The Times Team Explains Chicago’s Climate Problem Visually


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There’s a climate conflict in Chicago, and the city’s signature natural feature – Lake Michigan – is in the middle. Fluctuations in evaporation and precipitation cause significant fluctuations in the lake’s water levels, which could eventually become serious problems for the 9.5 million people in the metropolis.

Over the past few months, Midwest-based writer Dan Egan has spoken to Chicagoans about facing the consequences of the submerged lake, while photographer Lyndon French entered the city’s stormwater tunnel and reservoir system and snapped images of the skyline and urban architecture from a helicopter. They and a team of graphic editors, designers and editors implemented the project this month.

In a recent interview, Jesse Pesta, deputy editor of the Climate desk, and Claire O’Neill, the desk’s visual editor, discussed how the project came together, the challenges of photographing visually abstract concepts, and what people hope to get out of it.

How did you find this story?

JESSE PESTA Author Dan Egan is a rockstar of journalism about the Great Lakes. He lives in the Midwest, worked for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for many years, and wrote “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes.” The Times’ Climate editor Hannah Fairfield and I started a conversation with her last year, and she brought up the idea of ​​taking a closer look at Chicago. This fits right in with the type of climate reporting we’re trying to do – tell an incredibly important story in an amazing way.

Did you know that you want to look at the images right away, or did you make this decision after seeing her news?

PESTA We knew this when we started the project. It had history and universality, and we knew the best way to describe it visually.

What was the hardest part of the project?

CLAIRE O’NEILL As it spanned a century, the hardest thing was downsizing the images – there was so much to work with.

Where did you start?

O’NEILL The first step was to create a Google Doc with all the visual possibilities to accompany Dan’s writing. Then it was about deciding which images worked best with the text. When can an image convey something better or more smoothly or naturally, and when is it better to just write it in words? Multimedia editor Anjali Singhvi put together a great collection of other images (transitions produced in Google Earth Studio) as well as other graphics with precipitation levels and evaporation rates.

How did you think about the difficulty of photographing something without prominent visuals?

O’NEILL With many climate stories, what you’re trying to show is either invisible or what you want to explain happened in the past, like the building of Chicago. How do you represent things that are visually abstract or currently not photographable? Anjali’s transitions were great at capturing the skyline and architecture of the city, and we also had these videos of waves crashing in Chicago. And through Google Earth images, we showed a time-lapse of the disappearing coastline.

The visuals were ambitious, but the backbone of the story was the reporting.

PESTA It took Dan months to write and write this story, because it’s really something like four or five stories in one. The story is about Chicago, but it’s also a story of the history of the land where the city would later rise and go back half a thousand years. The story of how science has impacted the Great Lakes region. A reconstruction of a surreal day on the riverbanks when everything went wrong. The story of individuals found on the lake shore and battered by crazy storms.

How did you make sure your story wasn’t too technical for climate science novices?

PESTA We strive to make all our climate stories universal. We don’t necessarily want to be like “Here’s a climate story,” but “Here’s a story about human greed or human frailties or arrogance, or a story about the can-do attitude that people have to try to build a city against all odds. “Universal human themes are what make a story like this successful.

What feedback have you received since the story was published?

PESTA I’ve heard many of my friends who were born and raised in Chicago say they didn’t realize some of these aspects of the city’s history and the risk it faced. Several people told me, “My joke has always been that I could at least go back to Chicago; rising sea levels won’t get me there!” They didn’t realize how much risk Chicago was at with its idiosyncratic ways.

What do you want people to walk away thinking?

PESTA None of us can escape the consequences of climate change. Wherever we are, we are all at risk in various ways.


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