Lauren Oakes Nik Sawe climate change

This is what climate change sounds like

Global warming in Alaska's Alexander Archipelago in D minor.

- Oct 3, 2016
Photo by: Lauren Oakes

Since 2011, ecologist Lauren Oakes has studied the dying yellow cedar in the Alexander Archipelago — a 300-mile long group of islands off the southeastern coast of Alaska.

In the summers of 2011 and 2012, her field crew sampled forest stands across the region, recording forest composition, species populations, and tree sizes from the north to the south, where, because of climate change, the yellow cedar's decline is most advanced. Now, with the help of a Stanford colleague, they've turned the findings into a song.

Environmental neuroeconomist Nik Sawe has been experimenting with data sonification — the representation of information by sound. The practice helps communicate complicated datasets, he told The Atlantic, revealing subtle patterns since our ears are especially sensitive to patterns.

Sawe used a different instrument for the five species Oakes had recorded — piano for yellow cedar, flute for western hemlock, cello and bass for Sitka spruce, clarinet for shore pine, and violin and viola for mountain hemlock. Each tree is represented by a note. Lower, shorter notes represent younger, smaller trees, while higher, longer notes stand for older trees. Dead trees get a dropped note.

Paying particular attention to the piano, you'll notice the growing rests and silences as the sonification sweeps the data towards the southern study plots and the yellow cedar's decline due to rising temperatures becomes most evident. This is the sound of climate change.

Sawe has set the piece in D minor, which lends a sad character to the findings. Had he switched the gentle flute, which represents the western hemlock — a species that has thrived in place of the yellow cedar — for something big and brassy, we'd get a different story altogether. The forest's song adapts.


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