The Rise of the Tropic(al Plant)s

Last week I had three different discussions with people about some of the impact of climate change upon the United States. However, what did not really come up in those conversations was the environmental changes set to befall the United States. And by environment, I explicitly mean how the flora of the US will change.

Why? Well, as warmer climates spread north, that means tropical and subtropical plants can follow warmer temperatures northward into lands previously too cold. And they could replace the species native to those lands, who evolved adaptations for their particular climate.

Thankfully, last week the New York Times published a piece that explored how those impacts could be felt. Hardiness zones are a concept designed to tell gardeners when and where to plant certain crops. And while the US Department of Agriculture has a detailed version useful to horticulturists, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration produces a very similar version for the purpose of climate studies. And when you group those hardiness levels by the forecast lowest temperatures in an area, you get this.

More palm trees?
More palm trees?

There you have it, the forecast change to plant zones.

From a design standpoint, I like the idea of the colour shift here. However, where it breaks seems odd. Though it could be more influenced by the underlying classifications than I understand. The split occurs at 0ºF, which is well below freezing. I wonder if the freezing point, 32ºF could have been used instead. I also wonder if adding Celsius units above the same legend could be done to make the piece more accessible to a broader audience.

Otherwise, it’s a nice use of small multiples. And from the editorial design standpoint, I like how the article’s text above the graphic makes use of a six-column layout to add some dynamic contrast to what is essentially a three-column layout for the graphics.

They're living on a grid
They’re living on a grid

Credit for the piece goes to Nadja Popovich.

The Climate Impact of Your Food

Climate change is a thing. And facing it will require a lot of our societies. But the longer we choose not to act, the more the impact will be felt by later generations. Consequently, across the world, young students have been walking out of class to shine light on an issue on which they, as children, have little direct impact. Yet. But what about us? The ones who can vote and make lifestyle decisions?

The BBC had a piece where, after soliciting questions from their readership, they answered questions. One question being, what can individuals do to reduce their impact. And while clearly individuals need to do more than one thing, one facet can be examining one’s diet. The article included this graphic on the climate impact of various food types, vis-a-vis greenhouse gas emissions.

Is this saying I should drink more beer?
Is this saying I should drink more beer?

Essentially we are looking at a simplified box plot of greenhouse gas emissions per serving of food (and drink) type. The box plot looks at a range of values for a specific item. It usually shows the extremes at both ends; the range of a significant number of the data points, e.g. 80% of the set, or by decile, or by quartile; and then lastly the average, be it mean or median. Here we have only low impact, high impact, and average impact. Presumably the minimum, maximum, and then either mean or median.

And it works really well. Chocolate is a great example of how on average, chocolate isn’t terrible. But certain chocolates can have far worse ramifications than low-impact beef, or average-impact lamb and prawns. And beef is well known to be one of the most impactful types of food.

From a design standpoint, I don’t know if the colours necessarily help. The average beef impact, for example, is worse than the high-impact maximum of every other food listed. But the association of green=good and red=bad  here has little value because by that logic, the average=gold beef should be red as it sits above the high-impact everything else. A less editorial choice could be made of say a light grey or blue and then have the bright colour, maybe still orange, indicate where the average sits on that spectrum.

I do like the annotations on the chart. It highlights particular stories, like the aforementioned chocolate one, that the casual, i.e. skimming, reader may miss.

I could probably do without the little food illustrations. But the designer did a good job of making them all recognisable in such a small space—far from an easy task. And being so small, they don’t really distract or take away from the whole graphic.

Overall, this is a strong graphic.

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.

Natural Disasters

Today’s piece is another piece set against a black background. Today we look at one on natural disasters, created by both weather and geography/geology alike.

The Washington Post mapped a number of different disaster types: flooding, temperature, fire, lightning, earthquakes, &c. and plotted them geographically. Pretty clear patterns emerge pretty quickly. I was torn between which screenshots to share, but ultimately I decided on this one of temperature. (The earthquake and volcano graphic was a very near second.)

