Wind Map: Visualizing Environmental Mobility

Curator's Note

Wind Map, designed by co-leaders of Google’s “Big Picture” data visualization group Fernanda Vieges and Martin Wattenberg, reminds us that experiences of weather are often perched between the visible and the invisible. Wind Map’s employment of moving lines to represent wind (a graphics of linear flow) suggests that wind resists the exactness of origins and ends: individual lines fade in and out of other lines, or disappear into the shadow-space of the map. But while the map makes legible one of wind’s essential properties––its ability to traverse space––it also raises questions about the contours of what we can’t see. If seeing wind means confronting the visible and flowing line, then it also means confronting the invisible geographies of man-made and natural environments and the effects of wind upon them.

Wind’s legibility here points toward a weather ontology that is rooted in histories of weather visualization (including the earliest American weather maps). These histories allow us to examine the prevalence and signification of the line as a primary way of imagining environmental mobility, but they also encourage us to inquire into a politics of visibility that has to do with what is left unseen on weather maps. More precisely, what is the quality of the air and water that Vieges’s and Wattenberg’s wind carries across metropolitan and continental space? For cities marked by histories of industrial toxicity––such as Newark NJ and sections of New York’s waterfront––what does Wind Map fail to make legible?

When Wind Map’s web traffic spiked during Hurricane Sandy’s 2012 landfall (a hurricane that released toxic waters from Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal and Newark’s Passaic into resident basements) observers watched as the map’s threads combed over the eastern metropolis without regard for the spatial divisions that urban theorists, architects and planners, city and municipal governments, have spent centuries marking. Wind Map  not only obliterates every spatial mark that might point toward Simmel's metropolis, Gottman's megalopolis, and Knox's metrourbia, but it also fails to make visible the movement of toxic water and air through and across these spaces. What would a wind map, a weather map, that registered this movement look like, and what would be the impetus for creating and viewing it? 


Thanks for sharing this. I would concur that there is a lot that remains unseen in a map like this, but also that it provides the foundation upon which we might build to include the types of elements you point toward. I wonder, as well, whether part of the issue here is not just that the map does not point make visible things like air quality, but also that it is fixed at a scale that might not be the most productive for the purposes you suggest. While these types of national weather maps are what we have become accustomed to as watchers of the local news and Weather Channel, it remains at such a high level of abstraction that it necessarily lacks more textured data. It would be interesting to see visualizations from this perspective that take us down to the level of regions, cities and micro-climates.

Thanks, Garrett, for such a thoughtful comment. You raise a really important question that has to do with weather culture (here media culture) and conceptualizations of scale. It seems to me that this map sort of problematizes the "aerial scale" that is such a deep part of weather mapping. For instance, this map allows users to zoom in ad infinitum. As we zoom in, the wind threads adjust in size. Every macro landscape (the eastern coast, the great planes) with its intricate set of wind lines becomes a wholly new macro landscape upon zooming in. What I mean is that zooming is supposed to reveal the intricate parts of a whole, but here the zooming function reveals new sets of wholes that require another zooming in, and yet another. What scale are we ever fixed at when the supposed part becomes the whole infinitely, or when the micro becomes another version of the macro?

Thanks for such an interesting post, Sara. This is less of a question and more of a comment, but I'm struck by the issues of visibility that you raise, especially the relationship between visibility and epistemology. (I'm thinking in particular about the spatial divisions that you point to, and how so much is rendered invisible or absent through this process of abstraction.) It kind of reminded me of the ways that the U.S. monitors air pollution in China (specifically in Beijing) and how this measurement produces and reproduces several discourses about environmental issues (e.g., that China's pollution is measurable and literally off-the-charts) while erasing so much else (such as connections to the U.S.). Thanks again for this fascinating insight into weather mapping.

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