Since people started making regular, reliable measurements of air temperatures in the late 1800s, the Earth has warmed by about 0.85 degrees Celsius–or 1.53 degrees Fahrenheit–on average. This trend is mainly driven by human activities that add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. But warming has not occurred uniformly across the planet. For instance, sea surface temperatures have increased more slowly than temperatures over land, because the oceans can absorb heat and carry it away from the surface (in fact, an increase in ocean heat uptake most likely explains the recent pause in atmospheric warming).
Even more striking, however, is the variation in how much different regions of the Earth have warmed. Looking only at the rise in global average temperature (black line, above), you would have no idea that the polar regions have warmed nearly twice as much over the same period of time. But if you look at global temperature data in map form (below), the fact that warming increases at higher latitudes jumps right out. (In both figures, the numbers represent the amount of warming relative to the average temperature between 1951 and 1980.) This enhanced warming at high latitudes is known as ‘polar amplification’, and it results from so-called climate feedbacks, which are natural processes that accelerate due to human-induced warming.
But it turns out maps aren’t the only way to communicate climate data. Daniel Crawford, an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota, transformed NASA’s temperature data into a musical composition for a string quartet. Each instrument plays the temperature history of a different region of the Earth, revealing the “pace and place” of climate change. Take a listen, and hear how the planet has warmed over the past century.
Read our profile of researcher Kevin Arrigo, who studies climate change in the Arctic.
Learn more about the processes behind polar amplification from NASA’s Earth Observatory.
Learn why presenting science using art can elicit a stronger emotional response from audiences in AGU’s Eos.
Written by Julia Rosen
Julia Rosen is a freelance science writer and PhD student at Oregon State University. She received a Bachelors degree in Geological and Environmental Sciences from Stanford University before beginning her doctoral research on polar ice cores and climate change. In between, she did her Master's in backpacking around the world and skiing. Julia is a periodic contributor to Oregon States research magazine, Terra, and helps write blog content and develop learning modules for Visionlearning.