Pretty clear where I'd prefer to be…
Pretty clear where I’d prefer to be…

It isn’t complicated. Colder temperatures are in a cool blue and warmer temperatures in a warm red. The brighter the respective colour, the more intense the extreme temperatures. As you all know, I am averse to warm weather and so I will naturally default to living somewhere in the upper Midwest or maybe Maine. It is pretty clear that I will not really countenance moving to the desert southwest or Texas. But places such as Philadelphia, New York, and Washington are squarely in the blacked out or at least very dark grey range of, not super bad.

Credit for the piece goes to Tim Meko.

American Nuclear Generating Stations

Those that have followed me for a long time know that I am a big fan of nuclear power. It does have some drawbacks, namely its radioactive waste, but otherwise creates enormous amounts of stable, carbon-free electricity. So when I saw this article from Bloomberg about the impact of climate change on US nuclear powered electricity generating station. It makes use of a number of nice maps to show that, yeah, not good things.

Pennsylvania is a big state for nuclear power
Pennsylvania is a big state for nuclear power

I normally am not a huge fan of scaling circle size to the data point, but here it makes sense since the circles are tied to the geographical location. Like I mentioned with the one Notre Dame graphic, I’m not sure the advantage of the black background, but it could be that there is a benefit to the contrast over the white background.

There are additional maps in the piece that look at a few specific locations in a moderate hurricane and the expected storm surge. Again, not good. These also use light colours on a dark background.

Credit for the piece goes to Christopher Flavelle and Jeremy C.F. Lin.

Carbon Taxes

Last week the New York Times published an article about carbon taxes, looking at their adoption around the world and their effectiveness. It is a fascinating article about how different countries have chosen to implement the broad policy idea and the various forms it can take. And, most importantly, how some of those policies can end up blunting the intended effect of carbon emission reduction.

This, however, is about the print piece, because as I was flipping through the morning paper, I found the Business section had a world map above the fold. And we all know how I feel about big, splashy print graphics.

We could use some more green on this map
We could use some more green on this map

Here we have a pretty straight-forward piece. It uses a map to indicate which countries have adopted or are scheduled to adopt a carbon tax programme. The always interesting bit is how the federal system in the United States is represented. Whilst a carbon cap-and-trade deal failed in the US Senate in 2009, individual states have taken up the banner and begun to implement their own plans. Hence, the map shows the states in yellow.

There is nothing too crazy going on in the piece, but it is just a reminder that sometimes, as a designer, I love big splashy graphics to anchor an article.

Credit for the piece goes to Brad Plumer.

Arctic Chill

The Arctic air mass that has frozen the Midwest continues to spread and so today will be a tad chilly in Philadelphia. Yesterday, however, the Guardian had a piece that used data from NASA to show how the air masses over the Northern Hemisphere have been disturbed by unusually warm air.

The Arctic plunge.
The Arctic plunge.

One theory to how this all works is that the reduced polar sea ice means water absorbs summer heat instead of being locked in the ice. But then that heat is basically released come winter. (I’m oversimplifying this.) That warms the air, which disturbs the polar vortex. As the Guardian then explains, the destabilised air mass can wobble and spill some of its frigid air down into the lower latitudes. (It takes a little while because the polar vortex is in the upper atmosphere and the air needs to sink to the ground.)

Point is, bundle up and stay warm.

Credit for the piece goes to the Guardian graphics department.

Dry Heat Is Only Part of California’s Problem

Wildfires continue to burn across in California. One, the Camp Fire in northern California near Chico, has already claimed 77 lives. But why has this fire been so deadly?

FiveThirtyEight explained some of the causes in an article that features a number of charts and graphics. The screenshot below features a scatter plot looking at the temperature and precipitation recorded from winter through autumn every year since 1895.

The evolving California climate
The evolving California climate

The designers did a good job of highlighting the most recent data, separating out 2000 through 2017 with the 2018 data highlighted in a third separate colour. But the really nice part of the chart is the benchmarking done to call out the historic average. Those dotted lines show how over the last nearly two decades, California’s climate has warmed. However, precipitation amounts vary. (Although they have more often tended to be below the long-term average.)

