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In Chicago, a climate tug of war is occurring, and the city’s signature natural feature — Lake Michigan — is caught in the middle. Swings in evaporation and precipitation are causing significant fluctuations in the lake’s water levels that could eventually become dire problems for the 9.5 million people in the metropolitan area.
Over the past several months, the Midwest-based writer Dan Egan talked to Chicagoans confronting the consequences of the out-of-whack lake, while the photographer Lyndon French ventured into the city’s storm water tunnel and reservoir system and shot footage of the skyline and city architecture from a helicopter. They and a team of graphics editors, designers and editors brought the project to life this month.
In a recent conversation, Jesse Pesta, deputy editor on the Climate desk, and Claire O’Neill, the desk’s visual editor, discussed how the project came together, the challenges of photographing visually abstract concepts and what they hope people take away from it.
How did you find this story?
JESSE PESTA The writer, Dan Egan, is a rock star of journalism about the Great Lakes. He is based in the Midwest, worked for many years for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and wrote the book “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes.” Hannah Fairfield, The Times’s Climate editor, and I started a conversation with him last year, and he raised the idea of a close look at Chicago. That fit squarely into the kind of climate reporting we try to do — tell a tremendously important story in a surprising way.
Did you know right away you wanted to go all in on the visuals, or did you make that decision after seeing his reporting?
PESTA We knew that right when we started the project. It had history and universality, and we knew the best way to tell that would be visually.
What was the most challenging part of the project?
CLAIRE O’NEILL Because it spans a century, the hardest thing was scaling back the visuals — there was just so much to work with.
Where did you start?
O’NEILL The first step was to put together a Google Doc with all the visual possibilities that could accompany what Dan had written. Then it was about deciding what visuals worked best with the text. When can a visual convey something better or more seamlessly or naturally, and when is it better to just write in words? The multimedia editor Anjali Singhvi put together a great collection of other visuals — fly-throughs produced in Google Earth Studio — plus other graphics with precipitation levels and evaporation rates.
How did you think through the challenge of photographing something without obvious visuals?
O’NEILL We had Lyndon’s incredible photography of present-day Chicago as a starting point. With a lot of climate stories, what you’re trying to show is either invisible, or what you want to explain happened in the past, like the way Chicago was built. How do you represent things that are visually abstract or can’t be photographed right now? Anjali’s fly-throughs were great at capturing the skyline and architecture of the city, and we also had these videos that showed waves crashing on the shore in Chicago. And through Google Earth images, we showed a time lapse of the disappearing shoreline.
The visuals were ambitious, but the backbone of the story was the reporting.
PESTA It took Dan months to report and write this story, because it’s really something like four or five stories in one. The story is about Chicago, but is also a tale of the history of the land where the city would later rise, going back half a millennium. It’s the story of how science affects the Great Lakes region. It’s a reconstruction of one surreal day at the river locks when everything went wrong. It’s the story of individuals who are on the lakefront and battered by crazy storms.
How did you ensure your story wasn’t too technical for climate science novices?
PESTA We try to make all our climate stories universal. We don’t necessarily want to be like, “Here is a climate story,” but “Here is a story about human ambition or human foibles or hubris or the can-do attitude people have to try to build a city against all odds.” The universal human themes are what make a story like this succeed.
What feedback have you received since the story published?
PESTA I heard from a good number of friends who were born and raised in Chicago, who said they hadn’t realized some of these aspects of the history of the city and the risk it faces. A number of people said to me, “My joke has always been that at least I can move back to Chicago; the rising sea levels won’t get me there!” They didn’t realize how at risk Chicago is in its own unique ways.
What do you want people to come away thinking?
PESTA None of us can escape the consequences of climate change. We’re all at risk in various ways, wherever we may be.