Australia’s Bushfires and Misleading Maps

Whenever there’s a major news event, there will be an outbreak of fake, misattributed or misleading images that purport to be about that event. That goes for maps as well.

Take the serious situation with Australia’s bushfires at the moment. Social media is jammed with maps showing practically the whole damn continent on fire, or superimposed on another continent to let people there know just how big Australia is (and also on fire). It’s a profoundly serious situation, and as NASA’s Joshua Stevens points out, it’s possible to present an accurate map that shows its seriousness without resorting to hyperbole.

The trouble is, social media thrives on hyperbole, because it thrives on “engagement”—which means outrage and anger and, as Joshua Emmons notes, as we get inured to a certain level of outrage, even more outrage is needed just to get noticed.

Which brings me to this thing, which is showing up all over the social web:

Anthony Hearsey, Creative Imaging.

Continue reading “Australia’s Bushfires and Misleading Maps”

Tom Patterson’s Map of Prince William Sound

Prince William Sound
Tom Patterson

Tom Patterson’s projects are always worthy of note. His latest is a wall map of Alaska’s Prince William Sound—a physical relief map that, Tom warns, will very soon be out of date:

Prince William Sound turned out being the most laborious map that I have ever made. The culprit: climate change. Although much of the data that went into making the map was of recent vintage, glaciers in the region have melted noticeably these last few years.

Updating physical features—glaciers, coastlines, rivers, and lakes—from recent satellite images took up ninety percent of my time. Nevertheless, the completed map is only a snapshot in time. Columbia Glacier, for example, lost another one kilometer of its length during the summer of 2019. Much of what the map depicts will be out-of-date again before too long.

It can be downloaded, printed (it’s 44 × 36 inches) and modified free of charge.

Nostalgic for Old-School TV Weather Maps. Really?

I’ve seen a lot of nostalgic pieces about paper maps and the advent of digital maps (here’s another one) that they’re almost not worth mentioning. But this piece about TV weather maps—specifically, bemoaning the loss of physical weather maps on which presenters “slapped magnetic clouds on to paper cutouts” and their replacement by computer and satellite imagery—is too, ah, much to ignore.

Mapping Canadians’ Attitude Towards Climate Change

Screenshot of interactive map of Canadian public opinion on climate change
Screenshot

Researchers have released an interactive map showing Canadians’ opinions about climate change—whether it’s happening, and what we should do about it—and, more significantly, the regional variations in that opinion, down to the riding level. Not surprisingly, the oil- and coal-producing regions are much more likely to be climate skeptics.

The map is based on surveys of more than 9,000 Canadians taken between 2011 and 2018, which raised my eyebrows a bit: public opinion can change a lot over seven or eight years, after all. But the researchers did so to get a more accurate sense of regional opinion: opinion polls are usually based on a small national sample; regional breakdowns of that sample have large margins of error, and getting accurate regional samples would be a lot more expensive. More at Global News.

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.