NASA has released a chilling animation showing just how far sea levels have risen in the three short decades its satellites have been monitoring them.
The data visualization, released last week, is the work of Andrew J. Christensen, a data visualizer for the NASA Scientific Visualization Studio. By animating observed changes in global sea level captured by satellites whizzing overhead between 1993 and 2022, the imagery transforms a complex mix of numbers into something far more relatable.
In those 30 years, sea levels have risen by over 9 centimeters (about 3.5 inches). That might not sound like much, only a hand's length, but when those changes are visualized as water lapping at a ship-like window, it starts to feel very real.
Three decades might also seem like a lifetime, but that's only two-thirds as long as ExxonMobil, one of the world's leading oil and gas companies, has known that burning its fossil fuel products is cooking the planet.
The impacts of all those heat-trapping emissions are now being keenly felt by coastal communities around the world – not that they need reminding of the salty seas overlapping their doorstep.
For those of us who are trying to imagine these grave changes in more personal terms, NASA says the animation "is designed to be seen through a circle, using the visual metaphor of looking out the porthole of a boat and watching years of sea level rise transpire.
"When played on a 4K 85-inch display, the measurement markings in the video are accurate to the real world."
Our oceans may be warming, but the animation – of past sea level rise – gives you the chills to think about what is to come.
Since 1993, sea levels have been routinely measured by satellites that ping microwave signals off the ocean surface and time how long they take to return. From that, researchers can calculate and monitor sea surface height.
"We have this clear view of recent sea level rise – and can better project how much and how quickly the oceans will continue to rise," explains Karen St. Germain, director of NASA's Earth Science Division.
To make projections, data is fed into global climate models that attempt to reconcile diverse elements of our planet's surface conditions. For sea level rise, those three decades of satellite observations are coupled with measurements from coastal tide gauges going back more than 100 years, data on ice masses, and of course, the rise of greenhouse gas emissions.
But synthesizing those data and communicating what it all means to people around the world is one of the problems at the heart of the climate crisis – which will impact those who contributed the least to global heating, the most.
While the atmosphere has long been Earth's cozy blanket, the planet is now sweltering under the weight of carbon dioxide emissions. And it's the oceans that have absorbed a whopping 90 percent of the heat we humans have added to the system.
The top few meters of the ocean store as much heat as Earth's entire atmosphere. As seawater warms, it expands, pushing sea levels higher. The sea is thrust further upslope by melting ice sheets and in storm surges.
"By absorbing all this heat, the ocean lulls people into a false sense of security that climate change is progressing slowly," Matthew England, an oceanographer and climate scientist at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, told The Guardian's Graham Readfearn.
Princeton University climate scientist Zachary Labe shared the animation on Twitter. It's an extension of a series called 'Vital Signs of the Planet', a riff on the human body's physiological alarm bells, but for Earth.
It's not the only data viz doing the rounds on social media at the moment. In recent weeks, climate scientists have been sounding the alarm over rising sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic that are pushing us into uncharted territory.
"The North Atlantic has never been this hot this early, with a massive marine heatwave dominating millions of square miles of ocean," tweeted Colin McCarthy, an atmospheric science student at the University of California, Davis.
"This can't continue as systems that become more unstable and unpredictable will harm more in chaotic ways," added Farhana Sultana, a water governance and climate justice scholar at Syracuse University.
Let's hope visualizations like this help people wherever they live to realize what trouble we're all in – and can fix together.