Going Viral: Some thoughts one week later

Sunday, July 22, 2018, 9:31 PM BST. I put out a relatively simple tweet comprising of two NASA GISS global temperature anomaly graphics – one for June 1976, and one for June 2018. After listening to the media and meteorologists alike comparing and contrasting the current UK heatwave with that of 1976 (something which I had earlier written about here), I felt it necessary to put it into some global context: the planet as a whole is far warmer than it was in 1976 – meaning that regardless of the final ranking of the 2018 heatwave in the UK, it occurred with a different climate background. The heatwave, alongside record-breaking heatwaves across the Northern Hemisphere, is symptomatic of climate change. It has a different meaning in today’s world.

I did not in any way expect the response the tweet gained – with close to 14,000 likes a week later. Initially, I thought it might rile up a few ‘climate change deniers’ (I had a genuine interest in what might get said in response…) but after it surpassed by previous highest like/retweet count within a few hours, I knew something special was happening! I have no real idea of how far and wide the comparison went, as some didn’t relay any credit back to me for the original idea (e.g. a BBC News special “Feeling the Heat” which aired on July 26, and Met Office blog post using their HadCRUT data). Not that it bothers me – they are NASA’s graphics, after all, and I’m just happy to get a conversation going. Special thanks to Leo Hickman of Carbon Brief for helping me keep track of the various media appearances!

I’ve been looking at NASA’s GISS maps for years – the plotting tool on their website is a fantastic way to play around with climate data. Seeing a comparison like 1976 vs 2018 wasn’t surprising to me, but it occurred to me that the public don’t regularly see imagery like that – especially in such a relevant and meaningful way. It told a story. Telling the general public that the globe is X degrees warmer than it was 100 years ago, or showing them a line graph doesn’t really work – hence the success of my tweet and other novel visualisation ideas, such as the ‘climate spiral’ and ‘warming stripes’ by Professor Ed Hawkins – the original climate science viral sensation from the University of Reading! As I stated in the tweet thread, graphics like those I posted shouldn’t be surprising – global warming isn’t new, and the planet has been much warmer (relative to normal) than it is currently (try plotting February 2016 for a real shock).

Perhaps initiated by my tweet, or perhaps a coincidentally, the media – and scientists – quickly began widely discussing the relationship between climate change and the heatwaves across the Northern Hemisphere. The tweet seems to be the reason why the phrase ‘global heatwave’ gained so much use – I have seen it used before my tweet, but my use of that as a hashtag seems to have made it mainstream. It is not meant to suggest everywhere is under heatwave conditions – just that this heatwave is part of something bigger; that the planet itself is warmer than normal (i.e., a ‘heatwave’). It’s perhaps a bit of flippant phrasing which I can understand disagreement with.

However, whilst this has been the best-reported and most clear-cut example of linking climate change to ongoing weather, it did strike me that in some cases it was reported as though this was, in some way, new. A BBC News article from August 2003 (“Heatwave part of global trend”) could have been extracted word-for-word and used in 2018. The story then: a heatwave in the UK, but also deadly heatwaves around the world as global temperatures rose. 15 years later, and the story is the same. Yes, we have come a long way in 15 years in terms of our understanding of the climate, but the story is the same and the expectations are (broadly) the same. How long until it is accepted that the future we predicted is now happening? How long until we stop speaking of ‘heatwaves are expected to become more common due to climate change’? Climate change isn’t something we should continuously speak of in the future tense – it has happened and it is happening.

If you’ve read this far and are still with me, I added some of my ‘in the moment’ thoughts on July 24 to my first post on Reading’s Meteorology PhD blog site, “The Social Metwork”.

Right. What do I tweet next?

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