The sound of global warming

Minnesota student used average surface air temperature data since 1880 to create musical representation of global warming

By Lindsey Walker
Published: Saturday 06 July 2013

A Song of Our Warming Planet from Ensia on Vimeo.

If global warming had a sound, what would it be? A meticulously mathematical musical composition will allow, for the first time, the world to actually hear what climate change sounds like. 

Daniel Crawford, 20, a geography and environmental science undergraduate from the University of Minnesota (UMN), incorporated his 11 years of musical experience as a cello player with his scientific studies to devise a new medium to communicate the reality of our rapidly heating Earth. This new musical data representation is particularly geared toward those less inclined to seek understanding from traditional maps, graphs, and lectures. 

Using data of average surface air temperatures collected by NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Crawford, under mentorship of UMN professor Scott St. George, formulated a set of correlating music notes. The result was ‘A song of our warming planet’. 

Every note of the song represents one year, and the pitch of that note represents the average global surface temperature of that year. The first note represents the year 1880, the last note jumps three octaves to emit a haunting whine of higher notes – a reflection of the warming that has taken place over the last few decades. Scientists predict that before the end of the century, the Earth will warm at least another 1.8 °C. To put that into perspective, those notes would be inaudible to the human ear.

The song has no harmony, break down, or bridge. In fact, every note has been pre-written, hidden in the enclaves of years of culminated global climate change statistics. Crawford and Scott St. George have translated this preexisting symphony into a logical musical expression that can be both felt and heard. 

Daniel Crawford speaks with DTE about how and why the song was composed

What did the developmental process entail?

When I first started trying to convert this data into a piece of music, the first task was to assign a proper range of notes to represent all of this data. That was just an arbitrary choice and I decided to choose three musical octaves. Then from that point, I decided to have the coolest year on record represented by the lowest note on the cello, and then progressing upward from there, where the highest note, or the warmest year, would be three octaves above that. After that it was a lot of arithmetic and calculating exactly how many degrees Celsius would be one note higher. 

Why did you choose to begin the song with data from 1880?

So that there is a large enough of a pool of data to come from. It also shows how abruptly the notes start to climb in the piece itself. When you can put it in the context of going all the way back to 1880 there are 40 years or so where it’s pretty constant. And then it’s not really until the heyday of the industrial revolution and when cars started driving on the roads that you hear the notes start to climb dramatically. There probably wouldn’t be that context if the song started when global warming was already starting to occur.

What did you hope to accomplish upon its creation? 

There are a lot of people, both Scott and myself think, that don’t understand the immediacy of global climate change. As climate scientists, we have a standard toolbox of ways in which we can communicate our data and those are usually maps, graphs and numbers. By turning this data into a piece of music, we've effectively added another tool into that toolbox, that of sound. And for the people who don’t necessarily understand the message from those graphs and numbers, if they can hear how temperatures have been changing over time and hear how fast these changes have started, that might hit home for them a little bit better.

How was the title ‘A song of our warming planet’ decided upon?

The title was really Professor St. George’s idea. The biggest aspect of the title was entitling it A song of our warming planet, indicating that it really is just a single representation of this data and its not the only way to represent it with music. There are other ways, I’m sure, involving other scientific fields as well.


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