Climate change data creates a storm

A powerful visualisation of rising global temperatures has captured the collective imagination.

Ed Hawkins’ spiral graph has gone viral on social media and attracted international media coverage praising its elegant visualisation of the well-documented rise in global temperatures from 1850 to the present.

A climate scientist from the University of Reading, Dr Hawkins is a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) advanced fellow and was principal investigator on the NERC-funded APPOSITE (Arctic Predictability & Prediction On Seasonal to Inter-annual Timescales) research programme.

He’s also a member of NERC’s National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS). He has published widely on how water circulates around the north Atlantic, as well as trends for sea ice in the Arctic and how to predict future temperatures. He also contributed to the most recent mega-report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

As of Thursday morning, Dr Hawkins’ animation, tweeted from his account at @ed_hawkins, had been retweeted 8,600 times and liked 5,500 and prompted coverage in The Washington Post and the Guardian, as well as a host of blogs across the internet. It was originally posted on his blog, Climate Lab Book. He credits Jan Fuglestvedt, a fellow researcher at the University of Oslo, with the idea of presenting the data as a spiral.

He created the graphic by plotting historic monthly temperature data in a spiral. For each year, there are 12 data points – one for each month – which are plotted around a circle – with warmer temperatures farther out and colder temperatures closer in. Viewers watch the graph spiral outwards, starting out blue and turning yellow as the Earth gets warmer. The line gradually gets closer to the critical global temperature thresholds of 1·5° and 2°, represented by red circles.

Asked why he thinks his spiral graph has had such mass appeal, Dr Hawkins said: ‘It’s the million dollar question – perhaps because it does not require complex interpretation, making it easy for someone with no previous knowledge to see the pattern without having to interpret the data. It’s also been suggested that the spiral resonates because its circular shape is familiar, like a clock face. It would be good if it did spark further thought about what makes a good graphic for the public specifically but it’s hard to tell why this particular realisation has had such resonance.’

One of his next projects aims to unearth old weather data stored in archives around the world and includes a citizen science initiative to encourage people to digitise old weather logs – no doubt he will come up with new and interesting ways to visualise what he finds.

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