Category Archives: Visualization

if history = people x years

From Two thousand years in one chart | The Economist.

SOME people recite history from above, recording the grand deeds of great men. Others tell history from below, arguing that one person’s life is just as much a part of mankind’s story as another’s. If people do make history, as this democratic view suggests, then two people make twice as much history as one. Since there are almost 7 billion people alive today, it follows that they are making seven times as much history as the 1 billion alive in 1811. The chart below shows a population-weighted history of the past two millennia. By this reckoning, over 28% of all the history made since the birth of Christ was made in the 20th century. Measured in years lived, the present century, which is only ten years old, is already “longer” than the whole of the 17th century. This century has made an even bigger contribution to economic history. Over 23% of all the goods and services made since 1AD were produced from 2001 to 2010, according to an updated version of updated version of Angus Maddison’s figures.

The history of goods and services in some ways can be roughly considered as humanity’s impact on the planet. But that view assumes that economic activity has been consistent in its impacts on the planet.


From Monterey Bay Aquarium a beautiful jellyfish video – there’s no such thing as a jellyfish.

By all accounts, jellyfish are creatures that kill people, eat microbes, grow to tens of meters, filter phytoplankton, take over ecosystems, and live forever. Because of the immense diversity of gelatinous plankton, jelly-like creatures can individually have each of these properties. However this way of looking at them both overstates and underestimates their true diversity. Taxonomically, they are far more varied than a handful of exemplars that are used to represent jellyfish or especially the so-called “true” jellyfish. Ecologically, they are even more adaptable than one would expect by looking only at the conspicuous bloom forming families and species that draw most of the attention. In reality, the most abundant and diverse gelatinous groups in the ocean are not the ones that anyone ever sees.

Evoking Climate Change’s Systemic Risks

Stephen Thomson of remixed climate activist Bill McKibben‘s popular sarcastic recent Washington Post op-ed “A link between climate change and Joplin Tornadoes? Never!” into a video that is more gripping than the article.

McKibben is being sarcastic for a reason, for as a recent Media Matters report showed that while a majority of the public supports regulation of greenhouse gases the media over represents anti-regulation groups:

Media Matters examined TV news coverage that included elected officials, members of advocacy groups, business leaders, pundits, and others discussing EPA regulation of greenhouse gases. Of these appearances, 152 out of 199 — over 76% — opposed regulation. The three outlets that hosted the greatest number of guests, Fox News (FNC), Fox Business (FBN), and CNBC, all featured opponents of GHG regulation at least four times more often than supporters.

Satellite archaeology uses changes in soil moisture to detect ruins

ScienceNews reports on a research team lead by Sarah Parcak of the University of Alabama, Birmingham that has used high-resolution satellite imagery covering all of Egypt to identify the potential sites of 17 lost pyramids, nearly 3000 ancient settlements, and 1000 tombs. They write:

Parcak began her study 11 years ago, searching for traces of ancient village walls buried under Egypt’s fields and desert sands. Obtaining images from both NASA and QuickBird satellites, she combined and analyzed data from the visible imagery as well as the infrared and thermal parts of the light spectrum. Through trial and error, she discovered that the most informative images were taken during the relatively wet weeks of late winter. During this period, buried mud-brick walls absorbed more moisture than usual, producing a subtle chemical signature in the overlying soil that showed up in high-resolution, infrared satellite images. These places became “our hot spots, the places that we could end up exploring on foot,” Parcak says.The team found 17 buried pyramid-shaped structures, including one at Saqqara, famed for its numerous pyramids. That sighting was confirmed by a team of Egyptian archaeologists who excavated part of what is now thought to be a late Middle Kingdom pyramid at the site. The other 16 structures look like pyramids from space but could be elite tombs, Parcak says. “Let’s be honest, we won’t know if those pyramids are pyramids until we excavate,” she says.

To further test some of the most recent satellite finds, Parcak enlisted the help of a French archaeological team already digging at a 3000-year-old site known as Tanis. The satellite data revealed a warren of mud-brick walls, mazelike streets, and large residences that may have housed the wealthy. So the French team chose a structure from the images and excavated there. Beneath about 30 centimeters of sediments, they discovered mud-brick walls. “They found an almost 100% correlation between what we see on the imagery and what we see on the ground,” Parcak says. “So this gives a significant amount of credence to what we see in the whole image.”

An article on BBC news about this work also features a video on their work, which is from a new BBC documentary.

Information and communication technologies in the Anthropocene

UPDATED: Slides from the talks at the end of this blogpost

The use of social media for political mobilization during the political uprisings in Northern Africa and the Middle East during 2010 and 2011; digital coordination of climate skeptic networks during “Climategate” in 2010; and the repercussions of hackers in carbon markets the last years. These are all examples of intriguing phenomena that take place at the interface between rapid information technological change, and the emergence of globally spanning virtual networks.

Exactly how information and communication technologies affect the behavior of actors at multiple scales, is of course widely debated. The question is: how do we make sense of these changes, from a wider resilience perspective?

