to closest approach flyby on Tuesday, the New Horizons probe is sending back outright spectacular images of the dwarf planet and its largest moon. Every batch of best-ever images sparks speculation on what geology underlays the features on these distant, rocky worlds. Geomorphology is the large-scale study of landforms, unravelling the story of how they formed like a murder mystery on geologic timescales of millennia. We’re just starting to get back images from the New Horizons probe that are detailed enough to start guessing at the geomorphology of Pluto and now of its largest moon Charon….