The concepts of climate change and global warming seem straightforward, but despite their descriptive names there’s a lot of miscommunication and misinformation out there that’s muddying the ever-warming waters. That’s why easy-to-understand visuals are so useful in communicating complex subjects, visuals like University of Reading climate scientist Ed Hawkins’ graphic representing 166 years of global temperature change.
It’s the entirety of climate change in one image:
As hypnotic and intuitive as this GIF might appear, it packs a lot of information into one very accessible graph. First of all, it’s worth noting that nothing about this graphic inherently links human activity to climate change (though there’s plenty of data that does just that); it’s merely representing 166 years of temperature change data in a mesmerizing display.
Why 166 years? Well, as Hawkins explains, that’s the limit of how far back we have reliable temperature data. The mean temperature for each year is compared to the average annual temperature value for the period between 1850 and 1900, which is the time before industrialization kicked it into high gear. In other words, the graph shows how much warmer or cooler each year’s global temperature was on average compared to the average global temperature of pre-industrial years. As you can see, the data trends warmer and warmer, especially in the most recent decades.
What are the lines for 1.5°C and 2.0°C all about? The 1.5°C line represents the global warming threshold that world diplomats agreed to during the Paris climate conference. But as you can see on the graph already, 2016 values have come dangerously close to that limit, and yearly averages are likely to rise above it in 10-15 years. We might even blow past 2.0°C sometime this century if steps to reduce carbon dioxide output are ineffective or ignored. That takes the world into dangerous and unknown territory, climatologically speaking.
Hopefully this new look at a familiar problem either helps to clear up some confusion or opens your eyes to the severity of the issue. If spirals aren’t your thing, check out some of Hawkins’ other graphs in our gallery below for a different perspective. As always, let us know your thoughts in the comments!
Images: Ed Hawkins, Climate Lab Book