1. Economics
April 21, 2016

This data visualisation shows the path of every trade ship in the world over the course of 2012

By Jonn Elledge

Do you want to see the entire global shipping industry in one visualisation? Of course you do. Here it is:

This strangely hypnotic animation comes from the UCL Energy Institute, with the help of data viz studio Kiln. The purpose of the exercise seems to have been to calculate the C02 emissions generated by global trade, by tracking the pollution generated by major freight movements. Given that the shipping industry is responsible for somewhere between 1.5 and 4 per cent of global emissions – estimates vary, wildly – this is a pretty valuable exercise.

But CityMetric is as CityMetric does, so what we find really compelling about this is the way it highlights global trade patterns (or at least, global trade patterns as of 2012). Each dot represents a ship – so the highways of global shipping show up as solid dots of colour.

You can see at a glance, for example, that the coasts of Europe and the Mediterranean are among the busiest shipping routes in the world – and that the Strait of Dover is probably the most crowded bit of sea in the world.


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You can see that the East China Sea is pretty trade heavy, too, and that many ships travel deep into inland China via the Yangtze River:

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You can see the way that, given entire oceans to play in, ships still tend to stay close to land, or to cluster in certain routes to minimise their time at sea:

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 You can colour the ships by type, and see the red dots – oil tankers – moving out from West Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf of Mexico:

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Container ships are in yellow, and cluster round China.

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You can even turn off the map altogether, and marvel at the fact you can still make out the shapes of many of the Earth’s landmasses.


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If you press the play button, incidentally, a voiceover (over some Bach) will tell you more about the map. It’ll also note that the shipping industry generates over 1m tons of Carbon Dioxide every day – more than the UK or Brazil. That is a lot of carbon.

You can find the original map, in all its glory, at ShipMap.Org.

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