Scientists concluded in the IPCC’s latest report that we are currently facing global warming levels of more than 3°C, and warned of the detrimental consequences they will have for life on Earth. To illustrate the impact of global warming, we created an interactive visualization that allows users to explore some consequences of climate change. A three-dimensional globe shows which parts of the world are projected to become uninhabitable as a result of future sea level rise, tropical cyclones, heat and water stress, and how many people live in those areas.
The project received a lot of attention on Twitter and Reddit, and was featured in blogs and websites at the time. Climate scientists, politicians, climate justice activists, and many more shared it on their websites, social media and LinkedIn. The project has also been featured in talks held by leading scientists to highlight the need for openly accessible and interoperable data. Since then, the project was named one of the best of 2022’s data journalism both by the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) and DataJournalism.com. It was nominated for two Online Journalism Awards of which it won the Excellence and Innovation in Visual Digital Storytelling.
All data used for the interactive visualization is based on scientific studies and models. They were either openly accessible or were made available to us upon request to different researchers. We processed data from over a dozen different sources into a comprehensive dataset. We developed methodologies which we asked the scientists whose data we used to check.
For example, modeled projections for the future needed to be corrected for bias with data from historical observations in order to generate absolute values for future projections (e.g. future temperature values). Other data processing that was necessary included averaging huge amounts of data from several models using programmed scripts that took more than 10 hours of computing time in order to compensate for individual models’ various tendencies to over- and underestimate.
The interactive visualization was developed using a custom programmed react app and based on the three.js library.
Since the project is relevant to a global audience, we also collaborated with an English-speaking climate journalist for translation.
Context about the project:
For this project, we requested and collected scientific data from different scientists and institutions working on various aspects of climate change effects. We processed the data from different sources – partly with code that took over 10 hours to run – into a uniform resolution we could display on the interactive globe.
Our specific angle – wanting to show the probable consequences of current climate policy rather than a purely fictional scenario – posed an additional challenge when searching for raw data, as climate science often calculates effects for a best and worst case scenario (RC2.6 and RCP8.5) as opposed to a scenario that is closest to the current predictions. In some cases, that meant having to discard otherwise interesting and suitable data, in other cases we were able to extract data for specific warming levels from another warming scenario in consultation with the respective scientists.
Ongoing improvement processes of widespread climate models pose an additional challenge as it means that data from studies and research that are not fairly recent are quickly outdated and not suitable to use. Much of the data was only possible to obtain by direct contact to researchers and we were in close contact with the scientists to make sure our methods of further processing their data were legitimate.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
1. Making domain knowledge from Earth and climate science available to the broader public:
Climate researchers are and have been calculating effects of climate change with sophisticated models that are able to make solid projections. The (full scope of) information generated by scientists is hard to access for laypersons, though. Even in scientific papers the data generated is often published as static graphics, not making the granularity of the data accessible to readers.
We collected scientific findings across different specialized areas of study into a comprehensive overview and by using an easy to understand interactive visualization, we made information and data from in-depth research accessible to a broader audience in a way that also people who don’t have much pre-existing knowledge on the topic can follow.
An extensive FAQ was added to explain jargon and basic concepts of climate research and policy, such as “RCP”s, “climate model” and more. We consider this project an example of how journalism can function as a translator / bridge between science and the public.
2. Dealing with complex information through different levels of engagement:
Next to a more guided scrollytelling containing the most important context and information, the website also features an “explore” option that readers can use to interact with the data and visualization themselves. There, for example regions and states that are expected to be hit hardest are listed in an additional quick overview and any region or hazard can be explored in detail.
In conclusion, different aspects of climate change and its effects are communicated in a simple and engaging manner: interactive elements allow users to dig into details, and the narrative elements offer an overview that is to the point.