How A GIF Changed The Way We Think About Climate Change

Professor Ed Hawkins of the University of Reading in the UK has been widely published 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.

He’s now famous for something much different…. 

Click the link above to see just exactly what he made us aware of!

His GIF

As of early on May 10th, the startling animation had been retweeted over 3,200 times, covered separately here in the Post and by many, many other outlets.

Jason Samenow of the Washington Post called it the “most compelling global warming visualization ever made” and even used it as an example of how the IPCC itself could improve its dreary and often faulted communications.

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…. Through viral data visualization!

The image has resonated for a number of reasons – one of them being that it doesn’t require any complex interpretation. It uses data that was always there.

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 the temperature would be, and where at 2 degree Celsisus rise would be, in the form of larger, red concentric circles.

He made the whole thing animated and tweetable.

Summary

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.

Hawkins has published research suggesting that the world could cross the 2 degree threshold by the year 2060, if emission levels stay high.

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