New Orleans Dodges a Bullet

Hurricane/tropical storm Barry has been dumping rain along the Gulf Coast for a few days now. But prior to this weekend, the biggest concern had been for the city of New Orleans, which sits besides the swollen Mississippi River. The river was running already high at 17 feet above normal, and with storm surges and tropical rain levels forecast, planners were concerned not with the integrity of the city’s levee system, rebuilt in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but simply whether they would be tall enough.

So far, they have been.

The Washington Post tracked Barry’s course with the usual graphics showing forecast rainfall amounts and projected tracks. However, the real stunner for me was this cross section illustration of New Orleans that shows just how much of the central city sits below sea level. The cross section sits above a map of the city that shows elevation above/below sea level as well as key flood prevention infrastructure, i.e. levees and pumping stations.

A lot floodable space
A lot floodable space

The unmentioned elephant remains however. The National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration’s extreme climate change impact forecast says the water around New Orleans might rise by nearly 13 feet by 2100. Clearly, that is still well below the 20 feet levees of today. But what if there were to be a 17 feet high Mississippi River atop the additional 13 feet? 30 feet would flood the city.

Credit for the piece goes to John Muyskens, Armand Emamdjomeh, Aaron Steckelberg, Lauren Tierney, and Laris Karklis.

Put Your Phone Down

This isn’t really a graphic so much as it is an x-ray photograph. But I also can’t get it out of my head. We all know that mobile phones has changed the way we live. But now we have evidence that our use of them is changing us physically. Young people are growing horns or spikes at the back of their skull. Don’t believe, photo:

Cool, but also frightening
Cool, but also frightening

The article in the Washington Post from which I screen captured the image is well worth a read. But I advise you to not do it on a mobile phone.

Credit for the piece goes to the study’s authors.

Tornado Alley Spread East

Last week the Philadelphia area experienced a mini tornado outbreak with three straight days of watches and warnings. Of course further west in the traditional Tornado Alley, far more storms of far greater intensity were wreaking havoc. But with tornado warnings going off every few minutes just outside the city of Philadelphia, it was hard to concentrate on storms in, say, Oklahoma.

But the New York Times did. And they put together a nice graphic showing the timeline of the outbreak using small multiples to show where the tornado reports were located on 12 consecutive days.

Who remembers the film Twister?
Who remembers the film Twister?

Of course the day of that publication, 29 May, would see another few dozen, even in and around Philadelphia. Consequently, the graphic could have been extended to a day 13. But that would have been rather unlucky.

From a design standpoint, the really nice element of this graphic is that it works so well in black and white. The graphic serves as a reminder that good graphics need not be super colourful and flashy to have impact.

Credit for the piece goes to Weiyi Cai and Jason Kao.

Abortion by State

In case you did not hear, earlier this week Alabama banned all abortions. And for once, we do not have to add the usual caveat of “except in cases of rape or incest”. In Alabama, even in cases of rape and incest, women will not have the option of having an abortion.

And in Georgia, legislators are debating a bill that will not only strictly limit women’s rights to have an abortion, but will leave them, among other things, liable for criminal charges for travelling out of state to have an abortion.

Consequently, the New York Times created a piece that explores the different abortion bans on a state-by-state basis. It includes several nice graphics including what we increasingly at work called a box map. The map sits above the article and introduces the subject direct from the header that seven states have introduced significant legislation this year. The map highlights those seven states.

We've been calling these box maps. It's growing on me.
We’ve been calling these box maps. It’s growing on me.

The gem, however, is a timeline of sorts that shows when states ban abortion based on how long since a woman’s last period.

There are some crazy shifts leftward in this graphic…
There are some crazy shifts leftward in this graphic…

It does a nice job of segmenting the number of weeks into not trimesters and highlighting the first, which traditionally had been the lower limit for conservative states. It also uses a nice yellow overlay to indicate the traditional limits determined by the Roe v. Wade decision. I may have introduced a nice thin rule to even further segment the first trimester into the first six week period.

We also have a nice calendar-like small multiple series showing states that have introduced but not passed, passed but vetoed, passed, and pending legislation with the intention of completely banning abortion and also completely banning it after six weeks.

Far too many boxes on the right…
Far too many boxes on the right…

This does a nice job of using the coloured boxes to show the states have passed legislation. However, the grey coloured boxes seem a bit disingenuous in that they still represent a topically significant number: states that have introduced legislation. It almost seems as if the grey should be all 50 states, like in the box map, and that these states should be in some different colour. Because the eight or 15 in the 2019 column are a small percentage of all 50 states, but they could—and likely will—have an oversized impact on women’s rights in the year to come.

That said, it is a solid graphic overall. And taken together the piece overall does a nice job of showing just how restrictive these new pieces of legislation truly are. And how geographically limited in scope they are. Notably, some states people might not associate with seemingly draconian laws are found in surprising places: Pennsylvania, Illinois, Maryland, and New York. But that last point would be best illustrated by another box map.

