Project description

With much hype about melting polar ice opening up a shorter shipping route from the Pacific to the Atlantic, we wanted to show that routing ships through the Arctic is still a dangerous endeavor, one that’s unlikely to become the next Maritime Silk Road. This project involved analyzing a multitude of spatial datasets to visually convey what a difficult endeavor Arctic shipping remains, even as the shrinking polar ice cap opens up the potential for shipping. For our digital audience, we wanted to engage readers as much as possible. Using interactivity and animation, we were able to guide readers through each of the challenges, from unpredictable ice locations to marine protected areas.

What makes this project innovative?

To illustrate the challenges involved with moving ships through the Arctic, we employed spatial analysis techniques to calculate areas that would be inaccessible to many of the large container ships that would need to use the route. We analyzed polar ice extent data from the past 40 years to show that the location and distribution of ice is unpredictable from year to year, even in months when the ice is at a minimum. We combined these data with locations of limited infrastructure and potential environmental hazards, and presented them on a single map that ties all the attributes together. By scrolling through the project, readers get a sense of the hazards and challenges shipping companies face.

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

The Wall Street Journal reaches 42.4 million people online and our print product is distributed to millions across the country. Our readers come to us for complex issues explained concisely, which was precisely the goal of this project. There are about 10 unique datasets in this piece, and the Arctic Ocean is an area of the globe with which few readers would be familiar. So by limiting the project to a single map over which various datasets are overlaid, and allowing them to proceed through the piece at their own pace via scroll-based storytelling, we came up with a project that was not only informative, but fun to explore as well.

Source and methodology

MarineTraffic provided the coordinates for all ship traffic along the Northern Sea Route. Ice extent data were from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, and were modified using ArcGIS’s Spatial Analyst to create additional datasets, such as areas where ice was present three times or fewer since 1979. Bathymetry data were from the International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean. Other datasets include the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (ports); U.S. Geological Survey (oil and gas resources); Protected Planet (marine protected areas); and U.S. Navy (general Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Routes).

Technologies Used

For data cleaning, particularly the MarineTraffic data, we used R and Excel, plus quite a bit of manual data clean-up in ArcGIS. For geospatial data preparation and analysis, we used QGIS, ArcGIS, and the ArcGIS Spatial Analyst extension. For web development, we used ai2html, SVG animation and javascript. The print graphic was prepared in Adobe Illustrator.

Project members

By Yaryna Serkez, Renée Rigdon and Costas Paris


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