The biodiversity of Earth as we know it is made up of millions of species—from Baobab trees to narwhals to tiny anemones attached to the ocean floor. But can we think of Earth in a holistic way, as one living entity of its own, instead of the sum of its parts?
This is what John Nelson illustrates in “Breathing Earth,” two animated GIFs he designed to visualize what a year’s worth of Earth’s seasonal transformations look like from outer space. Nelson—a data visualizer who works for software company IDV Solutions—stitched together from NASA’s website 12 cloud-free satellite photographs taken each month over the course of a year. Once the images were put together in a sequence, the mesmerizing animations showed what Nelson describes as “the annual pulse of vegetation and land ice.” (See: “Striking GIFs of Our Breathing Earth.”)
As the climate changes, the planet comes alive. Earth appears to breathe when ice cover grows and melts—in and out, in and out.
“I expected the poles to creep down and encompass lots of the northern hemisphere and I expected the change between green and dry, green and dry,” Nelson said.
“I expected there not to be much change in the southern hemisphere, and this [GIF] illustrates that change,” he added. “But when it came to life in front of me, I still had this ‘Gee, shucks,’ kind of moment.” (Related: “Earth’s Green Places Mapped in High Resolution.”)
The first GIF is taken from a perspective looking down on the planet, with the North Pole directly in the center. White frost radiates out from the top of the globe and creeps south in all directions. It travels through Siberia, Canada, and northern Europe, heading towards the equator located around the circle’s edge, but ends before the top of Africa. The Mediterranean Sea is the visible body of water on the top left hand side, and the Great Lakes make up a small network of dark blue shapes on the land mass to the right.
Nelson also animated a complete map to make sure people can see all reaches of the temperate planet. Beyond the expanding and shrinking ice cover, the annual push and pull of the green wet season and brown dry season are striking—particularly on the African savannah and the coastal areas of Australia.
To Nelson, these GIFS represent the power of data visualization to translate natural phenomena into a format where users can think about information as more than just a muddle of numbers.
“I don’t think I would feel quite the same way about summertime if I didn’t have that long harsh winter to set me up for it,” Nelson said of living in Michigan, a center on his map where stark white intersects the crisp green. “The Earth has this wonderful alternating character to it, and experiencing the changing seasons each year—it’s reassuring.”
—Follow Jaclyn Skurie on Twitter.