Ed Hawkins spends his days doing, you know, climate science. A professor at the University of Reading in the UK, he has published widely on the overturning circulation in the north Atlantic Ocean, as well as trends for sea ice in the Arctic and how to predict future temperatures, among other topics. And he contributed to the most recent mega-report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which everybody cites for pretty much everything in this area.
He’s now famous, though, for something quite different. This:
As of early Wednesday, the startling animation had been retweeted over 3,200 times, covered separately here in the Post and by many, many other outlets — our own Jason Samenow called it the “most compelling global warming visualization ever made” — and even used as an example of how the IPCC itself could improve its dreary and often faulted communications, in an interview with its new head, Hoesung Lee.
“I can’t quite believe it,” says Hawkins, who says that his university’s servers were “struggling a bit” Tuesday morning as large numbers of people were apparently watching the animation.
“It was just designed to try and communicate in a different way. As scientists I think we need to communicate, and try different things, and this was just one of those trials, and it has turned out very well,” Hawkins says. (He credits Jan Fuglestvedt, a fellow researcher at the University of Oslo, with suggesting the idea of a spiral to him).
At a time when scientists, nonprofits, and universities are more and more focusing on communicating research results better, Hawkins basically just hit a grand slam — and not through some clever turn of phrase or some new metaphor or framing, but rather, through viral data visualization.
The image has resonated for a number of reasons — one of them being, as Hawkins says, that it “doesn’t require any complex interpretation.” It uses data that was always there, of course — data from the UK Met Office’s Hadley Centre and the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Center which document the globe’s average temperature anomaly monthly and annually going back to the year 1850. (Two U.S. agencies, NASA and NOAA, do the same but only go back to 1880).
Hawkins took these monthly temperature data and plotted them in the form of a spiral, so that for each year, there are twelve points, one for each month, around the center of a circle – with warmer temperatures farther outward and colder temperatures nearer inward. At the same time, he took the pre-industrial baseline temperature to be the average temperature from 1850 to 1900, and put out markers for where a 1.5 degree Celsius rise above that temperature would be, and where at 2 degree Celsius rise would be, in the form of larger, red concentric circles.
And then, of course, he made the whole thing animated and tweetable.
The 1.5 and 2 degree C markers are increasingly focal in climate policy, since the world pledged to try to avoid them — especially 2C, but also 1.5, if at all possible — in the recent Paris climate agreement.
What Hawkins’ animation shows is that, well, we’re moving that direction, and especially with the temperatures of 2016, 1.5 degrees looks quite close. Granted, we wouldn’t actually be fully there until the average temperature stayed at that level — a brief excursion across the red line wouldn’t cut it. Nonetheless, the animated spiral approach makes global warming instantly visible, and shows that the danger zones aren’t so far away. (Another analysis, by Climate Central, suggests we have already temporarily breached 1.5 C this year, but this used a different baseline and the NOAA and NASA datasets).
More analytically, Hawkins has published research suggesting that the world could cross the 2 degree threshold by the year 2060, if emission levels stay high. Clearly, the 1.5 degree threshold is even closer.
If global warming appears to burst outward toward the end of the animation, that’s for two reasons, says Hawkins. The first is that from the 1950s through the 1970s, scientists believe that sulfate aerosols from air pollution helped counter the warming effects of carbon dioxide and keep the planet, temporarily, cooler than it might have been otherwise. But when that pollution was cleared away, around the 1970s, a sharper warming trend began.
“The warming from the greenhouse gases emerged, and you can see that in the animation, you can see the sudden increase in the rate of change, around that point,” says Hawkins.
And then there’s the second pulse — the 1998 El Nino, followed by this year’s powerful El Nino, seem to have represented a kind of step change, in which temperatures burst upward (or in this case, outward) and then stay at or around a new plateau.
“Because there was quite a large change in 1998, with the big El Nino event, that was the first year that steps outside the previous boundary, and that was quite a large spike that year,” Hawkins says. “And you see a similar step outwards now in 2016.”
It certainly doesn’t hurt that, as a researcher and blogger, Hawkins is somewhat of a stickler for really good visual representations of scientific results.
He even previously wrote a letter to the editor to Nature criticizing rainbow color scales, which he considers not only misleading, but also “illegible to the 8% of the male and 0.4% of the female population who are colour blind.”
“Accurate graphics are key to clear communication of scientific results to other researchers and the public — an issue that is becoming ever more important,” he wrote then.
Those words, although written in another context, now seem to presage what Hawkins would later create.
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