Up in smoke
Organisation size: Big
Publication date: 5 Oct 2020
Credit: Marco Hernandez, Simon Scarr
In late summer of 2020, wildfires raged across the western United States, home to most of the country’s vineyards, and hit farmers and wine makers already reeling from the Trump administration’s trade wars and demand disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Smoke, harmful to wine grapes, had blanketed much of the West and fires charred more than 4 million acres (1.6 million hectares) in California in 2020, more than twice the previous record for any year. Reuters took an in depth look at which wine areas were most affected and how.
This was the most in-depth analysis of the impact on California’s wine country. The project had high readership and was shared widely on social media and within the wine industry.
This project drew on a range of techniques from satellite derived data work to reporting over the phone and talking to local wine growers. We wanted to accurately map and show readers how much of the area was impacted and to what extent.
For the smoke map, we downloaded hundreds of data files from NASA’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office before applying our own calculations to get gridded averages which we could map. This allowed us to show which areas were under smoke the most or the longest.
We plotted another summary of that same data on our harvest timeline near the end of the piece to show which grapes were likely affected most.
On the Napa Valley map, fire footprint data came from the U.S. National Interagency Fire Center and was plotted in QGIS along with vineyard locations and a custom hillshade and terrain layer modeled in-house from elevation data.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The data wrangling for the atmospheric smoke was a challenge. However, the most difficult part of this project was calling and talking to wine growers and family vineyards who had lost everything. Some lost their entire crop and some lost their land.
What can others learn from this project?
Hand drawn illustration and human stories can complement and elevate the data visualisation work. Finding that balance and overall feel for this piece was certainly a challenge but paid off.