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U of M cellist renders climate data as music to our ears, and it’s lovely

Daniel Crawford and his “Song for a Warming Planet” can be enjoyed via video on the magazine Ensia’s website.

Conveying the central warming trend in global temperature is necessarily a tradeoff between complexity and condensation, especially if the rendering is graphical, as in the famous hockey stick.  

There have been creative attempts to move beyond fever charts and bar graphs over the years, including animated maps and videos of various types; an enduring personal favorite is the NASA project that showed 130 years of change in a mere 30 seconds.

Here’s a remarkable new entry: a University of Minnesota student’s composition for cello, which substitutes “sonification” for visualization and renders the trend in musical form.

Many thanks to Todd Reubold of the university’s Ensia magazine for pointing me to Daniel Crawford and his “Song for a Warming Planet,” which can be enjoyed via video on the magazine’s site.

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Reubold explains that Crawford worked from NASA data on Earth’s surface temperatures from 1880 to 2012, assigning a pitch to each annual value that represented its deviation from a baseline. Cooler years got lower notes, warmer years got higher ones.

The composition spans three octaves, which means each semitone up or down represents a change of about 0.03 degrees Celsius.

The result is a haunting sequence that traces the warming of our planet year by year since the late 19th century. During a run of cold years between the late 1800s and early 20th century, the cello is pushed towards the lower limit of its range. The piece moves into the mid-register to track the modest warming that occurred during the 1940s. As the sequence approaches the present, the cello reaches higher and higher notes, reflecting the string of warm years in the 1990s and 2000s. …

The video ends with a stark message: Scientists predict the planet will warm by another 1.8°C  (3.2°F) by the end of this century. This additional warming would produce a series of notes beyond the range of human hearing.

Gaining a national audience

I will second Reubold’s assessment of the piece as haunting — perhaps especially so, even among slower-tempo cello compositions that to my ear, at least, tend toward the doloroso. But it is also strikingly beautiful in a way that many a conceptual, new-music composition is not.

Perhaps it will be influential, too. As Crawford told Reubold:

Climate scientists have a standard toolbox to communicate their data. We’re trying to add another tool to that toolbox, another way to communicate these ideas to people who might get more out of music than maps, graphs and numbers.

Congratulations, too, to the university’s Scott St. George, a geography professor who mentored Crawford during an internship and assigned him to try turning the temperature numbers into notes.

The project has begun to get some national attention. The Weather Channel had a post on it yesterday, and said:

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In the weather community, meteorologists have been discussing new ways to reach the public and raise awareness about climate change, and with a universally understood medium like music, they could finally break through to millions.

Over at Dot Earth, Andrew Revkin followed up an earlier post on the Crawford video with a piece yesterday about a similar project undertaken by researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who rendered six centuries of data in a composition for digital violin.

I don’t know whether it’s the higher pitch, the quicker tempo or what, but the Livermore piece sounds to me like a climate-change denier nitpicking the settled science —borderline annoying. However, I managed by accident to launch it in two players at once, slightly out of sync, and that was kind of cool. …

Anyway, I prefer Crawford’s piece and am happy to see it finding a following at Huffington Post, Slate and Climate Progress, among others.

Can’t quite bring myself to list the denier sites that are busily mocking this work and the young man who created it, but I will observe that their mean-spirited carping can be registered as praise and recognition of another kind.

Sixteen oil spills a day, every day

Every now and then a news outlet or environmental advocacy group goes through the records on how much oil is really being spilled by U.S. producers, with sobering results.

The latest such analysis, published Monday by E&E News’s EnergyWire, concludes that the aggregate amount of oil and oil-bearing industrial fluids spilled during 2012 far exceeded the volume of the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 — 15.6 million gallons to 11 million.

That’s a significant increase from 2010, the analysis shows, and it’s an understatement because state-level reporting requirements vary widely, and high-producing states like Colorado, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania don’t bother to track accidents that would be reportable in, say, North Dakota.

Speaking of our neighbor to the west:

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It went up orange, a gas-propelled geyser that rose 100 feet over the North Dakota prairie.

But it was oil, so it came down brown. So much oil that when they got the well under control two days later, crude dripped off the roof of a house a half-mile away.

“It had a pretty good reach,” said Dave Drovdal, who owns the land where the Bakken Shale oil well, owned by Newfield Exploration Co., blew out in December near Watford City, N.D. “The wind was blowing pretty good. Some of it blew 2 miles.”

It was one of the more than 6,000 spills and other mishaps reported at onshore oil and gas sites in 2012, compiled in a months-long review of state and federal data by EnergyWire.

That’s an average of more than 16 spills a day. And it’s a significant increase since 2010. In the 12 states where comparable data were available, spills were up about 17 percent.

Other points from the analysis: Though industry data show spills declining, they tend to  be based only on federal data, which omit many spills recorded by the states. While offshore spills may be declining overall, inland spills are rising.

Some spills are deliberate, not accidental. And while oil companies claim to do their best to contain spills once they begin, their own figures show that two-thirds of the oil is never recovered.

E&E material is typically available only to subscribers (though it’s widely reprinted), but this piece is accessible by one and all right here.