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NASA Scientists: Do You See Change? If So, Share It


By Loretta Williams

In January, Judy Donnelly noticed that maple syrup collection was starting much earlier than usual near her Connecticut home. "I've noticed tubing being strung to collect maple sap in neighboring towns," she wrote. "This doesn't usually happen until mid-February."

Like others who post observations to iSeeChange.org, Donnelly is aware of changes in the weather and climate in her area. "I've lived in eastern Connecticut for 40 years and have noticed changes in the blooming time for plants; for example dogwoods are blooming about two weeks earlier than they did in the late 70's. My daughter mentioned the website to me and I thought it was a good way to track what I see."


Seeing the bigger picture of climate change in the details of daily life is why Julia Kumari Drapkin started iSeeChange as a public media project in 2012. Drapkin had recently moved from Washington, DC, where she was a science reporter, to work at the local radio station in the tiny rural community of Paonia, Colorado. She realized that journalists were coming at climate change reporting all wrong. If the public was to ever get engaged on the subject, someone should be listening—not just to scientists—but to regular people who had valuable knowledge and experience of how their local weather patterns might be changing.

Hotchkiss Fire Protection District takes on a run-of-the-mill uncontrolled control burn in April.

She started by asking farmers, ranchers and gardeners to send her their questions about weather and climate. And it was a weird year for both: the U.S. experienced its earliest spring ever and the front range of Colorado was hit hard by drought. People sold their cattle because there wasn't enough hay to feed them. Wildfires broke out so early that the local fire teams were putting them out in the snow.

Citizens would send in their questions and Drapkin would find scientists to answer them on the air. "Sometimes the answer wasn't what anyone wanted to hear," said Drapkin. "Climate change is a touchy subject for many people, especially in communities like the North Fork Valley of Colorado that depend on both ranching and coal mining." The key was to find a balance between what people noticed and a useful explanation of what was going on with the weather." Not every weird weather event is connected to climate change, Drapkin noted, "but every change sighting helps us create a baseline for knowing when there is something significant. The goal has always been to give scientific context to people's questions and add to their own knowledge of the area."

Current and projected maple tree distribution according to U.S. Department of Agriculture maps.USDA Climate Change Atlas / Range Maps for Acer Saccharum

As the questions rolled in, Drapkin hit upon the idea of an online community almanac to keep track of what was happening, especially as people started bringing out their own journals, noting weather conditions going back decades.

"People are experts in their own backyards," said Drapkin. "I started to see that it was possible to investigate climate and weather issues on a bigger scale if all these individual observations could be gathered in one place."

"June Gloom" in Sierra Madre, California.

Fast-forward to 2016. Today, iSeeChange fields observations and questions from around the country and as far away as Africa. Molly Peterson, an environmental reporter based in Los Angeles, comments on posts and writes stories and a biweekly newsletter for the website.

Even in the absence of extreme events, people have questions about the weather. "My favorite question so far is from Robin White in Oakland, California, who runs a landscape crew," said Peterson. He thought he noticed that it seems to rain more on the weekend and wanted to know if that was true. Peterson looked at a few studies and discovered that White's question has an interesting answer. "Scientists know that ozone can induce rain formation and in the San Francisco area ozone can be as much as 25 percent higher on weekends," said Peterson. "But it's tricky, because it's impossible to say whether there's enough ozone buildup to cause rain on any particular weekend. There are so many other factors involved. The short answer to Robin is, 'probably, but it depends.'"

Flooding in Kigali, Rwanda.

To sort out the differences between weather shifts and climate change, iSeeChange has partnered with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Orbiting Carbon Observatory mission, which tracks changes in carbon dioxide from satellites in space. The two organizations recently collaborated on a mobile app—the iSeeChange Tracker—that can help NASA scientists compare satellite data to what people are seeing on the ground. "We are asking the public to help us look into specific issues such as heat islands or help count urban trees." said Drapkin. "The effects of heat and the quantity and health of trees have a direct relationship to carbon dioxide and the people's health. The more people flag what's happening, the better we'll be able to adapt our policies and infrastructure to deal with it." Drapkin said.

As for Judy Donnelly's observation that maple tree sap seemed to be rising early? She was right. Given the mild winter that wasn't too surprising, said Peterson. But when Peterson put in a few calls to maple syrup producers she found out something few of us stop to consider. "Apparently changes in the weather can affect the taste, quality or quantity of maple syrup, but that's not obvious until the maple syrup producers are finished bottling and canning for the season."

"Beautiful March day on the shores of Lake Superior, temperature around 50. The sky was almost completely clear. Unseasonably nice for March 11th! Notice that there is no snow or ice on the lake!"

This is the kind of insight that comes from looking for changes in the environment. We learn that what we see one day can resonate months, even years, later. Now researchers are studying the timing of sap rise, to determine whether maple trees will eventually only be able to thrive in higher latitudes.

So the next time you pour maple syrup on your pancakes, think about this: Did your pay more for that bottle of syrup this year? When you lift the fork to your mouth, ask yourself: was it a good year or a bad year for those who make their living tapping trees?

We don't yet know what our changing climate might do to sugar maples and many other things that are part of our daily lives, but we can all keep an eye out for change.

Loretta Williams is an award-winning public media producer (NPR, Marketplace, SoundVision Production) working on stories that range from wildlife conflict to cochlear implants to the mysteries and promise of genetic science. Her most recent work can be seen at ISeeChange.org a climate change journalism project that connects citizen observations to science driven data.

This post was produced as part of the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, with support from The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation.

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