Protecting New Jersey’s Back Bay Communities

We’re back and there’s a lot to touch on this week. But first, as a prelude to some of the Hurricane Ida coverage, I wanted to briefly point our attention to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer from about two or three weeks before Ida struck.

The article focused on the US Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect the back bay areas of the South Jersey shore, i.e. the areas between the outer barrier islands and the mainland. The article chose a few graphics from the report to draw attention to some of the proposed solutions, e.g. massive gates, new levee systems, and wetland restoration.

I wanted to focus on a different graphic in the report. This functioned more as an illustrated guide to the whole suite of solutions available to mitigating flood and storm surge disasters. Because, in the future, rising sea levels will threaten coastal communities. And as we saw just last week here in the Northeast, warmer seas plus warmer skies increase the potential for storms with crippling deluges.

Image links to the report, not the article

The graphic shows how we can try to deal with surge waters from out beyond the barrier islands through to the back bay to communities inland both by protecting, adapting, and in some cases relocating.

All need to be on the table, because if last week showed us anything—not that many hadn’t been saying this for decades—it’s not just the bayous of New Orleans and Florida’s beaches that are at risk from environments and weather patterns altered by a changing climate, but even those areas more local (to the Northeast).

Credit for the piece goes to the US Army Corps of Engineers.

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Cut Your Carbon Emissions Pt. II

A few weeks ago I wrote about the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) latest report on climate change, which synthesised the last several years’ data. If you didn’t see that post, suffice it to say things are bad and getting worse. At the time I said I wanted to return to talk about a few more graphics in the release. Well, here we are.

In this piece we have a map, three technically. In a set of small multiples, the report’s designers show the observed change, i.e. what’s happening today, and the degree of scientific consensus on whether humans are causing it.

It’s gotten hotter and wetter here in eastern North America

What I like about this is that, first, improved data and accuracy allows for sub-continental breakdowns of climate change’s impacts. That breakdown allowed the designers to use a tilemap consisting of hexagons to map those changes.

Since we don’t look at the world in this kind of way, the page also includes a generous note where it defines all these acronyms. Of course even with those, it still doesn’t look super accurate—and that is fine, because that’s the point—so little strokes outside clusters of hexagons are labelled to further help the reader identify the geographic regions. I really like this part.

I also like how little dots represent the degree of confidence. The hexagons give enough space to include dots and labels while still allowing the colours to shine. These are really nice.

But then we get to colour, the one part of this graphic with which I’m not totally thrilled. The first map looks at temperature, specifically heat extremes. Red means increase in heat extremes and blue means decrease. Fair enough. Hatched pattern means there is low consensus and medium grey means there’s little data. I like it.

Moving to the second map we look at heavy precipitation. Green means an increase and yellow a decrease. Hatched and medium grey both mean the same as before. I like this too. Sure, with clear titling you could still use the same colours as the first map, but I’ll buy if you’re selling you want visual distinction from the red–blue map above.

Then we get to the third map and now we’re looking at drought. Hatched and grey mean the same. Good. But now we have green and yellow, the same green and yellow as the second map. Okay…but I thought the second map showed we need a visual distinction from the first? But what makes it really difficult is that in this third map we invert the meaning of green and yellow. Green now means a decrease in drought and yellow an increase.

I can get that a decrease in drought means green fields and an increase in drought means dead and dying fields, yellow or brown. And sure, red and blue relate to hot and cold. But the problem is that we have the exact same colours meaning the opposite things when it comes to precipitation.

Why not use two other colours for precipitation? You wouldn’t want to use blue, because you’re using blue in the first map. But what about purple and orange, like I often do here on Coffeespoons? This is why I don’t think the designers needed to switch up the colours from map to map. Pick a less relational colour palette, say purple and orange, and colour all three maps with purple being an increase and orange being a decrease.

Colour is my big knock on these graphics, which unfortunately could otherwise have been particularly strong. Of course, I can’t blame designers for going with red and blue for hot and cold temperatures. I’ve had the same request in my career. But it doesn’t make reading these charts any easier.

Credit for the piece goes to the IPCC graphics team.

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Cut Your Carbon Emissions

Earlier this morning (East Coast time) the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN’s committee studying climate change, released its latest review of climate change. This is the first major review since 2013 and, spoiler, it’s not good.

