The sound of climate change from the Amazon to the Arctic from Ensia on Vimeo.

By  Heather Hansman 
21 September 2015

(smithsonian.com) – Four nervous-looking college students pick up their bows and start into a song at the bottom of their range. As the string quartet plays, the music gets higher pitched. It dips and peaks, but you can still hear it building. By the end of the song, one of the violins is struggling to hit the high notes.

Daniel Crawford, a soon to be senior geography major at the University of Minnesota, composed the song, called "Planetary Bands, Warming World," to trace the rise of Northern Hemisphere temperatures since the 1880s. Four students from the music department—Julian Maddox, Jason Shu, Alastair Witherspoon and Nigel Witherspoon—performed the song.

Each instrument plays the temperature range of a zone of the Northern Hemisphere and is tuned to the average temperature of that region. The cello tracks the equatorial zone, and the viola plays the mid-latitudes. One violin plays the high latitudes, and the other traces Arctic temperatures. Each note then corresponds to a year, and the pitch of the note represents the temperature, according to climate data from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Science. Higher notes are warmer years. You can hear the Earth get warmer through the music.

The quartet, 'Planetary Bands, Warming World', by University of Minnesota undergraduate Daniel Crawford and geography professor Scott St. George, transcribes the sound of climate change from the Amazon to the Arctic, using music to highlight the places where climate is changing most rapidly. Photo: Ensia / University of Minnesota

“We’re trying to add another tool to the toolbox,” Crawford says, “another way to communicate these ideas to the people who might get more out of this than maps, graphs or numbers.”

Trying to convey humankind's impact on the Earth through different mediums isn't new. Climate scientists have written haiku: "Big, fast carbon surge: Ice melts, oceans heat and rise. Air warms by decades." Artists have made sculptures meant to resemble fossil evidence of our existence found in rock strata millions of years from now and bright paintings made from sludge extracted from streams near coal mines. Photographers have captured aerial images of melting glaciers, deforestation, and oil spills. There have even been other songs about climate change, but Crawford is the first to translate data to music.

"Planetary Bands, Warming World" is Crawford’s second climate-based composition. Two years ago, when he was interning for geography professor Scott St. George in his dendrochronology lab, he put together a similar piece, “A Song of Our Warming Planet.” St. George had asked him if he thought it was possible to turn a data set into a piece of music, and Crawford, who is a cellist, wrote a solo piece for the cello.

The new song adds another point of comparison, to show not only that the Earth is warming, but also where and by how much. “It uses all four instruments to describe the pace and the place of global warming,” Crawford says. By tracking the different climate zones separately, you can hear the contrast, and get a sense of how much temperatures have increased and what regions have warmed the most. [more]

This Song Is Composed From 133 Years of Climate Change Data

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