Imagining the Wind

In the past decade, two interactive maps have changed the way we see the weather.

Sometime before 1686, when Edmond Halley sketched the wind on what is known as the first ever meteorological map of the world, he made small, comet-like strokes with his pen. To Halley, the “sharp end of each little stroak” should gesture at the “horizon, from whence the wind continually comes.” Over 300 years later, a pair of designers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, stared at their computer monitors jiggering the code to see whether their own particles of wind would swim, pulse, or flow like spilled paint on their digital map. Only when the wind racing across a bare outline of the contiguous United States left a pale film — trails that faded and gently disappeared — did Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg find they had something that actually felt like the wind.

Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg created “wind map,” which they describe as a personal art project, ten years ago. Image courtesy of (hint.fm) / Point B. Studio.

Before they released “wind map,” which they describe as “a personal art project,” a decade ago, weather maps mostly hosted a mix of symbols to show wind speed and direction — barbs that look like notched feathers, triangle vectors running along contours, little white glyphs that float on a sea of color. Of course, the animated streamlets Viégas and Wattenberg chanced upon on their screen that day were nothing new — they’d long been the plaything of scientists attempting to model what happens when a tracer is dropped into a fluid already in motion. According to Mathew Barlow, a climate scientist at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, they’d just made them better. What’s more, the designers chose not to “obfuscate the code,” as Viégas has said, paving the way for those who might copy it and also draw from the same free wind data their site uses to show near real-time wind patterns over the United States.

A long way from Halley’s captain’s logbooks and his scrawled notes, the ever-changing numbers that fuel their “wind map” come from an array of technologies varying in sophistication. From weather satellites in orbit 22,000 miles above the equator to weather balloons launched simultaneously twice daily around the United States to a continent’s worth of wind anemometers all-a-spin. Don’t forget the supercomputers run by the National Weather Service that produce gridded forecast models of current and expected wind conditions up to fourteen days in advance.

The first year of the “wind map,” Hurricane Sandy barreled up the coast, made landfall in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and continued north towards the pair’s office. Viégas and Wattenberg kept looking at their map. The eye of a hurricane on “wind map” looks like a spinning disk, a dark coin that doesn’t stop turning — that is until the data changes. “It’s not often a visualization actually scares you,” Wattenberg said at a symposium in 2013. “We were feeling slightly freaked out.” A few months earlier, residents of New Orleans had sent emails to say that even as the winds of Hurricane Isaac whipped overhead they kept calling up the “wind map.” In one letter, Viégas said in 2019, someone wrote, “I’m praying that this thing passes and that everybody’s ok.” For the first time in the designers’ experience, their real-time data had linked their work to the lives of people in immediate danger.

Sometime before 1686, when Edmond Halley sketched the wind on what is known as the first ever meteorological map of the world, he made small, comet-like strokes with his pen. Image courtesy of Princeton Library, Rare Books Division, via Wikimedia Commons.

The map seemed to capture the wind’s moods. Wattenberg observed that whenever the map began to go dark, a sign that strong storms forming over the ocean are stealing wind from the continent, he knew something big was coming. An unexpected “emotional feature,” he said in a tweet.

The art world took note. In 2013, the Museum of Modern Art first showed “wind map” in an exhibit on applied design, then again and again over the next few years in rooms set aside for “Design Experiments for the Common Good” and “A Collection of Ideas” represented in innovative forms. In one exhibit, simply titled “Energy,” the map played on a large screen not far from a device that looks like a giant tumbleweed and is meant to find and safely detonate land mines.

Shortly after “wind map” came out, an inspired software engineer began to build his own maps in his Tokyo apartment. In 2013, Cameron Beccario released what he calls his prototype — a map of air quality over Tokyo. One night out, a friend turned to him and asked, “What’s next?”

At home again, Beccario began to think of a global map of wind, and wondered if there even was enough data. It turns out there was. Little did he know, his global map of wind, weather, and ocean conditions, released in December of 2013, would garner its own large following of dedicated users — one textile artist would even embroider the signature blue, green, and white swirls of Beccario’s “earth” onto a map in the shape of a butterfly, a cartographic style known as a Waterman Butterfly. While “wind map” is a flat projection of the United States and only shows wind over land, Beccario’s map can take a variety of forms and show an ever-expanding amount of atmospheric and oceanic variables — as more information is collected by things like new satellites and Argos, high tech ocean buoys that travel down in the water column and then back up to beam their readings to sensors in space.

Cameron Beccario’s map of wind, weather, and ocean conditions can take a variety of forms and show an ever-expanding number of atmospheric and oceanic variables. Map by Cameron Beccario (earth.nullschool.net) / Point B. Studio.

Beccario told me he likes to think of himself as a “curator” of scientific data. He admits that he’s pleased when scientists see his work — which makes so many layers of information available — as one more tool in their observational toolkit. In 2015, when the Solar Impulse Foundation launched a solar powered jet to circumnavigate the globe — wings wide and long with panels tilted towards the sun — mission control kept a monitor open with “earth” running. In 2016, oceanographers onboard the Tara, an aluminum hulled schooner traversing the world to collect water samples, partnered with Beccario to depict their course. They even invited the designer to sail with them from Nagoya to Yokohama, Japan, a short leg of a two-year expedition to study coral reefs.

Over the years, Viégas and Wattenberg have received emails from people who found novel uses for “wind map,” too. Some watched for a steady wind blowing from the north towards Mexico before setting out to witness the migration of monarch butterflies. School children used the map to try to predict when colliding fronts might grow into tornadoes. Farmers consulted the map before they sprayed pesticides on crops.

At one point, firefighters even studied the map to predict how wind might influence the course of a growing blaze. The designers felt the need to post a disclaimer: “Please do not use the map or its data to fly a plane, sail a boat, or fight wildfires :-).” One user wrote back to admonish them to “respect the power of this visualization.”

Viégas, Wattenberg, and Beccario, are modest about the roles they each played in crafting these maps. “I tell people the beauty is in the data. It’s in the models that generate the data,” said Beccario in an interview in 2019. “I just pick the colors and put it on the globe.” In almost every public talk and interview, they express admiration for the technology tracking the earth’s weather and the teams of people working on forecast models, the scope of which probably could have never been foreseen by Edmond Halley as he stood on the deck of the trade ship Unity beneath her billowing sails.

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