The Music of Climate Change

I am an experimental seismologist. That means I spend a lot of time looking at data about the earth. I am not an atmospheric scientist so I cannot make detailed models for the future of the world’s climate, but I can look at data and recognize alarming trends. And the basic data for the temperature of the earth, averaged over the whole atmosphere is terrifying. The world is warming and the rate at which it is warming is getting faster.

Change in the average temperature of the Earth since 1880 (data from NOAA).
Temperature is given in °F change from 1880.

I am also a musician and I sometimes hear the data. This data is like a graceful minuet accelerating into a frantic jig. Of course, the increase is to be expected because our burning of fossil fuels for energy has been increasing the amount of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere. The heat in the atmosphere equals the energy that comes in minus the energy that goes out. Energy in comes from the sun with minor variations from rotational wobble, sunspots, etc.  Energy out is the infrared heat radiation that is given off by any body minus the amount that our atmosphere can trap. “Greenhouse gasses” are the chemicals that absorb energy in the infrared spectrum and thus keep some of the heat here on earth and if you increase the concentration of greenhouse gasses, you keep more heat. Details are complex with positive and negative feedback mechanisms, transport of heat through the ocean currents, effects of clouds and ice, all being studied by other types of earth scientists.  But I can look at this graph and see that the amount of carbon dioxide is up substantially and that it correlates well with the temperatures. I find these graphs terrifying and I struggle to understand why so many people accept this without fear.

CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. Data from NOAA

I turn to music to process and express my emotions. I realized early on in life that although I love music, I would never be a great musician – one who can make a living at it – but music continues to be the part of my life where I can experience my emotions in more depth. I saw someone turn the temperature data into pitch and play it on a cello. You could hear what I saw in the temperature data. It is not a piece of music – it is a string of notes without chords or harmony. But I started to think about using this to convey my emotions about climate change.

I play an old string instrument called the viol (or in Italian, the viola da gamba). A “consort of viols” was the 17th century predecessor of the string quartet, a small group ensemble with closely interlocking harmonies (an example here). One style of music for this ensemble is the In Nomine, where one instrument plays a drawn out melody and the others play intricate polyphonic lines around that slow steady line, called the cantus firmus, or fixed song. I decided to try to use the climate data as the cantus firmus and create music for the earth.

Turning that vision to reality has taken a few years, but I finally completed In Nomine Terra Calens: In the name of a warming Earth. This music video uses the visual and auditory arts to experience the warming Earth.  It is played by four viols with one of the bass viols playing the temperature data. Thanks to Josh Lee and Ostraka for recording the piece. A friend and colleague from the Art Center College of Design, Ming Tai, led a team to create an animation of temperature data to go with the music.

I realize that just knowing the Earth is warming is not enough. As scientists, we understand a lot about how earthquakes, floods and other disasters will affect people, but we have found that it is much easier for people to understand the problem and take action when we clearly connect the consequences to the problem.  I spent a decade creating science-based scenarios of natural disasters to provide people with the information to make better decisions.

With climate change, if we do nothing, if we continue to add CO2 to the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels, we will change life on earth. Even though there have been warmer times on Earth, those were times with different ecologies – that had time to adapt to the changes in climate.  The speed with which we are changing the climate is unprecedented. The world is already warmer by almost 2°F.  Everywhere on Earth, ecosystems are experiencing a different climate than that in which they evolved. Within the lifetime of children now born, with no action, the climate could be 5-10 °F warmer. What does this mean?

  • More disasters. Heat is energy and with more energy in the atmosphere, storms will be more severe. The strongest hurricane, the biggest daily rainfall, the longest duration of Cat 5 winds, have all happened in the last few years. Storms will be bigger and more devastating.
  • More wildfires. Every ecosystem in the world will be stressed by a different climate, mostly warmer. Wildfires are spreading through the boreal forests in Scandinavia and Alaska. The California wildfires of the last few years are just the beginning.
  • Food shortages. Farmers are already having to adapt their techniques to the changing climate. Some places will become unfarmable.
  • Water availability crises. Some places are getting wetter and some drier. Getting water to people will require different delivery systems than we currently have.
  • Climate refugees. Some countries will be underwater as the polar ice melts. Others will lose the ability to grow enough food for their populations. Millions, maybe hundreds of millions of people will need to move to stay alive.
  • Social disruption? We humans have many choices to make about how we respond to these disruptions. How will we respond to 50 million refugees?

