Weather maps are among the most widely consulted visualizations in our over-mediated world. They provide not only sources of fascination, however, but are among the most confounding media to orient viewers to the world’s changing climate. Even as we are still trying to calculate the intensity of damages in Puerto Rico and of the fires in California, or the snows that suddenly blanketed the northeast, driven by a collision of hot water and cold air in the Atlantic, hoping to piece together the increased evidence of extensive collateral damage of global warming, we still need to come to terms with the intensity of rainstorms that hit southeastern Texas–the hurricane deluged the city with rainfall surpassing the standard meteorological chromatic scale, and at a pace which challenged the groundcover of the overbuilt and overpaved region to absorb: for the mapping of “natural” levels of rainfall blurs the pressing problem of how shifting landcover has created an impermeability to heightened rains.
Real estate demand intersected with extreme weather in southeastern Texas in ways which dat visualizations have had trouble exposing, but which raise a curtain on the coming crises of a failure of ability to accommodate increased levels of rainfall If the lack of precedent for the intense rainfall in Galveston Bay generated debate about introducing a new color that went beyond the rainbow scale employed in weather charts, what seemed a problem of the cartographic color-spectrum suggested a problem of governability and indeed government response to extreme weather conditions. How to register the dangers of rainfall that goes of the scale or standards of measurement? What is the best way to orient viewers to the intensity of consequent flooding, and to considering its consequences and better prepare ourselves for the arrival of deluging rains without falling back on the over-freighted metaphor of rains of biblical scope?
For many of the maps that chart the arrival and impact of hurricanes seem a form of climate denial, as much as they account for climate change. Long after the hurricane season ended, the damage for hurricanes caused have hardly been assessed in what has been one of the most costly and greatest storm damage since 1980 in the United States,–including the year of Hurricane Katrina–we have only begun to sense the damage of extreme weather stands to bring to the national infrastructure. The comparison to the costs of storm damage in previous years were not even close. But distracted by the immediacy of data visualizations, and impressed by the urgency of the immediate, we risk being increasingly unable to synthesize the broader patterns of increased sea surface temperatures and hurricane generations, or the relations between extremely destructive weather events, overwhelmed by the excessive destruction of each, and distracted from raising questions about the extremely poor preparation of most overbuilt regions for their arrival, and indeed the extent to which regional over-building that did not take the possibility of extreme weather into account–paving large areas without adequate drainage structures or any areas of arable land–left inhabitants more vulnerable to intense rains. For in expanding the image of the city without bounds, elasticity, or margins for sea-level rise, the increasingly brittle cityscapes of Galveston and much of the southeastern Texas shoreline were left incredibly unprepared for the arrival of hurricanes or intense rains.
To characterize or bracket these phenomena as “natural” is to overlook complex interaction between extreme weather patterns and our increasingly overbuilt environments. To be sure, any discussion of the Gulf of Mexico must begin from the increasingly unclear nature of much of our infrastructure across land and sea, evident in the range of pipelines of gas and oil that snake along a once more clearly defined shore charted by ProPublica in 2012–
ProPublica, Pipeline Safety Tracker/Hazardous liquid pipelines are noted in red; gas in blue
-and whose tangle of oil pipelines that extend from the very site of Galveston to the Louisiana coast is almost unable to be defined as “offshore,” so much as an extension of the land, and a redefinition of the shore.
Despite the dangers that such an extensive network of hazardous liquid lines along the Gulf of Mexico, the confusion between mapping a defined line between land and water, and visualizing relations of extreme weather disturbances as hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and local infrastructure haunts the extremely thin nature of the sort of data visualizations that are generated about the dangers of hurricanes and their landfall in the region. For all too often, they presume a stable land/sea divide, removed from the experience of inhabitants of the region and how we have remade the shore.
1. How can we do better by going beneath the data visualizations of record-breaking rainfall, to map the human impact of such storms? How could we do better to chart the infrastructural stresses and the extent to which we are ill-prepared for such extreme weather systems whose impact multiplies because of the increased impermeability of the land, unable to absorb excessive rainfall, and beds of lakes and reservoirs that cannot accommodate increased accumulation of rainfall that stand to become the new normal? The current spate of news maps that provoke panic by visualizing the extremes of individual cases may only inspire a sort of data vis-induced ADD, distracting from infrastructural inadequacies to the effects of global warming–and leaving us at a loss to guarantee the best structures of governability and environmental readiness.
