Mapping The Stunning Complexity Of The World’s Shipping Routes

Researchers from the UCL Energy Institute plot 250 million data points to show the movements of the world’s commercial shipping fleet.

Mapping The Stunning Complexity Of The World’s Shipping Routes
Photo: Flickr user Maersk Line

At any given moment, the world’s oceans are teeming with fleets of commercial ships–carriers packed with barrels of oil, stacks of electronic equipment, or crates of dried goods traveling between continents and along established trade routes. We don’t often think of how far our possessions travel before they wind up on store shelves or delivered to our doorstep–or how much CO2 that journey puts out into the atmosphere. A new interactive infographic, Ship Map, shows us exactly that.


The project was created by the London-based data visualization and digital journalism studio Kiln and the University College of London’s Energy Institute, where researchers were working to estimate the CO2 emissions of various types of ships. To turn this incredibly complex global network into an interactive, UCL researchers Julia Schaumeier and Tristan Smith used data from the ship-tracking company exactEarth that showed the speed and location of the ships, then cross-checked it with a separate dataset from Clarksons Research UK World Fleet Register showing the specific types of shipping vessels.

From there, they created an algorithm that computed CO2 emissions for each hour in 2012. Duncan Clark and Robin Houston of Kiln took that information and spun it into a stunning interactive map that shows the movements of the global merchant fleet that year, overlaid on a bathymetric map showing underwater ocean depth.

The results are extraordinary: you can watch hundreds of millions of individual ships from represented by multi-colored dots float across the world’s oceans over the course of 2012 (make sure you select “color” from the drop-down menu on the top right). Filters at the top allow you to toggle between types of ship (i.e. container ships, dry bulk carriers, oil and fuel ships, gas ships, and carriers transporting vehicles). A timeline at the bottom lets you skip back and forth between days of the year. Metrics at the top tick off the tonnes of CO2 being emitted as the hours pass.

You can also choose to view only the routes and ports (erasing the map behind them), which reveals some interesting shipping patterns. For example, the most crucial shipping thoroughfares are the canals linking major bodies of water, such as the Panama Canal and the Suez Canal (which saw 17,000 transits in 2012 alone). The pirate-infested waters around Somalia, on the other hand, remain devoid of shipping fleets.

But aside from displaying the routes, the chart is also incredibly useful for showing the environmental cost of this enormous amount of shipping activity. According to an Energy Institute press release, emissions from international shipping for 2012 were estimated to be 796 million tonnes CO2 (that’s 2.18 million tonnes CO2 per day, or 90,868 tonnes CO2 per hour). That’s more than the amount of CO2 that the U.K., Canada, and Brazil emit in a year combined.

Ironically, those same CO2 emissions are now changing the geography of the globe in a way that could benefit shipping companies. According to a recent UCLA study, rapidly melting Arctic sea ice is actually opening up some potentially lucrative trade routes between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Toggle the map to only show shipping routes, and you can see the few shipping routes just above the arctic circle that were already open in 2012.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.