But Migrations in Motion predicts a new kind of migration—one forced by climate change. The new data-visualization project is based on research from The Nature Conservancy and the University of Washington, and depicts how more than 2,900 species of birds, mammals, and amphibians might migrate in response to rising sea levels and temperatures.
It’s mesmerizing, if unsettling, to behold. The interactive map overlays tadpole-like swirls of color atop black maps of the Americas. These color-coded eddies link the various species’ current habitats with where they’ll need to move in response to climate change.
To connect the species’ current habitats to future ones, scientists used flow models from electronic circuit theory. Electrical engineers have been using these models for decades to predict the behavior of—you guessed it—circuits; but in recent years, ecologists have co-opted them to map things like gene flow and help conserve endangered species. In the case of Migrations in Motion, the circuit models account for route-determining factors like cities, infrastructure, and bodies of water. “Around the Great Lakes, for example, you’ll see that species steer around them, since most can’t go through water,” says Dan Majka, the ecologist at The Nature Conservancy who created the map. “Or through New York City.”
Like any graph that makes the slow-moving march of climate change suddenly visible all at once, Migration in Motion is a little anxiety inducing. You can watch as thousands of species flee their homes for the earth’s poles—a forceful reminder that large swaths of the planet could soon become inhospitable to their animal residents (assuming they haven’t already).
But hopefully not too soon. “I don’t know if in our lifetimes we’ll see these migrations that are extreme and obvious,” he says. “It’s a little more subtle than that.” In the meantime, Migrations in Motion comes with a few thoughts on what humans can do. A study from earlier this year found that only 41 percent of the United States is available to animals migrating towards fairer climates; the remaining 59 percent has been blocked off by development. Less fencing and smarter infrastructure—like wildlife overpasses that stretch over highways—could improve things for animals. With new passageways open, they could seek manifest destiny and, hopefully, adapt to new climates.