Visualizing the Wind

In Harvest the Wind, I write about the strong, occasionally brutal winds sweeping up into Kansas from the Gulf of Mexico (p. 1) and the swift winds blowing down off the Rockies into eastern Wyoming (p. 163).  I also refer to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's digital mapping of "windy land areas" in the U.S., sufficient to generate nine times our total present-day power needs (p. 98).  The vast, deep-purple veins on these maps, running from the Dakotas down through the Texas Panhandle, explain more vividly than words why so much of America's wind power development is now concentrated in this region.  (Texas leads the nation, with over 10 gigawatts of wind power installed - enough to generate close to 7 percent of the needs of America's biggest power-consuming state.  By the end of 2011, wind supplied 7 percent of electricity in Kansas; that share is expected to double in the coming year.  And North Dakota already gets 12 percent of its electricity from wind.)   

Today I learned of another extraordinary way to look at American wind power, created by the co-founders of Google's "Big Picture" visualization research group in Cambridge, Massachusetts. What the wind map generated by Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg lacks in color, it more than makes up for in dynamic drama. Up-to-the-hour data on wind speed and direction fuel a mesmerizing, ever-changing array of needle-thin lines, some racing through broad stretches of the north-central states and on up into the Northeast, others meandering across multi-state expanses of the Southeast. At least on this early-April evening, the map makes it clear why the Southeast is lagging so far behind in the development of wind power.

Viégas and Wattenberg have good reason to call their wind map a "living portrait" of this invisible yet hugely powerful resource.