Who really invented the climate stripes?

Canary Media unravels the mystery behind this now-ubiquitous design — with some help from the Baha Men and convergent evolution.

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Canary Media’s Friday Social column explores the intersection of energy, climate and social media.

In 2018, Professor Ed Hawkins told the duck curve to move over and introduced the energy and climate world to a new data visualization of record, dubbed the warming stripes (or climate stripes).

The stripes show a change in global temperature between 1850 and the present day, starting with cool blues that in recent years have turned to deep reds.

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Since then, the graphic has popped up everywhere from London Fashion Week to the State of the Union address. Climate artist Nicole Kelner painted the data visualization with watercolors and has an online shop peppered with climate-stripe wares.

Just last week, Greta Thunberg unveiled that the warming stripes are featured on the cover of her forthcoming work, The Climate Book.

More than meets the eye

A TikTok video posted on Twitter in early May piqued my curiosity about the viral graphic and set me on a quest to understand its true origins — one that turned out to have some unexpected twists and turns.

In the video, climate scientist Doug McNeall explains that while Hawkins usually receives credit for creating the climate stripes, it was originally inspired by Hawkin’s then-colleague, fellow climate scientist Ellie Highwood, who had knit what she dubbed the global-warming blanket.”

Highwood wrote about the blanket on her website in 2017:

The global warming blanket was based on temperature” blankets made by crocheters around the world. Their blankets consist of one row, or square, of crochet each day, coloured according to the temperature at their location. They look amazing and show both the annual cycle and day-to-day variability. Other people make sky” blankets where the colours are based on the sky colour of the day — this results in a more muted grey-blue-white colour palette.

I wondered what the global temperature series would look like as a blanket. Also, global warming is often explained as greenhouse gases acting like a blanket, trapping infrared radiation and keeping the Earth warm.

In the same post, Highwood writes:

The picture of my global warming blanket” rapidly became my top tweet ever, with more retweets and likes than anything else. Apparently, I had found a creative way to visualize trends in global mean temperature. I particularly liked the this is the most frightening knitwear I have seen all year” comment.

Ed Hawkins weighed in on McNeall’s TikTok video in the same Twitter thread, confirming that Highwood’s blanket did indeed come first:

I reached out to Hawkins by email to learn more about the backstory. Here’s how he replied:

Professor Ellie Highwood is a climate scientist and also a keen knitter. She decided to crochet a blanket for a colleague’s new baby, and used a series of different coloured stripes to represent the rise in global temperatures. Several months later I was invited to speak at the Hay Festival and wanted a simple visual way of communicating the warming of our planet and remembered the discussions with Ellie about the simple message of her blanket. The warming stripes were born!

The recipient of the blanket, climate scientist Jennifer Catto, eventually posted a comment in the same Twitter thread, showing the blanket draped around her daughter’s shoulders (who by now, of course, is no longer a baby).

More details uncovered

But that’s not the end of this tale. Weeks after the original Twitter thread trailed off, Ed Hawkins popped back in and noted that estuarine scientist Joan Sheldon had actually knitted a scarf with climate stripes two years prior to the creation of Highwood’s blanket.

I emailed Sheldon to get her story, and this is what she had to say:

In 2015, I was working on another data visualization project (a sky scarf”) and got to thinking about what other types of data would make an impactful visualization in stripes, and thought that the best and most important one would be the long-term global temperature data set, because it might reach audiences that don’t normally see and interpret the usual scientific graphical representations.

As luck would have it, my scientific society, the Coastal & Estuarine Research Federation, was introducing a new type of session dedicated to using art to communicate science at their November 2015 conference, so during that year I developed the visualization by combining a historical proxy dataset from Michael Mann with modern-era data from NASA, created the scarf, and presented it at the meeting.

The pattern was subsequently published on my blog and linked to from Ravelry, a major online yarn community, and eventually referenced in Fast Company [and] a fiber arts journal, and [was also] included in a master’s thesis studying textile and fiber arts as applied to data physicalization.
A purple and red knitted scarf
(Credit: Wade Shelton)

Biology lesson

Highwood and Sheldon both credit sky blankets” and sky scarves” as their original inspirations. They were also both scientists working in climate and climate-adjacent spaces at the time of their creations.

I asked Sheldon if she thought this coincidence could be a case of convergent evolution.

If you haven’t taken an evolutionary biology course, a MasterClass definition of this term will suffice: Convergent evolution is the process by which two species develop similar features despite not sharing a recent common ancestor.” One common example is bats and birds — both creatures independently developed wings, but they do not share a winged relative.

Sheldon’s answer: I can believe that we all may have thought of more or less the same thing, convergent evolution, as you say, and I am grateful that he [Hawkins] has now acknowledged my earlier work on Twitter.”

Sheldon wants a bit more acknowledgment in the public record, however. She continued:

As far as I can tell, my project still pre-dates all similar work, so I am not aware of anyone else who thought of it before I did. Every other climate stripes project that I’ve seen has been from 2017 or later. So I consider myself the originator of the warming stripes visualization, and I’d appreciate it if that fact didn’t get lost, even as we all focus on using the graphic to convey the urgency of climate change and the importance of acting quickly to slow further warming.

Who let the climate stripes out?

Do you remember the smash hit of 2000, Who Let the Dogs Out?” If you’re over the age of 30, the answer should be a definitive yes.

A 2019 documentary, which later led to an episode of the popular podcast 99% Invisible, tries to trace the roots of the song, and it’s not an easy task. The complicated story encompasses not only inspiration from other recording artists but also the chants popularized by fans who attended games at one Michigan high school football stadium dating all the way back to the 1980s. Ultimately, the exact origin of the song is a little fuzzy.

The podcast’s episode write-up concludes, Despite these conflicting claims about the origins of the song…the saga of Who Let the Dogs Out’ shows how art and creative work evolve over time. You can never truly know where an idea comes from, but perhaps that’s just the mystery of artistic production.”

Using the Who Let the Dogs Out” analogy, the one thing I can definitively conclude from the climate stripes origin story is that Ed Hawkins played a role equivalent to the documentary’s depiction of the Baha Men. He took a banger of a graphic, added some polish — and made it a mainstream smash hit.

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Mike Munsell is director of growth at Canary Media.