Extreme temperatures will soon transform the lives of half the world. But those effects are still largely invisible. We traveled to two of the hottest cities in the world — Kuwait City and Basra, Iraq — to measure the toll that extreme heat already takes on people’s health, their cities and their lives. Through a rich combination of on-the-ground reporting, video and sensor journalism — including heat loggers, thermal imaging, temperature probes and heart rate monitors — we offer readers a unusually personal glimpse of what the future will look like.
The effects of extreme heat are largely invisible, even to those who experience them. Years of exposure to high temperatures can silently lead to kidney problems, heart problems and other health issues. This project went to extraordinary lengths to make the risks clear, showing the promise of combining sensor reporting with rich narrative journalism.
Teju Cole wrote that the piece is “impressive and helpful, particularly for the way it focuses attention on concrete examples: two cities (Basra and Kuwait City), and on two individuals.”
Michael Oppenheimer, a prominent climate researcher, wrote that the piece was a “shocking visual preview from places where the future is now.”
The impact may seem simple, but it is in fact difficult — making the danger of something you may know intellectually really hit home. To do this, the project used elements that are rarely combined: personal, narrative writing; sensor journalism; explanatory video; and data visualization. It was a measure of the project’s success that these elements felt seamless.
“Love the integration of video and temp data in the piece,” wrote Jeff Goodwell, an environmental journalist at Rolling Stone. “This is where journalism is headed.”
This story weaved together video and on-the-ground reporting, video and the novel use of sensor journalism to capture the hyperlocal conditions across each city.
We worked for months with heat researchers, doctors, climate scientists and other researchers to carefully design our reporting and measurement protocol and make sure our use of these measurements was scientifically appropriate.
We carried a data logger everywhere we went to capture the air temperature and humidity at each location we visited. These loggers captured measurements every 15 seconds and stored them in CSV files with timestamps. By combining these readings with the metadata of the video files, we could report the exact conditions our subjects were experiencing while we filmed them.
To add to our understanding of the pernicious effects of heat, we used a combination of thermal imaging cameras and a temperature gun to capture the surface temperature of objects in our subject’s environment, such as scaldingly hot metal benches and a children’s swing that reached 180°F.
Working closely with several experts who study heat exposure, we also estimated the effect that this extreme heat was having on our subject’s bodies. We fitted a welder with a heart rate monitor while to estimate how his core body temperature rose while he worked in direct sunlight as the feels-like temperature reached 125°F. By working with heat stress researchers, we estimated his core body temperature rose by 3°F, putting extreme stress on his heart.
After demonstrating the danger of heat stress for people’s lives and bodies, we analyzed exclusive data from Harvard researchers to produce visualizations of what a typical year will look like in 12 global cities by 2100 under three different emissions scenarios. The data was analyzed using R and we produced the charts using ggplot2 and Adobe Illustrator.
Context about the project:
Using sensors to collect all of these different datasets reliably is a challenge. It’s even harder when you need to rapidly move from one location to another as your subject goes about their day. We had to experiment with a number of different sensor setups to find the right technology, and, crucially, workflow that would work on the ground in Kuwait City and Basra.
Due to the project’s focus on Basra, Iraq as one of the two locations, we also had to contend with strict export restrictions which prohibited the use of certain sensors, such as high resolution thermal imaging cameras. After weeks of research, we concluded that perfect thermal imaging product didn’t exist for this project, so one of our graphics editors sourced an appropriate thermal imaging sensor and soldered it onto a circuit board himself.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
Sensor journalism offers data and visual journalists the opportunity to create their own datasets, rather than relying on datasets from governments or scientists.
One of the main benefits to capturing your own data is that it allows your stories to have a much closer connection between the data visualizations and the on-the-ground reporting. Instead of showing city-level trends using available weather data, we were able to quantitatively show readers the conditions inside the home of the subjects we were reporting on and capturing video of. It allowed us to not just describe but visualize how the second-by-second temperatures in the room were dangerous for the people we were following.
Capturing your own data also allows you to find hyperlocal differences that aren’t visible in any existing datasets. We learned just how localized weather conditions can be. We are used to seeing weather conditions represent the temperature in a city as a single number, but we found that two streets just a mile apart could have significantly different temperature and humidity readings because of differences in air flow, nearby waterways and the different buildings on the street. Sensor journalism allows journalists to report on the exact conditions you observe when reporting at a location.