As soon as Ray Zhong, a Times climate science reporter, heard from a source about new research exposing the threat of a climate-induced “superstorm” overwhelming California, he knew how huge — both the storm and the story — was.
“California’s next Big One will come from the sky,” he told his editors.
While everyone is waiting for the next big earthquake to test the state, a danger is building in the sky above: Rising global temperatures are strengthening what are known as “atmospheric rivers,” supercharging them with energy and precipitation. The research is new, and scientists now say that the climate warming will create megastorms with the potential to wipe out agriculture, industry and towns.
The result of Ray’s reporting grew into data visualization, narrative and photography that showed how climate change is disrupting and intensifying global weather patterns, transforming communities, economies and the human relationship with the natural world.
Ray’s narrative, propelled by the menacing storm data visualization by Mira Rojanasakul, revealed a new future for California. Erin Schaff’s haunting photographs, done in rare black and white, echoed historical photography from the WPA era. Together, they weave a visual experience of a 30-day megastorm pounding the California coast as terrifying as it is beautiful. It’s a piece that resonated widely with our readers and has now entered the collective consciousness about the fragility of the nation’s most populous state.
These visualizations represent a special kind of emerging journalism, stories that only come into focus when the data is represented in a compelling and essential way. Yet taking thousands or millions of data points and translating them into a stunning and clear visual story — understanding, and then portraying, the drama hidden in a sea of numbers — is a major undertaking. It requires the confident skills of a journalist steeped in scientific reporting, data analysis and design skill. It is very difficult to create data visualizations so seamless and smooth that they feel inevitable.
The description of a California megastorm — a confluence of atmospheric rivers made wetter and stronger by climate change — is right there in the researchers’ databases. However, until The New York Times translated that data into a visual form, only a few scientists fully understood what the numbers showed. These groundbreaking visualizations and Ray’s reporting on the clues in the historic record about previous storms empowered readers to see long-term trends that were previously obscure, reshaping the conversation around climate change and its costs and consequences in people’s lives.