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The Citizen Science of Climate Change: We Are Not Bystanders

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Superstorm Sandy prior to the 2012 Presidential election put climate change on the mind of many voters. Earlier this month, a Federal Advisory Committee of 13 collaborating agencies released a Draft Climate Assessment Report for public review. The data show the climate is already changing: rising sea-level, ocean acidification, damage to infrastructure, and impacts on human health, water resources, and agriculture. Because the data make it hard to remain optimistic, many were thankful to hear Obama say at his inauguration, “We’ll respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

One overlooked aspect of the data, however, can also give us reason for optimism. Although credit for the report is given to 240+ scientists and engineers who compiled the evidence about global climate change, the backbone of the knowledge presented arises from efforts of unsung (and unwitting) heroes: people who collect weather data. The coordinated, cross-generational, collective nature of the public data-collection efforts reveals an unexploited strength in our society that should give us hope.

It’s often unclear where climate change data come from; like many others, I had assumed it’s all generated by satellites circling the earth and buoys floating in the ocean. While those technologies play a role, data on the key variables of temperature and precipitation have been, and still are, collected by otherwise ordinary people. Thus, evidence for climate change is not because “scientists say so”, but rather because the collective observations of people show we have shorter, warmer winters, and longer, hotter summers, periods of extreme heat lasting longer than any living American can recall, and rain in extremes: either heavier downpours or droughts. Separately, people across the country have noted these observations in their backyards. Scientists have pooled the observations to reveal widespread patterns.

The new assessment is an impressive synthesis of the most up-to-date studies in the peer-reviewed literature about climate change. It details negative impacts in a wide array of economic sectors, from maple syrup in Vermont to oysters in Washington. Each study that involved rain, snow, and temperature measurements drew those data from the U.S. Cooperative Weather Observer Program: a citizen science network.

The Program is not often referred to as citizen science, probably in part because it started generations before the term was coined, but that’s what it is.

Public contributions of weather measurements date as far back as the availability of instruments to measure weather. When founding our nation, Thomas Jefferson wanted to deputize one person in every county in Virginia to collect temperature and wind data twice a day. The Revolutionary War pre-empted these plans.

The concept kept recurring. In the late 1840s, Matthew Maury wanted farmers to collect weather data and share them via the telegraph so that his naval office could aggregate reports and make forecasts. He adapted the idea from a maritime system he coordinated, whereby weather information crowdsourced from merchant ships was turned into wind and current maps that quickened ocean travel. The Civil War pre-empted his land-based weather plans.

In 1870, President Grant formed an agency to coordinate a volunteer weather observer program. The program eventually became the U.S. Cooperative Weather Observer Program of the National Weather Service. Since then, gathering standardized weather data has been a tradition in many families at 12,000 sites in the U.S. Take a look at the National Weather Service newsletters honoring long-term service and you’ll see Terrell Phillips of Douglas, Georgia, who took over observations after his father passed away so that their weather station has operated for a continuous 50 years. You’ll see Sara Waddell of Woodruff, South Carolina, who received a 25-year length of service award, following in her parents’ footsteps. Her mother had observed since 1956 and her father since 1987. And we can thank Robert Hoppe of Broadwater County, Montana, for 40 years of service; he comes from a farming family that has recorded since 1939. Together, people contribute about one million volunteer hours annually. A core of about 1,200 of these sites has continuous history ideal for climate change research.

It would be nearly impossible for me to accept the burden of the report’s conclusions – climate change is not only real, but accelerating – if it weren’t for the one glimmer of hope that I see in all knowledge coproduced via citizen science: the power of the coordinated, collective efforts of curious, dedicated people. The discovery and understanding of global climate change, which has been so hotly debated, was possible because we are not a country of bystanders. We are participators. When the weather service asked for help, people helped. Because of participation, we have an inkling of the threats that we face.

I don’t know the solutions to global climate change. You probably don’t either. But any solutions will certainly involve collective action. It was our uncoordinated collective action, in the form of burning fossil fuels, that has made the climate change problem. And it was our coordinated collected action that informed us of the problem. We all will be forced to deal with climate change, so the question is: which type of collective action do we prefer? The coordinated, dedicated, collective efforts embedded in family traditions and daily practices as seen in citizen science illustrate the attributes and possibilities we need to find the best path forward. As President Obama said, we won’t let down our children or future generations—indeed, we’ll teach them to participate.

Images: NOAA Photo Library.

Caren Cooper About the Author: Caren Cooper, PhD, is a Assistant Director of the Biodiversity Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. She studies bird behavior, reproduction and ecology with citizen science networks. In addition, Cooper works with social scientists to study why people get involved in citizen science and nature-based recreation. She has analyzed how citizen-science has been used to aid urban planning, e-governance and policy initiatives. She is writing a nonfiction book about citizen science, is a Senior Fellow in the Environmental Leadership Program, and Community Science Fellow with the Thriving Earth Exchange of the American Geophysical Union. Cooper is a blogger for SciStarter. Follow on Twitter @CoopSciScoop.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. pabelmont 7:49 pm 01/22/2013

    The scientists who prepare data for sharing and publication must be careful in ways that political actors — citizens among them — are not constrained.

    scientists have been very cautious over the last 20-30-40 years not to claim greater dangers from man-made climate change than they can be fairly sure of (or really, really sure of).