Indeed, the absence of accurately mapping the impact and relation between landcover, storm intensity, rainfall, flooding, and drainage abilities increases the dangers of lack of good governance. There need not be any need for a reminder of how quickly inadequate mapping of coastal disasters turns into an emblem of bad governance. There is the danger that, overwhelmed by the existential relation to each storm, we fail to put them together with one another; compelled to follow patterns of extreme weather, we risk being distracted from not only the costs but the human-generated nature of such shifts in seasons between extremes of hot and cold. For as we focus on each event, we fail to integrate a more persuasive image of how rising temperatures stand to create an ever-shifting relation between water and land. Provoked by the rhetoric of emergency, we may need to learn to distance ourselves better from the aerial views that synthesize intense precipitation, tally hurricane impacts, or snowfall levels, and view them less as individual “strikes” or events and better orient ourselves to a broader picture which put us in a less existential relation to extreme weather.
We surely need to establish distance to process syntheses of data in staggering aerial views on cloud swirl, intense precipitation, and snowfall, and work to peel back their striking colors and bright shades of rainbow spectra, to force ourselves to focus not only on their human costs, or their costs of human life, but their relation to a warming planet, and the role of extreme of weather in a rapidly changing global climate, as much as track the “direct strikes” of hurricanes of individual names, as if they were marauders of our shores: their creation is as much tied to the changing nature of our shores and warming sea-surface temperatures, and in trying to create a striking visualization, we deprive ourselves from detecting broader patterns offering better purchase on weather changes.
If the patterns of weather maps from Accuweather forecast and projections suggest an exhilaratingly Apollonian view on global and regional weather patterns, they threaten to shift attention form a broader human perspective in quite deeply pernicious ways. Such maps provided the only format for grasping the impact of what happened as the hurricane made landfall, but provided little sense of the scale of inundations that shifted, blurred and threatened the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. They provide a format for viewing floods that are disjoined from victims, and seem to naturalize the quite unnatural occurrence of extreme weather systems. Given the huge interest in grasping the transformation of Hurricane Harvey from a tropical storm to a Category Four hurricane, and the huge impact a spate of Category Four hurricanes have created in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s no surprise that the adequacy of the maps of Hurricane Harvey have been interrogated as hieroglyphs or runes of a huge weather change: we sift through them for a human story which often left opaque behind bright neon overlays, whose intensity offer only an inkling of a personal perspective of the space or scale of their destruction on the ground: while data maps provide a snapshot of the intensity of rain-levels or wind strength at specific sites, it is difficult if important to remember that their concentration on sites provide a limited picture of causation or complexity.
All too often, such maps fail to offer an adequately coherent image of disasters and their consequences, and indeed to parse the human contributions to their occurrence. This post might be defined into multiple subsections. The first actions suggest the problems of mapping hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico in relation to flooding in data visualizations of the weather and the overbuilt region; the middle of the post turns to an earlier poetic model for considering the relation between land and sea that visualizations all too easily obscure, and the meaning that the poet Elizabeth Bishop found in viewing relations between land and sea in a printed map of the Atlantic; after returning to the question of the overbuilt shore compounds problems of visualizing the Texas coast, the final section, perhaps its most provocative, returns to Bishop’s reading of a map of the Atlantic coast.
What such new weather maps would look like is a huge concern. Indeed, as we depend on weather maps to orient us to place ourselves in the inter-relations of climate change, sea-level, surface temperatures, and rain, whether maps cease to orient us to place, but when best constructed help to describe the changing texture of weather patterns in ways that can help familiarize us not only to weather conditions, but needed responses to climate change. For three months after the hurricanes of the Gulf of Mexico caused such destruction and panic on the ground, it is striking not only that few funds have arrived to cover costs of rebuilding or insurance claims, but the judgement or understanding of the chances for future flooding have almost left our radar–perhaps pushed rightly aside by the firestorms of northern and southern California, but in ways that troublingly seem to forget to assess or fail to assess the extent of floods and groundwater impermeability along the Texas and Louisiana coast. The problems that preparation for future coastal hurricanes off the Gulf of Mexico raise problems of hurricane control and disaster response that seem linked to problems of mapping their arrival–amd framing the response to the increasing rains that are dumped along the entire Gulf Coast.
