Climate Explorer Brings Data to Life

March 1, 2015

Reporter's Toolbox

By JOHN UPTON

The Climate Explorer at toolkit.climate.gov reveals where a rising sea level would have its greatest impact. An increase of five feet would inundate large areas along Boston Harbor and the Charles River, including most of the MIT campus in Cambridge, MA.
                                                                        Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

It’s a trashy publisher’s cheap dream: An environmental journalist field reporting from their desk.

A new White House website allows you to do that — to meander along inundated shorelines, through bustling cities and over blacktopped freeways, and to do it without getting muddy, mugged or mowed down by a semi.

Yawn. You don’t need the feds to help you do that. An intrepid scribe could do more with a bus fare or a quarter tank of gas than with a 30-minute date with a government website.

Here’s the thing, though. Do you have an environmental time machine? I ask that because the U.S. government has one. And riding it into America’s climate-altered landscapes is free.

Visualization tool uses info from 13 agencies

Climate Explorer is a visualization tool that brings to virtual life the climate- and weather-related data generated by the 13 federal agencies that collaborate to form the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Its cartographic interface is a portal into much of the same data that went into producing the most recent National Climate Assessment.

The explorer visualizes details of the present, such as drought, population density, and how land is used, and it digitally reconstructs future environmental conditions, such as submerged sand dunes and greenhouse gas-amped heat waves.

Climate Explorer was released by the White House in late 2014 as part of President Obama’s climate resilience thrust. The release coincided with publication of a 46-page laundry list of climate adaptation recommendations compiled by a task force comprising local, regional and tribal officials.

The online tool is a key component of the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit, which is a website, found at toolkit.climate.gov, containing case studies and other information designed to help Americans understand climate change, adapt to it, and become more resilient to disaster. The toolkit looks like it could be useful to some people, which is neat.

But what we want is the Climate Explorer, which involves scrolling down the toolkit’s homepage, clicking on Climate Explorer, and then clicking “Launch Climate Explorer.” If you prefer excessive keystrokes over excessive clicks, you can go straight to this URL.

If you’re following along, your eyes are darting between this page and a map of North America. Hold down the mouse button to drag the map. You can zoom in and out with the ‘plus’ and ‘minus’ icons. If you’re using the correct type of device, you can pinch your fingers to zoom out — and the opposite to zoom in. Clicking the link icon in the top left creates a link for an exact replica of the map that you’re looking at.

Historical info, layers enrich map

I imagine you would have figured all that out yourself — just like you would figure out how to click your own seatbelt without the in-flight safety presentation.

But here comes the stuff that I might not have been patient enough to have figured out for myself, were it not for a brief presentation from White House staff.

Climate Explorer has two main components, either of which can be selected from the top right corner of the page.

Clicking on “historical data” populates the map with weather stations. Click on one. Temperature and precipitation measurements over time appear to the right. Use your mouse to scroll back and forward in time, and to zoom in or out to find the period that interests you. This zooming function is a little clunky at the moment, but the development team says it’s working on an improvement.

Clicking on the “layers” option, which is next to “historical data,” allows you to overlay your map with data related to flood risks, food resilience and ecosystem resilience. This is the real guts of the website. By default, clicking on “layers” brings up options for coastal flood risks. Click on the layers that interest you, such as sea levels with two feet of sea-level rise, or probability of overwash from a category 3 hurricane. You could then add layers showing population density or social vulnerability to flooding.

To make each of the layers partially transparent, click and hold the blue nub at the far right of the bar beneath the name of the layer, then drag it left. Clicking on an “i” icon will help you find the source data. To go through the same process with food resilience or ecosystem vulnerability layers, click on the triangle next to “Coastal Flood Risk” and pick your climatic poison.

The government plans to expand the number of layer options over time, adding data related to water, energy, health, transportation, the built environment and more.

‘Doorway’ to data — meant for planners, good for reporters

The Explorer could be useful for reporters who want to visualize current and looming climate hazards.

“We wanted to provide a doorway so that we could make the data tools more discoverable and more accessible,” said Richard Driggers, a White House data official.

But don’t be hurt when I tell you that it wasn’t designed with journalists like you or me in mind. It was made primarily for planners, particularly those outside of the federal bureaucracy.

“Those at local and state level that are making decisions, that are doing adaptation planning, that are doing infrastructure investment planning — those individuals don’t necessarily know how to navigate through the entire federal climate enterprise,” Driggers said.

But don’t let that stop you from using it.

John Upton is a senior science writer for Climate Central in New York. He has written for The New York Times, Slate, Nautilus, VICE, Grist, Pacific Standard, Modern Farmer, 7x7 San Francisco and Audubon magazine.


* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2015. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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