Scientists collect a lot of climate change data.
With satellites, planes, field instruments and other technology, they monitor rising temperatures, changing snowpack and shifting precipitation patterns.
While the warming trends are clear, the data is less so.
Scientists must navigate and digest thousands of numbers locked away in long, scrolling computer files to understand the effects of climate change.
Without visualizations like maps and graphs, scientists, the public and policymakers would never know how the climate is changing and what can be done about it.
“It’s the lifeblood of what we do,” said Colorado state climatologist and atmospheric research professor Russ Schumacher. “There’s so much more that you can pull out of the data when you visualize it than just looking at the numbers.”
Creating maps and graphs might seem rudimentary for climate researchers who study complex atmospheric phenomenon or changing forest ecosystems, but it is some of the most important work they do.
Graphs, maps and other visuals communicate new and revelatory research to the scientific community and the public, bettering their understanding of climate change.
Scientists spend considerable time thinking about everything from the type of data and the style of visuals down to the color scale to ensure that information comes across clearly and compellingly.
“It’s pretty easy to make maps and charts, but if they aren’t telling the story of the information you’re trying to convey, then it’s limiting,” Schumacher said. “When (data visualizations) are done well, the data combines with storytelling and you can convey information in a really effective way.”
Graphs and maps also help scientists understand their own data and identify trends they may have missed.
“The ability to visualize information helps us see patterns and relationships at a faster rate,” said Marcie Bidwell, executive director of the Mountain Studies Institute, which studies climate change in the San Jan Mountains. “The faster we can learn, the faster we can hopefully take action and correct course.”
Making visuals is a complicated and lengthy process. Researchers must take elaborate projects that last months and sometimes years and distill the data they have collected into just a few figures.
The first challenge is simply organizing the data. Scientists use computer programming in much the same way that computer developers do to understand and visualize their data.
With R, Python and ArcGIS, three of the most common computer languages and software, they compile and sort hundreds, thousands and sometimes millions of data points.
“Each study on climate change is made up of hundreds of thousands of points of information in order to see the trends, very similar to the way a photograph is made up of millions of pixels,” Bidwell said.
“The challenge a lot of times is the wrangling of the data, getting it into a format that the programming language or tool you’re using can read and make sense of,” Schumacher said.
Once the data is “cleaned,” climate scientists can begin considering the visual elements of graphs or maps, but they must first determine their audience.
“What you want is to tell the story of that data in a way that will resonate with the viewer, whether it’s other scientists or the general public,” Schumacher said.
Though the data is the same, scientists often create different visuals for the scientific community and for the public to accommodate their varying technical expertise.
But for significant reports such as the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report, climate researchers often must find a middle ground between the two.
It’s a mammoth task and one that can often fail.
“The challenge is what looks cool to us or catches our eye as scientists may not resonate with a member of the public who’s looking at that same information,” Schumacher said. “That’s a hard hurdle to get over sometimes.”
Nonprofits such as the Durango-based Conservation Lands Foundation are filling this gap by working with scientists to create maps that are more accessible and useful for education and policymaking.
“We have advocates, we have decision-makers and then we have scientists. Sometimes things are just lost in translation,” said Danielle Murray, senior legal and policy director for Conservation Lands Foundation.
“Too often, the scientific reports that we want to use are not translated into a format that advocates can use (or) that decision-makers can use,” she said. “You have all these reports, but they sit on a desk, or they’re reported on, but that gap isn’t bridged.”
Conservation Lands Foundation and its partner Conservation Science Partners, a California-based science nonprofit, released one of the first climate visualizations designed for policymakers and advocacy groups.
The Climate Atlas launched last month to show viewers how climate change, public lands and conservation intersect. The tool uses layers of data transposed over maps of the continental U.S., Alaska and California to demonstrate the climatic benefits of protecting public lands. The atlas combines traditional metrics like carbon storage and climate resilience, which measures a place’s ability to absorb the effects of climate change, with maps of oil and gas wells, wilderness areas and congressional districts.
The Climate Atlas is groundbreaking not because of the science it uses, but because it combines a massive amount of information into a single engaging and interactive visual.
“It doesn’t create new science. It takes the best available science and puts it into a format that is beneficial for advocates, decision-makers (and) anyone that really cares about public lands,” Murray said. “... It’s visually stimulating, it’s fast. It is something (where) you could get a sense of what the tool is showing you.”
The project took more than a year, and the team that designed The Climate Atlas focused its attention on making the tool interactive, Murray said.
In recent years, scientists have turned to interactive maps and graphs to communicate the effects of climate change more clearly for the public.
“It’s becoming a lot more common instead of plotting (data) on a static image; you plot it on an interactive map like Google Maps or Google Earth,” Schumacher said.
“The technology behind it has become a lot easier to use,” he said. “Once you’ve gotten to that point of being able to make your plot on your map, it’s not that much extra work to make it interactive.”
This development has allowed scientists to create climate visualizations that are more stimulating and informative.
Bidwell said these visuals help people connect global climate change with their lived experience.
“Climate change is such a complex problem over such a long timescale and there’s so much variability that you need that zoomed-out view to help make sense of what’s happening on the ground,” she said.
For Schumacher and other climate scientists, visualizing data is as exciting as it gets.
“Making that visualization that gets your point across in a new or creative way is as much a part of the thrill of the scientific process as the data collection or the work that goes into the analysis,” he said.