The Making of a Classic Climate Graph

February 24, 2013

Andy Lee Robinson created one of the new graphic icons of climate, illustrating the PIOMAS arctic sea ice mass graph in three dimensions. All the more powerful now that PIOMAS has been verified by the satellite.

In a comment post at Tamino’s Open Mind, he describes the process. Important insights here for technical folk interested in communicating what they do. Computer and graphics aces weigh in.

I’m an independent Linux system administrator and consultant, have designed server infrastructure for social networking sites and am semi-retired. I am beholden to nobody and nothing except the love of science, truth, beauty and honour. Something that all of us here share.

Tamino’s original. Click it for the animated gif.

Last year, I noticed a tweet by Richard Betts with Professor Michael Mann commenting on Tamino’s above piomas gif, wondering why the y-axis didn’t extend to zero, as it could possibly be seized on it as an attempt to mislead.
I thought I could fix that easily there and then, so deconstructed the animated gif, edited each frame individually with a photoshop macro to extend the axis, reassembled and uploaded the result. Being helpful and being acknowledged is all the motivation I need.

Scientists love dry graphs – purity conveying beautiful unobfuscated data intuitive to us, but only because we have years of training to develop the abstract and spacial abilities to interpret that data, and as those skills become natural and transparent, we become less conscious of them.

The public, on the other hand, don’t in general have this ability to interpret graphs properly without some effort. It takes time for someone new to understand and quantify axes and build concepts required to create a contextual framework in which to assess, compare and digest the data, and as the average person now has less attention span and inclination to invest that time, the message and implications can be missed.
(One effect of having fantastic tools like google, is that it can supplant our brains, making them lazier with a consequent tendency to atrophy with lack of exercise. All we need to know is how to find something, without actually having to remember it. There’s a study somewhere about this.)

After modifying the 2D graph, I just wondered what it would look like in *proper* 3D. As I had plenty of time on my hands, new motivation and over 30 years of programming skills in many languages, I got the data and started to play with some ideas for fun and as an intellectual exercise, like some people do word puzzles.

I soon realised it could make a great vehicle for communicating the magnitude of the Arctic collapse, so aimed to make something that looked professional, creative, intrinsically rewarding, entertaining and hopefully captivate a wider audience for long enough to be informed and remember. That became my new goal.
(If there are more informed voters then there is a greater chance of eventually getting some educated politicians that take science seriously and start doing something, even if already too late).

It took over a hundred hours of work, programming and experimenting, and was all produced using a text editor on Linux in a terminal window, using perl and php to unpack the data, control scene parameters and create scripts for the PovRay raytracer to render each frame.
In order to produce the video in less time than it takes for a glacier to melt, I wrote a task scheduling system using perl and mysql to distribute and track the rendering tasks across 6 servers to use 20 processor cores in parallel, even including 3 cores from my remote webserver, After all that, and if I was happy with the result after the Nth time, I could assemble the images into a video using a command line tool called ffmpeg and upload to youtube. I then mentioned it on Neven’s Sea Ice blog for feedback, and the rest is history:

I had no idea at the time, but this was to be very serendipitous. A couple of days later, BBC Newsnight found it, and included in their report. I saw it and promptly fell out of my chair – gobsmacked! It had reached a huge audience, and rattled a *lot* of cages with the effect that we are all rooting for – to be heard loudly and truthfully because mainstream media is still tiptoeing around of the herd of elephants in the room because of the fear of special interests and change, not realising that survival is not compulsory.

Arctic ice melt ‘like adding 20 years of CO2 emissions’, Susan Watts, Newsnight Science editor, BBC News
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-19496674

It soon spread and appeared on other sites:
http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/09/11/832161/arctic-death-spiral-the-video/
and on Yale forum by the revered Peter Sinclair
A New Climate State: Arctic Sea Ice 2012
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZYaubXBfVqo
Pondering the Path To an Open Polar Sea, Andrew Revkin
http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/20/arctic-ice-melt-and-the-path-toward-an-open-polar-sea
A sobering take on Arctic sea ice (VIDEO)
http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/capital-weather-gang/post/a-sobering-take-on-arctic-sea-ice-video/2012/09/24/cfff98f6-065c-11e2-a10c-fa5a255a9258_blog.html
Arctic Has Lost Enough Ice to Cover Canada and Texas
http://www.climatecentral.org/news/arctic-has-lost-enough-ice-to-cover-canada-and-alaska-14971

With hundreds of hours already invested in the code, it is now easy to automate with new data as it comes out, and could just attach it to a cron job and make one every month, but that may be excessive. I’ll make more over the coming years automatically closer to the next minimum.

Meanwhile, while poring over the data last week, I found a concise and shocking way of displaying all the months’ trajectories together in Death Spiral form, bringing the end points in sharp focus, illustrating the geometric collapse of the minimum, and alluding to the 11th hour.
It is going viral and has probably been seen by a million people by now – but still another 6,999,000,000 people to go…
I’m sure you’ve already seen it by now, as well as the ice cube comparison over New York.
So, I’m doing my bit in helping to communicate, and I have other animation projects in the works, to be revealed.

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24 Responses to “The Making of a Classic Climate Graph”


  1. […] See also: The Making of a Classic Climate Graph […]


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