The visual soundtrack of Climate Change

Music and data visualization combined into a powerful and emotional message

September 24, 2013

When Alberto Cairo urged data visualization experts and beginners to pick relevant issues for their projects, one of the topics he mentioned was the environment. Around that time, we came across a beautiful, inspiring project that illustrates very well what he meant. We were surprised no other major data visualization blog mentioned it – as far as we could see – so we decided to talk about it today.

University of Minnesota undergrad Daniel Crawford is using his cello to communicate the latest climate science through music. The final result, “A Song of Our Warming Planet,” can easily be described as the visual soundtrack of climate change, and the emotional drive of the message, resulting for the combination of melody and data visualization, is as powerful as it gets.

(image: Daniel Crawford)


Daniel explains the project in a nutshell: “Climate scientists have a standard toolbox to communicate their data. We’re trying to add another tool to that toolbox, another way to communicate these ideas to people who might get more out of music than maps, graphs and numbers.”

He based his composition on surface temperature data from NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies. The temperature data were mapped over a range of three octaves, with the coldest year on record (–0.47 °C in 1909) set to the lowest note on the cello (open C). Each ascending halftone is equal to roughly 0.03°C of planetary warming.

Each note represents a year, ordered from 1880 to 2012. The pitch reflects the average temperature of the planet relative to the 1951–80 base line. Low notes represent relatively cool years, while high notes signify relatively warm ones.

“Data visualizations are effective for some people, but they aren’t the best way to reach everyone,” says geography professor Scott St. George, who suggested Daniel the possibility of turning a set of data into music. “Instead of giving people something to look at, Dan’s performance gives them something they can feel.”

The video ends with the message: Scientists predict the planet will warm by another 1.8 degrees Celsius (3.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of this century. This additional warming would produce a series of notes beyond the range of human hearing.


The folks at Ensia, who talked about this project in June, made available for download the music cheet (pdf) and the audio file (MP3).


Links: Ensia – A Song of Our Warming Planet | A Song of Our Warming Planet on Vimeo

Written by Tiago Veloso

Tiago Veloso is the founder and editor of Visualoop and Visualoop Brasil . He is Portuguese, currently based in Bonito, Brazil.