One of the challenges of reporting on climate change is that it can often feel like a distant problem.
Nadja Popovich, graphics editor at the New York Times, builds maps and charts about global warming or United States-wide trends.
Last spring, she sat down with a few colleagues to brainstorm how they could better personalise the story of climate change for the NYT’s readers. The team came up with an interactive feature, How much hotter is your hometown than when you were born?, that brings the climate change home, quite literally.
“We ended up taking inspiration from another visual feature we ran last year on the spread of extremely hot days around the world,” said Popovich.
It was a piece based on an analysis by Climate Impact Lab, a consortium of climate scientists, economists and data engineers, and showed a more zoomed-out view of how sweltering-hot days could increase globally.
“This time, we wanted to start with the local view and put ‘you’ at the centre of the story,” she added.
Popovich explained that data on global warming often focus on average annual temperatures, but this can mask the fact that some of the largest changes are occurring at the extremes, including more very hot days and fewer very cold ones.
Her team wanted to stay focused on very hot days, because increases in extreme heat, rather than changes in the average temperature, are more likely to meaningfully impact people’s lives.
Working closely with the NYT’s journalists Blacki Migliozzi, Popovich got back in touch with Climate Impact Lab, to talk through their earlier analysis and see whether it would be possible to build out a similar but more detailed dataset that would be explorable.
After months of discussions, they settled on a threshold of 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius) as the definition of ‘very hot days’ for the project, as it allowed them to show changes for more of our audience.
After publishing the interactive piece, the NYT saw a lot of organic sharing on Twitter and Facebook, with many people pointing out their hometown results.
“Readers seemed really excited to get this new perspective,” said Popovich.
However, there were also a few questions from readers who were used to local weather station readings rather than the averaged climatological data used in this piece.
“But that’s the challenge of showing climate data at a local scale.”
Most-searched cities included major metropolitan areas across the United States, such as New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, or Portland, as well as the world capitals like London or Toronto.
The project also saw more readers come in through social media and more international readers than the New York Times usually averages.
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