Inside NOAA During Trump’s Sharpie Mapmaking Period

Remember the nuttery surrounding President Trump, his erroneous warning that Hurricane Dorian would hit Alabama, and his Sharpie-adjusted hurricane map? That was two whole months ago. It all put NOAA and the National Weather Service in an awkward spot. Mother Jones put in a Freedom of Information Act request for their internal emails and found out just how uncomfortable things were inside NOAA during that period.

Previously: Trump, Maps and Manipulation; ‘A Defilement of a Sacred Trust’.

Humboldt’s Maps

David Rumsey Map Collection

Writing for Smithsonian.com, Greg Millar looks at the maps of pioneering naturalist Alexander von Humboldt.

What’s often omitted, however, in discussions of Humboldt’s scientific legacy is the role that his pioneering maps and scientific illustrations played in shaping his thinking. By creating visualizations of data that had previously been bound up in tables, Humboldt revealed connections that had eluded others, says historian Susan Schulten of the University of Denver. “He’s really a visual thinker,” she says.

According to Schulten, Humboldt was one of the first scientists to use maps to generate and test scientific hypotheses. One example was his use of what he called “isotherm” lines to indicate regions of the globe with the same average temperature. These lines are ubiquitous on weather maps today, and they seem so obvious we take them for granted. But when Humboldt published a map using them in 1817, it caused scientists to rethink the widely held assumption that the average temperature of a region depends primarily on its latitude. The isotherm lines on Humboldt’s map had ups and downs that deviated from lines of latitude. This prompted him and others to look for explanations, and eventually led to an understanding of how ocean currents, mountain ranges, and other features of geography contribute to local climates.

For more on Humboldt generally, Andrea Wulf’s biography, The Invention of Nature, is a marvellous read.

The Washington Post Maps Fall Foliage

Washington Post

Fall foliage maps, which show the best times and places to observe autumn leaves, have been a thing for a good long while. The Washington Post’s take on them is something earnestly next level, with a detailed explanation of the biology and satellite images showing the change in colour across the United States. (I don’t need fall foliage maps: I live on an acre of beech and maple forest and get all the fall colours right outside my window, though here in Canada the leaves are almost all on the ground by now.)

Beyond the Two-Degree Limit

Washington Post: Temperature change map
Washington Post

Two degrees Celsius. That’s the redline. The average global temperature increase we need to keep below, according to the 2015 Paris Agreement. But as the Washington Post points out in two heavily mapped stories—one for the United States, one for the entire world—that show the change in average temperatures since the late 1800s, there are places on the planet that have already blown past that two-degree limit. [Maps Mania]

Himalayan Ice Loss Measured with Cold War Spy Photos

Satellite imagery only goes back so far. To measure the rate of ice loss across the Himalayan glaciers, researchers turned to recently declassified spy satellite photos from 1975. The photos were used to create a digital elevation model (above) which was compared with more recent data. They concluded that the rate of ice loss was accelerating: it was twice as much from 2000 to 2016 than it was from 1975 to 2000. Columbia University, Science News. [Geography Realm]

Mapping Heat Islands in U.S. Cities

NOAA/Portland State University/Science Museum of Virginia

The temperature on a hot summer day in a single city can vary by as much as 11 degrees Celsius depending on where you are—whether you’re near green spaces that cool down the surrounding areas, or pavement and concrete, which absorb heat and radiate it. That’s the heat island effect, and mapping it is the focus of a project led by Portland State University researchers, funded in part by NOAA, and conducted by on-the-ground volunteers who have been taking temperature measurements across a number of U.S. cities. Those measurements have been cross-referenced with other data about the neighbourhoods, which will help cities figure out how to keep their citizens cool during heat waves—which, let’s face it, are going to be a lot more common going forward. National Geographic, New York Times.

