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The Saudi Gazette Article


The Degree Confluence Project

Peter Harrigan, The Saudi Gazette

2200 years ago a Greek called Hipparchus came up with the coordinate system of latitude and longitude. Even then, it was possible to work out the imaginary and equidistant parallels of latitude that girdle the earth. Ancient Greeks and later the Arabs were able to measure latitude with surprising accuracy. But the meridians of longitude, great circles passing through the poles, presented a far greater challenge and it would be nearly another two millennia – after two centuries of The Great Pursuit of the Longitude - before accurate calculations of longitude could be worked out at sea.

In recent years, the significance of coordinates has take on a new and grotesque [cross hairs] significance. The proliferation of nuclear weapons in the ‘Cold War’ led to a crucial race for superior military navigation.

In his book on the origin and development of navigational science, From Sails to Satellites, J.E.D. Williams argues that modern navigational science has not only revolutionized the conduct of war it has transformed its aims and objectives. Navigation has for long been a major spur to scientific discovery but "only in modern times has navigation been central to warfare and defense."

Curiously, what is today Iraq played a major role in the development of navigational science ages before the arrival of precision guided missiles. 2000 years before Hipparchus devised his notional grid, the Babylonian mathematicians divided the circle into 360 degrees. We then had to wait until the age of flight before the compass moved away from the compass rose to a 360-degree dial.

In the ninth century AD, in the Baghdad area, scientists measured a baseline using rods and came up with a remarkably accurate estimation of the length of one degree of latitude with which to calculate the circumference of the earth. The Arabic mile of the time became one of fixtures of Islamic science.

Over the past five years a remarkable and, for these times when navigation is central to warfare, a bizarre, refreshing and entirely peaceful global endeavor based on the notional lines of latitude and longitude has taken shape.

It is the Degree Confluence Project (DCP), the almost hair-brained yet brilliant scheme of Alex Jarrett, an American computer programmer from New Hampshire. The idea is simple: to visit places that are not really there – the main intersect points of prime lines of latitude and longitude. Once you have arrived you take a selection of photographs of what is there, record impressions and post it to the DCP website (

There are 64,442 latitude and longitude degree intersections in the world (counting each pole as one intersection). The idea is for people to visit each of the confluence points and record the images and impressions of what is there. Of these, 47,650 meet the goals of the project. After removing the over abundance of confluences near the poles as the lines of longitude converge and eliminating those on water the DCP is left with 12,000 eligible points. Not surprisingly the confluence website is growing rapidly as more sites are colonized and recorded by confluence hunters.

For Tim Vasquez, a voluntary worker on the project, confluences are interesting because they represent randomness that emerges from strict order and go far beyond a silly quest for invisible man-made boundaries. "The confluence latticework is an open defiance of the order our culture imposes on us, which frowns on tourists who abandon the traveled roads, the sanitized vistas, and the stops designed to conjure up dollars for empty memories," he contends adding "Confluences are in curious places that embrace you in their history, character, and ecology, surrounded by people who are locals in every sense of the word. You simply haven't experienced a region unless you've tried seeking out its confluences."

Saudi Arabia has 177 confluences and already keen travelers have visited over 20 of them putting it in the upper league in terms of percentage of confluences visited. Obviously confluence hunters around the world have to be sensitive to the fact that some points may likely reside on private property with permissions needed before attempting a visit. And obviously confluences that happen to be in restricted areas must be avoided wherever they are. For those thinking of logging confluences on water forget it – they have been eliminated except in cases where land is in sight.

The project has attracted attention in educational circles and last year the American Magazine Education World provided tips for teachers and learning aspects in an article entitled ‘At the Intersection of Geography and Technology’.

With so many confluences to visit what are the founder Alex Jarrett’s favorites? "I love the ones in Saudi Arabia and Terje Mathisen's visits to Norway, both because of their contrasting beauty and great picture quality," he explains. "I also love the great stories, such as 43 degrees N, 124 degrees W or where two people met at a confluence unintentionally at 40 degrees N, 124 degrees W." Jarrett says that the confluences that he has visited are special to him because "I have such great memories of the journeys, even if they aren't very spectacular."

Gilles Kohl as DCP spokesman sees the Confluence project as going beyond just places. "Sure, pictures of bushes, shrubs, rocks and sand are certainly abundant. But the project is also about people - the visitors themselves, the locals they encounter, and thousands who will read the narratives and admire the pictures. It shows us how arbitrary human-made boundaries really are, and makes us meet those on the other side of the geological, geopolitical or cultural lines. Confluences, indeed"

Peter Harrigan

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