The beautiful, apocalyptic appeal of “climate stripe” clothes and crafts.

Mar 4, 2019 by

Why this climate change data is on flip-flops, leggings, and cars

Stripes showing how the planet has warmed over the past century have become a motif in crafts and clothing, as in this flip-flop sandal.
 Zazzle

Climate scientists don’t usually become tastemakers.

But Ed Hawkins at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom has a knack for creating haunting viral visuals of humanity’s impact on the planet. And a pattern he created last year is now showing up on everything from flip-flops to blown glass to Teslas.

Hawkins noticed that the past five years have been the hottest on record, as average global temperatures keep peaking in a more than century-long pattern of gradual, and then rapid, warming.

And he wanted to convey to the public in a fresh way just how dramatic this recent warming is — warming that is undoubtedly tied to greenhouse gas emissions from human activity.

Why? For one thing, the standard way of visualizing this data — in charts like this — is kind of ugly:

Global average temperatures are rising.
Global average temperatures are rising. 
Berkeley Earth

In 2016, Hawkins decided to present this temperature trend as an animated spiral rather than a line graph. The visual soon started bouncing around the web. It was even featured in the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro:

This spiral animation shows the steady rise in global average temperatures due to climate change.
This spiral animation shows the steady rise in global average temperatures due to climate change. 
Ed Hawkins/Climate Lab Book

But Hawkins wanted to make something with more aesthetic appeal and an even lower barrier of entry for a casual viewer. “We very deliberately set out to make a simple representation of global temperatures” for people unfamiliar with climate science, he told me.

The result was climate warming stripes:

These stripes show the steady warming of the planet over the past century. Dark blues are cooler years and dark reds are hotter.
These stripes show the steady warming of the planet over the past century. Dark blues are cooler years and dark reds are hotter. 
Ed Hawkins/ Climate Lab Book

The stirring cerulean-to-crimson bars tell a story about how the planet has changed over the past century and the what’s in store for this one. It’s a vivid visual of the warming humanity is causing. The color of each stripe represents the relative annual average global temperature from 1850 to 2017. The fact that there are more blues on one side of the pattern and more reds on the other clearly indicates that the planet is warming.

Despite the existential dread they may inspire, the climate stripes have become a motif in clothing and crafts since they were created in 2018.

Take a look. Here we have a tie and cufflinks, part of a coordinated campaign last summer by meteorologists to raise awareness about climate change:

Hawkins has also set up a Zazzle store where you can buy prints of the warming stripes on earrings, water bottles, and leggings (the proceeds go to charity):

Climate stripe leggings
Climate stripe leggings
 Zazzle

Then there’s glasswork:

Light sculptures:

And even a car:

A Tesla Model 3 electric car with wrapped with the climate stripe pattern.
A Tesla Model 3 electric car with wrapped with the climate stripe pattern. 
Mark Hanson/NetZeroMN

Mark Hanson, the owner of this stripey Tesla, notes that the climate stripes have served as a conversation starter at electric vehicle get-togethers. “At one of the events, I heard a woman using the ‘warming stripes’ design to show her daughter how the Earth’s temperature has been changing,” he wrote in a blog post. “Besides events such as the above, I have had conversations in parking lots, while eating lunch, and almost anywhere. Some of them about the Tesla Model 3, some about the car wrap and many about both!”

Hawkins says the stripes have caught on in part because they are simple, but also because they can be used in so many different ways.

He has also made different versions of the stripes tailored to represent warming trends in particular cities and countries, giving different parts of the world their own unique local climate barcodes.

The climate warming stripes tell an even more alarming story when animated

Kevin Pluck, a UK-based software engineer who has made a hobby of designing mesmerizing climate visuals, recently took the stripes one step further and animated them:

What’s interesting about this visual is you can see how what was once a relatively warm year starts to become cooler as temperatures continue to rise. Look at 1940, which was one of the warmest years in the 20th century at the time. It registers as a deep red:

The year 1940 was one of the warmest years on record at the time.
The year 1940 was one of the warmest years on record at the time. 
Kevin Pluck

By 2010, the stripe for 1940 has literally paled in comparison to the hotter temperatures of the 21st century:

By the end of the century, 1940 was no longer one of the hottest years on record.
By the end of the century, 1940 was no longer one of the hottest years on record. 
Kevin Pluck

“You can see in the first few decades there was a random scattering of cool years and warm years as one would expect in a stable climate,” Pluck wrote in an email. “This all changed again during the 1980’s and 90’s when the warming really started to pick up reducing most of the first century to shades of blue.”

That means today’s hottest may soon become tomorrow’s coolest. While this animation is more visually appealing than some of the frenetic carbon dioxide trackers out there showing humanity’s relentless output of greenhouse gases, it’s no less alarming. Animations also capture the fact that climate change is a dynamic phenomenon. Here is how my colleague David Roberts put it on Twitter:

Hawkins acknowledged that the stripes do leave out some of the nuance in the temperature record, but they’re not intended as a scientific graph so much as a way to communicate with the public. And he isn’t too concerned that a pretty visual might undersell the seriousness and urgency of a major global problem like climate change. Rather, it’s a way to loop in people who otherwise might not have joined the discussion.

“We have to find a very wide range of ways of communicating about this,” Hawkins said. “This graphic is not the one answer.”

But for the sake of the planet, let’s hope that this pattern goes out of style.

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