That’s One Hot World! New Google Earth Layer Depicts One Possible Future

A Screenshot from the 4-Degree Layer

Last month, the U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) released a Google Earth layer illustrating the impacts of a 4° Celsius warming on Earth. This level of warming appears possible within this century if current emission trends continue. While a few observers still try to keep the debate heated and controversial, mainstream science suggests that we need to keep the warming below 2°C or less if we want to prevent major climate disruptions.

The basic Google Earth layer shows color gradations representing how the temperature increase would vary throughout the world. Superimposed on this map, however, are areas that would be susceptible to particular negative impacts such as lower crop yields, tropical cyclones, or drought, as well as examples of the work done around the world by FCO and the British Council Climate Champions to fight the causes and effects of climate change. Videos accompany most of these examples, featuring either British climate scientists who explain the science behind the impact descriptions, or a first-hand account of the work being done around the world.

The first thing you notice about the map is that it’s just cool. Even amongst the endless and often well designed Google Earth layers,  the 4-degrees layer is particularly sleek. The bleeding yellows, oranges, and reds of the warming map are easy on the eye. When you choose to overlay the additional impacts, color-coded circles appear around the affected areas with corresponding icons that you can click on for the explanation, videos, and links to more information.

This simple design makes it easy to see which parts of the world will be most seriously affected. And even with the information being relatively general—for example,  water resources affected by the 70 percent reduction in runoff are “around the Mediterranean, southern Africa, and large areas of South America”—the visual representation of all of the effects still provides food for thought. Personally, I was unaware that warming would be so severe in the Amazon forest, leading to increased risk of wildfire, or just how much trouble southern Africa is in, with higher than average warming, decrease in water availability, increased frequency of droughts, reduced wheat and maize yields, and increased risk of wildfire all expected.

Of course, the map could be improved. The biggest shortcoming to me is that sea-level rise, one of the easiest and most intimidating effects of climate change to visualize, is not well represented. It is included as one of the highlighted impacts, but surely showing the water encroaching on Bangladesh or swallowing the Maldives is more powerful than simply listing possible populations and areas affected. That said, including that sort of visual would have made the map more complicated, and part of its power lies in its simplicity. There are also other Google Earth layers that illustrate possible sea-level rise, and this map operates only at the 10,000 foot view (figuratively—literally it’s at much more than 10,000 feet!) and so zooming in to look at examples of sea-level rise might be somewhat incongruous.

The key to the 4-degree layer, though, is how it will be used. The information it presents is seemingly aimed at an audience relatively unfamiliar with climate science. Moreover, though the map is obviously conveying scary information, the design somewhat belies this by looking so friendly and benign, suggesting an intent of not wanting to go overboard with frightening imagery.

The question, however, is how this information will reach the intended audience. No one will stumble on this Google Earth layer without looking for it, and so its ultimate usefulness will probably be in classrooms and as part of lectures and presentations. The people most likely to see it on Google Earth are those already concerned with the subject, not the people to whom it is messaged. To reach this target audience, the British government will need to heavily market the layer to educators and campaigners. Let’s hope that this impressive piece of design gets the exposure it deserves.

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