Visualizing Climate Change With Maps

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Communicating climate change at global scales is challenging due to the politicization of the topic and the scientific complexity of the message. As one example, climate cosmograms are depictions of the globe that show climatic change based on surface temperature changes over a given period. In recent years, some scientists have disputed the way in which they are used, as color depictions (often in red) have denoted catastrophic changes. While climatic change is evident in many regions, choice of labeling and color can have a pronounced effect in shaping opinions.[1]

Climate cosmograms are part of a wider discussion on how climate scientists present objective results without politicizing or over-emphasizing specific aspects of their findings. Maps on climate science have been shown to be emotional and evocative and can affect perceptions of long-term change. Given that communication to the public is increasingly critical, maps need to incorporate risk and uncertainty in future forecasts based on climate change while also explaining in an understandable way the the complexities of climate change.[2]

Reaction of survey respondents to different climate change shading. From: The Feeling of Red and Blue—A Constructive Critique of Color Mapping in Visual Climate Change Communication, Schneider and Nocke, 2018.

Reaction of survey respondents to different climate change shading. From: The Feeling of Red and Blue—A Constructive Critique of Color Mapping in Visual Climate Change Communication, Schneider and Nocke, 2018.

Part of the complexity of presenting useful climate change maps is displaying the degree of vulnerability or potential harm to an area. One way to do this is combing data that include social sensitivity, community adaptive capacity, and community exposure to climate driven events. Such results may be difficult to convey accurately to general audiences, but they also highlight the importance of proper communication as vital resources, that the public has a say in allocating, could be at stake if scientists fail to communicate properly.[3]

Figure from: SimilarityExplorer: A Visual Inter-Comparison Tool for Multifaceted Climate Data, Poco et al., 2014.

Figure from: SimilarityExplorer: A Visual Inter-Comparison Tool for Multifaceted Climate Data, Poco et al., 2014.

For scientists, visualization could also be complicated by multiple variables of interests in different space and time scales. Visualization tools, such as SimilarityExplorer, allow the coordination and concurrent representation of different data. Representation of multiple data together in space and time allow a way to represent how one variable changes in relation to others.[4] Research has generally shown that maps that can effectively engage multiple stakeholders are more likely to have greater efficacy in conveying an important message. This message is less likely to be distorted if consensus is achievable among stakeholders. Such maps are also useful for collaboration among scientists in trying to create effective ways to communicate spatial results in climate science and change to wider audiences.[5] Furthermore, it was found that maps that incorporated more realistic perspectives, such as 3D visualizations of areas that could be affected by climatic change, enabled general audiences to better understand and appreciate what climate data was trying to convey in regards to how it may affect areas where people live. Such maps, which are also interactive and allow users to look at specific places, also allowed users to adjust maps so that they can look at places at spatial scales they understand and could appreciate.[6]

Conceptual overview of the process of graphic comprehension. Figure: Cognitive and psychological science insights to improve climate change data visualization, Harold et al., 2016.

Conceptual overview of the process of graphic comprehension. Figure: Cognitive and psychological science insights to improve climate change data visualization, Harold et al., 2016.

While climate change has real impact and can affect many global communities, its communication can be complex and display of that change has sometimes caused misunderstanding or conveyed a message of activism rather than presenting science to the public. Creating maps that allow greater participation of various stakeholders and reaching a consensus on presenting data that is understandable could be an effective way to increase the communication power of maps in climate change science.

References

[1] For more on climate cosmograms, see: Schneider, B. (2016). Burning worlds of cartography: A critical approach to climate cosmograms of the Anthropocene. Geography and Environment, 3(2), doi: 10.1002/geo2.27.

[2] For more on communication climate change, see:  Carvalho, A. (2007). Ideological cultures and media discourses on scientific knowledge: Re-reading news on climate change. Public Understanding of Science, 16(2), 223-243.

[3] For more on mapping community vulnerability to climate-driven events, see:  Weis, S. W. M., Agostini, V. N., Roth, L. M., Gilmer, B., Schill, S. R., Knowles, J. E., & Blyther, R. (2016). Assessing vulnerability: an integrated approach for mapping adaptive capacity, sensitivity, and exposure. Climatic Change, 136(3–4), 615–629. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-016-1642-0.

[4] Fore more on SimilarityExplorer, see:  Poco, J., Dasgupta, A., Wei, Y., Hargrove, W., Schwalm, C., Cook, R., … Silva, C. (2014). SimilarityExplorer: A Visual Inter-Comparison Tool for Multifaceted Climate Data. Computer Graphics Forum, 33(3), 341–350. https://doi.org/10.1111/cgf.12390.

[5] For more on how effective climate change can be communicated, see:  Harold, J., Lorenzoni, I., Shipley, T. F., & Coventry, K. R. (2016). Cognitive and psychological science insights to improve climate change data visualization. Nature Climate Change, 6(12), 1080–1089. https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate3162.

[6] For more on 3D representation of climate change and perceptions given to audiences, see:  Grant, B., Baldwin, C., Lieske, S. N., & Martin, K. (2015). Using participatory visual methods for information exchange about climate risk in canal estate communities. Australian Journal of Maritime & Ocean Affairs, 7(1), 23–37. https://doi.org/10.1080/18366503.2015.1014012.

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