blogging, infofails

The mismatch

Earlier this year I spent some time learning about the world of phenology. After reading some scientific papers and doing some interviews with researchers, I just found myself getting more and more curious about it.

If you google Phenology it will return something like “Phenology is the study of periodic events in biological life cycles and how these are influenced by seasonal and inter-annual variations in climate, as well as habitat factors.”

Since we live in a single network, studying the effects of climate on species brings us closer to what will inevitably also affect us, but it’s also a way to connects us a little more with all those other living beings with whom we share this space.

“The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.”

Charles Darwin

Darwin was right, after talking to a lot of people and understanding their passion for plants and animals, it is easy to understand the concern about the changes that some species are facing.

But moving on, if you have visited this blog before you may know where this is heading to… yup, this is another #infofails story. Here’s how all went wrong:

An unfinished illo for a blooming/ecological mismatch project I tried to run.

The embarrassment

The most embarrassing part of my failures is not facing your editor with a dumb idea, the hard part is getting excited about the information from sources and interviews and then watching time go by without you being able to develop the story you had in mind, especially if the people who spoke to you were super collaborative.

My first source in this endeavor (with whom I’m still embarrassed) was an Ecologist with the USGS. She shared with me some info from studies in the Gulf of Maine where she studies seasonal disturbances in marine life. In fact, it was she who explained to me what Phenology is. –Explained by a scientist who works on it.

My embarrassment also is with Richard B. Primack. He’s a Biology Professor at Boston University, I had a great conversation with him, he shared tons of great data.

You see, Prof. Primack has been studying and documenting the ecological mismatch for years, in 2016 he published a study where he explained how some birds arrived late to forage because spring is starting earlier. He show this example comparing the spring in 1850 describing the natural flow: first birds arrive, then leafs come, then insects appear, and finally flowers pop. Here’s a quick draft I did based on his publication:

Illustration of the Spring flow in 1850.
Sketches of the spring flow in 1850. Based on Prof. Primack’s paper published in American Scientist Magazine, 2016.

Makes sense doesn’t it? the observations show that these birds have continued to arrive on similar dates, but now spring is coming earlier. In 2010, for example, the leaves arrived earlier, so the insects also appeared earlier and spoiled the entire cycle for other species.

Spring 1850 vs 2010. Based on Prof. Primack’s paper published in American Scientist Magazine, 2016.

Staying with that same example from 2010, birds were observed arriving around the same date to find flowers when the insects should be just showing up. In other words, these days, for some species the natural flow looks something like this:

Sketches of the spring flow in 2010. Based on Prof. Primack’s paper published in American Scientist Magazine, 2016.

Prof. Primack along with many others researchers used Henry Thoreau’s observations to reconstruct the past of seasonal changes, that alone was a big story for me. So I went on and on, making more questions and asking for more data. And kindly they send me over tons of papers and tabular data.

Some of that data Prof. Primack shared with me included detailed records of plants and animals where he spotted those changes in spring and the struggling birds.

A data sketch I did with part of the data collected by Prof. Primack and a team of researchers merged with Thoreau’s records.

When I have a dataset that looks this interesting, I’m inevitably driven by ideas of how to show this in a story, it’s like a need of sketching data. At that point I need to somehow present this to my editors to push it forward and turn it into a story. Sometimes I spend time developing my ideas into sketches just to explain to editors what I’ve found interesting, but it’s not always as obvious to them as it is to me, so it’s necessary to write some paragraphs and accompany them with those images.

Some of the tree species that sprout leaves earlier. The steeper the slope of the red line, the earlier the leaves sprouted on average.

Just the right timing

That same process that I follow sometimes takes too long to put together a draft for my editors. When I came up with the proposal for this story, it was almost spring and it was hard to move a story past that window. That was just one of the things that spoiled the initiative I think.

It’s important to note that for those types of stories, I’m not developing the drafts over my daily work, but rather in free moments, which lengthens the process even more. But anyway, the lesson of this part was to keep an eye on your post window and not let your inner child distract you with what you find and diverge, maybe you’ll get the idea to the editors in time, it would be more easy for this to happen, who knows…

Adding more, more, more…

Certainly I was fascinated with the data and all the potential for a story, I was finding more and more data related to the same issue of animals struggling with the climate changes, the only problem was the this data was a little old already. Like this fascinating 2018 paper by Prof. Marketa Zimova + describing molting conditions in furry animals and how they struggle to survive when there is little snow and you are still covered in white fur. You may noticed the illustration at the top with a white hare on brown background which is kind of what they look to predators when there’s no snow around. Really sad the reality that these animals are going through, you know how it ends if you’re a white prey animal on a brown background.

A diagram based on the research data by Prof. Marketa from the University of Montana.

My second problem turned out to be that I was following the white rabbit into the world of tangencies. There is so much information on this that I started to integrate other studies and data, maps and things that led me to create a monster draft. A lot to digest from a news perspective maybe.

Earth temperature anomaly in April 2007. Based on NASA NEO. This event caused heavy damage to fruit tree crops during the spring of 2007.

A lesson from this would be to narrow the focus, crunching the idea down to its essentials can help early in the process. My mistake here was probably in choosing and editing the story I intended to show my editors. I added a thousand things on it, including interesting but a bit old data, maybe not the best selection for a news story.

While not everything should be breaking news, at least the focus of the story should be less scattered and consequently better defined.

Don’t follow the white rabbit. They tend to show you things that lead to a spiral of tangencies.
–A silly and perhaps inappropriate joke, sorry.
I hope you get the idea anyway.

We are experiencing climate change in many ways. In fact it’s easy to find news and research papers on early blooming and animal habitats threatened by seasons arriving earlier or later than they used to be and so many other changes that every species on this planet (including us) must endure.

If you’re in to news, I encourage you to talk more about this topic, worst case scenario don’t publish your story, but at least you’ll meet amazing people along the way and learn a little more about the fascinating world between us.


About #infofails post series:
I truly believe that failure is more important than success. One doesn’t try to fail as a goal, but by embracing failure I have learned a lot in my quest to do something different, or maybe it is because I have had few successes… it depends on how you look at it. Anyway, these posts are a compendium of graphics that are never formally published by any media. Those are maybe tons of versions of a single graphic or some floating concepts and ideas, all part of my creative process.

In short, #infofails are a summary of my creative process and extensive failures at work.

Are you liking #infofails?, have a look to previous ones:

01: Wildfires
02: Plastic bottles
03: Hong Kong protest
04: The Everest
05: Amazon gold
06: The world on fire
07: A busy 2021 kick off
08: Olympics
09: Floods
10: Doodles for news
11: Random Failed Maps

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