Credit for the piece goes to K.K. Rebecca Lai.

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.

Missing Planets

In science news, we turn to graphics about planets and things. Specifically we are talking about exoplanets, i.e. planets that exist outside our solar system. Keep in mind that we have only been able to detect exoplanets since the 1990s. Prior to then, how rare was our system with all our planets? It could have been very rare. Now we know, probably not so much.

But, in all of that discovery, we are missing entire types of planets. This article published by Forbes does a nice job explaining why. But one of the key types of planets that we have been unable to discover heretofore have been: intermediately distant, giant planets. Think the Jupiters and Saturns of our system. Prior to now we could detect massive Jupiter-like planets orbiting super near to their distant stars. Or, we could detect super massive planets orbiting very far away. The in-betweeners? Not so much.

There's still a pretty wide gap out there…
There’s still a pretty wide gap out there…

The above screenshot does a good job of showing where new detection methods have allowed scientists to begin to fill in the gaps. It shows how there is an enormous gap between what we have discovered and how they have been discovered. And the article does a nice job explaining how the science works in that only now with our longer periods of observation will help resolve certain issues.

From a design standpoint, this isn’t a super complicated graphic. It does rely upon a logarithmic scale, which isn’t common in non-scientific or academic papers. But this graphic comes from that environment, so it makes a lot of sense. The article is full of graphics from third-party sources, but I found this the most informative because of that very gap it highlights and how the new work (the stars) begin to fill it in.

Credit for the screenshotted piece goes to E. L. Rickman et al.

Blackholes and Revelations

On Sunday night I went to see the English rock band Muse perform here in Philadelphia. The concert was to support their latest album, but of course they played Starlight, a song which gave us its respective album’s title: Blackholes and Revelations.

Then on Wednesday, scientists announced that for the very first time, we have actually been able to take a photograph of a blackhole. This one is a supermassive black hole at the heart of the M87 galaxy, some 500 million trillion kilometres distant.

Hopes and expectations?
Hopes and expectations?

The bright light, or ring of fire, is the heated gas before falling beneath the event horizon, which here is the black disk. Beyond that point, the gravitational force is so strong that not even light can escape. And of course without light escaping to be seen, a black hole cannot be directly imaged. Instead, we have to look for its accretion disc.

It’s just cool.

Credit for the piece goes to the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration.

The Periodic Table

Last week the Economist published a fascinating read that uses one of the fundamental information design pieces there is. The piece talks about the history of organising within the field of chemistry and the most well-known…elements in it: the elements. I am, of course, referring to the Periodic Table.

This was just genius.
This was just genius.

The piece starts actually in revolutionary France, a history I did not know, and walks through how that led into the eventual development of Mendeleev’s table. It then briefly runs through the history of the concept of the atom and how that evolved to define the refined table we see today. (And in so doing it includes a nice graphic showing the shell model of the atom’s electron orbits.)

I often work in data visualisation—surprising exactly nobody given this blog—and one thing I often say is that while graphics are for showing and storytelling, tables are for organising. The Periodic Table organised information known about atoms both known and unknown, creating holes for future chemists to place their discoveries. It is the chemistry we all know and love—or perhaps hate—today. It is a classic piece of information design.

And the reason why I bring it up? The Economist pointed out that last week it turned 150 years old.

Credit for the piece goes to the Economist graphics department.

Opportunity Lost

Last summer NASA’s Martian exploration rover Opportunity went dark as its solar panels, needed to power the golf-cart sized explorer, were covered in dust from a planet-wide dust storm. Everyone hoped that over the following months the light Martian winds and dust devils would wipe clean the dust from the solar panels and the rover could recharge its batteries, turn on its heaters, and resume contact with Earth. It hasn’t. Consequently, on Wednesday NASA called Opportunity’s mission complete. And thanks to xkcd we have a proper little farewell.

So much science
So much science

Credit for the piece goes to Randall Munroe.

Walnut Pancakes in Space

One of the really neat things about space exploration has been the New Horizons probe that raced past Pluto, giving us the image of the now famous heart shape on the dwarf planet. But as it raced past a Kuiper Belt object named Ultima Thule on New Year’s, we received some tantalising first images of a snowman in space. Basically, two spheroid bodies fused together like a snowman or a peanut.

Except it’s not.

It probably doesn't taste like a walnut pancake, though…
It probably doesn’t taste like a walnut pancake, though…

This is a fascinating graphic produced by the science research teams that show how the latest downloaded photographs from New Horizons—it will take many more months for the full set—show Ultima Thule is not very snowman-like in its shape. Instead, it is far flatter and more, in their words, shaped like a dented walnut and a pancake.

The article has some additional material that show how that spin axis changes the view. They are short videos, but if you are interested in space things, it is neat to see. We are accustomed to seeing spherical objects in orbit around the sun. Not pancakes.

Credit for the piece goes to NASA, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and Southwest Research Institute.