Data Made Beautiful: Weather, Climate and Fracking Water

Feb 6, 2014. The project is a visualization of global weather conditions forecast by supercomputers updated every three hours, with ocean surface current estimates updated every five days. Source:

Data are ruthless. They reduce all of human experience to seconds on a watch and measure inches of snowfall without regard to snow angels. A datum sees the sun set and calls it just another day.

Humans bring life to data and put them together in ways that help us better understand the world. Some people call this art “data visualization,” and 2014 has already produced some mind-splitting examples. Below are four favorites.

Warning: Visual data can be addictive. World-upside-down turnage may occur.

Example 1: Wind, Rain, Fire and Ice

There have been some pretty cool visualization of wind and water flows in the last few years, notably the wind map by Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg. None have so seamlessly integrated as many elements as Cameron Beccario’s Earth, pictured above. Click here to set Earth in motion.

Once the animation has started, click on the word “earth” in the lower lefthand corner to set the parameters you wish to see.

Example 2: Frack Me a River

Texas has a lot of fracking resources. Water isn’t one of them. What does Texas’s fracking need most? That’s right: water, and lots of it.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing for the ill-humored, is the process of blasting chemical-rich water into the ground to cause tiny fractures from which natural gas can be collected. The technique is at the heart of the U.S. energy boom, which happens to coincide with some of the worst droughts in modern U.S. history.

This week Ceres, a group of data-loving visualizers, superimposed U.S. fracking wells over maps of water stress created by the World Resources Institute. Open the map, click the little circle in the bottom right to expand it to full screen and then zoom in.

Ceres’s analysis found that nearly half the fracked wells (black dots on the map) in the U.S. were in areas with high or extremely high water stress (areas in red). Scary stuff if you live in a water-stressed area. It’s interesting enough just to see those 40,000 wells spread across the country; keep in mind, this is just a sampling of frack wells built since 2011.

Example 3: NASA Does Climate Change

This visualization shows how global temperatures have risen from 1950 through the end of 2013, published on Jan 21, 2014. Photographer: NASA Goddard

NASA isn’t exactly known for its beautiful visualizations, but… er… Scratch that, NASA is totally known for its beautiful visualizations. You can explore a gallery of NASA projects by clicking here, or you can skip straight to today’s example, “Six Decades of a Warming Earth.”

The title is self-explanatory, as is the video. Simple, to-the-point and recently updated to include 2013 -- NASA presents six decades of data in 14 seconds.

Example 4: What’s a CRUTEM4 For?

Displaying content from All CRUTEM gridboxes that contain some temperature data are shown as green or red boxes. Photographer: NASA, TerraMetrics

Global warming is one of the most-studied natural phenomenons of the last 50 years, and scientists are in near-universal agreement about its causes. Still, for people who don’t follow the science, it’s easy to be swayed by professional obfuscators of the data.

That’s why it’s important that the data be made transparent and easily accessible. The most recent example is an overlay on Google Maps that covers the world’s land mass with green and red checkers. This is CRUTEM4, a 150-year-old climate record based on weather-station data. Click here to open the map and see how different regions are responding to climate change.

You can zoom in and out around the world using the slider on the upper left. Click on a location to see the temperature record for that spot on the global grid. (The record in some areas is older than in others). There’s also a Google Earth version with better features. It requires a few more steps to access -- instructions can be found by clicking here.

CRUTEM4 provides the land-based temperatures for the widely-cited HadCRUT data set of global surface temperatures. The data from 6,000 weather stations around the world are maintained by University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit, with funding by the U.S. Energy Department. CRUTEM4 is just one of many datasets scientists use to study the effects of climate change.

That’s it for this month’s roundup of data visualizations. Send your favorites to or leave them in the comments below.

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