This visualization maps streamflow data from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in real time across the US.
Water supports life but can also drown and destroy. People are mostly water, but the melting ice caps threaten our very existence. Harnessing this elemental force requires a balancing act and this artwork is a reflection on humanity’s fraught relationship with freshwater.
We created Surface Tension during an Immersive Scholar Residency at NC State which is focused on “the creation and sharing of digital scholarship in large-scale and immersive visualization environments.” We were psyched to create open source code and content for this project while working with publicly accessible (FAIR) data.
As an element that is constantly in a state of flux water is shared among people and this visualization is a response to how intrinsically linked we are to water and to each other via water. We decided to focus on fresh water, which people drink and interact with every day. Surface Tension uses the real-time streamflow data api from USGS which provides information for 11 thousand sites including gauge height, streamflow percentile, and several other columns. The movement (blobs) in Surface Tension are the data points for the percentile column for the date on which you are viewing it. All of the surface water on Earth is interconnected, and the disturbances at the specific points ripple out and interfere with each other, influencing each other and combining into an aggregate pattern of interdependence.
A few notes on color choice: Water is often depicted as blue and beautiful, but we are really interested in our relationship to water and how we impact the water we need to live. Humans dump a huge amount of Nitrate into our waterways as agricultural runoff and as sewage (variously treated). This nutrient feeds algae, which can explode and consume the oxygen, suffocating fish and creating an unbearable odor. We used the color green to speak to algae as a sign of human presence, and blue to play with the so-called ‘blue baby’ syndrome resulting from excess nitrate exposure.
In addition to providing a reference point for the data the rivers simulate the movement of fluids both across the earth’s surface and in our own bodies.