Listen to music made to the rhythm of global warming

One night in 2013, artist Stephan Crawford was sitting in his studio in San Francisco, thinking of a way of expressing Earth’s carbon cycle through a moving sculpture. He had a metal rod in his hand, and he started tapping it against his workbench. And that’s when the eureka moment struck. “That tapping made me think of a rhythm,” Crawford says. “And then it went straight to the idea of music.”

Four years later, Crawford runs The ClimateMusic Project, a group of scientists, musicians, and composers who create music based on climate data — and then throw concerts to communicate the urgency of climate change to the public. The current piece they’re performing, by composer Erik Ian Walker, runs about 30 minutes long, and spans 500 years of data — from 1800 to 2300. It includes projections for two possible future scenarios: one where humans continue to carelessly pump heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere; the other where we come to our senses and reduce emissions to try to keep global warming below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s the goal of the Paris climate deal, and the threshold beyond which the climate change will be irreversible and apocalyptic.

The piece starts with calming strings that slowly build over the gentle sounds of birds chirping. As carbon dioxide concentrations steadily go up, starting in the mid 1800s during the Industrial Revolution, the tempo increases. The music grows more and more discordant in the early 2000s; by the 2030s, it’s so fast and distorted it’s anxiety inducing. And at the end of the century, when temperatures have increased by almost 9 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s more noise than music, like the static of a TV. The performance is accompanied by animated charts showing changes in CO2 levels, global temperature, and Earth’s energy balance. And at the end, there’s an engagement session where people can share their thoughts and talk…

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