These 5 visuals demonstrate how much our planet is really heating up

Instead of spending thousands of words, here are some visuals that poignantly show the current reality of global warming.

Power of graphics

It’s tricky to grasp the state of the planet when you occupy only a minuscule fraction of its surface, and can only experience a tiny amount of its climatic fluctuations over time.

Studying our world as one giant climate system requires a staggering amount of data you can’t possibly sift through unless you are many teams of dedicated climate scientists.

It’s no wonder that data visualisations - and not just the ones devoted to global temperatures - have entered the online scene as persuasive, efficient and simple means to communicate scientific material.

That’s not to say charts can’t also be abused (more on that later), but an accurately designed visual experience has the potential to convey information more effectively than several spreadsheets full of numbers you can’t decipher.

Global average temperature anomaly

We have data for average global temperatures going back about 160 years, which is not a bad timeframe for gleaning trends (and certainly longer than a human lifespan).

By taking tens of thousands of temperature measurements around the globe every day, three different centres around the world calculate the global-average temperature each month.

Absolute temperatures are not used directly to calculate the global-average temperature,” writes climate monitoring expert Dr Peter Stott. “They are first converted into 'anomalies', which are the difference in temperature from the 'normal' level. The normal level is calculated for each observation location by taking the long-term average for that area over a base period.”

Above is what the global warming trend looks like according to those three major datasets, compiled by the Met Office, UK.

The “spiral of doom”

HadCRUT4 is one of three major global temperature datasets. It’s produced by UK’s Met Office in collaboration with the Climatic Research Unit and is shown in grey in the previous graph.

Earlier this month, University of Reading climate scientist Ed Hawkins took data from the latest version, HadCRUT4.4 and visualised it as an animated spiral dating from January 1850 all the way to March 2016. Each ring is one year. 

The crazy climate technofix
Some posit geoengineering as a radical fix to climate change. Others say the risks are too high and its proponents mad.

NASA heat map video

If charts and spirals are not your thing, in January this year NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) released a heat map timelapse video encompassing 1880-2015, demonstrating temperature changes in five-year averages.

Just like the previous two, this heat map also uses anomalies. “Orange colors represent temperatures that are warmer than the 1951-80 baseline average, and blues represent temperatures cooler than the baseline,” reads the video description.

Bloomberg: What’s really warming the world?

Okay, so technically this one is a collection of graphs, and to experience it you must head over to the Bloomberg website, where they take the temperature records one step further by comparing them with the effects of various natural causes proposed to explain global warming.

These graphs are based on the same NASA’s GISS data set used in the previous video.

The Escalator

With 2015 the hottest year on record, and 2016 already breaking records month-by-month, the myth of the “global warming hiatus” between 1998 and 2013 is losing traction. But why did some find it so persuasive?

“One of the most common misunderstandings amongst climate contrarians is the difference between short-term noise and long-term signal,” write the authors of Skeptical Science.

In the animated graph above they clearly demonstrate how easy it is to cherry-pick short time periods while ignoring the overall trend. The data set - NASA GISS.

A note on bad charts

Of course, visuals aren’t only employed by respectable scientific organisations - as the Escalator example shows, if you cherry-pick (or downright make up) the data, a chart can demonstrate anything you want, representing your personal beliefs rather than evidence. However, that doesn’t make it true.

In February, The Guardian published an analysis of just one such “junk chart”, concluding that global warming is “a dangerous physical reality we can’t escape just by creating cherry picked, misleading charts.”

So watch out for charts like these.

More climate on SBS Science
Comment: The things people ask about the scientific consensus on climate change
Research shows that over 90% of climate scientists agree - humans are causing global warming. Here the authors answer some common questions about this result.
Comment: Over 90% of climate scientists believe we’re causing global warming
Those who reject human-caused global warming are manufacturing doubt about the high level of scientific agreement, writes John Cook.
Climate change could cause 500,000 extra deaths in 2050
UK scientists have found that the impact of climate change on future food production will have devastating effects, especially in low income countries.