Mapping a Century of Rising Heat

RISING Temperatur esNew York Times

The color-saturated mapping of regional changes in temperature across the contiguous United States provided a commanding visual for the front page of the New York Times of May 6 to capture changes in the US climate:  placed on  conspicuously above the fold and standing alone, just below the headlines, the graphic served multiple functions in a strikingly effective way.  The weather map that was first released by the Obama White House elegantly and effectively served–in ways that words could not–to combine several narratives of climate change that synthesized  the findings of a recent committee of scientists on the wide-ranging effects of global warming.  This is an unprecedented victory of the map, the most effective single tool to describe the complex process of a veritable cascade of environmental shifts, by selectively focussing on a known variable of local warmth.   The orange and bright reds of the map arrest the eye in ways an article or headline could not, and effectively provoke a cascading set of side-effects and reactions to occur in readers’ minds that served to grasp the finality of warming’s consequences.  As one mind quickly moves off the map of stark changes of temperature to the effects of future droughts and increased aridity of soil, consequent crop-shortages, and subsiding ground-levels, imagining the marked depletion of cool air, streams and rivers that would dry, and an increasing dependence on energy to create artificially cool environments. 

Although it is static, the historical map suggests a spectral future forecast for the nation that dramatically moved from back pages to headline news.  It mirrored a roll-out of the announcement as part of a dialogue with weathercasters on television news programs in a gambit to engage the public in the question of climate change.  Indeed, the graphic mimicked the presentation of weather maps on TV, images of the national forecast that the Weather Channel has made all too familiar.  Even if the map documents changes of the previous century, it shares the iconic status of the sort of severe weather forecast that The Weather Channel has accustomed us to interpret and to see.  We’re now trained so often to interpret and to read similarly colorized  climatological forecasts to trace regional emergencies that the Times‘ map seemed to recuperate these conventions to make a polemic point not so much about the past–“US Climate Has Already Changed”–but about the possible futures that the map forebode.  For weather maps offer the most acceptable medium of future predictions, where they have currency as credible tools for short-term forecasting.

Thuderstorm Forecast

The range of information in the map that summarized a century of rapidly shifting local climate temperatures How could such a gamut of consequences be convincingly understood or presented other than in a map?  The visual immediately triggered multiple questions of effects on species, forests, farmlands, new sorts of vegetation, and shifting insect populations described in the article, which a reader some decades ago would be challenged to link.   The effectiveness with which the map implicitly summarized the ramifications of these potential changes, or provoked its readers to react to its orange and read heat-distributions, presented an ominous vision of the future, as well as the historical past of a century of warming weather that the headline announced.  As if with the ominous fatality with which science fiction authors like Arthur C. Clarke described the future of a world battered by asteroids, the map opened up a view on the consequences of environmental change in a future world, even if its headline announced an event firmly rooted in the past century, synthesizing as it did the findings of two periods in the past hundred years.

The finality with which the map released by John P. Holdren documented a change that had already occurred across the nation’s regions, but made it to every weather bureau and station across the country, as if to maximize the newfound familiarity of audiences to engage meteorological maps as a way of making its own polemic (and of course partly political) point of how drastically rising temperatures stand to redraw the familiarity of the world.  Extending far beyond earlier warnings  voiced by the UN, or the pronouncements of an Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change whose  report documented the melting of the ice-caps and collapse of sea ice in the arctic, the migration of many fish out of their habitats, and impending dangers of rising seas.  Perhaps these global images were too remote, or difficult to visualize.  The powerful invocation of the weathercaster seemed to give greater reality to the scary prognostic in the contiguous United States, and concretized the multiple threats of climate change in an image that confirms the changing nature of the ground beneath our feet.  Some may criticize the focus on the United States alone in an interconnected world, as if the isolation of our country’s climate somehow removed it from a global problem and dilemma, or placed undue emphasis on the effects of emissions on the climate in the US.  But the image of actual experiences spurs a call for reaction and response, and, in an echo of the tactics of the Obama administration, reveals the increased “cartographical literacy” in the reading and interpreting forecasts in persuasive national weather maps.  

Forecast and Warming

The emulation of the televised weather forecast is no doubt what makes the map appear so immediately effective.

