People and NASA come together to explain weird weather

Even though everyone talks about the weather and everyone has a stake in what happens with the climate, making climate science accessible to the public has always been a challenge. Scientists are good at analysing weather patterns and atmospheric data, but sometimes struggle to find a way to connect with people. The result is a general perception of global warming as an abstract, distant or overwhelming problem, which does not encourage action. Things can be reversed, however, if roles are turned around. What if it’s the public telling climate change stories and asking scientists to explain them? This is what does iSeeChange, a crowd-sourced reporting project created in the US.

People are invited to document the transformations they see in their surrounding environment on the online community. Stories are then matched with satellite images and CO2 data of the area supplied by NASA, the American space agency. These are made available by the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 (OCO-2), a satellite that measures carbon dioxide across the planet up to a million times per day. Scientists also intervene to explain climate events in the community and partnerships with media (especially radio stations) ensure that the most interesting stories find their way to a broad audience. Here is an example of how it works.

Members of the community post images from their area, explaining what they have noticed.

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The report is matched with a satellite image. This shows the location of the community member (blue dot), the position of the satellite (transmission symbol) and the measurements of CO2 (squares). There are also data on CO2 levels recorded in the area.

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The community is called to provide feedback and users can flag events as ‘weird’ or ‘normal’.

When users flag something as ‘weird’, journalists are alerted to developing stories and scientists are contacted to explain what is happening both through the community and in media reports.

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Since the project was initiated, in 2012, there have been over 10,000 posts. People have reported a variety of events, from the loss of marine life in California to diminishing fruit harvests in Colorado to the possible loss of San Francisco’s fog. “We have had enormous interest also from Europe, Asia and Australia,” says founder Julia Kumari Drapkin.

“In the coming year, we plan to enable a notification system where NASA project scientists can engage the community for help with specific questions or areas they are interested in,” says Drapkin. The plan is also to expand the partnerships with local broadcasters, including in Africa.

As reports sourced by citizens accumulate in the iSeeChange Almanac, more data become available for scientists too. Sometimes it is clear that emissions come from nearby power plants or the traffic of a city, but they could also blow from elsewhere or be absorbed by carbon sinks not entirely known. “We are discussing a module in which citizens provide context for sources and sinks of carbon identified in the satellite’s path,” continues Drapkin. “This is the most experimental part of the project and what we are interested in understanding over time, as localized scientific knowledge is still limited.”

The initiative incubated at public station KVNF in Paonia, Colorado, where then-producer Kumari Drapkin was sent in 2012 as part of the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR) Localore projects. “Large part of the local economy in Paonia has been based on coal mining, but people also ranch and have family farms,” she explains. Incidentally, 2012 was an unusual year for the local climate, with the earliest spring ever recorded and an epic drought. “Communities started to tell us that something was wrong and these stories were not making mainstream news,” she recalls. “People are expert of their backyards. If you have lived in the same place for 70 years, you know when something is not normal. We only had to connect this expertise to the big picture provided by the scientific community.”

The project also aims at overcoming a major communication gap. “Traditional climate research has revolved around scientists. They asked questions, made observations, analysed the data and published reports. This approach has not worked to communicate climate change,” says Drapkin. “When scientists talk to you at dinner, they don’t speak as if they were launching a paper. The point of iSeeChange is to create this type of conversation.”

Seven people are now part of iSeeChange’s editorial and development team. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is the scientific partner. A mobile app will soon accompany the online community.

This article was originally published on Road to Paris, the blog of the International Council for Science (ICSU) and on the blog of the World Economic Forum. Photo on top: Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina. Christof Berger, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.