2016 Excellence in Visual Digital Storytelling, Large Newsroom finalist

The Yellowstone Issue

About the Project

We may all know the familiar faces of Yellowstone, among the most beautiful and certainly the first of the American national parks. Yet, with these exemplars of innovative visual storytelling, National Geographic online offers digital viewers a perspective unseen before — and with this viewing a deeper appreciation for the wonders of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Starting with extraordinary video accounts from “bear-cams” strapped to black and grizzly bears grazing on fruit as well as animal prey, viewers virtually forage for food and come face to face with wolves. Authoritative audio narratives explain each path through a day in the life of a bear.

With the assistance of GPS and roaming aerial graphics, viewers trace the migratory trails of great herds of elk — technology so precise that trackers date the birth of a single calf as the herd makes its annual trek to winter grounds. Data visualization is dramatically employed to portray the herd’s great, moving numbers as “the pulse of the park” — a virtual beating pulse on the digital screen. And a graphic animation takes viewers underground to the magma reservoir of the supervolcano hidden from sight beneath Yellowstone yet certain to erupt at some unknown time.

The “Bear’s Eye View of Yellowstone” stands out for the sheer perspective of the report. What do bears eat? How far do they roam? This interactive journey offers the answers and potentially hours of viewing in 20 separate takes from cameras that see the land the way bears do. Cameras were attached to the tracking collars of two grizzlies and two black bears. Massive and hungry, these fearsome predators prowl for food and confront danger along the way.

A zooming aerial map tracks a 260-pound prowler with a Bear Earth sort of imagery as the camera strapped to him delivers video of a variety of terrain as he climbs slopes and ends at a snow patch, foraging through fields and eating berries along the way — “Even when bears are traveling, they’re often feeding the entire time.” Then a camera takes a ride on an 18-year-old grizzly weighing 578 pounds in a place where one might encounter a dozen grizzly bears in one morning, or 23 feeding on one bison carcass. One could watch these clips endlessly.

One video catches a bear feeding on another black bear — “not a common thing … definitely a big surprise and probably one of the best videos that we got,’’ Yellowstone bear researcher Nate Bowersock explains in an audio narrative that adds another dimension to the bear-cam’s images. Kerry Gunther, a senior bear biologist at Yellowstone National Park, notes that black bears, like grizzlies, are “opportunistic omnivores, meaning their diets consist of both meat and plants. For years, there have been reports of a cannibalistic black bear roaming the mountainous foothills around Yellowstone Park headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs.” It took Bear 22517 little time after being outfitted with a camera to deliver video footage “really like watching a cliffhanging.”

Gunther’s audio narrative also explains that there are high populations of bears and wolves in this park as the bear comes upon a wolf pack and scans its numbers: “The bear doesn’t panic or climb a tree to flee. It stands its ground, which is a good tactic with wolves.”

In the presentation of “Follow the Elk’s Perilous Journey,” panoramic videography follows a herd through water, up hillsides, and across rock faces. The narrative explains that elk were once ubiquitous in North America, yet, like bison, were nearly hunted to extinction in the late 19th century. They have rebounded, and thanks to wildlife management have recolonized much of their former range. Their current range is mapped in this package, in which the map zooms in on a herd crossing a field. Nine discrete elk herds, totaling 10,000 to 20,000 individuals, compose what ecologist Arthur Middleton calls the Greater Yellowstone superherd. This is where data visualization puts the herd’s migration in contexts of space, time, and numbers.

“Inside Yellowstone’s Supervolcano,” a colorful graphic animation, starts at the powerful magma reservoir below the surface. “Think of the park as a gigantic pressure cooker, fueled by one of the most massive supervolcanoes on Earth,” the narrative explains, as slides depict hot water rising from a teapot-shaped basin, reaching a boiling point, and then releasing under pressure.

The volcano beneath this park last erupted on a massive scale some 640,000 years ago, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It is a potential supervolcano, capable of spewing more than 240 cubic miles of magma across Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, with global climate effects. This is what it produced at its last eruption. It’s been active since then, producing large lava flows some 174,000 to 70,000 years ago. But there’s no predicting its next activity — only understanding how it works, an appreciation this animation offers in the most basic and graceful terms.

Finally, stunning panoramic video footage of the “Epic Animal Migrations in Yellowstone” illustrates the infographics about migrations that take place here. While on assignment in Yellowstone, Joe Riis was able to capture the awe-inspiring migrations that few tourists get to see. This narrated video points to “some of the most incredible wildlife migrations in the world,” among them a 120-mile pronghorn migration, nine elk herds with unique migration patterns and a newly discovered mule migration. These migrations, it is suggested, may be the greatest wonder of the park, unseen until now with video cameras so close that one elk pauses to noodle the lens.