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.

Pulling Gene-ies Out of Bottles

I don’t always get to share more illustrative diagrams that explain things, but that’s what we have today from the Economist. It illustrated the concept of a gene drive by which a gene modified in one chromosome then modifies the remaining chromosome to insert itself there. Consequently it stands an almost 100% chance of being passed onto the subsequent generation.

Naturally this means great things for removing, say, mosquito-born diseases from populations as the gene drives can be used to ultimately eliminate the population. But of course, should we be doing this? Regardless, we have a graphic from the Economist.

I still find them a pest…
I still find them a pest…

It makes nice use of a small mosquito icon to show how engineered mosquitos can take over the population from wild-type. The graphic does a nice job showing the generational effect with the light blue wild-type disappearing. But I wonder if more could not be said about the actual gene drive itself. Of course, it could be that they simplified the process substantially to make it accessible to the audience.

Credit for the piece goes the Economist graphics department.

First Florence, Now Michael

You may recall a few weeks ago there was a hurricane named Florence that slammed into the Carolina before stalling and dumping voluminous amounts of rain that inundated inland communities in addition to the damage by the storm surge in the coastal communities. At the time I wrote about a New York Times piece that explored housing density in coastal areas, specifically around the Florence impact area.

Well today the New York Times has a print graphic about something similar. It uses the same colours and styles, but swaps in a different data set and then uses a small multiple setup to include the Florida Panhandle. Of course the Florida Panhandle was just struck by Hurricane Michael, a Category 4 storm when it made landfall.

Of course that track for Michael also brought significant rainfall to the areas recovering from Florence for a double whammy
Of course that track for Michael also brought significant rainfall to the areas recovering from Florence for a double whammy

This one instead looks at median income per zip code to highlight the disparity between those living directly on the coast and those inland. In these two most recent landfall areas, the reader can clearly see that the zip codes along the coast have far greater incomes and, by proxy, wealth than those just a few zip codes further inland.

The problem is that rebuilding lives, communities, and infrastructure not only takes time, but also money. And with lower incomes, some of the hardest hit areas over the past several weeks could have a very difficult time recovering.

Regardless, the recoveries on the continental mainlands of the Carolinas and Florida will likely be far quicker and more comprehensive than they have been thus far for Puerto Rico.

The only downside with this graphic is the registration shift, which is why the graphic appears fuzzy as colours are ever so slightly offset whereas the single ink black text in the upper right looks clear and crisp.

Credit for the piece goes to the New York Times graphics department.

Longest Lunar Eclipse of the Year

For those of my readers in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America, you are in for a treat tonight as you get to experience the longest lunar eclipse of the year. For those of us in North America, i.e. Canada, the United States, and Mexico, we get nothing.

So for a reminder, we turn to this nice piece from Vox that explains a lunar eclipse and why they are not as common as one might expect.

It's all about the nodes
It’s all about the nodes

The piece uses illustrations like these from Vox and supplements them with graphics from NASA. The whole piece is worth a read, especially if you enjoy space things.

Enjoy your Friday, and if you live anywhere but North America, enjoy your lunar eclipse tonight.

Credit for the piece goes to Joss Fong.

Jupiter’s New Moons

Yesterday, space nerds were alerted to the news that 12 new moons have been discovered in orbit of Jupiter. These are much smaller than Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, which is the largest moon in the Solar System and is larger than even Mercury. The point is that there are almost certainly no Ganymede-esque moons orbiting Jupiter that remain undiscovered.

But despite their small size, these moons do have some interesting features, as the article I read in the Guardian pointed out. The most interesting is the orbit of the moons. In general, Jovian moons orbit either prograde, i.e. with the orbit of Jupiter, or retrograde, i.e. against the orbit of Jupiter. The two inner moons discovered are prograde and nine of the other 12 are in an outer orbit of retrograde moons. But Valetudo, the 12th, which orbits in the retrograde group, actually orbits in a prograde fashion. The graphic below from the Carnegie Science Institute does a pretty good job of showing this.

Consider this your collision warning
Consider this your collision warning

Ultimately this means that at some point in the future, Valetudo will slam head-on collision style with another Jovian moon. And reportedly that will be so intense we will be able to see it from Earth. Bangin’. Catch is that it will not likely happen anytime soon.

As for the graphic above, I am of two minds. I generally like the use of colour. The bright green contrasts starkly against the red—though it should be pointed out it would fail a red-green colour blindness test. And then the interesting, but admittedly less interesting prograde and previously discovered Galilean moons are in more muted blues and purples, which puts them further into the background. It works nicely as a complete package.

But should it be on a deep blue background? Lots of space visualisations use black backgrounds, including my work and the work of others. But sometimes work that uses a white or otherwise light background could more clearly show things like orbits. It is difficult to say with certainty because of the lack of a light background for comparison’s sake.

The other thing that gets to me is the viewing angle of the orbits. Clearly we are looking neither dead-on nor from high above. And that makes it a bit more difficult to compare orbits. Of course these might not all be on the same plane because orbits are in three-dimensional space. But if the orbits were all shown from above, it would certainly aid with problems of foreshortening.

All in all, though, I shan’t complain because we have more moons in the Solar System. And who knows how many more smaller moons both Jupiter and Saturn have.

Credit for the piece goes to Roberto Molar Candanosa.

The Brightest Night Lites

Today is Friday. We all made it through yet another week. So let us look up into the evening sky tonight and see the Hertzsprung–Russel diagram in action. Or, we can take xkcd’s expanded version and just enjoy ourselves.

Alas, I too am in the lower right corner…
Alas, I too am in the lower right corner…

Credit for the piece goes to Randall Munroe.

Spanish Silver

A few weeks back now the Economist posted a graphic about the link between lead, silver, and the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. But not in the way you probably think. Instead, they graph the appearance of lead deposits in the glaciers of Greenland.

I believe that final Iberian power is meant to be the Moops.
I believe that final Iberian power is meant to be the Moops.

For the full explanation you should read the short article. But this piece was right up my alley. We have ancient history, economics, science, and a timeline. And all in one neat little chart.

Credit for the piece goes to the Economist’s Data Team.

Lunar Observations

Monday night I was doing some work outside and when I turned around to head inside I was struck by the brilliance of an object in the night sky. I had seen the Moon rise earlier in the evening, but this was far to the east. It was identifiable as a dot, not just a speck in the night sky. As I was now intrigued I went to grab my binoculars to see if I could see Venus.

Turns out I was wrong and it was Jupiter. But then I turned my binocular-aided eyes to the west and examined the Moon. That was then I decided to try and sketch my observations, as I had done with the Eclipse.

Unfortunately, it turns out it is far more difficult to sketch in the dark then under a still semi-sunny sky. But these are my attempts to digitise those observations. And as I sat and watched, I began to notice that some faint twinkling specks near Jupiter had also moved. After I came inside, I discovered that the movement and positions hewed close to the orbits of Jupiter’s moons Ganymede and Calisto. The moving speck near the Moon I had also observed was actually the bright star Regulus. (And to be fair, it had not really moved, the Moon had moved, but I was not redrawing the Moon.)

The Moon and Regulus. The cool part is the thin ring of one of the seas that could be spotted beyond the line separating lunar day from night.

Capturing the exact shapes of the lunar "seas" was difficult in the darkness.
Capturing the exact shapes of the lunar “seas” was difficult in the darkness.

Jupiter and two of its moons. The cool thing about Jupiter is just being able to see it as a round ball in space and not a distant twinkling speck.

Jupiter and two of its moons, as they orbit the distant planet
Jupiter and two of its moons, as they orbit the distant planet

Credit for these is mine.

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.