A Luminescent Map of the World's Earthquakes Since 1898

You're looking at the latest work of John Nelson, who is becoming well known for combining natural-disaster data with brilliant visualizations. The Michigan-based designer first captured our attention with a series of fantastic maps of U.S. tornado data. Now, he's used his talents to chart a century's worth of earthquakes (a staggering 203,186 of them) across the globe.


Nelson tells io9 that he made the map because he and his employer, IDV Solutions, are interested in visualizing risk.

"Normally we focus on more punctuated events like a derived terrorism alert or a specific weather event or even a forced entry at a facility," he explains. "Though lately I've wanted to visualize big sets of data for an indication of general geographic trends in existential risk. The earthquakes map and the tornado tracks map are examples of that."

The maps have attracted a lot of attention in the last several months, and with good reason — this is data visualization done right. That said, Nelson says he's been surprised at the excitement that his maps have generated, "particularly since there is nothing really new about the data," which he acquired from publicly accessible databases maintained by NASA, USGS and NCEDC.

But in looking at the maps, it becomes clear why they've garnered such a positive response. Nelson's done more than make old data new again; he's made it a pleasure to behold. He calls this giving the data "a little cartographic sizzle." And when it comes to the marriage of science and design, a little sizzle can go a long way. "A visually interesting presentation buys the currency of a second look," he says.


A second (or even third) look, in turn, buys the viewer an even deeper understanding of the information being presented. When you examine this map (click here for hi-res), the first thing you recognize is that it's beautiful. Then you probably notice that the majority of the earthquakes tend to occur along pretty definitive borders. Many of you probably even recognized that these borders, in fact, make up the familiar boundaries of Earth's tectonic plates.


The longer you linger on the image, the more you begin to notice. "If historical epicenters were floaties," notes Nelson on his blog, "you could walk from Seattle to Wellington." Most of the quakes tend to appear along The Ring of Fire, a hotbed of geological activity that girdles the basin of the Pacific Ocean. And what about all those thousands of points of light that are nowhere near the boundary of a tectonic plate? Seismologists call these "intraplate earthquakes," and nobody's entirely sure why they happen. (BoingBoing's Maggie Koerth-Baker tracked down this helpful list of proposed mechanisms for intraplate earthquakes, courtesy of UC Berkeley.)

These are the things you notice when presented with good datavisualization. These are the seeds of inquiry that are planted when straightforward design concepts, large stores of data, and a little attention to aesthetics become one.


[Via IDV User Experience]

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