Using art to show the threat of climate change

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This painted sign, by Xavier Cortada, is a marker that someone can plant in their yard. It shows how high the sea would have to rise to flood the owner’s home (5 feet, or 1.5 meters). XAVIER CORTADA

Climate change can be a tough topic to face. Permafrost is thawing, sea levels are rising and glaciers are melting. But in our day-to-day lives, those changes can be hard to see. Most of us don’t live near glaciers or beaches. Most of us won’t build a house on permafrost. How do we grasp the problem? Maybe we need art.

From epic operas to video games to city-spanning painted projects, here are seven artists, scientists and composers who are using art to spread the word about our changing climate.

Gaming the changing climate


In Climate Quest, players have to deploy the right expert to the right location to fight the effects of climate change.

Climate change is “one of these topics that makes people want to turn off and disengage,” says Dargan Frierson. “It shouldn’t be that way.” Frierson is a climate scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle. He created a game called Climate Quest to help players engage with climate change. Why a game? “There are so many things that games can do,” he says, that help people connect to big problems like climate change. “You can speed up time, visualize things that are invisible or … fail a few times before you’re eventually successful.”

In the game, disasters strike all over the United States. Players are given a roster of experts such as urban planners and climate scientists. Send the right expert out, solve the problem and save the day. Frierson and three colleagues pulled the simple game together in a single weekend at a hackathon — an event where people work together to build solutions to problems. “A lot of educational games are not very good because they’re a little bit boring,” he says. “It’s most important to make it fun first.”

This is what climate change sounds like


Daniel Crawford was so inspired by his work turning climate data into a musical piece that he’s now in graduate school studying climate.
Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota/YouTube

Scientists often state that the planet has warmed by 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1850. But the weather from year to year varies. It’s hard to grasp just what one degree of overall warming is like.

That’s why Daniel Crawford picked up his cello.

Crawford studies climate at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. When he was a college student, he worked with Scott St. George, a scientist who studies climate by looking at ancient tree rings. “He had been interested in using music to convey trends in climate change data,” Crawford says.

Crawford and St. George started with a dataset of surface temperatures beginning in 1880. By matching each yearly temperature change with a musical note, Crawford composed a “song for our warming planet.” As the temperature gets warmer, the notes get higher. The result is a creepy tune. “The maps, the graphs and the numbers are not conveying the message,” Crawford says. He and St. George hope that music might make a difference.

Climate change dresses up

Artist Michele Banks frequently uses science in her work. “I use science as a way to approach ideas about life in general,” she says. “I find it really fascinating … it helps us get closer to answers about big questions.” Banks is based in Washington, D.C., and usually paints with watercolor.

But when she decided to create a piece about climate change for an art show, Banks started with a wedding dress. “I called it the marriage of ice and carbon, the Arctic bride,” she says. The dress is the usual wedding white on the top. That represents the Arctic’s ice. But as the climate warms, the frosty Arctic melts. Banks’ dress dissolves into a weedy mass of green. “It doesn’t give you a feeling of growth. It’s that icky dull brown and green that you see when the snow melts,” she says. “That’s a lot of what’s up in the Arctic right now. It’s not a happy green.”

By using a wedding dress — something that everyone will know — Banks hopes that her project will bring climate change home. “I want people to think about the effects that their decisions and their ways of life are having on places that are far away from them.” 


Artist Michele Banks used a wedding dress to show the ice of the Arctic. At the bottom, it thaws into a green puddle. Veronica Szalus

Glacial dance


Diana Movius designed a ballet performance that represents melting ice and moving glaciers.
D. Movius/Vimeo

Dancers can use their bodies to show people falling in love. They can show war and triumph, happiness and sadness. And now they can show climate change.

Diana Movius is a choreographer (kor-E-AH-grah-fur) — someone who designs dances and movements. Movius designed a dance about glaciers. The dancers perform in front of images of drifting ice. Their bodies help show how glaciers break off of ice sheets — a process called calving — and melt into the sea.

Climate change takes television

Scientists often use charts and graphs when presenting climate change data. But Ed Hawkins decided to do it with stripes. He studies climate at the University of Reading in England. He created an eye-catching array of stripes to show how the world has warmed over time, going from a cool blue to an angry red.

When Jeff Berardelli saw the pattern, he wanted to use it to show climate change to the world. Berardelli is a meteorologist who at the time was working at CBS12 in West Palm Beach, Fla. Meteorologists study weather and climate — and you might see them on television giving the weather report.

Berardelli put the pattern on ties, mugs, jewelry, shirts and buttons. And he spread the word to other meteorologists to wear the stripes on screen on the first day of summer in 2018. Lauren Olesky, another meteorologist at CBS12, grabbed a striped coffee mug. She was excited about spreading awareness of climate change. “We now understand the importance of this message,” she says. “And we all have platforms that allow us to share this vital information.”

