Climate change data is being transformed into beautiful, haunting symphonies

Written by Alexandra Simon-Lewis / 19th June 2017 / Wired


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Data sonification is being used to evoke the sounds of a climate in crisis

What is the sound of a dying planet? Translating hard facts into feeling is the issue of our age - and it is the task Disobedient, working with composer Jamie Perera, have appointed themselves. The London-based team are inspiring action by transforming climate change data into music.

Ten years ago, old-school graphs and text-based data were the only way to communicate the growing problem of climate change. But when it comes to inspiring action, a relentless march of charts can disengage many. For Leah Borromeo, co-director of Climate Symphony, it became clear a different approach was needed.

"Music makes us feel things," she says. "It affects us physiologically, emotionally. Sound has always acted as a warning for us, we have this ingrained in our limbic system. This is a new way of expressing the climate change issue."

Data sonification is the process of transforming numerical data into sound. Corresponding sounds are mapped onto specific data points and as each section of a dataset evolves the technique can be used to create a complex musical piece. It can mark change over time, rises and falls in specific factors and trends within a certain field.

The Climate Symphony team, including co-director Katharine Round and composer Jamie Perera, chart this data across musical notation, working with meteorologists, conservationists, sound artists and investigative journalists. Every bar of music in Climate Symphony is equivalent to one year of scientific data - with recordings amassing a total of 20 years from 1994 to 2014. These raw data files are sonified by feeding them into a programme to sort them into notes, or by turning the data into graphs which can then be transposed onto a piano keyboar.

The premise at the heart of Climate Symphony is that the music it creates isn't just background noise. It isn't separate from the data - music is the data. "These are still hard facts - that's the beauty of it." Borromeo says. "It's still data, it's just using sound as the reporting tool."

The data used is derived from a range of sources, all with the emphasis on transparency. Climate data has been accumulated from NOAA and Nasa, all with the focus on the peer-review system. The process of collection and compilation has been a rigorous investment in the union of science and art. Borromeo stresses that Climate Symphony is committed to peer-reviewed science. "There's so much obfuscation around process," she says, "Opening things from the start so all the bones and blood of the thing are on display is important. Peer review obviously stands up in a professional context but we can't negate the importance of first person perspective either. So we'd like to find ways of using bot."

As climate change reaches tipping point, the data being collected becomes more and more alarming. Arctic sea ice is rapidly melting; across the ocean, cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses are on the rise. It will only take another 0.4 degree Fahrenheit rise in global average temperature, to hit an atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide of 450 parts per million (ppm) - the threshold beyond which global warming becomes catastrophic and irrevocable.

The concept of Climate Symphony first emerged at the Sheffield Doc/Fest in 2015, as well as the Global Health Film Festival in the same year. The first data sonification testbed was launched at ONCA 2016, and while Climate Symphony is still in the research and development phase, two day-long participatory labs will take place in June and July 2017. Climate Symphony's next iteration will come in 2018 - with a live symphony performance set for the summer.

As it grows, Climate Symphony has ambitions to transform itself into a global enterprise. Borromeo and her team want to "show people how to record this data all over the world, in places that are directly affected by climate change".

As well as grappling with data from a dying planet, the project also highlights a conflict. "Tragedy sounds really good," says Borromeo, "And that's a conflict. I'm jarred by it and I hear it everyday. It's the sound of flooding in the Maldives, or food shortages and war in Syria, things that feel distant and very far away."

From public rallies to government legislation, Borromeo hopes that "any and all of these things" can arise from the project. Her message is simple: "Existence is resistance."

Originally published by Wired magazine. The article has been edited to remove factual inaccuracies.