I’ve read some news articles about the findings, but I want to critique and comment upon some of the graphics contained within the report itself. This started going too long, however, so I think I will break this into several shorter, more digestible chunks.

And I want to start with the first chart, two line charts that lay out the temperature changes we’ve seen.

Going up…

One of the first things I like here is the language. Often we might see these or similar charts that simply state temperatures from the year 1 through 2020. One of the common reasons I hear from people that deny climate change is that “people weren’t recording temperatures back in 1 AD.

They would be correct. We do not have planet-wide meteorological observations from the time of Julius Caesar. But in the year 2021 we do have science. And that allows us to take other evidence, e.g. dissolved carbon dioxide in ice, or tree ring size, &c., and use them to reconstruct the temperature record indirectly.

And reconstruct is the word the IPCC uses to clearly delineate the temperature data pre- and post-1850 when their observed data set begins.

The designers then highlight this observed data set, broadly coinciding with the Industrial Revolution when we as a species began to first emit extra greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. You can see this as a faint grey background and a darker stroke along the x-axis.

Additionally, the designers used annotations to call out the first main point, that warming in the last almost two centuries is far beyond what we’ve seen in the last two millennia.

The second annotation points to a bar, reminiscent of the range of a box plot, that exists outside the x-axis and almost embedded within the y-axis. This bar captures the range of temperatures reconstructed in the past 100,000 years. And by including it in the chart, we can see that we have just recently begun to exceed even that range.

In the second chart, we have the entire background shaded light grey and the whole x-axis in a darker stroke to remind us that we are now looking at the Industrial/Post-Industrial era. But what this chart does is do what scientists do, test whether natural, non-manmade causes can fully explain the temperature increase.

They can’t.

The chart plots the modelled data looking at just natural causes vs. modelled data looking at natural causes plus human impacts. Those lines and their ranges are then compared to the temperatures we’ve observed and recorded.

Since the 1930s and 40s, it’s been a pretty clear and consistent tracking with natural plus manmade causes. For years the scientific community has been in agreement that humanity is contributing to the rising temperatures. This is yet more evidence to make the point even more conclusively.

These are two really good charts that taken together show pretty conclusively that humanity is directly responsible for a significant portion of Earth’s recent climate change.

I’ll have more on some other notable graphics in the report later in the week, so stay tuned.

Credit for the piece goes to the IPCC graphics team.

Yep, Still Hotter

Like I said yesterday, I wanted to compare cities, surprise, Philadelphia vs. Chicago. And so with some extra time I was able to finish this graphic that took the data from Climate Central to compare the two cities.

What you can see below is that Philadelphia has seen more significant temperature growth in both summer highs and summer lows. And, importantly, the increase in low temperatures, i.e. nighttime, has been greater than that of daytime highs. That means that we have less of an opportunity to cool down after a hot summer day, adding stress to the system.

Chicago on the other hand has seen less overall growth, though it’s still present. And there too we see the same pattern of greater increases in low, i.e. nighttime, temperatures than of daytime highs.

It’s all unbearable

It’s remarkable to think that the flat where I lived seven of my eight years in Chicago had no air conditioning unit in the bedroom, only in the living room. It was, of course, an older concrete building from the 1960s/70s when, as the chart above shows, nighttime temperatures didn’t really require air conditioning.

But like I said yesterday, I’m just glad I’ve been able to crank the air conditioning the last several days.

Credit for the piece is mine.

You’re Not Crazy, It Is Getting Hotter

First, I should say that I don’t have a lot to say about this graphic because I went back to the source because I was interested in another city and I wanted to compare the two. In other words, expect a small graphic follow up to this maybe tomorrow.

Anyways, over the last few years since returning to Philadelphia after eight years away in Chicago, I’ve had numerous conversations with different people about how “I don’t remember it always being this hot before”, which is particularly relevant as the Philadelphia region endures excessive heat. Thankfully, it’s not nearly as bad as the Pacific Northwest. Also I have air conditioning blasting next to me as I type this out, so, you know.

The common refrain in these conversations, however, tends to be less about how we have high temperatures and more about how it’s difficult to sleep at night. And there’s a reason for that as this article from the Philadelphia Inquirer explains, our average summer low temperatures are rising, and rising faster than our average summer high temperatures.

