This Viral GIF Explains Climate Change in a Brand New Way

Climate scientist Ed Hawkins didn't set out to create a viral sensation when he made an animated GIF that visualizes the change in average global temperatures from 1850 to 2016 and shared it on Twitter. But that's exactly what happened, and those who are worried about the looming threat of climate change are certainly grateful.

The visualization, which appears below, has been shared more than 12,000 times on Twitter since Hawkins posted it May 9. The GIF is both simple and terrifying.

"I can't quite believe it," said Hawkins, a professor at the U.K. University of Reading, of the response to his GIF. "It was just designed to try and communicate in a different way. As scientists, we need to communicate and try different things, and this was just one of those trials, and it has turned out very well."

The GIF takes monthly temperature data and plots the averages in a spiral, with warmer temperatures moving further away from the center and cooler temperatures moving inward. The year for each data set flashes in the center of the circle. Because climate change isn't a smooth process of continual warming, the GIF is particularly useful for showing both the fluctuations from year to year alongside the overall trend toward a hotter Earth, which is easy to see as the spiral expands outward over time.

To make it even more meaningful, Hawkins added red circles to indicate a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in average temperature above the pre-Industrial average and a 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature — both markers that are viewed in climate change discussions as potential points of no return. (They're also important because many nations pledged at the December Paris climate talks to try to avert both a 1.5 and a 2 degree Celsius rise in global temperature.)

Watching the mesmerizing graphic, it's clear how close we've already come to the 1.5 degree Celsius boundary.

The animation can be both bleak and alarming. But that's not its intent.

Hawkins said that the future is still in our hands:

The lines for 2015 and 2016 appear to be particularly problematic, spiking very near the 1.5 degree Celsius marker because of this year's powerful El Niño event. But there's still hope to avoid irreversible climate change catastrophe if we take action as a global community now — such as taking steps to reduce the amount of oil, coal, and gas we burn.

What happens if we cross the 2 degree Celsius line? We don't know. If that's not reason to pay attention to rising global climate temperatures now, I'm not sure what is.

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