Shifting smoke

Country/area: Singapore

Organisation: Reuters

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 17 Sep 2020

Credit: Marco Hernandez, Manas Sharma, Simon Scarr, Katy Daigle

Project description:

Reuters visualised smoke released into the atmosphere during the fires across California in late summer. The smoke contains a substantial portion of fine particulate matter known by the particles’ size as PM2.5, which can have a major impact on people’s health. The animation built from millions of data points clearly showed the smoke travelled thousands of miles east, turning skies from New York to Washington D.C. hazy and reaching as far as the skies above Britain.

Impact reached:

It was shared widely on social media and received high readership traffic. It also showed the extent of how far the fires affected the world. Readers assumed the problem was restricted to far flung California, but in reality, the impact of the fire was affecting countries on different continents. 

Techniques/technologies used:

This project drew on a range of techniques from satellite derived data work to reporting over the phone and talking to experts. We wanted to accurately map and show readers exactly where this smoke was going and explain why.

For the main smoke map animation, we downloaded hundreds of data files from NASA’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office and filtered out any unwanted pollutants. We visualised only atmospheric organic carbon, or basically smoke from fires. We were able to plot gridded data showing the density of smoke in the air. Each frame was exported from QGIS and styled in Adobe After Effects.

Smoke from the fires has also pushed the limits vertically, reaching altitudes previously unseen, according to NASA. When extreme fires generate enough heat, it is propelled into the atmosphere creating thunderstorms.

That happened on Sept. 7, when huge storm clouds – known as pyrocumulonimbus – rose to a height of more than 15 kilometers, punching into the stratosphere.

We illustrated this by downloading, reformatting, and plotting data from a NASA satellite called CALIPSO. This satellite sends laser pulses to measure light scattered back to it from particles in the atmosphere. Our visualization shows a cross section of the atmosphere on that record-breaking day and explains what the particles are, such as aerosol smoke, clouds, or ice particles.

What was the hardest part of this project?

Extracting and making sense of the often confusing raw satellite-derived data files was a challenge. This data did not arrive in a mappable or plottable structure so it had to be reformatted.

Tying all of this complicated data together in a story and making it understandable to regular readers proved to be difficult. However, the piece turned into an immersive visual project which is one of the most in-depth explanations and analysis on the smoke from the fires in California.

What can others learn from this project?

One of the strengths of this piece is how it uses such complex data, yet visualises and explains the subject in an understandable and easy to digest way.

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