Concerning stories about glaciers and icecaps melting have flooded the news for over a decade. Recently, a glacier at risk of collapse in the Alps caused evacuations and road closures near the Italian town of Courmayeur. The Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said, “The news that part of Mont Blanc risks collapsing is a warning that should not leave us indifferent. It must shake us all and force us to mobilize.”
The Premier’s statement raises an interesting point. Why are we indifferent? It’s easy for the public to become inured because of the prevalence of these stories. Being intellectually aware of something is different from having a firm grasp. Science communicators must find a way to penetrate an unresponsive public.
The prevalence of stories on the state of glaciers makes it an ideal case study for how visuals are used in science communication.
Visuals in Science
Science has a well-established tradition of visuals. Scientists create visuals “to validate experiments, to explore datasets, or to communicate findings to others” (Ma, Liao, Frazier, Hauser & Kostis, 2011)
However, Estrada and Davis, in their paper, Improving Visual Communication of Science Through the Incorporation of Graphic Design Theories and Practices Into Science Communication contest that science hasn’t embraced the medium as a tool for making information digestible to laypeople. “While it can be argued that there is a long history of visual communications in science, until recently that has largely been confined to graphs and figures for scientific publications and less so for connecting to nonspecialist audiences” (2014).
The tendency with visuals in science is to focus on written discourse. Visuals are included as an afterthought. Poorly integrated visuals blunt the effectiveness of science communications. “This devalues the role that visual illustrations can potentially have if the visual language used by the science communicators is not the most appropriate one to connect with a nonspecialist audience” (Estrada & Davis, 2014).
This disconnect that Estrada and Davis are referring to partially explains the public indifference toward climate change. Unfortunately for science communicators, even the best visuals can fail to reach a broader audience. “Even the best visualizations are incomprehensible if their concepts are alien, and scientific visualizations are often designed assuming viewer familiarity with the subject matter.” (Ma et al., 2011)
Let’s Examine Glacier Visuals
This photograph appeared in a Forbes article by Scott Snowden. The article is about the massive ice melt in Greenland, and it has the perfect hook that works seamlessly with the accompanying visual above: “The glacier-covered island [Greenland] lost 12.5 billion tons of ice in one day.”
The image taken of Danish researchers in Northwest Greenland illustrates melting in a spectacular and jarring context. We see the photo and immediately register that something is off, which draws our attention – a team of dogs pulling a sled has been transformed into a swim team because of a large-scale ice melt.
This is a perfect example of how photographs can progress a science narrative. Dr Bill Dennison, the Vice President for Science Applications at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, explains that photos can “illustrate key attributes or processes. Photos can often be annotated to aid comprehension.”
This diagram from the National Snow and Ice Data center appeared in the June 2017 issue of Discover Magazine. It explains how warm ocean currents are melting the glacier underbelly and pushing the grounding line. Diagrams are useful when photographs can’t capture an entire concept. Dennison likens conceptual diagrams to “’thought drawings’ that highlight key features and processes.”
This diagram is informative if readers take the time to process it. In and of itself, it’s not engaging for two reasons. First, there’s no good entry point for the eye. Without something that stands out (e.g., a face), Latin readers “view images from left to right and top to bottom” (Lupton, 2017). I first read it from the top left, and I was lost. This diagram is most effective if read from the bottom right—the ocean currents (the white text and arrow) are the catalyst causing the melting.
The second reason is the white color used to represent the ocean current doesn’t stand out. It needs to be the entry point for the eye for people to easily navigate the diagram. If the designer had used a color with more contrast—say red—the diagram would be easier to read because the contrasting color would serve as an entry point for the eye. Red would be a good choice because it’s a warm color, and warm colors energize viewers and make them more alert. It also is associate with heat, which would make it an ideal color to represent warming ocean currents.
Maps are also a common type of science visual. This map was posted by the National Snow and Ice Data Center as part of its 2013 Greenland Ice Sheet Today Review. These maps of Greenland represent the number of melt days compared to the average taken from 1981 to 2010. The maps show which parts of the country experience more melt days. In the graphic, red represents greater than average, white represents the average, and blue is for fewer than average melt days.
These maps make for a compelling visual with one exception: it needs a key. If this visual told us that white was the average number of melts days from 1981 to 2010, these maps would tell a stand-alone story. Science visuals can benefit from being able to be read out of context. In fairness, relevant information was included in a caption, but that’s a less effective alternative.
It’s a best practice to make visuals stand-alone according to Dennison, “A key reason to have attached or embedded captions is to avoid the reader having to search out the associated or explanatory text. Another reason is to allow readers who are not going to read the text to obtain enough information to understand the essence of the science communication product.”
This image created by NASA with the caption, “Retreat of the Jakobshavn glacier,” is a prime example of a photo enhanced to tell a compelling story. It combines a photo with markers to chart the extent that the glacier has receded over the past 150 years. Using colors that contrast with the photo make this visual easy to read. The bright lines for the recent years grab the eye, and the visual is read from modern time to 1851—here’s where the glacier is now. Look how far it’s receded over the past century.
Science communicators have begun to embrace videos that mimic Hollywood conventions to inform the public. National Geographic produced the video above, and it was included with an article explaining that Alaska’s glaciers are melting faster than glaciologists expected. The short video is a perfect complement to the article because it puts a face on the glaciers melting—it humanizes the situation by using a local guide, Rick Brown, to show viewers what’s happening.
Videos are a potentially powerful tool. Dennison writes, “Videos, particularly short videos, can enhance a science communication effort. Videos can capture scientific presentations, used to illustrate processes, or provide an overview of a system. These various visual elements can be combined to produce compelling visual elements.”
If science communicators can remember that the wider audience lacks expertise and visuals need to work on their own, they can create compelling images that will inform and motivate. Compelling visuals will educate a public to heed Giuseppe Conte’s call on climate change: “It must shake us all and force us to mobilize.”
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Dennison, B. (2017, March 28). Practical visual literacy for science communication. Retrieved from https://ian.umces.edu/blog/2017/03/28/practical-visual-literacy-for-science-communication/
Estrada, F. C. R., & Davis, L. S. (2015). Improving visual communication of science through the incorporation of graphic design theories and practices into science communication. Science Communication, 37, 141-148. doi:10.1177/1075547014562914
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Ma, K., Lia, I., Frazier, J., Hauser, H., & Kostis, H. (2011). Scientific storytelling using visualization (Volume 32 ed.) IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications. doi:10.1109/MCG.2012.24