The map of the entire country was in ways a counterpart to the images of November 2012, around the time of Hurricane Sandy, simply titled “What Could Disappear,” which asked viewers to imaging the shifting coastlines of rising seas, and pictured the coasts that rising ocean waters could redefine, submerging beneath the sea low-lying areas of what we consider habitable land–as well as flooding all of Galveston, TX and some 45% of Long Beach.

 

What Could be Lost The New York Times
 

But rather than engage with complex claims of climatological futurology, the front-page graphic was both at the same time historical in perspective and even more apocalyptic.  In announcing or intoning “US Climate Has Already Changed,” it reminded us of the consequences of rising temperatures at a historical remove that was still part of our present and an uneasy glimpse to the future we have mad, using tense whose finality foreclosed debate in quite incontrovertible ways.  The map’s comparison of temperatures over a century effectively resolved debates, separating the actual consequences of climate change on a familiar environment from debate about its mechanism and reminding us of its man-made origin, and untangling the dangers of the changes that it wrought from the cascading (if terrifying) mechanism of ocean levels rising, habitats altering, fish migrating, the extinction of species, and deaths of coral reefs.  The map was able to link itself to a multiplicity of lived experiences and actual fact, and conjure a scarier–precisely since undefined–picture of what was to come–an era of increasing heat.  (Its associations might almost be as apocalyptic as the hallucinatory surreal  dream from a 1959 episode from Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, “The Midnight Sun,” in which the earth exits its elliptical orbit and moves toward the sun, warming the nation so much as to induce crazed radio weathercasters to stray incoherently off script and panicked Americans to flee abandoned cities en masse to Canada in search of cooler climes.)

The particularly powerful graphic of the map of regional variations in rising temperatures was quite devastating in its depiction of how–despite some regional differences–none save rare pockets of settled land experienced anything approaching a decline in reported weather temperatures.  For those that did, mostly concentrated in the lower Mississippi basin, they experienced quite slight declines:  it presented an image of a continent on fire, almost about to be consumed by flames, burning from its edges, if, the accompanying article noted, increasingly soaked by torrential rains.

RISING TemperaturesThe New York Times

The  growth of areas already warmer on an average of some two degrees suggested an encroaching of scarlet red blotches across the land from all sides, particularly in southern California and Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, the northern eastern seaboard, and the Great Lakes, with Bob Dylan’s native Hibbing seeing the greatest temperature change of over a massive three degrees.  The map powerfully synthesized the effects of human-induced climate change in ways that are not only impossible to rebut, using findings of a national  committee that has been in existence for over a decade–but was by far the most effective among the various interactive graphics it released.  The simple synthesis in a four-color map of the contiguous US immediately showed rising temperatures in some of the more inhabited areas of the nation, from New Mexico to Southern California, to the New York-Washington corridor.

In selecting a map to represent the consequences of climate change that were detailed in the report, the images suggested less of an infographic than a sort of disease map of a climate that has gone off the tracks.  Even if it might be faulted from its insistence on removing the US from the world, and focussing on one place within a complex web, as well as flattening its findings in cartographical form, the image is powerfully links the land to a set of abstract changes we cannot fully comprehend, but whose effects we can perceive.  This is the stunning victory of the static map.

2 Comments

Filed under "Midnight Sun", Global Warming, Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, John P. Holdren, Rod Serling, The Weather Channel, weather maps, weathercasting

2 responses to “Mapping a Century of Rising Heat

  1. Pat Smart

    Very interesting, about the climate and about maps. And scary! Well done.

  2. Rob Nelson

    Great explanation of the power of this cartographic rhetoric.

    I take your point that treating the US in isolation is a failure of this map. On the other hand–and this seems to be something you hint at–a lot of the scariest places on the maps are located along the border: across the northern borders of Montana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin; the southern borders of California and Arizona; the coasts of New England and New Jersey; even the tip of Florida. This, it seems to me, heightens the scariness of the map as the metaphorical fire burns inward from all sides, like a piece of paper with all it’s edges singed and still burning inexorably towards the center–something that wouldn’t be as evident if the US weren’t isolated.

    I think this is overreading the map, but the outward-in nature of that threat evokes for me a common move in US political rhetoric–to suggest that threats to the nation state aren’t of domestic origin but come but are of an external and foreign origin, that they don’t come from within (something we’re reasonsible for) but from without (from an enemy that isn’t us). Again, probably and overreading.

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