Indeed, the chromatic foregrounding of place in such rainbow color ramps based on GPS obscure other maps. Satellite data of rainfall are removed from local conditions, and serve to help erase complex relations between land and water or the experience of flooding on the ground–by suggesting a clear border between land and sea, and indeed mapping the Gulf of Mexico as a surface as if it were unrelated to the increased flooding around Houston, in maps prepared from satellite imagery, despite the uneasy echoes of anthropogenic causes for the arrival of ten hurricanes in ten weeks, in ways that suggest how warming waters contributed to the extreme inundation of the Gulf Coast. Despite NOAA predictions of a 45% likelihood of ‘above-normal’ activity for the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, with, a 70% likelihood of storms that could transform into hurricanes, the images of inundated lands seem both apocalyptic and carefully removed from the anthropogenic changes either to the ocean or land that intensified their occurrence so dramatically on the ground.
wiDartmouth Flood Observatory/August 29, 2017
Is it possible to recuperate the loss of individual experience in such data maps, or at least acknowledge their limitations as records of the complexity of a changing climate and the consequences of more frequent storm surges and such inundations of rainfall? As we seek better to understand the disaster relief efforts through real-time maps of effects of Hurricane Harvey as it moved inland from the Gulf of Mexico, shifting from Category 4 Hurricane from a tropical storm, we tried to grasp levels of rainfall that spun out of 115-mile-an-hour winds across southeastern Texas that damaged crops, flooded fields, ruined houses, and submerged cars, we scan stories in hope of clues to assess our position in relation to increasingly dangerous weather systems whose occurrence they may well forebode. At a time of increased attention to extreme weather has long developed, the gross negligence of climate change denial is increasingly evident: it recalls the earlier denial of any relation between hurricanes and climate change, when increased hurricanes were cast as “the cycle of nature,” rather than as consequences whose effects have in fact been broadly intensified by human activity.
Current attempts to map the toll of record-smashing hurricanes focused almost exclusively on point-based data view rainstorms largely as land-based records; even as they intend to monitor the effects of Harvey’s landfall by microwave censors, they risk seeming to isolate real-time rainfall levels from the mechanics warmer air and sea-surface temperatures which result from human-caused global warming, not relating increased storm surges or inundations to achanges in coastal environments or climate change. To render such changes as natural–or only land-based–is irresponsible in an age of reckless levels of climate denial.
2. Indeed, faced by the proliferation of data visualizations, part of the journalistic difficulty or quandary is to integrate humanistic or individual perspectives on the arrival of storms, rendered in stark colors in the increasingly curtailed ecosystems of newsrooms which seek simplified visualizations of satellite data on the disaster, which fail to note the human contributions to the travails that are often reserved for photographs, which increasingly afford opportunities of disaster tourism in the news, emphasizing the spectator’s position before disasters, by images that underscore the difficulties in processing or interpreting the proliferation of data from MODIS satellite feeds: we can show the ability to measure the arrival of torrential rains, but in offering few legends, save the date and scale, but offering few keys o interpret the scale of the disaster.
The looming portent of human-made climate change, however, underlies the poor predictions that NOAA offered of perhaps 2-4 major hurricanes this Spring, and the lack of a new director for NOAA–on which local and state agencies depend to monitor the nations shores and fisheries–suggested the, from June to September, which left states on their own to make decisions and plan for disaster mitigation programs and better flood maps. (The danger of appointing a newly nominated director, Barry Myers, who is a strong supporter of the privitization of weather maps and an executive at the private Accuweather mapping service, suggests the difficulty of determining the public-private divide in an era of neoliberalism, and a free market of weather maps that were once seen as central to national security and standards of safety.) There are two hidden scales on which we read these opaque maps of global warming and globalization and local inundation are triply frustrating. For all the precision and data richness of such point-maps of largely land-based rainfall, local temperature, or flooding, the biases of such instantaneous measurements seem to fit our current governing atmosphere of climate change denial, and dangerous in erasing how such storms are informed by long-term consequences of man-made climate change. (As the mapping tools of coastal weather seem destined to change, what sort of change in direction for NOAA coastal maps do we want: the appointment suggests the terrifying possibility of a return to the Bush-era proposal nominee Myers supported that prohibiting the agency from producing any maps already available in the private sector then threatened federal weather lines to go dark–lest they literally compete with ad-supported websites private providers–and shift federal information offline?)