Yep, definitely getting warmer.

Of course you can probably already see where I was going with this. The Inquirer linked to their source and that’s where I’ve spent my time this morning, alas, I didn’t quite have enough to finish what I started and so this post will have to do.

Credit for the piece goes to the Philadelphia Inquirer graphics department.

Hot and Not So Hot Graphics

Thankfully today’s forecast calls for cooler temperatures. Your author is not a fan of hot weather, which means being outside in summer is…less than ideal. It also means that the air conditioner runs frequently and on high for a few months. (Conversely, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I turned on the heat this winter.)

The problem is, the two biggest contributors to US carbon emissions? Heating/cooling and transport. In other words, heating your home in the winter, cooling it in the summer, and then driving your non-electric vehicle.

After the recent heatwave in New England, the Boston Globe examined the impact of the heatwave on the environment. The article led with the claim it used four charts to do so. I quibble with that distinction because this is a screenshot of the second graphic.

Illustrating is hard

I mean, it’s not prose text. Rather, we have three factettes paired with illustrations. At the top of this post, I mentioned the impact of transport for a reason. In an ideal world, in order to get carbon emissions under control one of the changes we would need to see is getting people out of their personal automobiles and into mass transit. Subways and light rail are far cleaner and can actually be cheaper for households than car ownership. And so we should be encouraging their use and building more of them.

Look above and you’ll see an icon of a subway car. Except it’s not. The graphic/factette is actually talking about rail cars full of coal that transport fuel from mine to generating station. Those look more like this, from James St. James via Wikimedia Commons.

Small, subtle details matter. And so I’d propose a new icon that tries to capture the industrial coal train, ideally something that I spent more than five minutes on.

Illustrating is still hard

But it breaks the linkage between passenger train and coal train, which is not ideal for the purposes of an article highlighting the environmental impacts of US households.

That all said, the article did a really good job with the other graphics it used. My favourite was this chart, decidedly not a combination chart.

Making charts can also be hard, though

It looks at the correlation between high temperatures and energy usage. But, instead of lazily throwing the temperatures atop the bars, the designers more carefully placed them below the energy usage chart. The top chart should look familiar to those who have been following my Covid-19 charts, a daily number that then has the rolling seven-day average plotted above it to smooth out any one-day quirks. The designer then chose to highlight the heatwave in red.

For temperatures, I like the overall approach. But I wonder if a more nuanced approach could have taken the graph a step farther to excellent. Presently we have a single red line representing daily average high temperature. But in the plot above we use red to indicate the heat wave of early June, five consecutive days of temperatures in excess of 90ºF. What if that line were black or grey or some neutral colour, and then only the heatwave was coloured in red? It would more clearly link the two together. And it avoids the trap of red implying heat, when you need to only go back to late May when the East Coast had early spring like temperatures near 50ºF, decidedly not red on a temperature scale.

Overall, though, it’s refreshing to see a thoughtful approach taken here instead of the usual slapdash throw one chart atop the other.

And the rest of the article uses restrained, smart graphics as well. Bar charts and small multiples to capture air pollution and EMS calls. You should read the full article for the insights and the feedback loops we have.

After all, it’s not that the heating/cooling is itself the problem, especially since the removal of CFCs since the Montreal Protocol in 1987 that banned those pesky chemicals that harm the ozone layer—remember when that was the big environmental issue in the 1990s? The issue is how we generate the electricity that powers the heating/cooling systems—and if you want to use electric cars, whence comes their electric charge—as if we’re using coal plants, that just exacerbates the problem. But if we use carbon-less plants, e.g. nuclear, solar, or wind, we’re not generating carbon emissions.

Credit for the piece goes to John Hancock.

Off the Axis

Two Fridays ago, I opened the door and found my copy of the New York Times with a nice graphic above the fold. This followed the announcement from the White House of aggressive targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

In general, I love seeing charts and graphics above the fold. As an added bonus, this set looked at climate data.

Need to see more downward trending lines.

But there are a few things worth pointing out.

First from a data side, this chart is a little misleading. Without a doubt, carbon dioxide represents the greatest share of greenhouse gasses, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) it was 76% in 2010. Methane contributes the next largest share at 16%. But the labelling should be a little clearer here. Or, perhaps lead with a small chart showing CO2’s share of greenhouse gasses and from there, take a look at the largest CO2 emitters per person.

