‘Shifting smoke’

The work entitled ‘Shifting smoke’ has been awarded the prize of Best Map Miguel Urabayen Award (Digital). The work was published in Reuters (USA) and part of the team behind the piece shares with us some of what went in to creating the piece and the challenges they faced.


Could you briefly explain the idea of the story?

The Reuters graphics team extensively covered the size and scale of the wildfires which raged across the western United States in mid-September 2020. In the course of reporting these graphics-driven projects, we encountered accounts of smoke spreading far further than we would have imagined, with anecdotal evidence of hazy skies reported as far away as the East Coast and even in other countries.

We wanted to find the data to back up these anecdotes and definitively show the spread. This was a fast-moving story (literally! As smoke coursed through the air), so we needed to work through this piece as quickly as possible.

What was the process of working on the graphic? Where did you start?

Like so many of our projects, the first key was accessing data, in this case an accurate representation smoke, its density, and its spread around the globe.

We began by checking data collected by NASA satellites focusing on Earth observations and found an incredibly granular dataset measuring carbon emitted into the atmosphere from fires.

It confirmed the anecdotes we had been hearing.

After some deliberation with Manas Sharma and Simon Scarr, who were also heavily involved with this project, we settled on a globe projection for the map. Under Simon’s art direction, we worked through several colour palettes till we settled on a sequential colour ramp of dark browns to make a connection with smoke rather than choosing a brighter or more vibrant palette. The palette informed the base of the style we would then carry throughout the whole piece.

Data and style in hand, we turned to animation. We wanted this to be as granular and smooth as possible, like reality sped up. We needed to visualise the data in the smallest time intervals possible. We visualised one frame for every 3 hours of data from mid-August to mid-September, which resulted in hundreds of frames. I processed each of those files in QGIS before taking them into After Effects to stitch them all together as smoothly as possible.

But there was more work to do. Smoke from the fires also pushed the limits vertically, reaching altitudes previously unseen, according to NASA. We wanted the data to show this.

Manas Sharma wrangled NASA data that slices the atmosphere via laser pulses. The goal was to create a cutaway of the atmosphere highlighting the smoke in the stratosphere. This was an amazing chart.

This kind of piece is impossible without the support of the wider newsroom, in this case, our climate and environment team. Katy Daigle, Reuters’ climate editor, gave valuable edits and contributed crucial reporting for our story with an interview with a NASA scientist about our findings and the atmospheric events surrounding the fires.

What has been the challenge of this story?

One challenge was turning incredibly complex data files into digestible visualisations that regular readers can understand. The atmospheric data comes in raw formats that must be heavily processed for a clear display.


Understanding scientific terminology and various ways of classifying information was also a challenge. We spoke to several scientists to understand how to use the data correctly and be sure that the visualizations were accurately representing the facts.

How have you worked this year?

Like many other teams, our way of working suddenly changed at the beginning of 2020. In many locations, our team meetings suddenly went from brainstorms and discussions at the whiteboard, to virtual meetings and chat apps.

However, I think our team got the hang of it quickly. It’s still possible to create quality content while working remote. Of course, I would prefer to be in the office with my colleagues and to receive this award in person, but I am eagerly awaiting the slow return to normal and we meet again in Pamplona!

Marco Hernández

What do you think?