Turning weather data into music could help Southeast Alaska students hear their changing surroundings

a rainbow
A rainbow near the Wrangell Narrows. (Photo by Angela Denning/CoastAlaska)

Imagine the sound of the wind chimes. It’s nice, but it’s more than that.

“The wind chime is a really interesting translation and musicification or sonification of an invisible environmental phenomenon,” said Chet Udell, a researcher at the University of Oregon. “It’s giving me information that could be useful if I’m curious about how windy it is outside. And it’s also aesthetically pleasing.”

Udell designs environmental sensors. Wind chimes were the inspiration for an instrument he calls WeatherChimes, which collects weather data and turns it into music. Now the technology will be used for projects throughout Southeast Alaska, beginning in Sitka and Hoonah.

Scientists often express changes in the environment with things like graphs and tables, but what does that mean to a non-scientist?

“They show you the data and it moves around on a graph, but they usually don’t go too deep into having the person, like, translate that into meaning,” Udell said. “How do you get those people to sympathize with environmental data?”

a sensor
The WeatherChimes sensor collects environmental data in real time and transmits it over Wi-Fi. That data can be used to compose music. (Courtesy of OPEnS Lab/University of Oregon)

Udell and his team tried to build an environmental sensor that was intuitive, emotional, and creative. Like wind chimes, WeatherChimes hardware is installed outside. It collects data on things like light, temperature, humidity, and soil moisture. It then uses Wi-Fi to send that data to a program where it can be set to different keys, scales, and instruments.

Moisture, for example, could be a marimba playing a C major scale. By listening to those musical translations, you can hear weather patterns. Around sunrise and sunset, there is a symphony of the world heating up and drying up. And throughout the day, there are melodies and countermelodies.

“There’s something about composition — Beethoven uses a lot, Bach uses a lot — called the counter movement,” Udell said. “Like, when one voice goes in one direction and another voice goes in a different direction.”

WeatherChimes show the same thing that happens in nature. Temperature and humidity, for example, have an inverse relationship.

“And there’s a certain satisfaction in putting those kinds of natural things together and seeing how the patterns that naturally exist are the same ones that make this music fun,” Udell said.

Fun is one of the main objectives. But as an educational tool, WeatherChimes could also help students think more deeply and personally about the weather.

When there is a particularly rainy period, is it good or bad news? Udell hopes students can reflect on questions like that through music.

“Should I do a happy tune or a sad tune? Should I do something that goes fast or slow? he said. “Like, what does this mean to me?”

Educators at the Sitka Sound Science Center and Sitka High School’s Traditional Ecological Knowledge program will be using WeatherChimes in classrooms and educational workshops over the next year.

And Udell and his lab will work with the Sitka Sound Science Center, Hoonah Indian Association and Alaska Youth Stewards to install more WeatherChimes for community-designed projects, including monitoring yellow cedar in Sitka and monitoring salmon streams in Hoonah.