Some of these discussions took place at the 2011 Resilience conference in Arizona in a panel convened by us at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and with generous support from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC, Canada). Ola Tjornbo from Social Innovation Generation (SIG) at the University of Waterloo, explored some of the opportunites, but also profound challenges, related in trying to design effective virtual deliberation processes. Ola noted that while several success stories related to crowd-sourcing (Wikipedia) and collective intelligence (e.g. Polymath) do exist, we have surprisingly little systematic knowledge of how to design digital decision-making processes that help overcome conflicts of interest related to issues of sustainability. Some if these issues are elaborated by SiG, and you can find videos from an interesting panel on “Open Source Democracy” here.

Richard Taylor from SEI-Oxford presented a rapidly evolving platform for integration and dissemination of knowledge on climate adaptation – weADAPT. This platform combines the strengths of a growing community of climate adaptation experts, a database of ongoing local climate adaptation projects, semantic web technologies, and a Google Earth interface. The visualizations are stunning, and provide and interesting example of how ICTs can be used for scientific communication.

Angelica Ospina from the Centre of Development Informatics at the University of Manchester, showcased some ongoing work on mobile technologies and climate adaptation resilience. As Ospina noted, ICTs can provide some very tangible support for various features of resilience, ranging from self-organization, to learning and flexibility. You can find a working paper  by Angelica here.

To summarize: three very different yet complementary perspectives on how ICTs could be harnessed in the Anthropocene: by building new types of virtually supported decision making and collective intelligence processes; linking expert communities and local natural resource management experimentation together; and by exploring the resilience building strengths of decentralized mobile technologies.

Slides from the talks

Victor Galaz (intro)

Ola Tjornbo

Richard Taylor

Mapping ecological impact of 2010 Amazonian drought

From NASA EOS Image of the Day:

Between July and September 2010, severe drought gripped the Amazon Basin. The Negro River, a tributary of the Amazon, reached its lowest level in 109 years of record-keeping, and uncontrolled fires spread a pall of smoke over the drying basin. But how did the drought affect the trees?

This image shows a possible answer. Made with vegetation “greenness” measurements from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite, the image shows vegetation conditions between July and September 2010 compared to average conditions for the same period between 2000 and 2009 (except for 2005, another drought year). The vegetation indices are measurements of the how much photosynthesis could be happening based on how much leafy vegetation the satellite sees. In 2010, the vegetation index recorded lower values than in previous years, an indication that trees under drought stress either produced fewer leaves or the chlorophyll content of leaves was lower, or both.

Seven Reflections on Disasters and resilience from around the web

1) The Boston Globe’s Big Picture photo blog has pictures of Japan one month after the quake & tsunami

2) Andy Revkin comments on DotEarth on the limits of Japan’s disaster memory in response to a fascinating Associated Press article by by Jay AlabasterTsunami-hit towns forgot warnings from ancestors.

3) And Andy Revkin also wonder’s whether nuclear power is simply too brittle to be a resilient power source.

4) Richard A. Kerr writes in Science Magazine article Long Road to U.S. Quake Resilience about recent NRC report that argues that it is underfunding programs to develop resilience to Earthquakes.

5) New York Times on how Danger Is Pent Up Behind Aging Dams. Apparently of the USA’s 85,000 dams, more than 4,400 are considered susceptible to failure, but governments cannot agree on who should pay for renovations.

6) Bob Costanza and others write in Solutions magazine on Solutions for Averting the Next Deepwater Horizon.  They argues that sensible resource development should require resource developers to purchase disaster bonds to capture true social costs of resource development

7) In New York Times Leslie Kaufman writes on complexity and resilience of Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystems response to BP Oil Spill.

Mapping impact of snow and ice feedbacks on climate

NASA Earth Observatory Image of the day has some powerful figures created with data from a new paper by Mark Flanner and others Radiative forcing and albedo feedback from the Northern Hemisphere cryosphere between 1979 and 2008. in Nature Geoscience. They use satellite data to estimate how changes in snow and ice in the Northern Hemisphere have contributed to rising temperatures over the last 30 years. They found that these changes in albedo have warmed the planet more than expected from models.

NASA Earth Observatory writes:

The left image shows how much energy the Northern Hemisphere’s snow and ice—called the cryosphere—reflected on average between 1979 and 2008. Dark blue indicates more reflected energy, in Watts per square meter, and thus more cooling. The Greenland ice sheet reflects more energy than any other single location in the Northern Hemisphere. The second-largest contributor to cooling is the cap of sea ice over the Arctic Ocean.

The right image shows how the energy being reflected from the cryosphere has changed between 1979 and 2008. When snow and ice disappear, they are replaced by dark land or ocean, both of which absorb energy. The image shows that the Northern Hemisphere is absorbing more energy, particularly along the outer edges of the Arctic Ocean, where sea ice has disappeared, and in the mountains of Central Asia.

“On average, the Northern Hemisphere now absorbs about 100 PetaWatts more solar energy because of changes in snow and ice cover,” says Flanner. “To put it in perspective, 100 PetaWatts is seven-fold greater than all the energy humans use in a year.” Changes in the extent and timing of snow cover account for about half of the change, while melting sea ice accounts for the other half.

Flanner and his colleagues made both calculations by compiling field measurements and satellite observations from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer, and Nimbus-7 and DMSP SSM/I passive microwave data. The analysis is the first calculation of how much the energy the entire cryosphere reflects. It is also the first observation of changes in reflected energy because of changes in the entire cryosphere.