The following is the transcript of a talk for TedX Seattle at McCaw Hall on November 17, 2018.
We all respond to rhythm, whether it’s the pulse of a human heart or the beats that we dance to. Runners know the satisfaction of hitting that rhythmic stride.
Earth has rhythms, too.
We orbit the sun once a year, and the tilt of the Earth on its axis in this orbit gives us rhythms in climate data —snow, ice, and the growth of plants all pulse with the seasons.
In his late 70’s my Grandpa Calvin developed dementia and lost much of his short-term memory, but rhythm and music, stayed with him. When I went to visit, he was almost always slumped in a chair in the living room, asleep, with the newspaper resting open on his lap. With his failing memory, conversation was difficult and he’d get embarrassed when he forgot my name. Then one afternoon it struck me to see if we could connect over something we both loved. He was a retired piano teacher, so I asked if he would help me learn a piano piece I wanted to play, the Durand Waltz. His eyes lit up when I asked him. ‘Yes!’, he said.
At the piano, my grandpa remembered every note and every fingering of the pieces he’d taught. Fingers that stumbled over making coffee could still play Beethoven and Chopin, effortlessly, in rhythm, with so much expression.
Seven years after his death, what he taught me about music and its power to sustain connections and stick with us in difficult times came back to help me approach a new problem.
I was a grad student running experiments on supercomputers to study sea ice in the polar oceans. Sea ice helps maintain the surface temperature of Earth by reflecting away sunlight. Its like sunblock for the planet. And I was teaching a class on climate change. We’d show one image after another of climate data — for example: carbon dioxide concentrations, global temperature change, sea level rise, methane emissions, sea ice melt, deforestation rates, ocean acidification, ice sheet loss, heat waves, and on, on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and…
...are you feeling overwhelmed?
All of this important data abstracted onto graphs and charts. Two things about the students’ reactions really hit me. First: They suffered from information overload. For many, the figures and graphs blurred together after a while. Second: I saw fear and despair on their faces as they learned about the impacts of climate change.
In anonymous surveys, they used words like anxiety, anger, and hopelessness. That toxic combination of overload and anxiety caused mental gridlock. They weren’t connecting to the science; for many it was reduced to homework and test problems. Their reactions helped me see that we have a translation problem.
As climate scientists, we interpret information that streams into our labs from instruments all over the earth. We integrate that information with the help of supercomputers to learn more about Earth’s past, present, and future. And this data comes from environments that are teeming with life, but it’s encoded as millions and millions of numbers.
How do we make meaning from numbers?
That’s the translation problem. As scientists, it's our connection to hard evidence -- through numbers -- allows us to understand this finite and changing planet. But how do we help others process what the numbers are telling us without causing information overload and emotional shutdown? We need ways to communicate climate science that will spark a response, not deaden our nerves, because if we can’t connect to the science, we’ll never have the courage to act on what we find.
So, I took another look at the data. One of the things about charts and graphs is that they’re not dynamic, they’re static. Over time, they don’t change, even when they’re showing something like sea level rising over several decades.
Floods, wildfires, and hurricanes -- those are all events that pierce our lives and stick in our memories. But the slow relentless sea level rise that we’re causing isn’t a single event. It’s long-term, systemic climate change.
How do we connect to planetary change?
Rhythm. Music. Grandpa Calvin taught me music’s power to connect in the face of loss and change.
On a Saturday morning in my third year in grad school, instead of writing the next chapter of my thesis, I took my code that analyzed data and hacked it to output sounds instead of charts. I used this iconic climate record — the Keeling Curve — which shows the rampant rise of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere since the 1950s, and I turned those numbers that climb higher and higher over time into notes that rise higher and higher in pitch as you listen. Like an infographic, I call it an infosonic. When I shared it with audiences, I saw that it sparked interest and emotional connection. So I made another, and another, and year later, I designed a new doctoral program to focus on making music driven by climate data. And I’ve paid close attention to how people respond to data as music. Here’s what I've learned:
First, music is something we experience over time. It’s not constant; it changes and moves. So, data as music can create an experience of something like sea level that’s rising and changing over time. Listening to data as it unfolds, one note after another, helps to understand how we’re changing the planet over time.
Second, as I mentioned earlier, we respond to rhythm. Neuroscience tells us that rhythm activates many different parts of the brain  which is important if we’re looking for new ways to connect with the science. If we listen -- listen to the data -- , we can hear Earth’s rhythms. And hear the long-term changes – clear and unequivocal – driven by burning fossil fuels.
