UAlbany researchers develop way to help people visualize climate change

Tree rings help measure climate change. Part of an image from a tool  developed by the state University at Albany Visualization and Informatics Lab.
Tree rings help measure climate change. Part of an image from a tool developed by the state University at Albany Visualization and Informatics Lab.

 At this point, we’re all used to hearing about the climate changing.

But seeing 2,000 years of data in front of you, all narrowed down in the form of an easy-to-operate visual tool, might really put it in perspective.

This is what researchers at the University at Albany realized as they worked since early 2018 to create a recently launched tool through the UAlbany Visualization and Informatics Lab. The tool is a part of the school’s $5 million Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) project, which was funded through the National Science Foundation. It features three visualization maps: a “Tree Ring Viewer” showing the history of the climate as determined by specific tree rings,  a “Forest Stress Viewer” showcasing tree growth at 3,579 forests around the world and a “PHYDA [Paleo Hydrodynamics Data Assimilation] Climate Globe,” all of which use data banks of archival information to help users narrow down the future of the climate’s trajectory, and can help better inform those making policies related to the climate.

“What we are seeing is unprecedented warming, globally,” said Ernesto Tejedor, postdoctoral research associate at the Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences. “That is caused by human activities. It’s very important to see visually because sometimes they tell you and you don’t really realize. But when you have 2,000 years of data and see that we are living in the warmest period that the earth has faced in the last 2,000 years, it’s shocking that we’re able to change the earth’s climate at a high base.”

Tejedor worked alongside project director and Professor Mathias Vuille, merging data from two of the largest tree-ring and cave sediment archives in the Southern Hemisphere. They then took this data — where the size of tree rings helps to explain the climate at the time each ring was formed — to produce reconstructions of major weather events to make future climate predictions. The lab then translated the work into the visualization tools, which can be viewed online.

Eighteen investigators worked on the project from six different institutions, including in Brazil and Argentina, said Natalia Ruiz Menal, communications and project manager for PIRE.

“We have the key to solve a lot of problems that we might have right now in our society and in the future,” Menal said. “So everything affects our society, because it’s going to affect our pocket. If we have a drought, food prices are going to rise. So I think it’s super amazing to be part of a project that is going to bring us a lot of answers for now and for the future.”

When drought information from Northeast Brazil and California, for instance, are streamlined in one place, the tool gives politicians from both areas a chance to compare and share their experiences, Tejedor said.

“We can contextualize the droughts that they are facing within their last millennium,” Tejedor said. “And also we can share information with them about what might happen in the future if we continue this pathway of greenhouse emissions.”

Tejedor emphasized that just because the visualization tools are now live, doesn’t mean the project’s mission is finished.

“Our mission is to extract that information and translate that information into useful knowledge for implementing that in the models,” Tejedor said. “Then once we have a better understanding of how the climate works, we can apply that into the future climate projections. The project not only works on the research side, but also on the educational outreach side of it. And so, we are very committed to translating our findings into actionable tools and into society in general.”

The three tools can be found on

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