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  • 10.13.14

This Graphic Shows 35 Years Of Shrinking Sea Ice At Once

Instead of boring charts and graphs, NASA is using pictures to show how quickly sea ice is melting.

This Graphic Shows 35 Years Of Shrinking Sea Ice At Once

Two years ago, the Arctic ice cap shrank down to a record low–an area over a million square miles smaller than the usual size at the end of the summer. This summer, there’s slightly more ice, but still far less than normal, leading to strange sights like tens of thousands of walruses squeezing onto an island when they can’t find ice to rest upon.

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The trend is clear to scientists looking at the data: The ice cap is shrinking around 13% every decade, leading to even faster climate change. But because a basic line graph of the data might not necessarily capture an audience, NASA decided to visualize it in another way, with a series of small pictures that show the ice shrinking over time.

NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

“Graphs are great, but some people dismiss them,” says Greg Shirah, the visualization expert at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center who created the image. “This type of graphic is an alternative that might engage some of those people…The idea is that if you arrange lots of small, but similar images in a meaningful way, that you should be able to quickly see changes and make comparisons.”

NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

Tiny images of sea ice, collected from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, are arranged by month in one direction and by year in the other direction, showing how the ice changes throughout each year, and how quickly the summer ice is disappearing over time.

“At a glance, you can see that there is a lot of variability in sea ice; probably more than people realize,” says Shirah. “When you look up and down, you can see how the ice varies over the seasons. When you look left and right, you can see how the ice varies over the years. With the huge amounts of information coming at us every day through phones, tablets, computers, and television a simple graphic like this has the potential to expose a lot more people to a topic than a more detailed report.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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