Second, where are the axis labels?

I will probably have more on this at a later date, but neither the bar chart nor the line charts have axis labels. Now the designers did choose to label the beginning value for the lines and the bars, but this does not account for the minimums or maximums. (It also assumes that the bottom of the lines is zero.)

For example, we can see that China began 1990 with emissions at 3.4 billon metric tons. The annotation makes clear that China’s aggregate emissions surpassed those of the US in 2004. But where do they peak? What about developing countries?

If I pull out a ruler and draw some lines I can roughly make some height comparisons. But, an easier way would be simply to throw some dotted lines across the width of the page, or each line chart.

This piece takes a big swing at presenting the challenge of reducing emissions, but it fails to provide the reader with the proper—and I think necessary—context.

Credit for the piece goes to Nadja Popovich and Bill Marsh.

Warmer, Wetter Winters in the UK

I remember hearing and reading stories as a child about the Thames in London freezing over and hosting winter festivals. Of course most of that happened during what we call the Little Ice Age, a period of below average temperatures during the 15th through the early 19th century.

But those days are over.

The UK’s Meteorological Office, or the Met for short, released some analysis of the impacts of climate change to winter temperatures in the United Kingdom. And if, like me, you’re more partial to winter than summer, the news is…not great.

Winter warming

Broadly speaking, winters will become warmer and wetter, i.e. less snowy and more rainy. Meanwhile summers will become hotter and drier. Farewell, frost festivals.

But let’s talk about the graphic. Broadly, it works. We see two maps with a unidirectional stepped gradient of six bins. And most importantly those bins are consistent between the maps, allowing for the user to compare regions for the same temperatures: like for like.

But there are a couple of things I would probably do a bit differently. Let’s start with colour. And for once we’re not dealing with the colour of the BBC weather map. Instead, we have shades of blue for the data, but all sitting atop an even lighter blue that represents the waters around the UK and Ireland. I don’t think that blue is really necessary. A white background would allow for the warmest shade of blue, +4ºC, to be even lighter. That would allow greater contrast throughout the spectrum.

Secondly, note the use of think black lines to delineate the sub-national regions of the UK whilst the border of the Republic of Ireland is done in a light grey. What if that were reversed? If the political border between the UK and Ireland were black and the sub-national region borders were light grey—or white—we would see a greater contrast with less visual disruption. The use of lines lighter in intensity would allow the eye to better focus on the colours of the map.

Then we reach an interesting discussion about how to display the data. If the purpose of the map is to show “coldness”, this map does it just fine. For my American audience unfamiliar with Celsius, 4ºC is about 39ºF, many of you would definitely say that’s cold. (I wouldn’t, because like many of my readers, I spent eight winters in Chicago.)

The article touches upon the loss of snowy winters. And by and large, winters require temperatures below the freezing point, 0ºC. So what if the map used a bidirectional, divergent stepped gradient? Say temperatures above freezing were represented in shades of a different colour like red whilst below freezing remained in blue, what would happen? You could easily see which regions of the UK would have their lowest temperatures fail to fall below freezing.

Or another way of considering looking at the data is through the lens of absolute vs. change. This graphic compares the lowest annual temperature. But what if we instead had only one map? What if it coloured the UK by the change in temperature? Then you could see which regions are being the most (or least) impacted.

If the data were isolated to specific and discrete geographic units, you could take it a step further and then compare temperature change to the baseline temperatures and create a simple scatterplot for the various regions. You could create a plot showing cold areas getting warmer, and those remaining stable.

That said, this is still a really nice piece. Just a couple little tweaks could really improve it.

Credit for the piece goes to the UK Met Office.

Auto Emissions Stuck in High Gear

The last two days we looked at densification in cities and how the physical size of cities grew in response to the development of transport technologies, most notably the automobile. Today we look at a New York Times article showing the growth of automobile emissions and the problem they pose for combating the greenhouse gas side of climate change.

The article is well worth a read. It shows just how problematic the auto-centric American culture is to the goal of combating climate change. The key paragraph for me occurs towards the end of the article:

Meaningfully lowering emissions from driving requires both technological and behavioral change, said Deb Niemeier, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Maryland. Fundamentally, you need to make vehicles pollute less, make people drive less, or both, she said.

