2C: Beyond the Limit

Category: Best data-driven reporting (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: United States

Organisation: The Washington Post

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 13/08/2019

Credit: Brady Dennis, Juliet Eilperin, Darryl Fears, Chris Mooney, Steven Mufson, John Muyskens, Harry Stevens, Monica Ulmanu, Trish Wilson

Project description:

The Washington Post’s 2C: Beyond the Limit series was grounded on a simple idea: let’s tell the story of what is, not what might be or could be.

It fundamentally reshaped the climate debate by showing that extreme warming is no longer a worry for the future – it is, in fact, here, with daunting consequences. Our analysis showed that ten percent of the planet has already warmed by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), a critical threshold for global warming. 

Impact reached:

The Post data analysis identified the globe’s fastest warming places based on an internationally recognized threshold. We built a framework and then let the analysis itself determine the stories. The stories have themselves generated widespread coverage in regions across the globe affected by extreme warming, and have shifted the way top policymakers and scientists approach the issue.
Senior environmental officials in South America approached Uruguay’s Omar Defeo and Argentina’s Alberto Piola after they were quoted in our story about the hot spot identified off Uruguay’s coast. The Uruguay-Argentina Rio de la Plata Commission, which sets offshore policy for this region, has held two workshops on the topic and Piola has presented to the group. Andrew Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, instructed his entire staff and board to read our initial piece after it identified several of the counties under his jurisdiction as ones that have already warmed 2 degrees C since the late 1800s.
Outlets across the country and the globe either reprinted our story verbatim or wrote their own versions, using our findings. This included small and regional papers in California, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey and Texas. 
The piece on Alaska led the Anchorage Daily News’ homepage for an entire day.

Our stories on hot zones were translated into languages ranging from Spanish to Ukrainian, and reprinted in foreign outlets across multiple continents, including some of the biggest papers in Argentina and Uruguay. (https://tsn.ua/nauka_it/porig-nezvorotnih-zmin-temperatura-v-ukrayini-za-100-rokiv-zbilshilas-na-dva-gradusi-i-bilshe-1409682.html and https://thebabel.com.ua/news/35547-serednya-temperatura-povitrya-v-ukrajini-za-ostanni-sto-rokiv-zrosla-na-dva-gradusi-i-prodovzhuye-rosti and https://www.9news.com.au/world/qatar-installs-air-conditioning–to-deal-with-heat-and-prepare-for-world-cup-2022/d46d0100-0195-4960-ba36-fea195409f76)
The series’ initial article garnered nearly 1 million page views, and was widely shared by readers, presidential candidates, climate activists and professors. Our audience stayed immersed in the stories for long periods of time, reading several stories for nearly three minutes.

Techniques/technologies used:

The data analysis was performed in R using the Raster package maintained by Robert Hijmans. R was used to read raw data, calculate means, find the area experiencing certain temperature increases and perform linear regressions, as well as output data in a format suitable for mapping. The maps were created using QGIS and Adobe Illustrator. Interactive graphics were programmed in JavaScript using D3.js.

What was the hardest part of this project?

Learning how to work with massive global temperature datasets to produce scientifically sound results, selecting the methodology to represent temperature change, and finding clear language to explain it to our readers were some of the biggest challenges we faced along the way. 

We decided we needed to write detailed methodology sections at the bottom of the articles (1 and 2), and to integrate discussions of data quality and uncertainty directly into the stories when necessary. They added transparency to the data that was the backbone of this series, and they set it apart. This mindset in handling of data culminated in our graphics-focused, profoundly explanatory, piece “How we know that global warming is real,” which used a three-dimensional model, multiple animations, and an archival 18th century ship’s logbook to demonstrate how global temperature data has emerged over time and how it has been used.

We performed thousands of linear regressions for this series, mastered raster GIS and spatial data, and mapped gridded temperature estimates at resolutions as fine as five square miles. We located every official land and ocean temperature report going back to 1701. Much of this drove us along a steeply inclining learning curve for our climate reporters and national editors alike.


What can others learn from this project?

The ability to bridge two worlds – data and journalism – is no small task. This was a project of impressive scope and ambition, and the presentation of the data managed to convey both magnitude and immediacy, and demonstrated that extreme climate change is already a life-altering reality across 10 percent of the Earth’s surface. Our work was scientifically advanced, but the results were simple to understand.

Something to note and keep in mind: While the data lies at the heart of our 2C series, it is the places and the people who live in them that reveal the damage climate change is wreaking in the hot spots. Our reporters captured these altered places and lives with profound grace and clarity. 

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