MapCarte 152/365: What is fracking? by National Geographic, 2013


National Geographic have long been associated with graphical excellence for their maps, their pull-out posters and the graphics that adorn their print magazine. To this staple diet of work we can now add animated mapping in short-form videos that allow their graphic designers to make use of additional mechanisms to tell a story.

The March 2013 edition of the National Geographic Magazine (print and digital) focused on America’s search for oil from their own reserves and, particularly, on the controversial extraction method fracking that taps in to hard-to-reach reserves. The story requires multiple scales and graphics to fully illustrate the science and geography of the technique and the work produced in both print and digital form is a tour de force in research, design, graphics, video and story telling. Each is excellent in their own right but as a collection weaves them expertly into a cohesive story in the familiar National Geographic Style.

The work focuses on the new boom region of North Dakota with a map that shows over 3,000 existing wells as dots and their associated pipelines in grey that are shown across the surface giving a sense of the chaos under the surface that we cannot see. The use of the Missouri River as a central anchor point contrasts the natural beauty of the rural landscape with the massive human transformation. The next graphic takes us to an individual well – a real one that gives the reader a sense that this is real rather than simply a diagrammatic indication. Making the graphic real and showing the actual fracking activity mapped from seismic data allows us to imagine this process some 3,000 time…or 8,000 when projected to the whole state…and 50,000 times if we are to believe the projected number of wells.


Then we get to the video. It video begins with a wide shot of the United States with generalised oil producing regions we zoom in to North Dakota with a muted topographic map for context which acts as a base for oil wells that fade in to the scene. As we zoom in further detail is added that gives the strong impression of just how many wells there are before the map fades out and the map tilts and rotates to leave a 3D view of a collection of wells that then zooms to a single well. The zoom effect from continental to individual well is dramatic and tells its own story.

The subsequent 3D animated model illustrates the fracking process itself which is well presented with clear, informative design. The video ends by retracing the route in summary form back out to the continental US. An accompanying commentary tells us the story as we proceed through the video giving us clear links between what we are seeing and what is occurring.

This is a high quality, well designed and produced piece of work that integrates maps with animated diagrams, mixes 2D and 3D, print and animation to good effect and uses labels sparingly and for effect. It’s educational and shows National Geographic extending their graphical excellence and story telling into new territory.