Of course the key to that is probably in the range of both.

The star of the piece is the map showing the carbon dioxide emissions on the roads from passenger and freight traffic. Spoiler: not good.

From this I blame the Schuylkill, Rte 202, the Blue Route, I-95, and just all the highways
From this I blame the Schuylkill, Rte 202, the Blue Route, I-95, and just all the highways

Each MSA is outlined in black and is selectable. The designers chose well by setting the state borders in a light grey to differentiate them from when the MSA crosses state lines, as the Philadelphia one does, encompassing parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. A slight opacity appears when the user mouses over the MSA. Additionally a little box remains up once the MSA is selected to show the region’s key datapoints: the aggregate increase and the per capita increase. Again, for Philly, not good. But it could be worse. Phoenix, which surpassed Philadelphia proper in population, has seen its total emissions grow 291%, its per capita growth at 86%. My only gripe is that I wish I could see the entire US map in one view.

The piece also includes some nice charts showing how automobile emissions compare to other sources. Yet another spoiler: not good.

I've got it: wind-powered cars with solar panels on the bonnet.
I’ve got it: wind-powered cars with solar panels on the bonnet.

Since 1990, automobile emissions have surpassed both industry emissions and more recently electrical generation emissions (think shuttered coal plants). Here what I would have really enjoyed is for the share of auto emissions to be treated like that share of total emissions. That is, the line chart does a great job showing how auto emissions have surpassed all other sources. But the stacked chart does not do as great a job. The user can sort of see how passenger vehicles have plateaued, but have yet to decline whereas lorries have increased in recent years. (I would suspect due to increased deliveries of online-ordered goods, but that is pure speculation.) But a line chart would show that a little bit more clearly.

Finally, we have a larger line chart that plots each city’s emissions. As with the map, the key thing here is the aggregate vs. per capita numbers. When one continues to scroll through, the lines all change.

Lots of people means lots of emissions.
Lots of people means lots of emissions.

There's driving in the Philadelphia area, but it's not as bad as it could be.
There’s driving in the Philadelphia area, but it’s not as bad as it could be.

Very quickly one can see how large cities like New York have large aggregate emissions because millions of people live there. But then at a per capita level, the less dense, more sprawl-y cities tend to shoot up the list as they are generally more car dependent.

Credit for the piece goes to Nadja Popovich and Denise Lu.

Urban Heat Islands

Yesterday was the first day of 32º+C (90º+F) in Philadelphia in October in 78 years. Gross. But it made me remember this piece last month from NPR that looked at the correlation between extreme urban heat islands and areas of urban poverty. In addition to the narrative—well worth the read—the piece makes use of choropleths for various US cities to explore said relationship.

My neighbourhood's not bad, but thankfully I live next to a park.
My neighbourhood’s not bad, but thankfully I live next to a park.

As graphics go, these are effective. I don’t love the pure gradient from minimum to maximum, however, my bigger point is about the use of the choropleth compared to perhaps a scatter plot. In these graphics that are trying to show a correlation between impoverished districts and extreme heat, I wonder if a more technical scatterplot showing correlation would be effective.

Another approach could be to map the actual strength of the correlation. What if the designers had created a metric or value to capture the average relationship between income and heat. In that case, each neighbourhood could be mapped as how far above or below that value they are. Because here, the user is forced to mentally transpose the one map atop the other, which is not easy.

For those of you from Chicago, that city is rated as weak or no correlation to the moderately correlated Philadelphia.

I lived near the lake for eight years, and that does a great deal for mitigating temperature extremes.
I lived near the lake for eight years, and that does a great deal for mitigating temperature extremes.

Granted, that kind of scatterplot probably requires more explanation, and the user cannot quickly find their local neighbourhood, but the graphics could show the correlation more clearly that way.

Finally, it goes almost without saying that I do not love the red/green colour palette. I would have preferred a more colour-blind friendly red/blue or green/purple. Ultimately though, a clearer top label would obviate the need for any colour differentiation at all. The same colour could be used for each metric since they never directly interact.

Overall this is a strong piece and speaks to an important topic. But the graphics could be a wee bit more effective with just a few tweaks.

Credit for the piece goes to Meg Anderson and Sean McMinn.