“Imagining the Wind”

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The Story

“Imagining the Wind”
by Rachel Sturges
Earth Island Journal, March 28, 2022

The Pitch

Dear X,

I’ve been spending a lot of time with the wind map. The wind map is an online art project, a website featuring a flat, dark gray outline of the contiguous United States. (News peg: March 28, 2022 is the 10-year anniversary of the wind map.) There are no rivers or mountains, only the endless etching of white and gray lines representing the speed of surface winds as they flow across the continent. I come to watch the “delicate tracery of wind” as creators Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg poetically describe it, to see this “ancient” force drawn from data shared freely by the National Weather Service.

Sitting at my desk, I watch the wind meet what must be the Rockies, and I think about what it takes to know this much about the wind. I imagine the twice daily simultaneous weather balloon launches at 900 stations and the spin of a continent’s worth of anemometers. And the satellites that only became powerful enough in the past five years to monitor global surface winds up to 30 kilometers in the air.

In ten years weather channels have picked up one key element of the design of wind map—animated streamlets. Admirers have used wind map to better understand the migration of butterflies and birds, to watch hurricanes and tropical storms, and to fight forest fires (although the makers of wind map caution against this). At least one designer followed the lead of Viégas and Wattenberg and created a real-time global map of wind, temperature, and particle flow across the globe. (I interviewed Cameron Beccario, creator of earth, a few days ago.)

I’ve also talked to an expert in the field of data and perception, mapmaker Colin Ware. He designs maps for scientists and for museums, and was happy to talk about his dislike of wind map.

Would you be interested in an online report on this map timed to come out on or around the 10-year anniversary?

Rachel Sturges

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