Tag Archives: oceanography

A history of Stommel diagrams

Tiffany Vance and Ronald Doel have traced the history of the Stommel diagram from physical oceanography into biology, in their 2010 paper Graphical Methods and Cold War Scientific Practice: The Stommel Diagram’s Intriguing Journey from the Physical to the Biological Environmental Sciences in Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences (DOI: 10.1525/hsns.2010.40.1.1.)

The paper provides an rich history of how the innovative oceanographer Henry Stommel created his diagrams to emphasize the cross-scale dynamics of the ocean (See figure below), and how his diagram was adapted by biological oceanographers. However, they miss how Stommel diagrrams moved into ecosystem ecology and sustainability science.

Below I present a series of Stommel diagrams.  The first three figures are reproduced in Vance and Doel’s paper, the later three are from sustainability science.

First, Stommel’s original figure, which was designed to show how oceanic processes varied across scales, and that sampling efforts had to be planned with a consideration of these.

Schematic diagram of the spectral distribution of sea level (From Stommel 1963. Varieties of Oceanographic Experience. Science)

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Visualization – Processing – a new tool

Still from Radiohead contest video, 2008. Robert HodginFrom International Herald Tribune, New tools to help with information overload:

There’s one simple reason why visualization is becoming so important, and that’s our desire to understand what’s happening in the world at a time when it’s becoming harder and harder to do so. “Design always moves where it is needed most,” said Paola Antonelli, curator of Design and the Elastic Mind, who is now working on a major visualization project. “The surge in computing power has generated a surge in information output, and heated up interest in visualization design.”

…The challenge of presenting information clearly has become more difficult as the volume of data has exploded, and new types have emerged. …

Producing visualization required the development of new tools capable of analyzing huge quantities of complex data, and interpreting it visually. In the forefront is Processing, a software system devised by the American designers, Ben Fry and Casey Reas, to enable computer programmers to create visual images, and designers to get to grips with programming. “Processing is a bridge between those fields,” said Reas. “Designers feel comfortable with it because it enables them to work visually, yet it also feels familiar to programmers.” …

Processing and other types of visualization software also encourage people from different disciplines to work together, at a time when collaboration is increasingly important in creative fields like design. “Visualization is not simply an evolution of graphic design, but a complete and complex design form that requires spatial, narrative, synthetic and graphic sensitivity and expertise,” explained Antonelli. “That’s why we see so many practitioners – architects, product designers, filmmakers, statisticians and graphic designers – flocking to it.”

Below is an ecological model interface made by Neil Banas using Processing:

… these models represent the cycling of nitrogen through plankton populations: we track nitrogen because it is the limiting factor controlling phytoplankton growth (along with light) along the Pacific Northwest coast, as in many places. Circles represent stocks of nitrogen, either dissolved, inside living cells, or in the form of “detritus” (which here really just means “other.”) Arrows represent fluxes between these stocks, like growth, predation, decay, and so forth. The slider at the top lets you control the speed of the simulation; the sliders on the right let you explore the effect of some of the adjustable parameters in each model case.