John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
“Temperature Anomalies” is a data visualization of the past century’s changing climate that effectively captures how screwed we are.
Noticing how the climate is shifting is difficult on a day-to-day basis. But squeeze more than a century of world-temperature data into a half-minute, and the signal becomes as cartoonishly clear as watching a patient’s fever bust right through a thermometer’s bulb.
“Temperature Anomalies” lends a rather neutral name to an astounding portrayal of how the globe has warmed from 1900 to 2016. Made by Antti Lipponen, a 33-year-old researcher at the Finnish Meteorological Institute, the visualization shows each country’s monthly temperature readings, starting with the shortish, chilly-looking blue bars of the early 1900s and progressing to long, angry-red lines pumping all over the place in recent years. (As a reminder, the planet has now experienced three years of back-to-back, record-breaking heat.)
“I found some cool circular visualizations, so I just wanted to see what temperature data look like in a circular shape,” says Lipponen, who sourced his numbers from NASA’s surface-temperature troves. “I also did not want to use a map, but to visualize countries in a different way.”
Part of the power of the exercise is the way it ignores geography. One might be tempted to zoom in on specific nations to see how they’re faring—checking in on the United States, for instance, which just had its second-warmest January–July period on record—but that would miss the big picture. “I would say that the interesting thing is that there are no countries that really stand out in the visualization,” Lipponen says. “We are all here together with the warming climate.”
While the visualization effectively captures the roughly 2-degrees Fahrenheit rise in planetary surface temperatures since the late 1800s—due mostly to human activity—it doesn’t focus on the sources of emissions, a notable one being cities. Growing urban areas and the power plants that support them are the world’s biggest producers of anthropogenic greenhouses gases, according to NASA. Experimenting with another visualization dealing with international city temperatures poses “interesting questions,” says Lipponen. “Maybe I will try to analyze that in the future.”