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Smile! Photography can communicate coastal change

Climate change communication has faced challenges in conveying the impacts and urgency of climate change. So how can scientists ensure that information about coastal impacts due to climate change has maximum impact?

Messages about climate change are often conveyed in the form of data visualisations from models, graphs and photography. A study from North Carolina State University shows that photographs are more effective in influencing a viewer’s perceptions of coastal impacts than other types of visual imagery such as numerical data, graphs or model output.

Rosemary Keane and Jordan Smith, from the Center for Geospatial Analytics at North Carolina State University, found that a person is more likely to perceive climate impacts (particularly beach erosion and shoreline movement) as more severe when the data are supported with photographs of affected areas that are taken from above (aerial view) or at head height of a standing human (‘human perspective’). This has important implications for science communicators trying to inform decision-makers and the general public about coastal changes and climate risks.

In their paper in Coastal Management, Keane and Smith say ‘Immediate and tangible effects of climate change might not always be detectable on the local level, making it difficult for individuals to fully conceptualise the full magnitude of long-term localised consequences’.

‘Depicting climate change in a personalised setting allows individuals to consider the impacts in their own homes, cities and regions. When presented with impacts to their own environment, individuals feel much more inclined to want to change the situation.’

Previous studies have found visual communication to have more power over people’s opinions than written content, but Keane and Smith wanted to know which kind of visual display has the most power to communicate coastal risks to viewers.

They studied individual perceptions of the severity of coastal erosion when exposed only to graphs and numerical values that illustrate small or large increases in shoreline erosion, and also when these were coupled with one of four kinds of visual imagery: digital elevation model (DEM) output from a human perspective, DEM output from an aerial perspective, digital photographs from a human perspective, and digital photographs from an aerial perspective.

Respondents rated the severity of coastal erosion as greatest when shown photographs (particularly aerial photographs) of shoreline erosion as opposed to DEM outputs, numerical values, and graphs. Interestingly, even when shown the graphs illustrating a higher rate of erosion (i.e., a steep graph line or high numerical value), respondents did not perceive erosion as more severe than when looking at the visual imagery alone, suggesting that graphs and numerical values contribute little to influence viewer perception when compared to visual imagery.

Keane and Smith suggest that aerial photographs are the most useful way that science communicators can convey the severe effects of erosion to decision-makers and the public.

For more information, you can find and abstract of the original study here: ‘Information presentation of coastal morphological change: Potential implications for perceptions of climate change impacts.’

Have you faced any obstacles in communicating climate risks within your agency?
What were the most useful approaches you found to overcome these?