UW News

September 30, 2016

CO2 record at Mauna Loa, the music video: The sounds of climate change

UW News

University of Washington scientists have put world’s longest-running measure of atmospheric carbon dioxide to music. The result is a 90-second rendition of human-induced climate change:

The video project was done by Judy Twedt, a UW doctoral student in atmospheric sciences, and Dargan Frierson, a UW associate professor of atmospheric sciences and amateur musician.

Their techno soundtrack maps musical notes to the Keeling Curve, a 58-year record of carbon dioxide measured high in the atmosphere at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.

Twedt uses the Python open-source programming language for her climate research, and wanted to try pyknon, a software tool that turns data into musical notes. She and Frierson immediately picked the carbon dioxide record at Mauna Loa.

“The Keeling Curve was the one that we went to first because it’s so important for climate change, and I don’t think people know that,” Frierson said. “If you understand the Keeling Curve, you kind of get the story of climate change.”

American scientist Charles David Keeling was one of the first to notice that burning of fossil fuels was causing carbon dioxide to build up in the atmosphere. When Keeling began his project in 1958 the global carbon dioxide level was about 337 parts per million, already up from the preindustrial levels of about 280 parts per million. The most remote parts of the planet crossed the 400 parts per million threshold this year, while world leaders pledge to try to do something to slow the quickening rise of the heat-trapping gas.

“The atmosphere seems so big, it seems impossible that we’re changing it, but we are,” Frierson said.

Frierson composed the rest of the soundtrack on GarageBand using drum machines and ’80s and ’90s synthesizer sounds he collected for EarthGamesUW, a project to promote awareness of environmental science through video games.

The slightly jarring soundtrack is a new way to experience the rise in global carbon dioxide. Levels go up and down slightly each year because the Northern Hemisphere has more vegetation than the Southern Hemisphere, and plants take in carbon dioxide during the summer and then release it again in the winter. Accompanying that oscillation is a gradual, constant upward trend.

Twedt had been exploring new ways to present science to the public. With a musical background playing piano and flute, she felt music offered novel possibilities.

“When your eye looks at a curve you see it all at once, but when you hear it, you’re forced to think about the temporal duration,” Twedt said. “There’s something special about sonifying a timeseries where you actually have to wait and listen for each data point to come. That’s what I think is special.”

The video is the latest outreach effort from the UW’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences. Frierson regularly plays the mandolin and sings climate-themed adaptations of pop songs in an undergraduate course he teaches on global warming. Graduate students in the department also create other outreach videos including, most recently, a film noir series about El Nino’s effects on sardines.


For more information, contact Frierson at dargan@uw.edu or 206-685-7364 and Twedt at jtwedt@uw.edu.

Audio file: https://soundcloud.com/dargan-15590610/deafening-rise-of-carbon-pollution