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Picture this

It’s a challenge shared by many scientists: how do you communicate complex research data in an accessible and engaging way, without compromising integrity or ‘dumbing down’? The Met Office recently came up with a powerful solution.

HadCRUT4 is one of the Met Office’s worldleading climate datasets, combining land surface temperatures from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia with sea surface temperatures from the Met Office Hadley Centre. Together, this gives global surface temperatures dating all the way back to 1850. Updated every month, HadCRUT4 is a rich resource. Now, it’s available in a whole new way.

In a cross-office collaboration between the Met Office Informatics Lab and the Met Office Hadley Centre, scientists, programmers and designers have visualised this dataset in an interactive global animation that’s the first of its kind.

A visual treat

In the animation, a world globe is overlayed with a grid displaying whether the temperature within that grid area was higher or lower than a set regional average. If it’s warmer in a particular year, the grid box turns a shade of red. If it’s cooler, the box turns a shade of blue. The viewer can spin the globe around and move back and forth along the timeline – or they can simply watch as the data plays out from 1850 to the present day.

“In 2015, global temperatures were the warmest on record and one degree above the preindustrial average for the first time, with 2016 also beating records. It felt important to have engaging visuals that demonstrate this.”

The animation also annotates natural events that affected the global temperature: for example, the volcanic eruption of Mount Krakatoa in 1883 caused several years of cooling, while the periodic emergence of El Niño in the Pacific triggers a flash of red grid boxes as temperatures spike.

Perhaps most significant is a bar demonstrating the change in carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. The rising bar is a reminder that – short-term variations aside – the long-term rise in global temperature is largely driven by the steady increase in CO2.

An important message

The animation was launched in time for the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP 22 meeting in Marrakech last November, where it was well received by politicians and scientists alike. It adds to work going on all over the world to find new, innovative ways to convey the science of climate change.

As Catherine Cole, Climate Science Communicator for the Met Office’s Knowledge Integration Team explains, “In 2015, global temperatures were the warmest on record and one degree above the preindustrial average for the first time, with 2016 also beating records. It felt important to have engaging visuals that demonstrate this.”

Equally important is demonstrating the level of certainty behind the data and how this has changed over time. In 1850, many of the grid boxes are greyed out because there simply weren’t any monitoring stations in those areas at the time. By the early 20th century, this changes significantly and continually improves. It is an important illustration of the depth, breadth and rigour of the Met Office’s climate research.

Making an impact

The animation’s launch was not limited to the UNFCCC meeting. With the aim of triggering a wider conversation about climate change, it also features in the Met Office climate web pages, where it has received over 3,300 page views to date, and was posted on Twitter. Given that the @MetOffice_Sci Twitter account itself was only a month old at the time, the 36,0000 impressions and 800 engagements it received was a huge success.

So, what next? Just as the HadCRUT4 dataset is updated every month, so is the animation – but keeping it current is just the beginning. Future plans include adding more datasets to the same animation, enabling the viewer to click through several layers of information to gain more detail. For example, the viewer could choose to explore how sea ice extent and volume have changed globally over time, how temperature or rainfall extremes have changed, or how rising levels of moisture in the atmosphere are linked to warming. Multiple global indicators like these show clearly how our planet has responded to the warming caused by rising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Visualising all these changes together is important, as Catherine describes:

“A global temperature increase of one degree might not sound much, but it is just one example of many global indicators of change. On top of that, it’s important to remember that warming isn’t evenly distributed across the Earth’s surface and some areas will experience much higher temperatures.”