A twitter user asked how I feel about this latest effort (from NASA) to illustrate global warming. To see the entire video, go to their website.
This video hides the lede so be patient or jump ahead to 0:56 and watch till the end.
Let's first describe what we are seeing.
The dataset consists of monthly average global temperature "anomalies" from 1880 to 2021 - an "anomaly" is the deviation of the average temperature that month from a reference level (seems like this is fixed at the average temperatures by month between 1951 and 1980).
A simple visualization of the dataset is this:
We see a gradual rise in temperature from the 1980s to today. The front half of this curve is harder to interpret. The negative values suggest that the average temperatures prior to 1951 are generally lower than the temperature in the reference period. Other than 1880-1910, temperatures have generally been rising.
Now imagine chopping up the above chart into yearly increments, 12 months per year. Then wrap each year's line into a circle, and place all these lines onto the following polar grid system.
Close but not quite there. The circles in the NASA video look much smoother. Two possibilities here. First is the aspect ratio. Note that the polar grid stretches the time axis to the full circle while the vertical axis is squashed. Not enough to explain the smoothness, as seen below.
The second possibility is additional smoothing between months.
The end result is certainly pretty:
Is it a good piece of scientific communications?
What is the chart saying?
I see red rings on the outside, white rings in the middle, and blue rings near the center. Red presumably means hotter, blue cooler.
The gridlines are painted over. The 0 degree (green) line is printed over again and again.
The biggest red circles are just beyond the 1 degree line with the excess happening in the January-March months. In making that statement, I'm inferring meaning to excess above 1 degree. This inference is purely based on where the 1-degree line is placed.
I also see in the months of December and January, there may have been "cooling", as the blue circles edge toward the -1 degree gridline. Drawing this inference actually refutes my previous claim. I had said that the bulge beyond the +1 degree line is informative because the designer placed the +1 degree line there. If I applied the same logic, then the location of the -1 degree line implies that only values more negative than -1 matter, which excludes the blue bulge!
Now what years are represented by these circles? Test your intuition. Are you tempted to think that the red lines are the most recent years, and the blue lines are the oldest years? If you think so, like I do, then we fall into a trap. We have now imputed two meanings to color -- temperature and recency, when the color coding can only hold one.
The only way to find out for sure is to rewind the tape and watch from the start. The year dimension is pushed to the background in this spiral chart. Instead, the month dimension takes precedence. Recall that at the start, the circles are white. The bluer circles appear in the middle of the date range.
This dimensional flip flop is a key difference between the spiral chart and the line chart (shown again for comparison).
In the line chart, the year dimension is primary while the month dimension is pushed to the background.
Now, we have to decide what the message of the chart should be. For me, the key message is that on a time scale of decades, the world has experienced a significant warming to the tune of about 1.5 degrees Celsius (35 F2.7 F). The warming has been more pronounced in the last 40 years. The warming is observed in all twelve months of the year.
Because the spiral chart hides the year dimension, it does not convey the above messages.
The spiral chart shares the same weakness as the energy demand chart discussed recently (link). Our eyes tend to focus on the outer and inner envelopes of these circles, which by definition are extreme values. Those values do not necessarily represent the bulk of the data. The spiral chart in fact tells us that there is not much to learn from grouping the data by month.
The appeal of a spiral chart for periodic data is similar to a map for spatial data. I don't recommend using maps unless the spatial dimension is where the signal lies. Similarly, the spiral chart is appropriate if there are important deviations from a seasonal pattern.