Friday, March 18, 2011

Plume and Doom

With the hypothesizing, calculating, and scenario analyzing, regarding the radioactive emissions from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, I was reminded of a very unusual infographic that ran 65 years ago in Fortune.

In 1946, precisionist painter Ralston Crawford, was dispatched by the magazine to witness the nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll. Among the 124 members of the press to attend, Crawford was the only artist. His observations and reactions resulted in a six-page piece that included photographs, paintings and an infographic.

Although known as a painter, Crawford was an experienced information designer. During WWII, he served in the Army Air Corps Visual Presentation Unit as chief of its Weather Division. There he created maps for Army pilots, and developed a pictorial language of weather symbols to translate meteorological data used in military operations into a more comprehensible format.

The last spread of the Bikini article is about the migration of radioactivity. This is the one Crawford felt was essential, since what it showed was precisely what was not directly observable at Bikini. On the left side of the spread is a photo of the explosion’s cloud column. It is annotated to show how the mass of radioactivity was dispersed by prevailing winds at three altitudes. On the facing page there is a map showing where the plume would have traveled had the atomic bomb been detonated over New York City on that same day. You can see its shape and direction based on wind conditions in the northeast that day compared to the inset map showing how it actually traveled at Bikini.

Below are small versions or the spreads as they appeared, but see and read the whole piece at Full Table.

Sources: Fortune; Ralston Crawford, Barbara Haskell (Whitney Museum catalog)

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