Interactive Graphics Illustrate Benefits of Visualizations on Climate Change Issues

In real estate, it’s location, location, location. In climate change communications … it’s visualizations, visualizations, visualizations.  Here we post some of the most iconic in the field and some having the most communications and information impact. 

Strategic use of visualizations and graphics, particularly when they are designed to be interactive, can be key to presenting large amounts of climate information in an easily digestible form. With outstanding graphics, audiences can engage directly with the information being presented, helping them make sense of large data sets and helping them see connections in complex phenomena.

Here’s an initial listing of some particularly effective climate graphics. If you don’t see your favorites below, please add a comment at the end of this feature identifying them.

This graphic is one of the best known and also the most hotly debated climate visualizations. Climate scientist Jerry Mahlman, a former director of NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, dubbed the chart the “hockey stick,” because of the trend line’s sharply curving blade.

The hockey-stick graphic shows temperatures in the northern hemisphere during the past 1,000 years. Scientists used data from corals, tree rings, ice cores, and other records to estimate temperatures in the time before the use of thermometers became widespread. The chart also shows, in red, data from thermometers.

The graphic shows that recent temperatures are likely the warmest in the past millennium. The red color symbolizes data from thermometers, but to many readers, red also means “heat” and “danger.”

The chart is based on a paper published in 1999 in the peer-reviewed journal Geophysical Research Letters by climate scientists Michael Mann, Raymond Bradley, and Malcolm Hughes. It gained widespread attention in 2001 when IPCC scientists prominently included it in the Third Assessment Report. The chart has often been published — by climate advocates and deniers alike — without the gray error bars that represent uncertainty. Meanwhile, climate deniers attempted to discredit it, as described in this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required). Eventually, the chart became the subject of 2006 congressional hearings and a review by the National Academy of Sciences and others. Subsequent research has upheld this basic conclusion: Temperatures in the late 20th century likely were significantly warmer than any other time in the past 600-1,000 years. Most scientists accepting the evidence of a human influence on recent decades of atmospheric warming accept the “hockey stick” research, and it has withstood numerous challenges and reviews. But among climate contrarians, there remains no more frequent target of their attacks.

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Where do greenhouse gases come from, anyway? This chart by the World Resources Institute breaks down the origins of carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases by sector and end use. Although the graphic’s color-coding can be a bit confusing, it clearly shows the major contributors to climate change: energy production, agriculture, and deforestation.

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Unusually hot temperatures broke records across the United States during July 2011. The National Climatic Data Center plotted the nearly 9,000 heat records tied or broken during the month, resulting in an image of nearly all of the United States. Significantly, more than 6,000 of the points were record high night-time temperatures. As night-time heat rises, people have a harder time recovering from daytime heat, which increases health risks (see here).

In the recent past, most Americans suffered through fewer than 10 days each year with temperatures above 100 degrees. But as Earth’s average temperature increases, 100-degree days will become more common. The U.S. Global Change Research Program created this simple interactive map that shows the number of days above 100 degrees in the recent past (1961-1979), and the number of 100-degree days that could occur in the future.

In addition to rising temperatures, a changing climate will likely increase American’s risk of air pollution, drought, flood, and disease. The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, produced this interactive graphic about climate threats in your region. Enter your Zip code to find out how climate change could affect your area and how your state is responding.

What are the best (and worst) foods for the climate? This graphic from the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization, suggests that tomatoes and lentils are the two foods that contribute the least to climate change, while lamb and beef contribute the most. In what may come as a surprise to vegetarians, cheese is ranked third-worst — more damaging to the climate than pork and poultry. According to the analysis, eating four ounces of cheese has the same carbon footprint as driving a car more than three miles.

This interactive graphic on NOAA’s site (scroll down) enables users to compare climate-related variables, such as temperature, carbon dioxide, and ocean heat content, between 1881 and 2011. This side-by-side view allows the user to compare how the variables have changed over time. For example, some climate deniers claim that the sun is responsible for recent warming. But this graphic shows that the sun’s energy has remained relatively constant since 1881, even as the atmosphere and the ocean have warmed.

Gapminder World, owned by Google, is a tool that allows you to create graphics by manipulating dozens of variables, such as a country’s carbon dioxide emissions, average life expectancy, per capita income, and even murder rates. The tool contains data on world carbon dioxide emissions through 2005. If users find a graph they particularly like, they can easily send it to friends and colleagues using the “share” tool.

Sara Peach

Sara Peach, an environmental journalist, teaches environmental journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a regular contributor to The Yale Forum. (E-mail:, Twitter: @sarapeach)
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17 Responses to Interactive Graphics Illustrate Benefits of Visualizations on Climate Change Issues

  1. Gary Braasch says:

    The State of the Climate report from NOAA and the American Meteorological Society, provides a graphic view of how many measurements of the planetary climate, ocean and ice are moving as global warming theory predicted. The report for 2010 was published in late June at However the 2009 report did a much better job of showing the graphs of change on a single page to show the congruence. See page 3 of this report [if the editors of the Climate Media Forum could put that page with this post I would be grateful]. I put together a smaller version for my website at

    Al Gore had photos signifying eight indicators on a single slide in his new show. I think he should have featured each one separately and in detail as he did with extreme weather events, because while we are focused on local events, the planet is changing daily across its broad sweep, from the stratosphere to the deep ocean. Scientifically and politically one can question those individual storms and droughts, but it is much harder to deny the accumulating measurements of Earth’s basic functions correlating with CO2 concentrations and atmospheric temperature as the theory predicts.

