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Infographic Of The Day: Is Global Warming Causing Extreme Weather?

One of the scariest predictions of modern climate science is that global warming isn't going to simply make the world warmer—it's going to make our weather more extreme. Thus, we might see droughts descending for decades at a time, wild floods and snow storms arriving in the fall, and record highs and lows—all of which is why Thomas Friedman has described man-made climate change as "global weirding."

What's even scarier: The weather here in the United States has been pretty effing crazy in recent years. Are we already seeing the fearsome effects of a hotter planet?

This startling infographic by the National Resources Defense Council seems to suggest so. It's simply a time series laying out the record-setting weather events that we experienced all throughout last year. Here's what happened in April:


And the year-to-date, through October 2011:

But the infographic leaves me a bit cold (pun intended). The problem is that we don't get a sense of how crazy the records being set actually are—are these merely minor records that get broken all the time? And isn't it probably true that weather records are constantly being revised? If not, when did records begin falling so regularly?

This is actually an intriguing case study in information design—and a good example of how you can get charts to say anything you want. I don't doubt the fact of man-made climate change—I believe the overwhelming majority of scientists who say its a real thing—but these charts do something of a disservice to the science by not putting all these stats in a better context.

This chart would never be able to prove that these wild weather events are caused by global warming. But what they could do is show how unusual these records are—and that's the crux of what it's trying to show. For example: It would have been supremely awesome to see a chart of how long a bunch of different weather records have stood—and how the periods between broken records have declined as crazy weather becomes more common.

But that is a feature of creating data visualizations: The first ones you create are often not the best ones. Rather, they raise questions that cause other, even more profound visualizations to be born.