For making moves toward the future readability of weather maps may well be at stake in critically important ways. The 2005 proposal that Myers backed would have eliminated the National Weather Service, even while exempting those forecasts needed to preserve “life and property,” would in essence have returned the weather services to a pre-internet era, even as the most active hurricane season including a record breaking fifteen hurricanes and twenty-eight storms began in the gulf coast, including the infamous hurricane Katrina. The proposed bill would have prevented NOAA from posting open data, and not only readily available to researchers and policymakers, in ad-free formats, free of popup screens, but allow them to make their own maps on the fly–ending good practices of posting climate data would work quite dangersously to prevent development of tools of data visualization outside commercial models of rendering storms and hurricanes as if environmentally isolated.
A deeper problem of providing such limited weather maps of tropical storms may be the subtexts about the relation of human causes to weather they convey, and the absence of a greater narrative of the transformation of a global ecology or of the ecology of the Gulf Coast. The curtailed images of “nature” they present by symbolizing rains, winds, floods, or submerged regions in appealing hues as natural–raise questions of the odd simplicity of the absent storylines: cheery colors erase or bracket complex questions of climate change, the human contribution to extreme weather events, or the human experience of suffering on the ground: Rita, Cindy, Katrina, Dennis, and Wilma seem not part of the environment, epiphenomenal interlopers moving across a static deep blue sea, in an apparent dumbing down of the mechanics of hurricane or storm formation in a rainbow spectrum removed from a human-made environment.
Visualizations of the rainfall of Hurricane Harvey similarly compress a massive amount of data into elegant chromatic images, but focus attention on the levels of inundation that overwhelmed the gulf coast in ways that the land could not absorb, drain, or adequately process, they ignore critical pieces of the picture of Harvey’s landfall, from the unprecedented ocean heat just days before Harvey made landfall near Galveston–
–to the surprisingly warm patches of the Gulf of Mexico across which Harvey crossed as it rapidly grew in size–
–as we treat the ferocity of southeastern Texas’ inundation by rainfall as an isolated question of the extreme amount of rain that arrived on land and sea by mapping the amount of rainfall we can register at a place in isolation from a broader picture, rather than contextualizing the intensity of rainfall within the causation of the Category Four hurricane, or mapping the failure to accommodate such extraordinary levels of rainfall, which have been argued to justify to create a need for seawalls or dikes to preserve the cartographical division between land and sea, to prevent the danger of surge flooding, rather than the new weather patterns that this hurricane season has inaugurated.
Ocean heat content in western Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico on October 6 (U Miami)/WaPo
We are perhaps conditioned to be mesmerized by readily generated weather maps that convert satellite observations of rainfall to reveal unprecedented weather patterns–but are slow to take stock of the mechanics of the dramatically changing nature of a hurricane season in which Category Four hurricanes are making landfall in the United States that in any other, even as their occurrence challenges scales of measurement and putting new stresses on disaster preparedness. The busiest recored season of hurricanes and the simplicity of the ways that we map their transformation and landfall raises compelling questions of how to best map weather maps and coastal surges in an era of climate change–and how to represent the increasingly destructive potential of tropical storms, cyclones, or hurricanes without succumbing to climate denial. Whereas point-based visualizations suggest the ability to track rainfall, wind velocity, or the path of hurricanes over time, their limits must be acknowledged as presenting a sufficiently dynamic or situated picture of the increased sensitivity of populated coasts to extreme weather, to better grasp the intensified acceleration, or accumulated cyclone energy, which for 2017 is already, in mid-October, twice the average of previous seasons, as warming waters generate more intense storms–but are omitted from their landfall, as if we desire to curtail the abilities we have to better map. While the current NOAA nominee insisted quite adamantly that “we don’t have enough data [yet]” to attribute these changes to climate change, noting the potential influence of other cyclical changes in water temperature, and a northward retreat of Atlantic high pressure systems, yet the probability for hurricane increase across the board with higher water temperature and an expansion of warm waters–increasing the humidity of the storms–that it is the ethical responsibility of the cartographer to capture, even if it is blanched from MODIS data or most visualizations that render the “sites” of hurricane landfall in isolation.
