Stuff reconstructs 20,000 years of Earth’s changing temperature
Ideas Blog | 03 January 2023
Explaining the immediacy and the severity of the climate crisis facing humanity is the most important task for news media today.
To modern humans, temperature rise due to anthropomorphic climate change seems abstract and minute within our lifetime. Without the context of temperature changes over a much longer period, it’s hard for audiences to grasp how long it takes for the climate to change and how quickly human action is driving temperatures up.
So Stuff recast Earth’s temperature back 22,000 years, using data from climate models, estimates reconstructed from ice cores, and recorded observations, to highlight — visually — the rapid effects of man-made carbon emissions.
Data is at the centre of this bespoke piece of storytelling about temperature rises and climate change in their full historical context, presenting the story using an innovative, impactful layout across both digital and print formats.
Tracking climate history
Changes in earth’s temperature over 20,000 years are tracked right up until the spike beginning in the mid-20th century. The projected scenarios we are accustomed to hearing as increases of one or two degrees Celsius appear at the end, in the dramatic context of much longer, slower changes.
This was achieved with a simple tweak to how the visualisation’s time axis was presented. It spanned 30,000 pixels vertically for the Web and was printed across the bottom half of four consecutive pages in The Forever Project magazine, the Stuff-owned home to New Zealand’s most ambitious environmental reporting. The coverage emphasised the rapid effects of man-made carbon emissions on the Earth’s climate over three centuries.
The temperature curve was paired with milestones of humankind’s history, including New Zealand- and Pacific-specific facts such as the emergence of the Proto-Oceanic language lineage around 3200 BCE, which would evolve into Te Reo Māori, or the settling of Aotearoa by Pacific seafarers, around 1300 CE.
Reliable data sources were identified, checked, and processed into a format that allowed the presentation of the graphic we were aiming for. Further research identified a series of historical facts, relevant to a New Zealand audience, that could sustain a simple narrative.
We also had a goal to attract a significant audience to the piece and achieve high rates of engagement (aiming for an average of more than two minutes per view) as a proxy measure for building trust in our work.
How we did it
Weeks of coding, design, and sub-editing — working across print and digital platforms — culminated in the impactful scrolling story we’d been aiming for.
Drawing inspiration from the timeline first published by the Web comic XKCD, we created a simple interactive scrolling experience for our local (New Zealand) audience. This special visual project was created to underscore the severity of the climate crisis.
The reconstruction of 20,000 years of Earth’s temperature feature appeared in the second edition of our quarterly The Forever Project print liftout in June 2021. It was published and promoted on our news site at the same time. The online feature attracted 60,000 page views with an average engagement time of close to three minutes.
The print lift-out was included in our national weekend newspaper, the Sunday Star-Times, as well as our key metropolitan newspapers, including The Dominion Post, The Press, and Waikato Times, reaching about 500,000 print readers across New Zealand.
Readers, including climate scientists and communicators, contacted us to say thanks for creating such a vivid depiction of the climate crisis we are in.
The climate crisis is always at the front and centre of our mission to use our reach and scale to help make Aotearoa New Zealand a better place.