When Sea Levels Attack ! How long have we got ?

Student Work

This info graphic is the work of London-based author, writer and designer David  McCandless and his team. David McCandless’ work focuses on representing data in the most beautiful and readable way in order for the general public to understand complex issues at a glance. As it happens, his project –Information is Beautiful, accessible at informationisbeautiful.net- has a couple of climate change-related creations which totally fit what we are interested in on this website: making the invisible visible and the complexity of climate change issues understandable. Of all his climate change-related work my personal preference goes for the above info graphic.

It should be pretty clear to the reader by now that this info graphic is about sea-level rising; in case the marine blue does not constitute a sufficient indication, the author has been kind enough as to add a small evocative boat on the upper-left side to make sure no-one is completely at sea. The gradation of  the blue is, I believe, remarkably well thought: it goes from deep blue to clear blue sky, as if the sea could just rise so much that it would fill up the entire universe and reach the sky. In black color, the author has put fourteen cities that should feel threatened by sea-rising; on the left, the most at risk is expectedly Venice. On the far right we find New York, London and Taipei, which are at risk if we’re optimistic enough to think we’ll still be here in a thousand years time. The point of the picture is to make tangible what is otherwise hard to imagine: the risk that these big coastal cities we all know about, face is very much real and maybe we should start worrying about it. McCandless is trying to show that we can be touched by climate change personally and that we’re all on the same boat (to keep up with bad plays on words). The Jaws-like title (‘When Sea Levels Attack! How long have we got?’) adds to the general feeling of urgency we feel when looking at this alarming info graphic.

I did feel something that relate to urgency when I first looked at the info graphic; yet a closer look caused my eyebrows to raise.

It is hard to get around the fact that two ugly white stripes slash the blue sea background, and it took me a while before realizing what actual information it was meant to convey. Each of them represents a gap of several meters, twelve for the first stripe, sixty for the second one (a fairly big difference and yet stripes are identical in size). These strips also represent a jump in time of about 500 and 7000 years respectively.  In my opinion, it greatly weakens the message of the info graphic, and it feels like it actually misses its target. Sea levels rising is certainly a long-term problem, but there is no need to look so far into the future to find alarming examples of threatened places: The Maldives are deemed inhabitable by 2100 if nothing is done to prevent climate change; the sea is also likely to swallow part of Nigeria’s coastal cities way before it starts to even timidly lick London’s feet; the info graphic leaves no place for Pacific coasts despite their very high vulnerability.

In fact, McCandless’s conscious focus on major global cities is done at the expense of less-known places which would benefit from greater political attention. Apart from Shanghai and Taipei, the cities presented here are only Western cities. It may be argued that this was done in order to retain the reader’s maximum attention and make him feel that he is also likely to be affected by sea level rising, but if that was the case then why would McCandless even bother including Shanghai and Taipei? It seems to me that choices of cities were based on their TripAdvisor ranking rather than their vulnerability.

It is interesting to note that London manages to appear twice in the info graphic: once because of South London, which is likely to be submerged within 300-400 years, and the second time once it gets completely submerged, that is in a millennium. This distinction has certainly been made in order to show that London is at risk in the medium-term; but yet again it appears arbitrary to me.

Since looking at the effects of sea rising over a time-lapse of 8,000 years masks the immediacy of the problem, maybe another way to do it would be to reduce the time-lapse considered –say, 400 years, while including more non-Western cities. One could argue that the three small maps on the right (showing how continents’ surface dwindle) would lose their purpose if we are looking at such a short period of time. That is certainly true, yet whether those maps are actually necessary and contribute efficiently to the general message is an open question.

That said, this info graphic remains a beautiful tool to raise awareness about the effects of global warming. It is one of the few info graphics I’ve seen that succeed in communicating the importance of global warming efficiently without giving up on clarity and aesthetics. I have good hope that the growing and thriving online community of graphic designers will follow that trend; numerous incredible creations are appearing everyday on the web, some of which I’ve listed below for the pleasure of the eyes.

Stanford Kay’s  Work on Carbon Footprint.

Shrink That Footprint on the causes of GHG emissions.

Cameron Tulk on Fossil Fuels.


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