Story Maps: A Rising Star of Climate Change Communication

By Sara S. Moore

Climate change information can usually be summarized in three words: boring bad news. Journalists try to remedy this with sensationalism, such as with the infamous “Obituary: Great Barrier Reef (25 Million BC-2016)” (Oct 11, 2016, by R. Jacobsen). This headline angered ocean scientists and climate change communication specialists alike because it was non-factual, and might make otherwise action-oriented people give up: if it’s too late, why bother?

On the other hand, those trying to communicate nuanced, balanced climate change information can skew to the dry side of things. A 1,552-page carefully balanced report on climate change like the 2013 IPCC AR5 science volume is not going to engage the public.

So, how do you find the sweet spot between the 60-point-font doomsday headline and the impenetrable thesis with a thousand citations?

Enter: the Story Map.

Image is a screengrab from the 2017 Story Map “Climate Migrants,” by the Esri Story Maps Team, accessible at <http://storymaps.esri.com/stories/2017/climate-migrants/index.html>.

Image is a screengrab from the 2017 Story Map “Climate Migrants,” by the Esri Story Maps Team, accessible at <http://storymaps.esri.com/stories/2017/climate-migrants/index.html>.

Setting stories in a geospatial, multimedia context

Story Maps are a suite of applications created by the mapping software company Esri (founded as Environmental Systems Research Institute, purveyor of the ArcGIS map-creating software) that help people tell stories online using maps combined with multimedia elements. Story Maps differ from other online interactive maps by presenting a narrative, combining geographic information system (GIS) data with images, videos, and web links. For example, any feature on an online map can be linked to a pop-up window that describes the feature in greater detail. It engages users immediately, and then gives them the opportunity to self-navigate to deeper layers of information.

The father of Story Maps at Esri, Allen Carroll, came up with the idea during his 27-year tenure as National Geographic's Chief Cartographer, calling them “geostories.” However, lacking the technical support he needed to develop the idea at NatGeo, he joined Esri in 2010 and began developing Story Maps. They began as a variety of templates designed by his team to support different kinds of narratives. In 2011 these templates became web applications available for free on the Esri website. The applications are fully customizable, and the best examples submitted to Esri are featured in the Story Maps Gallery. To create your own Story Map you only need a web connection, a free public ArcGIS account (though paid accounts have more capabilities), and your own content, or links to content. No special technical knowledge is needed to develop a Story Map. Although Story Maps are mostly visual, they can be made accessible for the visually impaired by including audio content, such as podcasts. Story Mapping is a highly flexible tool.

 “The novelty of Story Mapping is the interactivity,” said Alexis Mychajliw, a Graduate Student Instructor at the Hadly Lab, Stanford University, where she and her colleague Melissa Kemp taught an undergraduate course on using Story Maps to communicate about global change in 2014 and 2015. “People can zoom in on the things they care about.” The two Story Maps created by the Stanford students describe climate change impacts using maps that link to local news articles (See: Geographic Impacts of Global Change: Mapping the Stories of Californians, 2014, and Mapping the Impacts of Global Change: Stories of Our Changing Environment as Told By U.S. Citizens, 2015). While some Story Maps firmly direct the user’s experience to a particular conclusion, the Stanford maps let the climate-related news articles linked to points on maps displaying GIS data about climate change projections speak for themselves. The user is left to connect the dots, perhaps making a stronger impression than either an alarmist headline or dense scientific report.

Story Maps are currently enjoying growing popularity. They are in use at the grade-school level (Mr. Carroll says they are used from 4th grade up), and the tool is being taught widely in U.S. higher education institutions. Story Maps are replacing PowerPoint presentations at conferences. Non-governmental organizations are using them in lieu of traditional annual reports and project summaries for funders. Local governments and federal U.S. agencies like EPA, USGS, and NOAA are bringing Story Maps into play (see the NOAA Climate Program’s Story Map Evolution of the 2010-2015 Texas Drought).

Conservation science organizations are exploring the tool. There are eight Story Maps in the Landscape Conservation Cooperative Network’s collection, all published in 2016, including five about climate change (for example, one on the President's Resilient Lands and Waters Initiative in Hawai'i).

