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Exploring the impact of global warming on North American birds with Audubon

An article by Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic about this project is available here.

North American birds are in trouble.

This was the stark message embedded in the National Audubon Society’s climate report, Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink, which reveals that nearly two-thirds of bird species are imperiled by current climate change projections. Audubon asked Stamen to use our data visualization expertise to illuminate this grim — but sometimes hopeful — story, creating visualizations of Audubon’s latest projections of the impact of global warming on species across the U.S., Canada and Mexico..

A repeat collaboration — with a richer data set

This wasn’t Stamen’s first collaboration with Audubon. We first worked together in 2014, when Audubon asked us to create a set of range maps by bird species for its 2014 Birds & Climate Change report. In 2018, we once again teamed up with Audubon to create data visualizations to show the impact of climate change on bird populations in National Parks, which turned into a mural at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

In this round of collaboration, Audubon’s scientists made projections with much more bird data, and at a much higher resolution — over 140 million observations recorded, with resolution down to the 1km level, or 100 times the resolution of the previous data. They also expanded the number of species they studied. This rich data made it possible to tell a much more personal story: the story of how climate change impacts bird habitats at a very local level — state, county, and zip code — across the U.S.

The team at Stamen — Nicolette Hayes (Product Design), Andrew Wong, Ersin Akinci, Logan Williams (Design Technology), Alan McConchie (Cartography), Vinay Dixit (Project Director), and Adam Richardson (Usability) — worked closely with Audubon’s scientists, researchers and designers to unravel the data and determine how to tell this important story.

The process: a tight collaboration

The Design Technologists collaborated with Nicolette on an iterative rapid prototyping process in d3.js and Mapbox to find the best visualization approaches for the different pages in the experience — the landing, species and state pages. There were frequent check-ins with the scientists at Audubon to ensure that the visualizations accurately reflected their research findings.

The data sets were vast. With 604 bird species in the data set, each species required up to eight separate data layers:

  • Three climate scenarios with both summer and winter ranges
  • One dataset representing the current state for both summer and winter ranges

This meant over 1,000 layers uploaded by a single script in Mapbox.

Once the basic data visualizations were established, Alan worked closely with the Design Technologists to find the right maps for each visualization. We wanted to be able to provide an overview (or zoomed-out view of the whole continent) for the range maps as well as a zoomable/pannable version that would allow users to explore at the local level. This led to using two different map projections for different purposes. Although this approach introduced a new level of complexity, we felt it was important for the sake of clarity.

For the species range maps, which display the whole continent at once and don’t require zooming, we used an Albers projection, which works well for overview maps because it doesn’t distort land masses near the poles.

For the state and county pages, we decided to use a Mercator projection, because map distortion wasn’t as much of a concern; also, it was more important to have high-fidelity zoomable maps, which are more easily done with Mercator.

Once the visualizations were finalized, Nicolette worked with Audubon’s design team to integrate the visualization design into Audubon’s template to ensure a seamless user experience.

As the designs and prototypes evolved, we conducted feedback sessions with users. We wanted to make sure that the experience was understandable and usable for people across a broad spectrum of bird and climate expertise.

For example, we knew that the vulnerability plots could be powerful at communicating the scale of the threats on many species, but that their novelty and density of the information could be hard to understand. The user feedback allowed us to refine the design for both clarity and emotional impact. It was gratifying to see in the sessions that participants made the connection between the birds’ plights and the worrying implications for other species, including humans.

The experience: Designing for clarity and emotional impact

The focus of this effort was to map the vulnerability of a larger set of bird populations across three climate change scenarios: 1.5, 2.0, and 3.0 degrees increase in temperature — and to show climate impacts at a much more granular level than ever before, allowing a user to search by zip code, state or flyway to see the impacts of climate change scenarios on the local bird populations. The visualization used color coding to clearly and immediately convey the dire consequences of climate change.

Using Audubon’s huge data set on species projections as well as data provided by NOAA, EPA (ICLUS), University of Wisconsin-Madison, and more, data sets included geographies (states, congressional districts, and zip codes), bird species, and threats (sea level rise, Great Lakes level rise, land use, extreme weather, and more).

Threats: A more holistic view of climate change impact on birds

One new feature enabled by the richer data set was the addition of climate-related threats, which are exacerbated by climate change and contribute to disruption of bird populations, including fire weather, heavy rain and urbanization. All of these threats influence bird habitats in some way, though they were not used directly in crafting the range projections. These threats to bird habitats from climate change are complex and interconnected.

It’s possible to see these threats even at the most local level — for example, by zip code in Los Angeles.

The number of threats is one of the many factors that illustrates the difference between a 1.5 and 3.0 degree warming scenario. Above is Los Angeles at a 3.0 degree scenario. Below is the same map with only a 1.5 degree rise in temperature. This visualization allows viewers to hover over the geography and see realized threats, rather than just a static map of threats, which makes it an especially powerful tool.

Climate change scenarios by species

We also wanted to show in a single snapshot how the three climate scenarios impacted specific species, at a national, state and local level. We approached this in two different ways.

First, using color as an indicator of impact level, from blue to red, we have a high-level visualization that shows all species in a specific state, and allows viewers to toggle between warming scenarios and seasons and roll over an individual line to display the species it represents.

Then, going through the experience from the state page to an individual species, a rich informational panel and map displays, enabling viewers to toggle the map between climate change scenarios.

The message of this work is clear: Without immediate action to reduce carbon emissions, global temperatures could rise by 3 degrees celsius in the coming decades, which would be catastrophic for birds. Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees gives the birds a fighting chance. The time to act — at an individual, state, national, and global level — is now.

See Survival by Degrees — 389 Species on the Brink.

Published: 12.27.19
Updated: 05.22.23

About Stamen

Stamen is a globally recognized strategic design partner and one of the most established cartography and data visualization studios in the industry. For over two decades, Stamen has been helping industry giants, universities, and civic-minded organizations alike bring their ideas to life through designing and storytelling with data. We specialize in translating raw data into interactive visuals that inform, inspire and incite action. At the heart of this is our commitment to research and ensuring we understand the challenges we face. We embrace ambiguity, we thrive in data, and we exist to build tools that educate and inspire our audiences to act.