Summer and winter mark the extremes of life on planet earth. To survive the annual 100-degree temperature fluctuation, we bundle up in coats and scarves one season and strip down to our swimsuits in the other. A new weather visualization by Eleanor Lutz—a PhD candidate in biology at the University of Washington who has designed graphics for companies like National Geographic, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Adobe—puts that seasonal swing in perspective.
Using satellite weather data from NASA, Lutz created a global GIF that animates the clearest indicators of seasonality across the planet—the cyclical buildup and melting of ice and the annual growth and recession of plants. Each frame is a month, and the entire image represents one year.
It’s easy to forget just how much snow blankets the north every year, or how rapidly vegetation recedes and recovers around the globe at the scale of hundreds of miles. But we’re particularly taken by the aesthetic of the map itself, which looks like a hand-painted chart out of some century-old world atlas. It’s an anachronism, mashing up a time when you could only predict seasonal weather at an incredibly basic level with modern technologies that allow us to track it in real time with pixel-level accuracy from space.
“I wanted to use a classic illustration style to connect our current adventures into space with our history of exploration from hundreds of years ago,” says Lutz. To do so, she created this bespoke riff on the public-domain Natural Earth map. She retained the coastlines and topography while getting rid of national boundaries. As a result, your eye sees a planet, rather than a collection of countries.
The map is a captivating work, but Lutz says it was hard to choose the right subject to visualize, and for good reason. NASA provides its earth science data free and publicly, as part of its core mission to “understand the Sun, Earth, Solar System, and Universe.” As part of that mission, NASA has data on global fires, temperature, and rainfall. The fires in particular, a glowing series of dots on an otherwise dark circle, make for a disquieting visual in a thumbnail on her site (see image 1 on her project page), but she chose not to use that data in her main map.
It’s a humbling reminder of how powerful our earth is, and that we will always be at her mercy.