Visualizing A Hurricane’s Wrath With Wild, Kinetic Data Sculptures

Nathalie Miebach uses weather data from the superstorm to create chaotic sculptures evocative of the amusement park rides it destroyed.

Nathalie Miebach was born to do what she does. Her mom was a basket weaver. Her dad was an engineer who worked on the cameras of the Hubble Space Telescope. When she was a kid, she was used to a house littered with her parents’ works-in-progress: half-woven baskets discarded through the house, or a scale model of Hubble abandoned on the piano, both of which she was dying to play.


Grown-up and now an artist, it’s hard not to see Miebach’s childhood in her colorful Sandy Ride sculptures. Although they look at first glance like elaborate constructions of painted tinker-toys, Miebach’s sculptures are actually intense data visualizations of weather data from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy that reflect both her father’s love of science and scale models and her mother’s love of weaving together complicated 3-D patterns.

In Miebach’s series Sandy Ride, each sculpture visualizes weather and ocean data from a specific site trashed by Hurricane Sandy in 2012: Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn, Coney Island, Staten Island, Seaside Heights, and so on. The sculptures look like Rube Goldberg-esque roller coasters, full of toy-like details. Miebach says they’re designed to bring viewers closer, luring them into a complex, multi-dimensional dataset without explicitly framing it as science.

Up close, each sculpture is actually a rigorous data visualization. Miebach starts by selecting a specific location and choosing two or three variables, like temperature and precipitation, to chart on a 3-D grid. This creates a skeleton for the finished structure, showing what happened in that area over time. Each data point in this skeleton is tagged with a number to show what it represents.

The rest of the sculpture is then built on top, evoking the character of the destroyed amusement park itself. For example, one sculpture called The Last Ride not only looks like the Jersey Shore roller coaster that was trashed by Hurricane Sandy–the height of that coaster is determined by the wind speed and gust when it struck. A dragon that snakes around the top of the coaster, meant to represent Sandy, is topped by a thicket of wind turbine-like mechanisms and Hurricane Flags. These show data about wind speed and location as captured by ocean buoys along Sandy’s path.

Miebach says she was inspired to start visualizing scientific data this way after taking both an astronomy and basking weaving class at the same time in the late ’90s. There, Miebach realized she could chart star data just as accurately in the criss-crossing reeds of a basket as she could in an Excel grid. “I was like, wow! I can address questions of science and data through art,” Miebach says. A later 18-month residency in Cape Code spent collecting meteorological data convinced her to bring the same approach to visualizing the weather through sculpture.

As for why she specifically chose Hurricane Sandy and amusement parks for Sandy Ride, Miebach says they’re not just colorful subjects: they represent mankind’s hubris. “It’s sort of a metaphor for the future,” Miebach says. “We’re rebuilding all these amusement parks right on the edge of the water, knowing full well climate change means there will inevitably be another Sandy.”