Lauren Olesky shows off the warming stripes pattern — and her warming stripes mug, on the first day of summer 2018. CBS12 News


This is a sound clip from the climate change opera Auksalaq.
Matthew Burtner, Scott Deal

Growing up in the tiny village of Nuiqsit, on the northern edge of Alaska, Matthew Burtner experienced climate change firsthand. “I would come home from college, and I would see the changes taking place in Alaska were dramatic,” he says. Burtner is now a composer at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He wrote an opera about climate change. The opera is “Auksalaq,” from the Inupiat (people native to Alaska) word for melting snow and ice.

Burtner combined recordings of scientists’ talking about climate change, interviews with people native to Alaska and opera singers in seven different places around the world. In 2012, all the groups performed together at the same time from different places, teaming up over the internet. The audience even added their own thoughts to the opera via an app. Their ideas showed up as words that opera singers added to their performance. “I’ve come to the position that music can bring something unique to these discussions,” he says.


Bringing climate change home

Some places will feel climate change impacts sooner than others. Xavier Cortada is an environmental artist living outside Miami, Fla. He knew that Miami would suffer from sea level rise. “It’s at ground zero,” he says. “The elevation is so low.” The city is so flat and close to the waterline that sea level rise is already creating floods. Cortada became frustrated that Miami was not addressing the issue. So he “created a process to make sea level rise impossible to ignore,” he says.

Xavier Cortada created signs for his “Underwater Home Owner’s Association” project that showed how much sea level rise, in feet, would flood a home. X. Cortada.

In a project called “Underwater Home Owners’ Association,” Cortada painted numbers and waterlines onto thousands of large signs. Each number corresponded to how high someone’s house or business was above sea level. A “one” would mean that if the sea level rose one foot (0.3 meter), the house would flood. Cortada gave the signs to home owners in Pinecrest, Fla., which is near Miami. The home owners put them in their yards. Kids painted more signs and put them near their schools and along busy roads.

The art project has already had a real-world effect, Cortada says. The people who put the signs in their yards created a real home owners’ association to address climate change in their communities. At their first meeting, he says, they elected an ocean scientist as their leader.

A painted sign with the number “8″ in front of Xavier Cortada’s studio in Pinecrest, Fla.
X. Cortada. 



Power Words (more about Power Words)

app     Short for application, or a computer program designed for a specific task.

Arctic     A region that falls within the Arctic Circle. The edge of that circle is defined as the northernmost point at which the sun is visible on the northern winter solstice and the southernmost point at which the midnight sun can be seen on the northern summer solstice. The high Arctic is that most northerly third of this region. It’s a region dominated by snow cover much of the year.

calving     (in Earth sciences) The natural splitting off of  some part of the leading edge of a glacier or ice sheet. This is a source of the icebergs seen floating in polar waters.

carbon     The chemical element having the atomic number 6. It is the physical basis of all life on Earth. Carbon exists freely as graphite and diamond. It is an important part of coal, limestone and petroleum, and is capable of self-bonding, chemically, to form an enormous number of chemically, biologically and commercially important molecules.

carbon dioxide     (or CO2) A colorless, odorless gas produced by all animals when the oxygen they inhale reacts with the carbon-rich foods that they’ve eaten. Carbon dioxide also is released when organic matter burns (including fossil fuels like oil or gas). Carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas, trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere. Plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen during photosynthesis, the process they use to make their own food.

climate     The weather conditions that typically exist in one area, in general, or over a long period.

climate change     Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.

colleague     Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.

data     Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that gives them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.

elevation     The height or altitude at which something exists.

environment     The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature and humidity (or even the placement of things in the vicinity of an item of interest).

glacier     A slow-moving river of ice hundreds or thousands of meters deep. Glaciers are found in mountain valleys and also form parts of ice sheets.

graduate school     A university program that offers advanced degrees, such as a Master’s or PhD degree. It’s called graduate school because it is started only after someone has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

ice sheet     A broad blanket of ice, often kilometers deep. Ice sheets currently cover most of Antarctica. An ice sheet also blankets most of Greenland. During the last glaciation, ice sheets also covered much of North America and Europe.

information     (as opposed to data) Facts provided or trends learned about something or someone, often as a result of studying data.

meteorologist     Someone who studies weather and climate events.

permafrost     Soil that remains frozen for at least two consecutive years. Such conditions typically occur in polar climates, where average annual temperatures remain close to or below freezing.

sea level     The overall level of the ocean over the entire globe when all tides and other short-term changes are averaged out.

unique     Something that is unlike anything else; the only one of its kind.

urban     Of or related to cities, especially densely populated ones or regions where lots of traffic and industrial activity occurs. The development or buildup of urban areas is a phenomenon known as urbanization.

weather     Conditions in the atmosphere at a localized place and a particular time. It is usually described in terms of particular features, such as air pressure, humidity, moisture, any precipitation (rain, snow or ice), temperature and wind speed. Weather constitutes the actual conditions that occur at any time and place. It’s different from climate, which is a description of the conditions that tend to occur in some general region during a particular month or season.