Data as a climate change agent

Climate data from NOAA and NASA could spur better decisions and a more informed society.

Amidst varied hopes for open data and open government, enabling better data-driven decisions in both the private and public sector rank high. One of the existential challenges for humanity will be addressing climate change, particularly in countries where scientific resources are scant or even non-existent.

In February, the Obama administration proposed a climate service that would provide projections on climate change in much the same way that the National Ocean and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) provides weather information. Earlier this summer, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published new research, “Earth Observation for Climate Change,” and hosted a forum on leveraging climate data services to manage climate change. The video from the forum is embedded below:

“The vision is an informed society anticipating and responding to climate and its impacts,” said Thomas R. Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center at NOAA.

The dawn of climate data services

Gov 2.0 Summit, 2010According to the CSIS report, the September 2009 meeting of the World Climate Conference agreed to establish the Global Framework for Climate Services (GFCS) to connect research to policy making. The framework has four components:

  1. Observation and modeling
  2. Research and modeling
  3. Climate services information system
  4. A user interface (UI) program

When combined, that information system and UI would constitute a “World Climate Service System.” According to the report:

“The goal of the new service will be to better inform decision makers (particularly in less-developed nations) by supplying data and analyses on climate change. When it is finally implemented, the World Climate Service System will provide climate and earth observations, models and forecasts to provide critical climate data to governments and other users around the world.”

For instance, Karl pointed to Devil’s Lake in North Dakota’s expansion over recent decades. “The governor and mayor have asked for help,” he said. “They have to make investments in roads and bridges. How should we do that? What can we say about the causes?”

Climate data services could serve a number of societal needs, said Karl, including better understanding of coastal inundation, changes in storm intensity, wave heights, drought conditions, or how extreme events might change as climate warms. There are also ancillary benefits to addressing societal challenges, said Karl, including identifying infrastructure issues or gaps in core capabilities, which would benefit the energy, transportation, agriculture and health sectors. The NOAA Office of Programming Planning and Implementation is soliciting input on its proposals, including an Ideascale instance.

Policy makers will need several categories of data to make better decisions, according to the report:

  • Trend data, like changes in forest size, gases in the atmosphere, or ocean currents.
  • Regional data, to identify specific issues in a smaller geographic area.
  • Effects assessment data, to measure the efficacy of mitigation or adaptation policies.
  • Compliance data, to monitor progress in a given agreement or treaty.
  • Planning data, to provide information that insurance companies, urban planners, corporations and others need to reduce risk or uncertainty.

Space policy and carbon-sensing satellites

The CSIS report also put a focus on space policy, specifically a “shortage of satellites actually designed and in orbit to measure climate change.” Satellites have been used to measure pollution, or in the case of NASA’s ICESat satellite, provide laser altimetry to measure the rate of melting in the Arctic ice. The crash of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observation (OCO) satellite in 2009 “left the world essentially bereft of the ability to make precise measurements to assess emissions reductions effort,” according to the CSIS report. That means climate scientists are relying on Japan’s GOSAT, the European Space Agency’s SCIAMACHY and Canada’s CanX-2 satellites until OCO 2 gets up into orbit in February 2013. All of these current systems lack the advanced sensors or monitoring capabilities scientists desire to assess changes in the carbon cycle. The number of earth observation instruments has actually declined in recent years, as shown on the figure below:


Visualizing Climate Data

Many citizens will not find the NOAA Climate Services Interactive Map to be a terrific interface to gain insight, although scientists can find datasets relatively easily. Fortunately, NOAA has launched a prototype of a climate services portal,, which is a vast improvement on more traditional .gov websites. The site includes an online magazine, access to climate data and services, a section on understanding climate science, education and news.


The portal appears to be a rare beast in government IT: a public prototype. Some govies might even call it a government 2.0 beta.

Opening data for innovation

Will open climate data be available to civic developers and commercial concerns to build businesses upon?

“We invest a lot in terms of making data available with an open data policy, so everyone can see what everybody is doing” said Dr. Jack Kaye, associate director for research and analysis in NASA’s Earth Science Division. “The sheer volume of data and complexity of it makes it a challenge for less sophisticated users. One of the challenges is to create tools that will facilitate the less knowledgeable user.”

That’s one area where is currently succeeding, in terms of providing a clear “climate dashboard,” pictured to the right, that shows the progression of climate change since the late 19th century. As any IT executive knows, however, a dashboard is only as useful as the data feeding it. That’s a concern that’s been highlighted in the Climategate controversy over the past year. Despite that concern, there is reason for optimism behind seeing open climate data published online, where it can be exposed to more transparent vetting.

The story of how weather data provisions information and news outlets may be well worn in the Gov 2.0 dialogue, though most citizens don’t think about NOAA data underpinning serious decisions on business, travel or recreation.

Thanks to “infovegan” Clay Johnson, the history of how weather data was opened is clearer today. The history of GPS shows the innovation and value spawned by the release of global positioning system data. As Time reported last year, a market-research firm estimated the global GPS< market will total $75 billion by 2013.

Earlier this spring, the United States released community health information to provision healthcare apps and drive better policy. Now, scientists and policy makers will explore the potential for climate data services to inform citizens and government, enabling both to make better decisions for communities and businesses alike.


The Gov 2.0 Summit will be held Sept. 7-8 in Washington, D.C. Learn more and request an invitation.

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