This Map Tracks Thousands of Cargo Ships to Highlight Their Carbon Emissions

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This Map Tracks Thousands of Cargo Ships to Highlight Their Carbon Emissions

UCL’s Energy Institute created the data visualization in order to raise more awareness on carbon footprint of the world’s global cargo fleet.
April 26, 2016, 11:35am

This data visualization shows the travel paths of the world's cargo ships. Image: Kiln/UCL Energy Institute

The tiny specks of blue, red, and yellow on this world map depict the global pathways of tens of thousands of cargo ships.

The interactive map, co-created by researchers from the University of London's Energy Institute and data visualization company Kiln, shows the flow of cargo ships across the world over the course of 2012, based on "hundreds and millions of individually recorded positions." The red dots represent huge tankers, the blue dots show dry bulk ships that move cargo like ores, and the yellow dots show ships that carry manufactured products.

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The map was created in order to demonstrate just how large a carbon footprint is created by the world's cargo ships.

"The issue we were following was the levels of greenhouse gas emissions from cargo ships and their pollution impact," said Tristan Smith, a reader at University College London's Energy Institute, over the phone.

Smith said that the research group's aim was to visualize the data—which was pulled from exactEarth, a company that provides location-based information on maritime traffic, and the Clarksons Research UK World Fleet Register, which registers the world's fleet—in order to raise awareness of the importance of transitioning to lower carbon-emitting modes of transport in the future.

Shipmap's website explains that "billions of tonnes of ships and cargo rely on burning massive quantities of bunker fuel," resulting in the release of a large amount of carbon dioxide, which is the main driver of global warming. For example, commercial ships produce more than a million tonnes of CO2 a day, which is more than that produced by the whole of the UK, Canada, or Brazil. Smith said his research group is currently examining more energy efficient ways of moving cargo across the world; these methods include considering alternative fuels for ships or simpler changes such as using larger ships instead of several smaller ships where possible.

To make the map, researchers took data from exactEarth that showed the location and speed of ships and matched this with the data from Clarksons that had information on each ship's engine types and hull measurements. This allowed them to "compute the CO2 emissions for each observed hour." Kiln then took this dataset and visualized it on a specially created base map, which shows bathymetry (ocean depth), as well as continents and major rivers taken from Natural Earth, a public domain data set.

Smith estimated that the data visualization depicted roughly 50,000 cargo ships, some of which are more than a quarter of a mile long, and which carry everything from metal ores to fresh fruit. The website was launched last week, and Smith said it had already received 100,000 unique views.

"We received all sorts of messages on Twitter that we should be sifting through," said Smith.

He added that the next stages would see the group upgrading their map based on newer data.