    But nations have gone to war (expensive, dangerous, damaging to out opponents and to our soldiers and via blowback to us all) on almost NO sound information, and the “war” against (further) increments to causation of climate change will be fought — if at all — on the basis of imperfect information, imperfect judgments of causation, imperfect predictions.

    I do not have a solution to the problem, but, please, scientists, YOU are the folks more than anyone else to do the best that can be done in the matter of providing current information, judging causation, and predicting outcomes. PLEASE DON’T HOLD BACK in favor of an passion for informational perfection which defeats the need for the society to ACT now, today, in a situation of necessarily imperfect knowledge.

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  2. 2. geojellyroll 8:06 pm 01/22/2013

    Good grief.

    hint..the USA is not the world. It’s about 2% of the global surface. According to NASA, the world cooled in 2012…didn’t get warmer.

    the weather in in ‘no name’ USA is largely irrelevent to any study of global climate. It may be interesting for local trends and ecology but says nothing of ‘the world’. Climate has been changing everywhere locally since there has been an Earth.

    Relying on regionalism, the study of weather, provides anecdotal stories that mislead.

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  3. 3. sault 9:21 pm 01/22/2013

    jelly, you obviously know NOTHING about climate science. You CANNOT claim that “the world cooled in 2012…” because you CANNOT determine a trend from just one year! Talk about “anecdotal stories that mislead”! You’re not even failing “Climate 101″ on this, you’re flunking the reading you should have done before you even show up to class!

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  4. 4. sault 9:25 pm 01/22/2013


    The solution isn’t easy, but making dirty energy pay for the damage their pollution causes is a good start! Removing the subsidies these dirty fuels have enjoyed for nearly a century would help too. Having the media call out blatant scientific untruths, spoken either by fossil fuel shills or the politicians they have bought off, would be a great help. Having a President that recognizes the dangers of unabated climate change and pushes policies to steer us clear of danger is pretty important as well. If only we had 2 political parties in this country that didn’t deny basic science…this whole climate change thing would be a cinch!

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  5. 5. Sisko 11:00 pm 01/22/2013


    You know there has been no statistical global warming for the last ten years. That is not to say that it will not warm in the future, but it is by no means alarming or causing significant problems.

    The rate of warming currently being attributed to CO2 emissions is now thought by scientists to be much lower than it was thought to be just a few years ago. Climate scientists are frequently forecasting global temps will remain largely flat for the next 10 years.

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  6. 6. thevillagegeek 11:47 pm 01/22/2013

    Sisko, let’s hear that from the climate scientists you claim to speak for, or give us references to check. Didn’t think so…

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  7. 7. sault 12:42 am 01/23/2013


    Sorry, but the science says….YOU’REWRONG!

    “The current favorite argument of those who argue that climate changes isn’t happening, or a problem, or worth dealing with, is that global warming has stopped. Therefore (they conclude) scientists must be wrong when they say that climate change is caused by humans, worsening, and ultimately a serious environmental problem that must be addressed by policy makers.

    The problem with this argument is that it is false: global warming has not stopped and those who repeat this claim over and over are either lying, ignorant, or exhibiting a blatant disregard for the truth.

    It turns out that 2011 was slightly cooler than 2010 and 2009. Oooh, global cooling? But wait, 2011 was warmer than 2008. Global warming? But wait again, 2011 was slightly cooler than 2007 again. Cooling? No, these are minor year-to-year changes well understood to be tiny variations largely attributable to natural causes.

    What about the last decade, as claimed above? The linear trend (the blue line) over the past decade is relatively flat, but in fact it still exhibited a warming trend, despite the temporary cooling forces that are masking the overall warming. As the British Met Office noted this week, in a reply to a misleading claim that the warming had stopped: “what is absolutely clear is that we have continued to see a trend of warming, with the decade of 2000-2009 being clearly the warmest in the instrumental record going back to 1850.”

    So, just like geek asked, where are you getting this stuff? Because it’s obviously not from the same reality that the rest of us live in!

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  8. 8. Owl905 1:02 am 01/23/2013

    The NOAA Report for 2012 rated it as the 10th warmest year since record-keeping established a baseline (1885). Any cheap regurgitation about cooling or ‘lack of statistical warming’ is pro-pollution rant and not science. Only one year in the entire 20th century was warmer than 2012 (1998 the El Nino super-event year). The record years are 1998, 2005, and 2010. And each upward saw-tooth up respects the increased charge of the greenhouse effect.

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  9. 9. Crasher 4:36 pm 01/23/2013

    Sisco, NO evidence….er what about NASA NOAA CSIRO IPCC.
    Science is about facts, monitoring and peer review. ALL climate science is pointing in one direction.
    Nuff said

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  10. 10. geojellyroll 9:31 pm 01/23/2013

    NASA: the world cooled in 2012.

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  11. 11. geojellyroll 9:36 pm 01/23/2013

    Sault: “jelly, you obviously know NOTHING about climate science. You CANNOT claim that “the world cooled in 2012″

    I didn’t claim it. NASA did. World global temperatures were cooler in 2012 than 2011…..that’s cooling. Lower temperature equals cooling. No doublespeak needed about how cooler is warmer….I’ll leave that to you.

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  12. 12. ocschwar 5:21 pm 01/27/2013

    Jelly, it’s colder today than yesterday. I guess that’s cooling too? There’s good reason why climate science talks about multi-year trends.

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