  2. Peter Wilson says:

    Your very first graphic is the infamous Hockey Stick, from Mann Bradley Hughes 98. This graphic is a poster boy for shoddy, politically motivated research, and has been thoroughly discredited in numerous peer reviewed forums. Its shape is a result of shonky mathematics (short centered PCA analysis mainly), and the use of cherry picked proxies utterly unsuited to reconstructing temperatures – including a lake bed sediment series used upside down!

    To feature this, especially so prominently, implies that you have no regard for the actual truth of a graphic, but only its propaganda value. Yale should aspire to better standards.

  3. Joe Witte says:

    Just as words matter so do images.
    I applaud the efforts at improving climate visualizations. We still have a LONG ways to go yet for public visual comprehension. Who are your audiences: the science literate? fellow scientists? which “public”? There is a great deal of communication theory that can assist in better design of graphics for learning. The Dual-Coding theory is one. Mayer’s Cognitive Multimedia Learning Theory is another. E. Tufte of course has published a number of books about graphics for understanding. I might even suggest a few popular press readings: Make it Stick by the Heath Brothers, Randy Olson’s Don’t Think Like a Scientist, and Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think (low flow days, four ounces of cheese per three miles, tonnes per person, Degrees C (double the C, take away 10%, add 32), 100 degree days calendar map, etc.) And of course there is the National Academy’s Learning Science in Informal Environments: A Review of the Research Past, Present (Six Strands). How do people learn? If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a well designed visualization can be worth 1,000 pictures in this day of 600 TV channels and 15 second commercials. Example of one challenge: What image comes to mind at the mention of global warming? Is that image useful?

  4. A fine article. Indeed, “a picture is worth a thousand words” — and clearly capable of resolving objections to climate-change science that verbal argumentation cannot. At heart, we are all Missourians: Show-Me. Once shown truthful illustrations, we find it difficult to revert to a state of ignorance. The danger is always that untrue data behind an illustration or its visual misinterpretation or manipulation may be equally persuasive; but in my experience as a visualization professional, people are usually too perceptive to be easily fooled. Of course, a visualization never stands on its own entirely. There is always a textual or verbal explication that can be referred to as corroboration.

    Yale Forum and other print and online journals should regularly devote attention to reviewing and critiquing climate change-related media in the same way that Fast Company does the same for business-related visualizations and infographics. It’s one of the benefits of digital publishing that all media can be integrated and presented, revealing truths that otherwise might be missed.

    • Sara Peach says:

      Robert, thanks for your comment. I agree that visual communication is an incredibly important and powerful tool. If you come across any media that you find particularly worthy of critique, please don’t hesitate to share.

  5. Martin says:

    Interesting. Are you looking to ‘sell’ climate change or communicate it? The danger with leaning to the former is that it comes across as ‘spin’ and hyperbole, and you quickly lose trust when this is exposed.

    So, for example, showing a diagram of USA-only record high temperatures is vulnerable to diagrams showing cold records being broken somewhere – anywhere, such as the UK in Dec 2010.

    Similarly the error bars on the hockey stick there are not absolute uncertainties in our understanding of what the temperatures were; both Moberg and Huang have much lower proxied values for around the 1600s for example. That particular (as you say ‘hotly debated’) diagram can look too manufactured alongside the many other proxied histories, so it might be better to use readily available amalgamations of several reconstructions to get the same point across.

    In a subject so complex, it is tempting to try and simplify parts of it down to a pithy easily-communicated soundbite, but being easy to communicate does not make it convincing.

  6. Larry Logan says:

    The Hockey Stick has been thoroughly debunked. Basically, the math is so bad it was later shown that random numbers from a phone book produced the same curve. Mann’s defense has always been, “well, even with the right numbers, we’d get the same curve.” (Huh?) Mann’s defenders are the pool of ‘the usual suspects who similarly require the teet of government to survive, e.g. Trenbert, Jones, Santer.

    The Hockey Stick will be indeed famous for ‘successful visualizations’, similar to the great propaganda posters through history that moved millions of people to go along with devastating public policies.

  7. NASA Earth Observatory’s World of Change ( slide shows are incredibly powerful, particularly those for global temperature and polar ice cover. The data is presented as a series of maps or aerial shots which, in my experience, are much more accessible for the general public than even the simplest of graphs.

  8. Mary Hoff says:

    The Climate Vulnerability Forum’s Climate Vulnerability Monitor offers an insightful visualization of the impacts of climate change on health, weather disasters, habitat loss, and economic stress. View a summary version at with a link to the longer report.

  9. Liz Banse says:

    Could you also do an article discussing effective photos and videos that change people’s beliefs about climate change?