A windstorm of big data

In his fascinating and comprehensive 1984 study Heaven's Breath: A Natural History of the Wind, Lyall Watson observed, "Wind is invisible." And, as a result, "There are no photographs of the wind."

But he wrote that before Big Data blew into town. Now we have a moving picture of the wind.

winddata.jpgSource: Surface wind data comes from the National Digital Forecast Database; Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg
A historical snapshot of the wind flowing over the US on March 27, 2012. See the full wind map for that date, or the live wind map.

Data visualization experts Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg have given us this beautiful near-real time view of wind in motion throughout the continental United States. The striking live image uses the massive National Digital Forecast Database maintained by the National Weather Service. By clicking on the map you can drill down and see the wind blowing in your area of interest; or simply become mesmerized by flowing patterns the wind makes.

In addition to being a thing of beauty itself, the visualization also offers practical insight for energy companies in deploying wind farms to produce electricity. It can also be a tool for firefighters in the American West in their annual battle with forest fires. And even farmers can use the visualization to help them locate the best places to establish effective wind breaks to fight wind erosion, a major hindrance to agricultural productivity.

Viégas and Wattenberg are hunting for similar wind databases from other regions on the globe so they can build a model for those geographies as well. If you know of any such databases, you should let them know.

The promise of Big Data is to help us see things we never could before. Nowhere is that truer than with this visualization of wind.

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