Illustrated Uncertainty Segments

In exploring controversies about adaptation, especially the relationship of these controversies to uncertainties in climate models, the MEDEA platform will need to address particularly technical elements of climate science. One effective way to do this will be by using short, highly produced and slightly pedagogical videos to effectively portray the physical aspects of the climate system and their virtual counterparts. These short segments could also serve to lighten the technicality of the issues, create a basis among the platform public to follow later analysis about the circulation of uncertainties in the “production” of adaptation, and impart some of the intimate and wonder-filled knowledge of nature that climate scientists gain through their labor and their models.

What Uncertainties?

In conversation w/Timothee Collignon of ENSAD, we looked at different ways we might be able to “treat” a text on the uncertainties about ice-sheet dynamics and how it affects our knowledge of sea-level rise. As an example, we looked at a section of the report called Lessons Learned from IPCC AR4: Scientific Developments Needed to Understand, Predict and Respond to Climate Change, a large survey of lead AR4 authors released in 2008. In the report they state: “Specific efforts should be undertaken to improve process-level understanding of the roles of ice shelf buttressing, ice thinning and f loating, surface melting, water transport to the subglacier bed, heat transfer at the glacier–bedrock interface, and lubrication of subglacial channels, as well as interior ice, in modulating mass loss through outlet glaciers and ice streams.” (Doherty et al, 2008)

In a very short and dense paragraph, the authors evoke a whole world of physical phenomenon related to ice-sheet behavior that remains elusive to scientists, but which forms a crucial bridge between the physically observed world and the modeled world. This is terrific example of what Dessai and Hulme call “epistemic” uncertainties (Dessai and Hulme, 2003). It is important for us to render this bridge between the model environment and the physical environment visual, and this kind of text offers us up image after image.

Looking for a method:

My initial idea of rendering this visual was based on the series of animated cartoons created by the RSA and based on lectures of well known thinkers, such as David Harvey’s lecture on the Crisis of Capitalism ( In much the same fashion, we can record interviews with climate scientists and others on targeted topics (such as ice sheet dynamics, coupling ice models w/AOGCMs, uncertainties in the hydrology cycle and the challenges of downscaling) and graphically illustrate the conversation while filming (and speeding up) the process drawing. That way, the actors are announcing their own issues and their speech is being augmented and boosted into a different storytelling form that grabs the listener/viewer in a different way. Another example of this technique put to use in a directly comic form, un-filmed and static, is Chicago Public Radio’s (WBEZ) Curious City project:

On the other hand, Timothee, suggested that we could also produce segments based less on graphic drawings and more on collage, found images and montage, working directly with our interviewees to pull images that represented some of the text (such as the text above) onto the screen. This is not a perfect example, but it brought to mind the montage style of the short film of Jorge Furtado Ilha das Flores,

[NOTE: Other examples of short, aesthetic, image driven renderings of really complicated subjects — in a more digital lego style — are GOOD Magazine’s Transparency video series:  ]

It was agreed we should try everything at first, and that before running an interview of a scientist, we would take a short selection of text (such as the text from the above report), expert certain text that would likely appear on the screen, let that organize our progression of images and test our results. Stay tuned.

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