I may have included some annotation in the four quadrants to indicate things like “hotter and drier” or “cooler and wetter”, but I am not convinced they are necessary here. With more esoteric variables on the x- and y-axis they would more likely be helpful than not.

The rest of the piece makes use of a standard fare line chart and then a few maps. Overall, a solid piece to start the week.

Credit for the piece goes to Christie Aschwanden, Anna Maria Barry-Jester, Maggie Koerth-Baker and Ella Koeze.

Global Warming and Harder Living

The weather in Philly the past week has been just gross. It reminds of Florida in that it has been hot, steamy, storms and downpours pop up out of nowhere then disappear, and just, generally, gross. I do not understand how people live in Florida year round. Anyway, that got me thinking about this piece from a month ago in the New York Times. It looked at the impact of climate change and living conditions in South Asia. Why is South Asia important? Well, it is home to nearly a billion people, a large number of whom are poor and demanding resources, and oh yeah, has a few countries that have fought several wars against each other and are armed with nuclear weapons. South Asia is important.

I ain't moving to Nagpur, India. That's for sure.
I ain’t moving to Nagpur, India. That’s for sure.

The map from the piece—it also features a nice set of small multiples of rising temperatures in six countries—shows starkly how moderate emissions and the high projection of emissions will impact the region. Spoiler: not well. It notes how cities like Karachi, for example, will be impacted as hotter temperatures mean lower labour productivity means worse public health means lower standard of living. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how things like demand for water in desert or arid areas could spark a conflict between Pakistan and India. Although, to be very clear, the article does not go there.

As to the design of the graphic, I wonder about the use of white for no impact and grey for no data. Should they have been reversed? As it is, the use of white for no impact makes the regions of impact, most notably central India, stand out all the more clearly. But it then also highlights the regions of no data.

Credit for the piece goes to Somini Sengupta and Nadja Popovich.

A Wetter Midwest

Here in Philadelphia, I think yesterday was the first day it had not rained in over a week. Not that everyday was a drenching storm, but at least showers passed through along with some downpours and definitely grey skies. But what about my old home, Chicago?

Well, FiveThirtyEight turned to a longer-term look and examined how over the century the amount of rainfall in the upper Midwest has been increasing. We are actually looking at the same places the Post looked at a few days ago. But instead of political maps, we have rainfall maps.

This one in particular is weird.

Water water everywhere
Water water everywhere

I get why they have the map, to show the geographic distribution of the rain gauges that collect the data. And those are site specific, not statewide. But did the designer have to choose area?

We know that area is a less than ideal way of allowing users to compare data points. And as I just noted, a choropleth, even at say the county level, is out of the question. But what about little squares? Or circles? Could colour have been used to encode the same data instead of size? And then we would likely have fewer overlapping triangles.

I suppose the argument is that the big triangles make a bigger visual impact. But they do so at the cost of comparable data points across the Midwest. Maybe the designer chose the area of triangles because there were too few gauges across the country. I am not sure, but for me the triangles are not quite on point.

That said, the graphics throughout the rest of the article are quite good, especially the opening scatterplots. They are not the sexiest of charts, but they clearly show a trends towards a wetter climate.

Credit for the piece goes to Ella Koeze.

Warmer Winters

Philadelphia is expecting a little bit of snow today, 20 March. We should not be seeing too much accumulate if anything, but still, flakes will likely be in the air this evening. That made me think of this piece from just last week where the New York Times looked at the change in winter temperatures across the United States for the last almost 120 years.

Of course, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that climate change does not mean that temperatures always rise. Instead, while the general average trends upward, the curve flattens out meaning more extreme events on both the hot and the cold parts of the spectrum. (Actually, the New York Times covered this very subject well back in August.)

As a cold weather person, yeah, this isn't great…
As a cold weather person, yeah, this isn’t great…

Anyway, the map from the Times shows how the biggest changes have been recorded in the north of the Plains states. But the same general shift is subject to local conditions, most notably in the southeast where temperatures are actually a lit bit lower.

Credit for the piece goes to Nadja Popovich and Blacki Migliozzi.