While it completely makes sense to be more concerned with immediate horrors like one of the candidates running for election, war and terrorism around the world, and police brutality, it’s easy for people to forget that looming in the backdrop of our everyday life is the specter of climate change. Within cities, it may be hard to grasp just how global warming-based change is affecting nature’s delicate balances.
But in a totally unexpected way, two Stanford students are highlighting the reality of one of Alaska’s changing forests by turning it into haunting, evocative music.
Lauren Oakes and Nik Sawe are both scientists, but their recent endeavor seems like an unlikely fit. Oakes is researching climate change in Alaska’s yellow cedar forests on Chichagof Island, while Sawe’s previous research has centered on turning brain data from seizures into song, which fits into the larger field of data sonification. While this sounds totally otherworldly, the practice has actually been going on for years, with other scientist-composers using data like seismic activity.
Oakes’s work has brought her to the front lines of climate change, as yellow-cedar decline has hit these areas hard — rising global temperatures thaw the trees’ tender roots, exposing them to a fuller brunt of the region’s cold. What Oakes and Sawe then did was convert the data about dying trees into a musical code: One plot of trees became a measure; varying tree heights became different notes; and dead trees became dropped notes; the exact species of tree became different instruments; and finally, the diameter of the trees determined the force of the playing.
The final result: Something beautiful born out of something terrible, a way to realize and literally hear the impact of climate change. The song itself is something that wouldn’t sound out of place at a contemporary music showcase, but it’s art being spun out of disaster. We applaud Oakes and Sawe for their masterful mashup of studies, but lament the fact that they have so much potential climate change music to make together.