ArcGIS StoryMaps

Using 3D data to understand hurricane patterns

It’s September and we are in the middle of hurricane season. Data collected over the past century shows that climate change has elevated Earth’s air and water temperatures. Increasing temperatures have fueled more intense storms, including the back-to-back hurricanes that devastated the Caribbean in 2017.

Mapping data that spans dynamic time periods, with overlapping areas, and variable levels of measurement is difficult. To help viewers make the connection between the increasing frequency and intensity of severe cyclones over a 177-year long period of time, the ArcGIS StoryMaps and Living Atlas Environment teams recently published a story about Tropical Cyclones using 3D data.

The 3D approach enables viewers to see patterns in global data and across a long period of time that may be obscured when displayed on 2D map. While this particular use case involves hurricanes, using 3D visualizations can work for summarizing many large datasets and continuous or live feed data as well. This blog will explain why we chose to display the hurricane data in a three-dimensional format and offer some introductory steps to telling your own story with this type of data.

First among those steps is to line up good sets of data.


The ArcGIS Living Atlas: A repository of spatial data

Have you discovered the ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World? Access this global resource for ready-to-use, authoritative data layers that are curated and prepared for seamless integration into your own workflows from within the Esri platform. The Living Atlas includes data from thousands of organizations that contribute their own layers, maps, apps, and stories with content that can spark the interest of every GIS user and storyteller worldwide.

The resources within Living Atlas are available in both ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS Pro as shown below.


This image shows the two windows in ArcCatalog and ArcGISOnline from which to directly add in Living Atlas layers
Two windows in ArcCatalog and ArcGISOnline from which to directly add in Living Atlas layers


We created the Tropical Cyclones story using two Living Atlas feature layers that are available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). These global layers are drawn from historical archives of cyclones or hurricanes since 1842 and are continuously updated through the previous calendar year (2019, at the time of this project). We used two feature layers: Historical Tracks and Historical Points. Each layer contains attributes that are rich in information, such as a storm’s name, date, maximum wind speed, pressure, and monitoring basin.

The beauty of using Living Atlas layers is that you can run your own analysis on them just as you would with your own local layers. For this project we used dynamic feature binning, a method for visually aggregating large amounts of data, to make sense of this:


Image of the NOAA archive of cyclones. Points are covering the North Atlantic Basin and the tracks cover the North Indian and Eastern Pacific Basins.
The NOAA archive of cyclones. Points are covering the North Atlantic Basin and the tracks cover the North Indian and Eastern Pacific Basins.


Feature binning works great when dealing with 671,093 track lines and 684,363 points! Binning clusters your data into equal hexagons that allow you to visualize patterns that emerge from your data related to space and time Almost instantly hotspots emerge, and for this project, the seasonal pulse of cyclones worldwide came to life:   


This animated gif is a sample of the cyclone frequency map from the story. It is highlighting the Indian Basin.
A sample of the cyclone frequency map over the course of a year, highlighting the Indian Basin.

Choosing 3D visualization

Before embarking down the 3D road, it’s always a good idea to stop and ask yourself “To 3D or not to 3D?” Will using 3D add additional insight into the “story of the data” or is it a visual (or navigational) distraction? Is the extent of the dataset suitable to exploring in a global 3D view? The eight questions posed in the blog post by Mark Harrower linked above are useful concepts to keep in mind; sometimes a 2D map is a more effective communication tool for the data you’re working with.

In the case of hurricane tracks, though, using 3D visualizations allows us to more clearly and dramatically see the changes in severity and pace over a storm’s life. While relating hurricane data in 3D is not brand new, we came up with a new way to visually convey the data.

We wanted to create visualizations that accentuate the feelings of strength and danger evoked by the larger and most dangerous storms from recent history. The symbology should, at a glance, clearly communicate the most important attributes of a storm: wind speed, storm speed, storm duration, and storm intensity/category. To achieve our project goals and optimize the information in the dataset, we stretched each of the 2D track lines vertically and used a combination of 3D symbols for each track––a look that was partly inspired by a COVID-19 stay-at-home craft project: stained glass!


Stained glass is laid out on a table to form a multicolored mountain design. The work-in-progress craft inspiration for the vibrant “stained glass” look of the 3D storm tracks. (Design credit: Silvia Casas)
The work-in-progress craft inspiration for the vibrant “stained glass” look of the 3D storm tracks. (Design credit: Silvia Casas)


Each 3D storm track is made up of three parts:


The 3D storm symbology for hurricane Maria and Irma shows wind speed (track height) and category (color). The distance increases between daily progress labels as Maria picks up speed but loses intensity as it heads east across the Atlantic Ocean.
The 3D storm symbology for hurricane Maria and Irma shows wind speed (track height) and category (color). The distance increases between daily progress labels as Maria covers more ground but loses intensity as it heads east, back across the Atlantic Ocean.


