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Long climate report is boiled, translated into haiku

Seattle TimesJanuary 19, 2014 


NOAA oceanographer Gregory Johnson holds an original image of his watercolor haiku book. You can read it at


There’s little lyrical language to be found in the most recent international report on climate change. The document from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change runs to 2,200 pages and is crammed with technical details about greenhouse gas emissions, rising sea levels and atmospheric circulation.

Seattle oceanographer Gregory Johnson was a lead author of the chapter on marine measurements, and even he was having a hard time wrapping his head around the massive compilation. So when a bad cold kept him in the house one weekend, Johnson decided to distill the report to its essence via a centuries-old Japanese art form: haiku.

The result is a virtual booklet that is riding a wave of celebrity on the Web and in the Twittersphere.

Johnson took as his template the IPCC’s “Summary for Policymakers,” crafting a haiku for each of 19 main points. Where the summary devotes two pages and four graphs to global warming’s impacts on ice and snow – a topic that takes up more than 100 pages in the full report – Johnson boils it down to 17 syllables:

Glaciers and ice sheets

melt worldwide, speed increasing

Sea ice, snow retreat

Johnson also illustrates the poems with simple watercolors, ranging from a sunlit iceberg to smokestacks and a swing set on a grassy slope. The latter is paired with the verse:

Forty years from now

children will live in a world

shaped by our choices

Haiku, with its familiar 5-7-5 cadence, might seem like an odd format for a scientist to embrace – but Johnson was already well acquainted with it. For the past few years, he’s been composing Facebook posts in haiku as a way to keep his message brief and positive.

Like most scientists, though, Johnson’s professional life is all about complexity. That’s part of what made the haiku exercise appealing.

“It does make you focus and distill things,” he said. “Another nice thing about haiku is that it generally took me away from technical language.”

He never intended anyone except family and friends to see the finished product. But they were so enchanted they urged him to make it more widely available. You can read it at

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