Why this Climate Change GIF has gone viral, and what can we learn from that

It’s possible that you’ve already seen this GIF in Twitter, Facebook or some digital newspaper; if not, I believe it’s not going to take a lot for the image to reach you.


This GIF, made my @ed_hawkins, shows, for the last 166 years, the monthly variation of average temperature, compared with the 1850-1900 average. This is, how much warmer (or colder) has a year been, taking as a baseline the temperatures recorded in the second half of the nineteenth century. The variation, as you can see, describes a mesmerizing spiral that approximates towards the 1,5 and 2ºC lines. These boundaries, depicted as red circumferences, represent the consensus on when warming effects are not predictable, and could be much worse than expected. But they are not a magic armour, nor a deep cliff: trespassing them puts us in the territory of uncertainty, and maybe thats even scarier. Nevertheless, the consequences of warming can be felt before going there. In fact, we’ve actually consumed one of those two degrees, and climate change is not a matter of predictions or future scenarios anymore, but of measurable environmental parameters, such as melting glaciers, extreme weather events o coral bleaching.

But let’s focus: why has this GIF gone viral? Every month we see pictures and graphs of global warming, and none gets viral (indeed, they almost always stay between the restricted virtual area of climate scientists and activists). They usually look like this:

Fig 2.2_rev1-01


They are quite simple: X-Z axis with years-temperature (or coloured world map). However, they are far more “readable” than the spiral-Hawkins-graph, where it’s difficult to tell the exact temperature increase given the date. So where’s the trick? Also, Hawkins’ results were already public: he tweeted them as one traditional graph (although also animated as a GIF in one tweet) and later as a spiral, but static JPEG picture. They didn’t reach very far.

ed hawkins climate

And then, with the animated GIF, they broke their servers.

ed hawk clim4

What can we learn from all of this? Fortunately, Hawkins uploaded several tweets in the last few weeks that show the data in different ways, what lets us speculate about the influence of the different factors.

  1. It’s a GIF, not a static, boring JPEG. Digital news perform better when there’s a picture accompanying them, and social networks do even better when something is moving, because it catches our attention. See the first Hawkins’ spiral tweet with a JPEG, not a GIF. It reached just a few thousand peolple. Nothing close to the GIF.ed hawk clim3
  2. The GIF is cute. It’s beautiful. It’s colourful. It’s hypnotic and you really want to see it again and again, although it’s telling a terrible, scary story. But! Even if it’s moving (first point) it has to be pretty: April the 22nd, Hawkin tweeted a GIF in a traditional X-Z axis that told the same, but… It wasn’t as mesmerizing as the spiral one: just lines adding up in the “Y” axis. It scored just 20 RT, which is OK, but… ed hawk clim2
  3. It’s different. Neither the journalists nor the climate activists or researchers are used to making things different. IPCC results are always displayed in the same way; news look the same. When we open a climate story, we anticipate bar graphs, ascending lines. Not something we really want to look at for minutes. Surprise!
  4. It is born from the collaboration. Even though all the media is giving credit to Ed Hawkins, he acknowledges Jan Fuglestvedt as the one who told him to give spiral graph a try. So there’s a lesson here: you have to put together creativity and technique, talent and know-how.
  5. The avalanche effect. I’m talking about it and you’re reading about it. Media is talking about it. Everybody is tweeting about it. Even the UN is talking about it! When something’s big enough in the 2.0, curiosity and avalanche join and the path it’s unpredictable. Let’s hope that this one is long and gets a lot of people into the climate debate. That’s what this GIF was for, right?

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