Mapping Carbon Dioxide Emissions: Worldmapper’s Cartograms

From last April: Worldmapper’s cartograms showing where in the world CO2 emissions are coming from, both in terms of overall emissions (by area) and per capita (colour). China, the U.S. and India are the largest emitters, but on a per capita basis the U.S. emits twice as much CO2 as China and eight times as much as India. Additional cartograms looking at the increase or decline in CO2 emissions (from 1990 to 2015) show increases mainly in China and the rest of Asia, and declines in Europe and the former Soviet bloc (a lot of the latter due to post-Soviet deindustrialization).

‘A Defilement of a Sacred Trust’

I hadn’t planned on posting anything about Trump’s Sharpie-adjusted hurricane forecast map: there was nothing useful for me to add to the discussion, and presumably you’d all heard about it already and didn’t need me to tell you. But it turns out something map-related can, and has, been said about the issue.

Charles Blow was once in charge of the New York Times graphics department, and an art director at National Geographic. His response to Trump’s marked-up map was “visceral”:

Because of this unyielding commitment to accuracy, I believe cartography enjoys an enviable position of credibility and confidence among the people who see it. If you see it mapped, you believe.

That is precisely what you want the case to be, particularly in natural disasters. This cartography should be devoid of any attempt to deceive. Its only agenda should be to inform and enlighten.

That’s what made Trump’s marked-on map such a blasphemy: It attacked, on a fundamental level, truth, science and public trust. It wasn’t just a defacement of a public document, it was a defilement of a sacred trust.

Blow’s reaction is predicated in the notion that maps can’t lie, or at least don’t, or at least shouldn’t. Enter Mark Monmonier, the author of How to Lie with Maps (reviewed here), who was interviewed by CityLab about this kerfuffle. Even Monmonier, who has no illusions about maps’ claims to accuracy and objectivity, and who literally wrote the book on how hazard mapping can be misleading, seems to be sputtering:

Usually, attempts to falsify tend to happen before maps are published, and don’t try to contradict established scientific facts. You can put a spin on something by influencing the appearance of a map before it’s published. You can put a spin on things by determining what is and is not going to be mapped. Something that might put your administration in an unfavorable view, for example: Those maps won’t be part of the plan. […]

But the Trump map is unusual. I cannot find anything truly comparable. We had a map that was already out there that he actually mutilated, and in a very obvious way. This guy shows absolutely no subtlety at all. And then people try to make excuses for him. I have never seen anything like this.

Trump’s little stunt has revealed something very interesting about how we see maps.

Five New Islands Charted Off Novaya Zemlya

Climate change means retreating glaciers, which exposes new islands, which means new maps. BBC News reports that five new islands off the northeast coast of Novaya Zemlya, an archipelago in the Russian Arctic that was the site of hundreds of nuclear tests, were mapped by a Russian expedition. The islands were discovered in satellite photos by then-student Marina Migunova, now a naval oceanographic engineer.

Previously: New Map of Greenland and the European Arctic.

The Dangers of Hurricane Maps’ Cone of Uncertainty

The New York Times

The cone of uncertainty is a core feature of hurricane maps: it shows the potential routes a hurricane is likely to take (the path grows over time, as we’re less certain where the storm goes next). But it’s misinterpreted in ways that put people at risk. That’s the argument made by Alberto Cairo in an online infographic (and in print) in the New York Times last week: research reveals that people living along the edge of the cone are much less likely to prepare for the storm, even though the edge of the cone is one possible path for the centre of the storm—and the cone only covers 60 to 70 percent of the storm’s potential paths in any event.

Alberto Cairo goes into more detail about the problem, and the responsibility of both journalists and readers when faced with such visualizations, on his blog. His book, How Charts Lie: Getting Smarter About Visual Information, comes out from W. W. Norton next month.

Previously: Rethinking the Cone of Uncertainty.

Mapping the Amazon Fires

Let’s start with the current situation map from Brazil’s own space agency, the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espacias (INPE), which I’m surprised is still online. In July Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, accused the widely respected agency of lying about the scale of deforestation in the Amazon; INPE’s chief, Ricardo Galvão, was forced out earlier this month after defending the agency. After that, INPE said that fires were up 84 percent over the same period last year. (The ESA, for its part, tracked nearly four times as many fires in August as they did last year.)

