Natural History Museum
Lockdown was an extraordinary opportunity for science. We explored what happened to the natural world – the air, the animals and the Earth itself – when we all stay at home.
Whales could hear each other singing over the sound of ships. Pandas in a Hong Kong theme park finally got pregnant. Sheep learnt how to use a children’s roundabout.
We’d all seen the tweets claiming “nature is healing” during lockdown. But what really happened outside as we all stayed inside?
As part of a brand new public engagement initiative around the environmental impacts of Covid-19, the Natural History Museum asked us to explore the science behind lockdown’s impact on nature.
Our task was to research and analyse existing data to create a fascinating in-depth article and accompanying data visualizations. Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, this piece aimed to inspire curiosity from the public and crowdsource further questions for researchers to investigate.
We worked closely with some of the UK’s leading scientists to discover what relevant research they had about nature in the lockdown period.
Exploring multiple scientific datasets required us to become experts on air pollution, animal sightings, ground vibrations, bird habitats, mammal taxons and transport data all at once.
Within this complex data, we made some fascinating discoveries.
From an observatory on top of the BT tower in central London, scientists measure how much CO2 is moving up or down at any given moment.
This is called ‘CO2 flux’. It’s basically a live scorekeeper in the battle of photosynthesis (which removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) vs human emissions (which release carbon dioxide).
And it had great news about air quality: during lockdown, CO2 emissions dropped by 60%.
Many other remarkable lockdown stories emerged. Driving and public transport dropped by 81%, sound levels in some areas were reduced by 50% and animals sighting of all kinds soared.
With such a range of data stories to visualize, we used a variety of chart types and annotations.
For air quality, a simple heat map with an opacity scale best evoked the idea of pollution. For animal sightings, scaled illustrated bubbles helped us communicate how many more bees, bats and butterflies we saw this year compared to last. And to represent seismometers across the UK, a beeswarm chart.
We know the days at home blurred into one, so we added a lockdown timeline to the time-series charts. This was not only a useful reminder of where we were on the lockdown scale (from “Stay at home” to “Stay alert”), but also created a visual link between the different data visualizations.
This piece would run on Discover, the Natural History Museum’s online magazine, where it would be read by an engaged (but not expert) audience.
It was science-packed, but had to be digestible. And of course, while it painted an optimistic story about the natural world, it was against the background of a devastating pandemic. We wrote the editorial with this in mind, keeping the tone hopeful but sensitive.
The Natural History Museum is iconic. To fit with the museum’s instantly recognisable aesthetic, we (literally) drew on their rich library of biological drawings.
We brought the visualizations to life with edited versions of these beautiful images and our own bespoke illustrations.
The piece was well received online, and sparked discussion at a live interactive virtual ‘Lates’ event about Nature in Lockdown.
It was a successful springboard for audiences and emerging researchers to begin asking deeper questions about our relationship with the natural world.