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Visualising global temperature change

Visualisations allow scientists to communicate their research to a wide audience. Prof Ed Hawkins, presents the global temperature spiral he developed
My name is Dr. Ed Hawkins. I’m a Climate Scientist at the University of Reading. And I spend my time trying to understand how the climate has changed over the last 150 years and how it might change in the future. We don’t experience global temperature. What we experience, living in our own towns and cities, is the weather where we are. And so as the climate changes, we’re seeing the weather change. And so it’s these changes in weather that we’re trying to measure and understand. Because it’s the sum of all of the weather that we experience. So it’s important to communicate our science more broadly to the public and to policymakers.
And part of my interest is trying to allow them to understand the complexity of the changes in the weather and the climate that we’re seeing. As well as the observations that we have of our climate changing, we also have simulations. And we use these simulations to understand the observations, to understand what’s going on, what’s happened in the past, but also, we use these simulations to try and predict what will happen in the future. They try and represent the three dimensional structure of the atmosphere and of the ocean. And they produce huge volumes of data. They produce millions of gigabytes of data output, if we combined all of the models that we have across the world.
So this is a lot of the data that we have to try and process, store, and understand. So we have very disparate forms of observations through time. So for example, back in the 19th century onboard ships, they used to take the weather observations. And to measure the temperature of the sea, they used to throw a bucket over the side of the ship, haul up the bucket full of water, and stick a thermometer in it, and take the temperature. And we have to learn how those observations compare with more modern ways of measuring the temperature that we do nowadays. I’ve been experimenting with different ways of representing the changes in global temperature, how to represent that visually and communicate that.
And this spiral version, for some reason, it resonated with so many people. They could understand visually. They could interpret it easily. And I think the animated form really helped to communicate how things are changing over time, as the animation goes on and the spirals grow. I think that was a very key message. So each circle represents a year in time. It starts in 1850 and goes on to the present day. And around the circle of the different months of the year, you see certain variations. You see, for example, there are certain warm years and there are certain colder years. Because the weather varies, the climate fluctuates naturally.
But over time, the circles grow and grow, as the overall temperature of the Earth warms up. And so by the end of the spiral, you see that temperatures have grown so much that we’re nearly at 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels in certain months of the year.
Watch Ed Hawkins MBE, Professor of Climate Science at the University of Reading, explain how he uses visualisations to communicate changes in global temperature to a wider audience. In this video, Ed presents his global temperature spiral – a version of which was used at the opening ceremony for the Rio 2016 Olympics.
Share your favourite visualisation of environmental data with others by posting links in the discussion section below or you can upload images to our course picture wall. Please note: this link takes you to an external website Padlet – you can find information on using Padlet here.
Why are visualisations an effective way to communicate climate science to the wider public? Add your thoughts in the comment area below.
If you’d like to find out more about visualising climate science you may find Ed Hawkin’s website, Climate Lab Book useful. It includes a collection of recommended visualisation resources for communicating different aspects of weather and climate science.
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Big Data and the Environment

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