A set of vertical stripes progressing from shades of blue to red and purple has become a symbol of Earth’s changing climate.
Emblazoned on items ranging from the sleeves of soccer jerseys in England and beer cans in Arizona to a climate handbook and knitted scarves, climate stripes are a widespread phenomenon that has engaged people in conversations about the warming world. The stripes’ creator, Ed Hawkins, is a climate scientist at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom.
An astrophysicist turned climate expert, Hawkins realized he wanted to become a scientist in his teenage years. “I used to read lots of popular science books and magazines and became fascinated by the stories of people and the discoveries they were making,” he said.
In the mid-1990s, Hawkins earned a master’s degree in astrophysics and then moved on to a Ph.D. at the University of Nottingham.
“I loved astrophysics, and I still do,” Hawkins said. “But at the same time, I felt I needed something that could be more directly useful to people.”
Hawkins isn’t sure what made him realize that studying climate was a viable option, but he decided to pursue another master’s degree, this time in climate science at the University of Reading.
It wasn’t hard to find common ground between astrophysics and climate change. “They are both observational sciences, as you can’t do controlled experiments,” he said. “Just like we have models for the weather and climate, there are models for the universe in astrophysics.” These similarities, he recalled, smoothed what could otherwise have been a bumpy transition.
“I think it is very helpful to bring people from outside the [climate] field to provide fresh perspectives and bring in new techniques and insights,” he said.
One of Hawkins’s fresh perspectives translated into a success story in climate communication. Climate stripes sprang from a collaboration with children’s author and poet Nicola Davies at the 2018 Hay Festival of Literature & Arts in Wales. The stripes evolved from a spiral representation that Hawkins had already been using since 2016 to convey the climate urgency message and had already gone big; the visual had been displayed at the opening of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Being a visual learner helped Hawkins think about how to communicate climate data. “When I started, I had to learn very fast about climate science [to advance] in my new role, so making visuals was always something interesting to me,” he shared.
Hawkins’s work has given him wide recognition, including the Royal Meteorological Society’s Climate Science Communication Award in 2017 and a Member of the Order of the British Empire appointment in 2020.
“I’m really glad about the stripes’ power to start conversations about climate change,” Hawkins said.
—Meghie Rodrigues (@meghier), Science Writer