The third thing I’ve learned is that, just like the students, many of us have strong feelings about climate change, but we don’t talk about it. The science can seem complicated, the polarization can feel toxic. But our silence often slips to denial , or to boxing up the problem and tucking it away. By translating data into music, we disrupt that habit, and approach the science from a fresh new perspective. Music can be intimate, even vulnerable, and help us understand, through rhythm and vibration, that climate change isn't simply a test problem, or a policy problem. It’s also an experience of loss -- and disruption.
Let me take you through an example. When temperature over the salty ocean is below about 28-degrees Fahrenheit -- this is normal in the polar oceans -- the ocean surface freezes over and becomes sea ice. This ice supports the whole Arctic ecosystem, and prevents sunlight from warming the dark blue ocean below. It’s that planetary sunblock, and helps keep the Earth cool.
Take a look at the chart of satellite data:
It’s a record of 36 years of actual sea ice coverage over the Arctic Ocean. It’s not a theoretical model. That horizontal line, that’s our zero line, it’s fixed. It’s the long-term average. It separates the recorded quantity of ice cover that's above and below average. The jagged line shows how far the ice cover deviated from the long-term average. It varies month to month but as you can see, it’s gone down over time.
For reference: a million square kilometers is a larger than the area of Washington State and Texas, combined. We’ve lost a lot of sea ice.
Now let’s explore this information in a new form. I’ve translated the same data and composed a piano score. My colleague, Kristina Lee, will play this data for us on the piano.
Her left hand will represent that long-term average, the zero line. She’ll repeat four chords over and over – the rhythm of the seasons. That pattern won’t change in time. There’s one chord for each season: winter, spring, summer, fall.
Her right hand will play the dynamic ice cover, it’s the jagged line on the chart. There’s one note for each month of data. When there’s more ice cover, the right hand plays high notes. When there’s less ice cover, the right hand plays lower notes.
Let’s listen to data:
Now, you’ve heard the sea ice record.
Did you notice Kristina’s right hand was unnaturally crossed over the left by the end? Did you hear the increased dissonance? That represented the shift, measured statistically, of the Arctic ocean entering a new era of dramatically less ice. That key change is our new state. Notice the data, the music, never rises above the zero line again.
Since 2007 the ice cover has continuously been below its normal range. Coastal villages in Alaska like Shishmaref, that depend on the sea ice to protect them from storms and ocean waves are relocating before they’re literally washed out to sea.
Now, people often tell me this listening experience is stressful or jarring, and that’s OK. My goal isn’t to offer false comfort, but to hear the truth.
Arctic sea ice is vanishing.
As I work with this data and think about the preventable loss, often my throat and stomach clench up. This gives me empathy for what my students experienced in class. Scientists from the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale have found what the students knew implicitly all along– that our concern for climate change has little to do with our grasp of the number .
It doesn’t matter how much we know, or how smart we are. No, our concern comes from our connection to the science. Does the problem seem too big or distant? Do we fear ridicule if we show concern? If so, we’re likely to check the science at the door and live as if it weren’t real. Because when we think about climate change, we tend to think about politics, policies, and technology. Those are important, make no mistake, but there’s something equally important to understand.
The warming of the Earth is already harming our lives and our relationships to each other and to the places we call home.
These are Americans from Shishmaref. Aaliyah, on the left is now in 11th grade and knows her community must relocate. Where will they go? They don’t know yet, but one thing is certain: they will no longer be the coastal people they once were.
My home is this Evergreen State where I’ve hiked in the mountains and swam in the Salish Sea -- with my Grandpa Calvin. Our warming winters here are driving up infestations of bark beetles, turning our evergreen trees brown.
But that’s a different song.
A minute ago, you heard and felt 36 years of sea ice data unfold in just under three minutes. Let this stay with you in a way that, perhaps, numbers alone never could. You may never visit the ice-covered Arctic ocean, but it is there, serving a vital role for us and for generations to come, and now we’ve all listened and the data tells us: it is melting.
If this stirred you, or inspired you to act, then I urge you to start talking, or writing, or singing, or painting, or composing, or coding, or dancing -- whatever your expression — use to connect with the science and bring awareness of climate change into our everyday conversations, because we’re not stuck on this song. But our only hope for action lies in connection. Music does that. It sparked life and passion into my Grandpa and connected us as he was dying, and music has the power to connect us, emotionally, to the greatest crisis facing humankind.
So let’s rise to the challenge, listen to the data, and change the music of tomorrow.
 Oliver Sacks, Musicophelia, Knopf: 2007.
 Norgaard, Kari “Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life.” MIT Press, 2011.
 Nature Climate Change. Kahan, D. M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L. L., Braman, D., & Mandel, G. (2012). The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change, 2(10), 732–735. https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1547