Other raw data sources include the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), fire activity data from which can be viewed here; and MODIS data from NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites. For a live feed of MODIS data on the Amazon fires, see the MODIS Wildfire Dashboard.

NASA

Meanwhile, NASA’s Earth Observatory posted MODIS imagery of several Amazon fires, and had this curious statement that seemed to minimize the scale of the problem: “As of August 16, 2019, an analysis of NASA satellite data indicated that total fire activity across the Amazon basin this year has been close to the average in comparison to the past 15 years. […] Though activity appears to be above average in the states of Amazonas and Rondônia, it has so far appeared below average in Mato Grosso and Pará, according to estimates from the Global Fire Emissions Database, a research project that compiles and analyzes NASA data.”

A subsequent NASA Earth Observatory post seems to contradict the one I mentioned earlier, pointing to “a noticeable increase in large, intense, and persistent fires burning along major roads in the central Brazilian Amazon” which “are more consistent with land clearing than with regional drought” and noted fire detections “higher across the Brazilian Amazon” since 2010.

Contextualizing the amount of fires seems to be a recurring theme in the reporting: the number of fires are up sharply over last year, but close to the average when taking a longer view. It’s helped a lot of bad and insincere actors make it harder to get to the heart of what’s going on over there. They can’t, after all, deny the satellite imagery or the remote sensing: we can see the fires. We can detect the emissions of smoke, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide (1, 2, 3). We can map them. And those maps can help us understand what’s going on.

On the NGO front, InfoAmazonia has produced the above map comparing fires over the last 24 hours with historical fire data. (They have other maps on this subject as well.)

Note, too, the reference above to burning along major roads. Tim Wallace crunches MODIS date from 2012 onward and teases out some patterns in the fires.

The New York Times

And the New York Times, where Tim used to work, has a map correlating the position of the current Amazon fires along the edges of past deforestation. The Times also has maps showing maps on a month-by-month basis and comparing August 2019 with the August average over the past decade.

[CityLab, Maps Mania]

Map of UV Exposure in the United States

NASA Earth Observatory (Joshua Stevens)

NASA Earth Observatory:

The NASA Applied Sciences Program has partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to create the first publicly available map of ultraviolet (UV) radiation for all counties in the contiguous United States. The dataset, which spans 2005-2015, is available on the CDC’s National Environmental Public Health Tracking network, which delivers information and data about health issues related to environmental factors. Public health officials, city planners, or individuals concerned about Sun exposure can learn how much ultraviolet radiation is falling over each county each month, which is an important step in helping reduce skin cancer risks.

The animated map above shows the monthly average UV dose in 2015.

Quebec’s Updated Flood Maps Prove Controversial

Government of Quebec (screenshot)

In the wake of serious and devastating spring flooding in 2017 and 2019, the Quebec government issued proposed flood zone maps that marked areas where rebuilding and new construction would be put on hold. There was immediate pushback: as CBC News reported last month, the maps included substantial areas of small towns (such as, in my neck of the woods, the villages of Fort-Coulonge and Campbell’s Bay), or, in the case of Gatineau, areas that were not flooded in either 2017 or 2019 as well as major new developments. The mayor of Vaudreuil-Dorion suggested that the mapmakers forgot to correct for cloud cover. In the end, new maps were issued that removed substantial areas of Montreal from the flood zone, among other areas: some 20 percent of the 120,000 homes affected by the first set of maps were removed from the revised maps.

Previously: Quebec Flood Maps.

Mapping the Flow of Antarctic Ice

UC Irvine/Jeremie Mouginot

This is a map of Antarctic surface ice velocity: the speed at which glaciers flow. It was produced by researchers at the University of California Irvine and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, using radar interferometry and multiple satellite passes to produce a map 10 times more accurate than previous maps. More: UCI News, Geophysical Research Letters.