It may be that the time-sensitive nature of the rich data in weather maps focus attention on the present moment with such immediacy to makes it increasingly difficult to move from such real-time records to devote attention to evaluating deeper long-term changes in weather systems–or indeed consider weather patterns as natural, and removed from man-made changes in coastal environments or carbon emissions.
The question of how we are best able to read and process the proliferating maps of hurricanes and rainfall extends beyond tracking any single weather system, to the stories maps tell about hurricanes and their landfall, and the new age of weather that they may both announce and exemplify. Do the color saturated data visualizations that have burned Harvey in our collective retinas and memories herald a new age of weather maps, as much as the actual record-setting levels of rainfall Harvey brought? The complex cognitive relation to the these maps may be part of the problem, as is the levels of meaning that we try to read into them, not only in the rainbow-spectrum images of rainfall levels, but the difficulty of assembling a coherent picture of them. We need to more clearly relate that picture to a landscape mark by human intervention and to man-made climate change–moving from datasets mediating select points in space, to an ability to assemble their coherence or better appreciate their specific context and the scope of the natural disaster. Despite clear limitations inherent in point-based data visualizations, we need to peel away the constraints of overlays to better discern the hidden mechanics of storm surges and their consequences.
For where their sense of continuity lies is as opaque of the sort of causality we might be able to be attached to them: they place us in an existential relation to datasets, and erase human subjects. Although rich with information, the proliferation of weather maps of literally off-the-charts rainfall levels raised eyebrows far outside the communities of limnologists, hurricane experts, and meteorologists, as the constant production of datamaps for the micro-economy of newsrooms seemed particularly disjunctive with a coherent narrative, and hinted at more apocalyptic visions by not clearly mapping onto experience and all but erased humans by creating a narrative about extreme weather, if not of nature out of whack. Even as Hurricane Harvey was three miles south of Corpus Christi, it was feared to be a Category Three hurricane–bringing three feet of rainfall!–as it shifted from a tropical storm to a Hurricane long before it reached Houston.
But to read such instantaneous maps as a model for coastal stewardship or disaster response, we need to attend to how the city’s man-made landscape has changed, sinking due to long-term soil subsidence with increased water withdrawal created sinkholes increasingly deformed the surface of the low-lying city that would themselves soon flood, their extreme subsidence acting as a multiplier a multiplier of the intensity of flooding around the greater Houston area that was not recorded in rainfall charts, but that was in large part determined by the impermeability of the landcover, from the concrete banks of bayou to the absence of wetlands by the bay.
LIDAR Hillshade map of Houston/Dr. Shuhab Khan, 2012
–at the same time as much local and regional landcover alike dramatically lost absorptive qualities, especially in proximity to the shore, as well as map the consequences of changes in ocean and air temperature to the acceleration of hurricanes.
3. The cognitive disconnect of these maps that impressed viewers by their intense colors, but seemed The maps elicit fears that they eerily prefigure a landscape marked and shaped by the regular escalation of hurricanes growing rapidly before landfall that go on to drop unprecedented rains–and raise questions of whether new weather systems can be meaningfully measured against gauge-readings of rainfall or stream flow from earlier times. Indeed, the potential of a tipping point in the extent of coastal hurricanes is suggested by the multiplier effects of global warming on the peaking of the intensity of Gulf Coast weather. To be accurate, instead of continuing to map the separateness of the land from the sea–and anxieties of the relation of land to the sea in an era of climate change–we may be better off mapping the impermeability of local surfaces, the erosion of coastal offshore islands that buffered storms, the presence of clouds of ozone, and the consequences of the rising surface water temperature of the Gulf of Mexico.
