Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Image Of Our Discontent

The current hurricane season has brought disastrous flooding and rains to the east coast, as Irene and her tropical cousins have wrecked their way up the seaboard. The wall-to-wall television coverage, interestingly, has offered varying examples of information designs, all centering on the same topic. As we sat glued to the Weather Channel during our 24 hours of calamitous winds, we watched successive layers of storm information, each depicted within a similar geographic and visual frame.

Source: The National Hurricane Center
The National Hurricane Center is the clearinghouse for authoritative storm coverage. Its website allows users to access the same data on which marquee meteorologists rely. The Center's value lies in its seemingly endless permutations of visualizations that offer expert representations of wind, rain, storm paths, and potential landfalls.

As students of geography and design, we appreciate the Center's care in crafting unique pictorial depictions, all within the same geographic grid. The scalability of maps helps reinforce the value of micro and macro scales. The storm track predictions also confirm the importance of fluid portrayals.

A boundary and silhouette enhanced visualization of hurricane Katrina's (2005) humidity attribute (Source: UMBC)

Other sites offer educational renderings of hurricanes to teach students about the science behind the storms. CNN presents a VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) visualization to animate the theoretical eye of a hurricane. Infographic World recently posted a terrific diagram of a hurricane's intricate anatomy. In a different graphic about media literacy, a study of news coverage since 1980 reveals wide disparities between TV publicity and actual hurricane damage. And finally, a fantastic series of illustration-inspired techniques helps computer scientists and engineers at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) visualize the evolution of hurricanes to understand better their storm tracks and intensifications. All of these resources make for great tools in the classroom, to generate discussion and reinforce scientific, geographic, and visual thinking.


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