Even without consulting a legend, understanding the lifecycle of each storm is intuitive with this 3D symbology. Incremental increases in wind speed as the storm builds are shown as noticeable vertical “steps” in the track panels. As the storm slows down, both the daily cyclone symbols and the panel borders contract and narrow. While it can be difficult to compare relative feature heights in any static 3D view because of the distance and inclination of the camera, the Saffir-Simpson category colors help reinforce the relative intensities for distant tracks. And like any web scene, the ability to explore and discover the dataset interactively in 3D is worth a thousand screenshots.

Note that to create and publish the 3D data you do need to use ArcGIS Pro, which can also perform other visualizations including 3D cross sections, fence diagrams, and 3D lines. It’s also worth mentioning that we brought in outside software to add in some details to the map. We created the 3D symbols showing the daily cyclones using Sketchup. We added the annotations on layers using Camtasia, and shared the scene layers using ArcGIS Online web scene viewer.

Click on the image below to explore some of the 3D data we created for this story in a web scene!


A screenshot of the web scene viewer for the cyclone 3D data set
A screenshot of the web scene viewer for the cyclone 3D data set.


Ways to package 3D data

Deploying 3D data is challenging as a standalone product. It’s immersive and visually appealing, but it sometimes needs more context in order to be understood by readers. One of the easiest ways to ensure your 3D data is properly deployed is to use ArcGIS StoryMaps. When you wrap 3D data in a story, you can give proper context to your data, include any additional information needed to understand it, and provide detailed descriptions of what it depicts. ArcGIS StoryMaps allows you to tell the story of your data, instead of just putting it out into the world in as a standalone web scene with slides or a video.

Three different ways to incorporate 3D data into a story include:

  1. A web scene: Using an interactive web scene to display your data works best for lighter 3D data layers, or layers that have a more regional extent. Directly embedding a web scene in a story can lead to a risk of having it load slowly or lag, which can create a subpar reader experience. It can also cause readers to feel overwhelmed when left to their own devices to attempt navigating through voluminous data. Use this option judiciously!
  2. A slide or screenshot: Using a static image of your 3D data in your story is an option that’s great for heavy datasets that can be easily illustrated in 1-3 slides/images. Incorporating these into an immersive block like sidecar or slideshow will go a long way. You’ll cut down on loading time, your reader won’t get stuck in your immersive data, and you can highlight the important parts in accompanying text while still offering beautiful 3D visualizations.
  3. video or animation: Creating a video, animation, or GIF of your data is a great way to illustrate movement or patterns within your data without overwhelming your reader. Ultimately, this was the route we chose for our cyclone story. Creating videos showing movement through different storm histories allowed us to highlight storm paths, temporal variation in storm strength, and pull our readers along on the exact journey we wanted them to see. When deployed at the right moments, this option is incredibly powerful and hydrates your story narrative in a way that is often difficult to achieve with 3D data.

We hope this blog has been illustrative regarding the use of 3D visualizations to tell a story through data and when such a strategy might be more (or less) effective than two-dimensional renderings. The cyclone story is, we feel, a great example of a use case for 3D visuals.

We also hope this blog will inspire you to explore the ArcGIS Living Atlas and take advantage of the possibilities for creating your own 3D project using its datasets.

Resources Collection

Earth’s Biggest Storms: Tropical Cyclones (Story)

Earth’s Biggest Storms: Tropical Cyclones Web Scene

Historical Hurricane Tracks ArcGIS Living Atlas Data

Historical Hurricane Points ArcGIS Living Atlas Data

About the authors

Liz was an associate product manager on Esri's ArcGIS Online team. Prior that, she was a multimedia specialist and product engineer on Esri's ArcGIS StoryMaps team, where she specialized in place-based storytelling and participatory GIS, with a focus on leveraging GIS for equity and social justice.


With over two decades of GIS experience Emily has mapped elephants in Thailand, wildlife poachers in the Republic of Palau, land use related issues around Yosemite National Park, and active wildfire incidents for the State of California. Presently she is a Senior Product Engineer and Cartographer with the ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World where she styles and designs layers, maps, and apps with the Environment Team. When not making maps, she is a true geographer and loves traveling with her family.


Craig is a GIS Engineer, geologist, and geographer on the ArcGIS Living Atlas team at Esri, with a passion for 3D visualization, analysis, and telling stories with spatial data.


Ross Donihue is on Esri's StoryMaps team. He uses place-based storytelling to engage users through beautiful, informative, and inspiring cartography. When he's not making maps he's likely carving a spoon, making photos, or dreaming of mountains and fermentation.


Content creator and product engineer on Esri's StoryMaps team.

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