May 27, 2015

The sounds and songs of climate data

Posted by Laura Guertin

I wrote this post last week, and what do you know… one day later, there is an article in EOS on the same topic!  I decided to go ahead and put this posting online, and I encourage everyone to follow up by reading the EOS article by Joanna Wendel titled “Musical Composition Conveys Climate Change Data.”

My first formal introduction to the portrayal of climate data through music was at the 2013 ScienceOnline Climate conference, and I was most recently updated on various forms of art in STEM education at the AGU 2014 Fall Meeting session on Connecting Geoscience with the Arts.  At ScienceOnline Climate, undergraduate student researcher Daniel Crawford (Univ. of Minnesota) took 130 years of the average surface global temperature data from NASA and translated it into music for the cello. The video below captures the story of this unique project and includes a performance of the piece “A Song of Our Warming Planet.”

A Song of Our Warming Planet from Ensia on Vimeo.

Mr. Crawford has continued working with his faculty mentor, geography professor Scott St. George, and has expanded his version of the climate conversation to not just over time but over latitudes.  His newest piece, “Planetary Bands, Warming World,” is written for a string quartet and captures temperature changes across the globe.  The video below explains this updated piece and includes a performance.

The sound of climate change from the Amazon to the Arctic from Ensia on Vimeo.

I have shared both of these videos with the students in my introductory-level Earth science courses.  These videos are successful in capturing the attention of students (including non-science majors) and generating discussion.  That students continue to mention these videos throughout the semester and share them with others outside of my course demonstrates to me how effective music can be to communicate climate data.

Another interesting “climate science meets music” project is the sonification of polar climate data, driven by City College of New York professors Marco Tedesco and Jonathan Perl.  You can listen to an interview about Greenland Melt Music or visit the PolarSeeds – Sound website to listen to sonified daily and annual data.  Unfortunately, I am unable to embed any of these soundtracks, but it is absolutely worth visiting the site to listen to the haunting sounds of the albedo choir.

If you are interested in additional climate music pieces, check out the New York Times article from 2013 titled “Fiddling While the World Warms.”  In this piece, a digital violin plays 600 years of climate data – take a listen below.


Finally, you can listen to a record player that plays slices of wood.  From Bartholomäus Traubeck: “A tree’s year rings are analysed for their strength, thickness and rate of growth. This data serves as basis for a generative process that outputs piano music. It is mapped to a scale which is again defined by the overall appearance of the wood (ranging from dark to light and from strong texture to light texture). The foundation for the music is certainly found in the defined ruleset of programming and hardware setup, but the data acquired from every tree interprets this ruleset very differently. ”  You can view the video below and check out additional tracks of seven recordings from different Austrian trees.

YEARS from Bartholomäus Traubeck on Vimeo.


And I have to include a footnote here to give a special shout-out to Daniel Crawford and his pursuit of this interdisciplinary undergraduate research project in his first two years as a student.  Mr. Crawford in an outstanding example and confirmation of a student making an original contribution in the early years of his undergraduate career.  Thank you, Mr. Crawford, for sharing with us your innovation and creative accomplishment.  I know that other students and faculty are inspired by your work, and I hope we see even more examples of scientific data communicated through music to make the work of scientists accessible to the widest possible audience.  Science faculty – this is a call to us to let our students embrace their creative side in projects, and for us to collaborate with students and faculty across disciplines!