I think many people, especially in America, think that dealing with climate change means giving up modern life. We talk about individuals driving an electric car, forgoing an airplane trip or reducing plastic use, as though that is the solution. We don’t want to give up modern life so we don’t think about climate change or we try to believe it isn’t really true. 

But the answer to climate change is not a Prius and reusable grocery bag.  With 7 billion people on Earth, we could give up every aspect of modern life and not solve the problem. We still need to keep warm in winter and move our food to where people are. The only solution is to move forward, to a world with a carbon neutral energy system, a society where the production of energy does not increase the carbon in the atmosphere. Until we get to carbon neutral energy, any life, let alone modern life, increases the CO2 in the atmosphere.

Dealing with climate change means technological innovation to create a better world. It can be done. Solar energy is already much cheaper than it was a decade ago. When we decided to go to the moon, we solved innumerable technical challenges and we were proud of doing it. We did that together and we need to do it again.

As an individual, you might be one of the technical innovators. But every one of us can say we want our government to fund and support the innovation. Why would we want someone else to own the technologies that are going to be needed by the future world? Dealing with climate change means investing in the future.  Look again at the consequences of our current trajectory. The true threat to modern life is not dealing with climate change. 

I end In Nomine Terra Calens with a stripping away of harmonies to finally land on one, lone, very high note. I end without direction to represent the uncertain future. We stand at a decision point where the future of the world really rests on our decisions.


Volcanoes Cool the Earth… at Least Temporarily

Could the eruption of Mount Agung in Indonesia cool the earth?

Very big volcanoes can disrupt the climate around the earth. In 1783, the Laki Craters eruption in Iceland produced more than 6 times as much sulfur dioxide as Mount Pinatubo. It also got more into the stratosphere, because the bottom of the stratosphere is lower near the poles – only eight miles up. In the next year, a great freeze settled over Europe, leading to a famine that contributed to the French Revolution. The continents did not heat up as much the next summer, so the monsoons didn’t develop. This contributed to droughts that killed one-sixth of the population of Egypt, 11 million people in India and over 1 million in Japan. Could the same thing happen because of the current eruption of Mount Agung in Indonesia?

The last time Mount Agung erupted in 1963, the average global temperature dropped for a few years.  This graph shows the average global temperature for the last 140 years, marking the times of five large volcanic eruptions. You can see how the world’s temperature drops for a few years after those eruptions.  Some, but not all, big volcanic eruptions have caused a drop in the global temperature. What makes the difference?

The answer is in the gases that come out of the lava. Magma often has a large amount of trapped gases that get released when the it reaches the surface. The most common are water, carbon dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. Water and carbon dioxide are already so common in the atmosphere that the volcanoes do not change the global concentrations. Mount Pinatubo in 1991 released 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. Human activity in the United States release 100 times that – 5 billion metric tons every year.  Besides, as we all know, carbon dioxide traps the infrared 

radiation of heat rising form the earth and tends to make the earth hotter.

The cooling effect of volcanoes comes from pushing larger particles into the stratosphere where they block sunlight coming in. Although volcanic ash blocks sunlight, it is heavy (it is rock, even though in very small pieces) and it falls back to the earth in a few days or weeks. The biggest culprit is the sulfur dioxide. Sulfur dioxide oxidizes into sulfuric acid and condenses into sulfate aerosols. In the lower atmosphere, sulfates are washed out of the atmosphere relatively quickly by rain. But above the main climate systems, in the much drier stratosphere, particles could be transported around the world, staying aloft for years. These sulfate particles are just the right size to scatter incoming sunlight, sending some of it back into space and, consequently, cooling the ground below. Volcanic eruptions that send a lot of sulfur into the stratosphere can have a substantial impact on the global temperature. Mount Pinatubo, erupting in 1991, cooled the world by 1.5°F, with an impact that could still be felt three years later.

Mount Agung in 1963 had a similar impact to Mount Pinatubo, and it could again. The next eruption would need to also have a high concentration of sulfur dioxide, and it would need to be powerful enough to force that sulfur dioxide up into the stratosphere, 12 miles above the earth’s surface. And as we see in the graph, it doesn’t stop the global warming we are creating with greenhouse gases; it just gives us a short break in the otherwise upward trend.

You can read more about the Laki eruption and other catastrophic natural disasters in my upcoming book, The Big Ones, available for pre-order here.