Science and our Changing Climate: GIS Creates a Framework for Research and Modeling

This article originally appeared in the January 30, 2008 issue of the Redlands Daily Facts, and was also reprinted in the e-book GIS for Climate Change, November 2008.

GIS for Climate Change e-book

Science and our Changing Climate

GIS Creates a Framework for Research and Modeling

By Matt Artz

The Medieval Warm Period (10th to 14th centuries).  The Little Ice Age (16th to 19th centuries).  The Year Without a Summer (1816).  Earth’s climate has undergone radical changes in the distant as well as recent past, and is certain to undergo more radical changes in the not-too-distant future.  And as industrialization, population, and urbanization continue to increase, so too will stressors on the environment such as pollution.

Such change in climate and environmental quality could have huge impacts on our quality of life.  Regardless of where you stand on the often politically-charged issue of “global warming” or “global climate change,” we owe it to ourselves and our children to take a cold, hard look at the data.

The Age of Information

We live in an age of readily and freely available information.  The Internet has given us unprecedented awareness of and access to vast quantities of climate data.  Never before have scientists and non-scientists had such easy and open access to the data and tools needed to study our climate.

Two general types of data are useful in studying climate change: past observations and future predictions.  Examining and cross-referencing past and future data can help us identify changes already occurring, as well as help us predict patterns and trends that could impact our long-term fate.

Observing the Past

For centuries, mankind has been keeping careful records of rainfall, temperature, lake level, stream flow, etc. for thousands of locations across the globe.  Beyond these historical records, additional records of climate change stretch back even further when you consider fields such as dendrochronology (measuring the size of tree rings), which reveals climate data stretching back for thousands of years, and palynology (changes in the type and distribution of fossil pollen), which gives us clues about climate going back millions of years.  The result of all this collection and research is vast stores of data describing conditions at particular locations on the planet at particular points in time.

Careful observation and analysis of past records might help us answer questions such as:  Are recent weather phenomena a short-term blip or a long-term trend?  What past climate changes are due to the Earth’s natural cycle versus what changes may have been caused by volcanic eruption, meteorite impact, or other cataclysmic disasters?

Predicting the Future

Anyone who watches the weather forecast on the evening news knows how frustrating it is to predict the future.  But prediction of short term, highly-localized conditions such as the chance of rain in Redlands on Friday afternoon is quite different from predicting long-term, more general phenomena such as global climate change.  Scientists for years have been using sophisticated computer models such as general circulation, atmosphere-ocean interaction, and radiative-convective process models in an attempt to visualize the future of earth’s climate.  The output of a particular model can be enlightening, but combining data from multiple sources, both past and future, gives us the best chance for a comprehensive and accurate vision of what the future holds for our planet.

The Role of GIS

The key to understanding our dynamic climate is creating a framework to take many different pieces of past and future data from a variety of sources and merge them together in a single system.  Information technology brings together data from these many different sources into a common computer database.  A geographic information system (GIS) is a sophisticated technology tool used by planners, engineers, and scientists to display and analyze all forms of location-referenced data including meteorological information.  GIS creates a new framework for studying global climate change by allowing users to inventory and display large, complex spatial data sets.  They can also analyze the potential interplay between various factors, getting us closer to a true understanding of how our dynamic climate may change in the coming decades and centuries.

Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), located in Redlands, produces GIS technology used by a wide variety of professionals for a broad range of applications.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) uses GIS to monitor the world’s storm activity; the U.S. Geological Survey uses GIS to collect and analyze data about volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis; and the U.S.  Department of Agriculture uses GIS to track the effects of drought on the nation’s crops.  From conservation organizations to international agencies, scientists across the globe are using GIS as an integrative platform that gives those researching and analyzing our environment and climate unprecedented vision and flexibility.

Where do we go from here?

Is the Earth getting hotter or colder?  Is the stress human populations are putting on the planet contributing to climate change?  What potential factors may significantly impact our ability to thrive and survive as a species?  What additional sorts of environmental monitoring can we be doing today to improve climate change tomorrow?  Only through careful observation of the data, application of scientific principals, and by using the latest technology do we have any hope of truly understanding the stressors and impacts on the incredibly complex system of Earth’s climate.