The sea ice of the Arctic is melting rapidly. Snow is also to blame

Country/area: Switzerland

Organisation: Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 27/7/2021

Credit: Adina Renner, adina.renner@nzz.ch, project lead and animation
Sabrina Weiss, mail@sabrinamweiss.com, text
Anja Lemcke, anja.lemcke@nzz.ch, illustrations
Kaspar Manz, kaspar.manz@nzz.ch, 3D-animation
Nicolas Staub, nicolas.staub@nzz.ch, web development

Biography: The NZZ Visuals department uses data and visualization to tell stories that range from breaking news to in-depth backgrounds. Our mission: to drive the diversity of storytelling across the newsroom. Among other things, we implement custom story formats and further develop our Toolbox Q.

Project description:

The Arctic’s dwindling sea ice is one of the most visible signs of climate change. In this story, we follow three scientists on a year-long expedition to the Arctic as they try to unravel what is at stake for this fragile ecosystem.

The article features novel animation and interaction techniques – optimized for a mobile reading experience – to bring the remote Arctic and complex climate processes closer to our readers. Infographics and data visualizations convey the newest scientific findings. All these elements are interwoven with anecdotes from the scientists who tell us how they witness and document a rapidly changing world.

Impact reached:

The story was well-received by our readers. Many of them spent an above-average time on the article online. It was also printed in the newspaper and widely shared on social media. At the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), the article served as a showcase for how science and visual journalists can successfully collaborate to present a data-driven story in the most engaging and informative way possible. The collaborative processes and technologies used are now being applied to other NZZ stories.

Techniques/technologies used:

The story begins with a cinematic opening in which readers scroll through the Arctic landscape, following the research vessel to its anchor point. The video uses positional data, a 3D model of the ship, and scans of the Arctic sea ice to paint a realistic journey. We produced the animations in Blender and linked them to the reader’s scroll position with the JavaScript library GSAP (GreenSock Animation Platform).

When the scientists arrive at the North Pole, winter has already begun. We show the darkness of those days in illustrations of the winter landscape and in spectacular photos shot by the scientists.

When summer arrives, a second animation follows. It explains the complex “albedo effect” – a process that plays a significant role in arctic climate change. Step by step, our readers learn how the Arctic sea ice – and its reflective properties – change through the seasons as they scroll through the animation. To visualize this physical process in a captivating way, we relied on recordings that the protagonists had made during the expedition. We turned these into illustrations and animated them using Adobe After Effects. We used the open-source animation format “Lottie” to bring the animation into the browser and made it controllable with the JavaScript library GSAP.

As the expedition nears its end, we put the scientists’ findings on snow and sea ice loss into the global context of climate change. In scientific illustrations based on exclusive material, we show how the porousness of snow changes how it can reflect sunlight. We use data visualization to explain what the models are predicting about arctic sea ice loss. The visualizations were created with the Python library Pandas, the Javascript library D3.js, and Adobe Illustrator. Most models show that the arctic will have ice-free summers by 2050.

What was the hardest part of this project?

While working on this story, we encountered various challenges. First, we had to find a way to relate foundational research to our readers in a gripping manner. This meant we had to understand the science ourselves – a challenge that was not made easier by the fact that the researchers were still analyzing their data. These circumstances called for a close collaboration between our team and the scientists and between the science and the visual journalists. It also meant that we had to learn how to work with diverse, unusual source material such as computed tomography scans of the snow or lidar data of ice floes.

The second major challenge was to bring together multiple storylines, different narrative formats, and diverse visual material. The journey served as our narrative thread along which we could tell the story of ground-breaking research and natural processes in the Arctic. In the text, explanatory and anecdotal sections alternate. We used a consistent visual style to hold all the elements together and help the reader settle into the story world.

Finally, we also explored boundaries in terms of technical implementation. For example, with the “Lottie” animation format, we tried different ways of explaining an organic, natural process to our readers. Such a detailed and interactive animation of this process has never been built for the browser to our knowledge.

We believe that the story should be selected because it presents a new way of combining science, data, and visual journalism to create an impactful, enjoyable reading experience. The article shows how news can be data-driven but at the same time experiential rather than analytical. Our way of collaborating with scientists and our multi-disciplinary team of science journalists, visual journalists and coders provide an example of how journalism can be practiced as a collaborative undertaking.

What can others learn from this project?

We hope that this article inspires other journalists to tell more stories on climate change research in an engaging way. Our article is based on data, but the story is not an analytical one. Instead, we use data and visualization to guide the reader through a cinematic experience. As the web becomes more performant, animation and video offer a new chance to tell complex stories about our natural world.

Various skills are needed to produce this kind of reading experience – data wrangling, data visualization, illustration, motion design, web programming, and science literacy, to name only a few. We hope to see more and more teams invest in these skills and the collaborative processes needed to bring these skills together. Our project – both the process and the outcome – can serve as a blueprint for these undertakings.

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