The information relayed in these images overwhelmingly privilege point data–rather than communicate a continuous landscape of assistance in environmental governance or a policy of monitoring coastal protection over the long-term. They pose questions for the management of the shoreline, as a result, not even taking into account the many chemical plants and refiners that are crowded along the Trinity Bay, Galveston Bay, and Port Arthur, whose spillage poses increased risk during flood that governments would not be able to manage or coordinate with the intensity they deserve: the problem of not mapping such contextual information lies in the deeply superficial information contained in the rainfall maps calculated by government services and relayed to news rooms where they pass as news, replacing ruined crops, flooded residences, and toxic waste flows by a rainbow.
For whatever reasons, the failure to be able to forecast the arrival of Hurricane Harvey, until the day before it made landfall–with the storm being a “tropical depression” as late as the evening of Thursday, August 24. The lack of predictability or of an accurate forecast–although the site of landfall near and the wind velocity of Harvey were forecast immediately before it reached Rockport TX, on August 27, and the rise of its velocity and classification from a Category 1 to Category 5. The speed of the transformation mirrors how Hurricane Maria quickly intensified from a Category 1 storm to a Category 5 over fifteen hours, its winds reaching speeds of 160 mph, has already led to six Category Five hurricanes making landfall in 2017, Irma and Harvey both making landfall in the US as Category Four Hurricanes. And even as one is shocked by the sudden impact and uneven predictive powers of maps of hurricanes to drench much of the coastal United States–
–one is stuck by a need for mapping the growing proximity or intimacy between land and sea, and the dangers of the settled regions of the shore in an era of increased fluidity of land-sea divides, and the difficulty of developing a more humanistic perspective on the data map.
Data is designed by men–if it is meant to distill nature, as a rainbow spectrum implies. The poetics of mapping that can be more sensitive to this human perspective must try to record the relation of the human to the monolithic mechanisms of the anthropocene, by locating the human creation of place within the layers of intense precipitation of such striking weather maps. Before the opaque layers that blur land and water, one thinks of the engaged way Elizabeth Bishop interrogated the same formal divide between land and sea of a framed map of the northern Atlantic in 1934; the need to map “land under water” and the ways “mapped waters” adequately rests on the ways that water, whose waves “lend the land their conformation”–shaping its structure and organization–and will continue to do so with the arrival of future storms: Bishop described an engraved map, but her reflection on the poetics of the coastal map occasioned this post. For the sorts of claims of providing an exact and accurate record of the landscape of the ocean contrast to a cartographical epistemology that is not rooted in seeing space, and erases any subjective relation to their cartographical space.
4. The deeply personal history that Elizabeth Bishop brought to reading that map–not explicit, to be sure, but evident in the impact of the coast of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick she knew so well, and felt so far removed from in New York on that Christmas of 1934, as she used its limited tools of world-making to place herself in relation to its making of a palpable space, contrast to the resolute objectivity of the rainbow color ramps of hurricane maps that register measurements in ways that are so oddly alienated from on-the-ground experience. While Bishop remade the map’s world, stripping it of measure, direction, and national divides, to reshape its signifying power, by using it as a basis for her own sense of literary form and to describe the world it creates, investigating its surface as a sharp-eyed observer, considering its contents without interest in its legend, but looking beneath the constructed nature of its form in an experience of map-reading that questions accepted conventions.
If Bishop is said to read the map before which she stood or sat as a poem, focussing on imagistic elements of its shorelines, tidal basins, or the outlines of peninsulas and landmasses, it could be argued that her engagement of the cartographical details in the engraved map–the crowded eastern bathymetry on the ledges, green layers of land underneath the sea that seem to lift it, or the sand bars on its shore: was the active role of the elegance of the map’s design and cartographer’s colors as important as Bishop’s own sense of place in triggering her reaction to it’s surface, and the close proximity she implied–intimacy, for some readers–the land had to the sea? Lastly, the deep meaning that Bishop responded to the map’s surface and conventions as a record of world-making to which she so successfully relates to her own life and sense of time that leave the present-focussed measurements of hurricane maps particularly impoverished.