Climate change and the environment: data stories to understand climate’s actual state
This writing comes from an unpublished study done in the pre-pandemic year of 2019. Since it was a collaboration between yours truly and two other researchers, I intend to post only the parts that I produced (which was most of it). The original study intended to use climate data from surface air and maritime temperature and environmental data from greenhouse gasses emissions and plastic waste to provide a global warming data story to aid at the understanding of the actual state (in 2019) of the World’s climate.
The texts will come as installments, the first one regarding the study’s introduction section. Following, I will post the second section, “surface air and maritime temperature” in its entirety (since it is my part in this particular work); the fifth section, concerning the “visualization assessment”, which was a visual assessment of the charts selected to this data story; and the conclusion. The later two sections will be redacted to show only what I had produced. Without further ado… the abstract.
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As global warming imposes great challenges to Humans and the planet’s ecosystems, laypeople awareness regarding the subject varies from negationism to anger toward politicians' inability to deal with what many view as environmental collapse. After years of limited action against climate change, extreme weather hitting different parts of the world with records high and low temperatures, floods and other natural disaster prompt calls to action from the general public. The present study intends to use climate data from surface air and maritime temperature and environmental data from greenhouse gasses emissions and plastic waste to provide a global warming data story to aid the understanding of the actual state of our World’s climate.
The increase of Earth’s average surface air and maritime temperature over the past two centuries (1), the phenomenon known as global warming, imposes one of the greatest challenges to Human Beings and the planet’s ecosystems: survival. The World is now 1⁰C warmer since Industrial Revolution (2), a limit to 2⁰C would bring the extinction of tropical reefs, sea-level rises and the flooding of lands, notably the Persian Gulf (3). Nathaniel Rich, citing a former director of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Robert Watson, for a piece published at the New York Times Magazine in August 2018 (3) argued that three-degree warming is the realistic minimum which would bring forests to the Arctic due to ice melting and the loss of most coastal cities. Rich goes on, reporting “four degrees: Europe in permanent drought; vast areas of China, India and Bangladesh claimed by desert; Polynesia swallowed by the sea; the Colorado River thinned to a trickle; the American Southwest largely uninhabitable. The prospect of a five-degree warming has prompted some of the world’s leading climate scientists to warn of the end of human civilization” (3).
Despite attempts such as The Paris Agreement, signed in 2016, to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects, predictive models do not show significant CO2 reductions until at least 2030 (4). Although anthropogenic emissionsup to the present are unlikely to cause further warming of more than 0.5⁰C over the next two to three decades (4), the lack of binding and enforceable clauses at The Paris Agreement leaves it unheeded and the World subjected to the prospect of higher warming if emissions keep increasing. In 2017, the Trump administration delivered an official notice to the United Nations that the United States intends to withdraw from the Agreement as soon as it is legally able to do so (5).
Growing citizens’ concern regarding the issue and what is seen as politicians’ failure due to insufficient policies on global warmingprompted students and school pupils to strike by the end of 2018 and demand changes in laws to reduce the voting age to 16 years-old and allow them to influence public elections in favor of climate change policies. Feasible and cost-effective decarbonization initiatives such as nuclear power, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), bioenergy, and enhanced geothermal energy are still within two decades away (6), adding more doubts to humanity's capacity to mitigate the problem.
Being able to understand clearly the data available about global warming is pivotal to keep the debate open and promote effective actions toward environmentally sustainable behavior. Data visualization – the graphical representation of information and data with charts, graphs, and maps – emerges as one of the most important skills a Computer Science practitioner must develop. Historically, data visualization has been used to guide laypeople and researchers alike. Characterized as scientific visualization and information visualization (7), it typically involves scientific data with an inherent spatial component, as the former indicates or an abstract and non-spatial data, as the later suggests. Tory and Moller (7) shows that the two fields often overlap with some scientific data being “visualized using information visualization techniques (e.g., bioinformatics data)” and some informational data being “visualized with scientific visualization techniques (e.g., mathematical functions)”, even if it was not a physically based data. It is due to similarities between the two fields that appear to be quite different only on the surface, e.g. air traffic control and molecular structure visualization. The use of climate data to provide climatological information and to support research fits the overlapping characteristic Tory and Moller cited (7). It can be used either to develop models that simulate climate change over several decades or to predict next week’s weather variation.
Data stories and narratives appear as a new form of communication focused on data (8). Pouchard et al. (8) sustains that the practice can increase scholarly value by providing supplemental information necessary for describing and supplying context to a dataset’s analysis by improving instructional value for learning and increasing: the understanding of the data, the context of the data collection, and challenges it ensues; the exposure and probability of data’s reuse; the data’s recognition and promotion through additional citations.
The present study intends to use climate data (surface air and maritime temperature) and environmental data (greenhouse gasses emissions and plastic waste) to provide a global warming data story that contributes to the understanding of the actual state of our World’s climate as well as indicate the impact of Human activity in create a disaster we still can attend to.
The choice of surface air and maritime temperature and greenhouse gasses emissions as subjects was justifiable by IPCC’s reporting, with a high rate of confidence, that the world is currently 1⁰C warmer than pre industrial level (4) and this warming is caused by Human activities. Surface air and maritime temperature data provides a fair picture about the warming evolution throughout a time period. According to IPCC, warming from anthropogenic emissions tends to persist for centuries to millennia and there is a high rate of confidence that will continue to cause further long-term changes in the climate system (4). As part of anthropogenic emissions, greenhouse gasses are directed related to Human activities and its data could indicate the amount of its contribution to the climate's current state. Finally, the analysis of plastic waste contribution to global warming as the study’s third focus was given by the substantial rise in plastic production worldwide.
Royer et al.’s study about the production of methane and ethylene from plastic in the environment (9) indicates that solar radiation initiates the production of hydrocarbon gasses from polyethylene and other plastics at ambient temperature, releasing into the atmosphere methane (CH4), which is one of the most potent atmospheric greenhouse gasses, and ethylene (C2H4) which reacts with hydroxy (OH), oxygen bonded to hydrogen, in the atmosphere to increase carbon monoxide concentrations.
The remainder of this work is organized as follows. Section 2 presents our work with surface air and maritime temperature data. Section 3 shows the analysis regarding greenhouse gasses emissions. Section 4 deals with the impact of plastic production and waste on the environment. Section 5 presents a visual assessment of the charts selected for this data story. Finally, Section 6 summarizes our conclusions.
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Referred from now on as IPCC.
Emissions of greenhouse gasses, greenhouse gas precursors, and aerosols associated with human activities.
Rippstein, Julia (2019-01-18). “En Suisse, l’heure de l’urgence climatique a sonné”. Le Temps [In Switzerland, the hour of the climate emergency has struck] (in French). “Les jeunes se sont mobilisés pour le climat un peu partout en Suisse” [Young people mobilized for the climate all over Switzerland] (in French). Radio Télévision Suisse. 2019-01-18. Hendrischke, Maria (2019-01-18). "Schüler streiken für Klimaschutz: [Pupils strike for climate protection] (in German).
“The grown-ups have failed miserably on climate change”. The Independent. 2019-02-14.