Hiking along parts of the Alaska coast, it's easy to see that the forest looks like it's balding. Yellow cedars, trees that can live more than 1,000 years, are dying off in large clumps because of climate change, leaving barren trunks behind.
Using a technique called data sonification, researchers are turning data on the forest into a song, making it possible to listen to the changing landscape. The song begins in the north, where it's still cold enough to snow in the winter; snow protects the tree's shallow roots. In the south, where it's becoming more likely to rain, the trees are disappearing.
In one version of the song, a solo piano plays the part of the yellow cedar, each note representing a single tree. Higher notes are taller trees. As the song moves south, each measure represents a different study plot from researcher Lauren Oakes, who provided the data. The more trees in an area, the more quickly the notes will play. If most of the trees are dead, you'll hear silence for each dead tree, and sporadic notes for the trees that are still alive.
"It's just a powerful tool for science communication," says Nik Sawe, who was in the same doctoral program at Stanford University with Oakes and decided to experiment with turning her research into music. "Nobody's going to slog through all the raw data. Lauren had painstakingly looked at thousands of trees, collected data on all these different dimensions on them. It's a staggering amount of stuff to go through. And not everyone has access to journal papers and the science literacy for it."
In less than a minute, Sawe says, he can explain to someone what the song represents, and in three minutes, they can go through every single tree that Oakes studied.
The main version of the song includes not only yellow cedars, but flutes playing the western hemlock, violin and viola for mountain hemlock, cello and bass for the Sitka spruce, and clarinet playing the shore pine. As the song goes along, it's possible to hear the piano part weaken, and the flute becomes more prominent as western hemlock starts to replace the cedars.
Sawe says he hadn't considered that aspect of the data until hearing the song. "Until then, I was just thinking of it as Lauren's story of the decline of the yellow cedar. But then, when you listen to it, you can also pick out the hemlock species that's coming up in its stead at the end."
In his day job as a research associate in neuroscience at Stanford, Sawe studies environmental decision making—what makes consumers choose more sustainable products, for example. But even though he isn't a musician, data sonification tools have made it possible for him to create songs in his free time in as little as a day. He plans to work on a piece about the California drought next, followed by the changing Pacific Ocean.
As for the yellow cedar, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now considering adding it to a list of threatened or endangered species. The song, set in D minor—one of Sawe's only musical decisions, since the data dictates the structure of the music—is an appropriately gloomy reflection of what might be the beginning of the end of a species.
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