Using 250 million data points and a data visualization created by Kiln, researchers at the University College London's Energy Institute** have been able to display the movements of merchant ships around the world in 2012.

For the big data enthusiast, the detailed nature of the dataset used in the map allows users to sort ship movements into different types of shipping vessels, including:

  • Container (e.g. manufactured goods): number of container slots equivalent to 20 feet (i.e. a 40-foot container takes two slots)
  • Dry bulk (e.g. coal, aggregates): combined weight of cargo, fuel, water, provisions, passengers and crew a vessel can carry, measured in thousand tonnes
  • Tanker (e.g. oil, chemicals): same as dry bulk
  • Gas bulk (e.g. liquified natural gas): capacity for gases, measured in cubic metres
  • Vehicles (e.g. cars): same as dry bulk

These vessel types can help users to distinguish between the types of goods that are flowing across the world’s oceans. For example, one can see oil tankers coming from the Middle East or coal and ores flowing out of Australia and Latin America.

According to the University:

“Based only on ship movements and without a background map, the world’s coastlines are clearly defined, with plenty of variation in ship activity: from the buzz of activity in the East China Sea to the relative quiet of Somalia’s piracy afflicted waters to ship movements in areas where one might not expect them, such as the Arctic and Antarctic. The map also clearly shows the most crucial shipping thoroughfares of all: the canals linking different bodies of water, such as the Panama Canal, opened a century ago to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, and the even older and busier Suez Canal which saw 17,000 transits in 2012 alone.”



The map also provides data related to the freight carried and carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by the ships as they travel around the globe. All told, the data show that estimated CO2 emissions from international shipping totaled 796 million tonnes.

This total emissions level was calculated using ship location and speed data overlaid with vessel characteristics (e.g. engine type and hull size). This information allowed researchers to calculate the carbon emissions produced by these vessels hour-by-hour over 2012.

According to the researchers behind the project, this total is more than the whole of the annual emissions from the UK, Canada or Brazil.

**The author of this article is currently a PhD student at the University College London Institute for Sustainable Resources and works on projects with members of the UCL Energy Institute.