The Earth-observing satellites that orbit our planet generate dozens of terabytes of data each year. While much of this data is downloadable and freely available to the public, interpreting it can be extremely challenging. Only some researchers, data visualizers, and data journalists have the expertise and bandwidth to do it well.
The NASA Earth Observatory is charged with making such data and observations accessible to the public. Founded in 1999 as an educational outreach project, the website has grown to become NASA’s flagship for breaking Earth science news, imagery, and data visualization. Over our 22-year history, we have published more than 11,000 stories and generated hundreds of millions of pageviews on our website alone. News organizations and scientific institutions regularly expand our reach by reusing and amplifying our stories.
We continually gather and evaluate new observations collected by satellites and Earth scientists and put data at the heart of a new story every day. Though we work within a science institution, we have been given great autonomy and responsibility to apply journalistic principles to our storytelling, and that has helped us build trust with our readers. With tens of thousands of daily visits to our website and millions of followers on social media (10.7 million on Facebook, 2.5 million on Twitter, and 1.5 million on Instagram), our visuals and stories routinely influence the national and international conversation about key environmental issues.
Over the decades, astronauts have looked back at Earth and noted that international borders are not visible from space. We try to live that. Though our team is based in the United States, our content and outlook has a strong international component. We routinely share images and stories from around the world that are overlooked by mainstream media outlets in the U.S. Our readers notice and appreciate that: About half of them reach our website from abroad. Only one-tenth of our social media followers are based in the U.S.
Whether the topic is rising global temperatures, Amazon deforestation, or the impacts of hurricanes, wildfires, or illegal fishing, our team strives to offer a big-picture perspective. In some cases – such as tracking fire activity or deforestation in remote or less developed areas – satellites are the only feasible way to track changes over time and across borders. Our imagery and analysis fills an important niche in the information ecosystem.
Our team is small – two data visualizers, four science writer-editors, a data archivist, and a web developer – but we have more than 110 collective years of experience that help us bring depth, rigor, and science literacy to these stories. We have academic and professional experience in cartography, library sciences, computer science, graphic design, remote sensing, science journalism, and Earth sciences. Every story we produce requires visualizers, editors, and writers to work closely with each other and with subject matter experts to ensure that stories are scientifically sound, appropriately contextualized, and readable. Text and visuals must fit together and advance the same concepts. If they don’t, we spike that story.
We are probably an unusual entrant in this competition, but we believe we occupy a special place in science communication. At a time when our planet is stressed, we provide unique insights into how it is changing and why. But lest we be too dour and serious, we also remember – and regularly remind readers – that data is beautiful, and so is our planet.
Description of portfolio:
While Earth Observatory covers all Earth sciences and many types of natural events, we have selected a series of stories from 2021 that highlight the human fingerprint on environmental changes and challenges.
Chief among these is global warming and climate change. NASA scientists are the keepers of one of the most widely cited analyses of global temperature trends in the world, and our team plays a critical role in producing visuals about global warming and its effects on sea ice. As we reported in “2020 Tied for Lowest Year on Record” and “Sea Ice Highs and Lows,” the bad news about these indicators continued in 2021.
After fires and deforestation in the Amazon rainforest in 2019 inspired intensive and sometimes misleading media coverage, our team began publishing a series of stories about the history and nuance of deforestation trends in the region. Our story from February 2021 (Fires Raged in the Amazon Again in 2020) details something that most outlets overlooked: the 2020 fire year was worse than 2019, even if fewer people were tweeting about it. The visualizations in this story were designed specifically to address some misconceptions that had surfaced in public conversation about the Amazon.
Others stories in the portfolio created buzz for less predictable reasons. In February 2021, we published a story highlighting a striking photo of gold mining in Peru (Gold Rush in the Peruvian Amazon) that led to articles in CNN, BBC, and several other outlets about Peru’s “rivers of gold.” Later that year, we followed up with a more substantive story (Finding Gold Mining Hotspots in Peru) that detailed how teams of researchers have developed a satellite-based tool to identify illegal gold mining hotspots.
Other stories – using satellite observations of nighttime lights to identify illegal fishing (Arabian Night Lights), investigating the causes of megafires in California (What’s Behind California’s Surge of Large Fires?), or tracking garbage in the ocean (Mapping Marine Microplastics) – did not break records for pageviews or media mentions, but perhaps they should have. In each case, the stories used remote sensing data to highlight environmental problems that would be a challenge to conceptualize in the absence of a satellite perspective.