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THE MAPS AND GRAPHICS OF 2020'S EVENTS AND DISCOVERIES

SEE HOW OUR ARTISTS AND CARTOGRAPHERS COVERED EVERYTHING FROM HOW COVID ATTACKS TO MAPS FOR EXTRATERRESTRIALS.

text By Eve Conant

Published December 18, 2020

This has been a ­­­most unusual year. COVID-19 upended the world, and it isn’t through with us yet. The cartographers, artists, researchers, and editors on the maps and graphics team began 2020 together in our Washington, D.C., headquarters. Now we’re scattered in different homes, in different states, in different countries.

Graphics can get granular. They help us visualize, in full color, this invisible enemy—to see how a microscopic virus enters the body, tripping the immune system’s alarms and then scrambling them. Graphics can help us picture what might be just dry statistics, until they’re artistically rendered into an irrefutably troubling scorecard of how the poor are getting poorer, the rich more insulated during the pandemic.

But science marched on. Animals kept on being fascinating. The world still provided unfolding mysteries that required maps. Our cartographers mapped new heights, showing us how a drone survived the thin and freezing air above Everest. And they charted historic lows in a unique illustration of the 100 most brutal periods in human history, part of a global package to capture the remaining voices of World War II on the 75th anniversary of its conclusion.

How, exactly, do woodpeckers avoid concussions? Why do squirrels’ toes point upward when they’re scrambling downward? How can a snow leopard’s tail act as both rudder and nose warmer? And if you were an extraterrestrial searching for Earth, what would be the most reliable map to get you here?

See below to find out.

A Helping Hand

Designers of the revolutionary RBO Hand 3, a soft robotic hand made of flexible materials, are working to give it something akin to a human’s sense of touch.

To save the planet

Today just 15 percent of land and 7 percent of the ocean is protected; new research is providing a blueprint of the most important areas to conserve next.

YOUR CLIMATE, CHANGED

We’ve analyzed 2,500 populated areas across the globe in order to understand what a climate-changed world could feel like in 50 years.

Everest from above

Photographer Renan Ozturk used specially modified drones to capture Everest and its surrounding peaks in 360-degree panoramas. His photography also helped the 2019 expedition he’d joined identify areas—from angles never before possible—to search for the body of British climber Sandy Irvine, who disappeared in 1924.

Saber-toothed cats were surprising heavyweights

In the Pleistocene epoch, the big cat Smilodon roamed parts of the Americas, using bladelike teeth and ambush hunting to bring down megafauna.

MOUNTAIN HUNTERS

Snow leopards have been scraping out a living on the roof of the world for eons. These elusive, high-altitude cats were once thought to be distant relatives of the big cats—Panthera—due to their unique morphology, but genetic analysis places them firmly with the big cats.

INVASION AND RESPONSE

Experts are still trying to decode how the novel coronavirus infiltrates the body and how the immune system can overreact—with deadly consequences.

HOW TO SET OFF A PLAGUE OF LOCUSTS

Visualize a swarm of 70 billion flying insects, covering 460 square miles—about 1.5 times the size of New York City—and devouring more than 300 million pounds of crops in one day.

HOW DO WOODPECKERS NOT GET CONCUSSIONS?

Black-backed woodpeckers (Picoides arcticus) specialize in eating wood-boring beetles usually found in newly burned forests. Like other woodpeckers, they must peck into trees thousands of times a day, doing so with a shocking amount of force.

How some cities ‘flattened the curve’ during the 1918 flu pandemic

Social distancing isn’t a new idea—it saved thousands of American lives during the last great pandemic. Here's how it worked.

THIS MAP SHOWS HOW FERTILIZER IS CHOKING THE GREAT LAKES

Freshwater is vital to the Great Lakes Basin agricultural industry, which pumps some 400 million gallons of basin water every day for irrigation.

Explore the galactic map that could guide aliens to Earth

To potentially help extraterrestrials locate Earth, a pulsar map was first sent into space in 1972 attached to Pioneer 10.

See maps of nine key moments that defined WWII

May 8 marks the 75th anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany in the Second World War, the largest and deadliest conflict in history. See the key moments that shaped its outcome.

Coronavirus in the U.S.: Where cases are growing and declining

Record cases. Record hospitalizations. Record deaths. This numbing trifecta describes America’s daily march through its COVID-19 winter, though signs of relief are emerging.

THE LAST VOICES OF WORLD WAR II

May 8 marks the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe, or V-E, Day. News of the Nazi surrender sparked spontaneous celebrations across much of the world, from New York and London to Paris and Moscow.

BODIES IN MOTION

Land animals have developed countless solutions to a single challenge: how best to get from one place to another. Modes of travel vary depending on an animal’s size and environment, with the goal of moving efficiently toward resources and away from danger.

REIMAGINING DINOSAURS

Prehistoric icons get a modern reboot: Scientists have learned more about the ancient animals in the last 25 years than in the previous 250—from the color of their skin and feathers to how they lived and evolved.

THE DISRUPTED FOOD WEB OF THE GREAT LAKES

A thriving, complex food web is crucial to the health of one of Earth’s largest surface freshwater ecosystems.

These are the best and worst states for women

A new index reveals that opportunities and obstacles for women vary across the United States.

PEAKS OF BRUTALITY

This rendering of history’s most lethal periods highlights the 100 deadliest events of the past 2,500 years, based on work by researcher and author Matthew White.

Price of a pandemic: Poverty spreads around the globe

By the end of 2020, about 100 million additional people are projected to find themselves in extreme poverty, living on less than $1.90 a day. Millions more are slipping into less extreme poverty tiers.