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Take the Data to the People

Making Climate Science More Accessible and Transparent

Arctic Sea Ice Decline SOURCE: National Snow and Ice Data Center/updated from Stroeve, et. al., 2007 Arctic sea ice has declined faster than climate models predicted. The graph above shows the forecast of sea ice decline in gray, based on eighteen computer models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in preparing its 2007 assessments. The red line shows actual observed sea ice extent, based on satellite data, from 1979 to 2009.

The number of people in the United States who think that humans are the cause of climate change is decreasing, according to 2010 studies by the Brookings Institution and Yale and George Mason Universities. This is despite a number of efforts—including educational web sites from NASA and NOAA—to educate the general public about climate change.

Efforts to improve climate literacy may prove ineffective because they don’t reach their intended audience, or perhaps because those people who disagree with conclusions from climate scientists need more than explanation. People don’t want to be told that they are science illiterate. They may disagree with the scientific consensus because of misconceptions about the process of science or because of distrust. They want to see the data for themselves and make their own conclusions.

We at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, or NSIDC, think we should help them do just that. Scientists and writers at the NSIDC have been experimenting with such an open approach to data sharing since 2006. Through the Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis website, we not only make near-real-time data available to the public, but also explain it in basic terms. The project is a collaboration between scientists and science writers at the center, and made possible by our access to near-real-time data.

The decline of Arctic sea ice extent is one of the most visible signs of climate change. Since satellite records started in 1979, Arctic sea ice has declined more than 30 percent at the end of summer. Researchers expect the trend to continue, with the Arctic Ocean becoming ice-free in summers well before the end of the century.

NSIDC archives and distributes data related to snow, glaciers, sea ice, and other elements of the cryosphere, or frozen regions of the Earth. And since we provide satellite data on sea ice extent, we have become a go-to resource in recent years for both journalists and the general public who want to know more about the changes in the northern polar region.

The white Arctic sea ice cover reflects sunlight that would otherwise warm the frigid ocean waters beneath the ice. As the ice cover declines in summer, more heat accumulates in the ocean, which leads to further melting and amplifies climate warming.

The Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis website started out of a need to efficiently convey information. In 2006, overwhelmed with questions about shrinking Arctic sea ice extent, our data center started a simple web site to share updates on conditions at the end of the summer melt season. Then in 2007, Arctic ice extent fell to a record low, covering just 4.28 million square kilometers for the month of September. That record low fostered an explosion of interest in sea ice data from the general public as well as journalists, and that attention spurred us to turn our simple site into a year-round project.

The site, now partially funded by a NASA grant, includes daily updates of sea ice data, along with monthly to weekly posts written by scientists in collaboration with science writers. The posts provide context for the data—scientists compare the current extent to previous years and discuss the weather contributing to current conditions. We also address questions brought up by readers.

Making data available to the public is a popular idea, but simply providing access to data is not enough. Most NSIDC data were publicly available before we started the Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis website—they were just difficult for a nonscientist to find and interpret. Scientific terms such as bias, statistical significance, and error can be easily misinterpreted and need explanation.

In addition, data documentation for scientific users sometimes assumes basic knowledge that nonscientists lack—for example, where the data come from in the first place, how they are obtained, and what conclusions one can make from the data. We learned this lesson after a sensor degraded on a satellite, yielding erroneous sea ice extent. Scientists quickly caught the problem and had another data source lined up, but the erroneous data led to pointed questions and even accusations of malfeasance from readers of our site. Although our site provided links to technical documentation that explained the glitch in the satellite data, most readers didn’t read it, or didn’t understand it. We ended up explaining the issue with a series of special posts that started with the basics.

People have responded both positively and negatively to the Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis website. We receive a surprising amount of criticism, often from people who disagree with mainstream climate science and see our site as biased. At the same time many journalists, teachers, and others have written in to commend the site. By explaining our data and science to the public we open ourselves to greater public scrutiny, but we also facilitate better communication and understanding of sea ice and climate.

Government and science organizations are increasingly pushing the idea of free and open access to data. But in order to make those data useful and clear, we also need to provide people with the tools to understand and work with the data. The Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis website is doing just that for ice data. We hope others will join us in making climate change data more transparent and available to all.

Katherine Leitzell is a science writer at the University of Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder Colorado.

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