Image is a screengrab from the 2017 Story Map “Climate Migrants,” by the Esri Story Maps Team, accessible at <http://storymaps.esri.com/stories/2017/climate-migrants/index.html>.

Image is a screengrab from the 2017 Story Map “Climate Migrants,” by the Esri Story Maps Team, accessible at <http://storymaps.esri.com/stories/2017/climate-migrants/index.html>.

A tool that still needs testing and development

Story Maps have yet to be subjected to impact evaluation as a science communication tool. Generally, Story Maps are found to be “sticky”—they hold internet user’s attention longer than other websites—but there is a hunger at Esri for better analytics. Mr. Carroll reports that while there is anecdotal evidence of the tool’s effectiveness, much depends on the quality of the Story Map. He notes that not everyone is natural storyteller, and the impulse to overcomplicate a story is widespread. There is currently a trend of Story Maps being built inside of Story Maps that Mr. Carroll regards with skepticism.

Besides the problem with quality control in Story Mapping, there is the problem that it is hard to tell the publication date of any given Story Map in the current iterations of Esri’s templates. This is a useful tidbit of information, since much of the quality of a Story Map is contingent on its web links being active. Hopefully in the future Story Map application developers can give Story Mappers easy ways to display the date of their creations.

Story Maps have great potential as conduits for crowdsourcing climate change-related information in a geospatially explicit way. A National Park Memories Story Map from 2016 gives users an avenue for submitting personal stories and photos tied to specific parks.  This type of Story Mapping could have any number of applications for climate change researchers, such as crowdsourcing evidence of the distribution of invasive or endangered species.

Another place Story Maps might play an important role is in connecting local and historical place-based knowledge with climate model outputs. It strikes this correspondent that Story Maps could be particularly useful in linking climate data with Traditional Ecological Knowledge(s), such as Native/First Nations communities’ oral histories and cultural objects, to tell the story of climate change on indigenous lands.

Altogether Story Mapping is an exciting new tool in the climate change communication toolbox. Its multilayered interactive approach has great potential for inviting new audiences to take up otherwise boring bad news in better, self-paced ways, hopefully avoiding the pitfalls of doomsday overwhelm and over-nuanced pedantry, and moving people from curiosity to action.

Resources on teaching Story Mapping

“How to Tell Your Story Using Esri’s Story Map Apps” (72 min, Aug. 2016): a good webinar giving an introduction to Story Maps by Esri’s Allen Carroll and Bernie Szukalski.

Two pedagogical articles came out of the global change Story Mapping classes at Stanford:

Kerski, J. (2013). Understanding our changing world through web-mapping based investigations. Journal of Research and Didactics in Geography, 2:11-26. Pages 24-25 include a clear, concise description of how Story Maps can be used in a geography classroom context.

Story Maps to explore

Climate Migrants (Jan. 2017). Allen Carroll recommends this recent Esri effort as an excellent example of climate change communication using Story Maps.

Atlas for a Changing Planet (2015). This is an Esri Story Maps Team product created for COP21, covering climate change in five thematic areas: understanding natural systems, mapping human systems, mapping ocean impacts, predicting the future, and international cooperation.

An interesting Story Map in progress: GRID-Arendal, a Norwegian environmental knowledge foundation working with the United Nations Environment Programme, is working on an Indigenous Peoples Story Map project:

Introduction to the project

Videos to be integrated into the project

Endangered Reefs, Threatened People (2016): an award-winning GRID-Arendal Story Map about coral reefs, climate change, and ocean acidification.

Forest Management, Gender and Climate Change: A Story Map from the Mexican Forest States (2016): created by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a UN agency, this Story Map utilizes photos and videos to quickly and effectively introduce IFAD’s forest management projects and the indigenous women involved in those projects.


About the Author

Sara S. Moore is a climate change adaptation researcher based in Oakland, California. She worked on the Sonoma County Adaptation Strategy (2015) as part of its Climate Action 2020 plan. She wrote a white paper on the Marin case study in scenario planning for the California Climate Vulnerability Assessment (Moore, Zavaleta, Shaw, 2012) and a guidance on implementing scenario planning for natural resource managers for the California Coastal Conservancy and Point Blue Conservation Science (Moore, Seavy, Gerhart, 2013). She holds a Master of Public Policy degree and an MA in International and Area Studies from UC Berkeley.