March 20, 2015
Julia Kumari Drapkin was a climate journalist with a problem: How to tap into the stories about weather and climate that she knew people were talking about at their dinner tables, or at the post office.
“We’re never really, as journalists, climate journalists, really tapping into those individual, really local community narratives. And that’s because scientists have been hesitant to do so,” she says.
Drapkin says when you’re talking about global time and global space, narrowing it down to any individual community’s experience or any individual weather event is problematic. She says as a result, a lot of these conversations about climate have questions that go unanswered.
Drapkin’s solution is the iSeeChange Almanac. It’s a website that allows anyone to make observations about and document changes they see in the environment around them. That’s the starting point.
“Science stories usually begin with a scientist, making observations and asking questions. They answer their own questions with research, I do a story on that, and if I have time, I’ll go and find that little anecdote,” Drapkin says. “So I said, ‘Well, what if we give the opportunity to make observations and ask questions to the community? And then they’ll alert us about what they want to know and we’ll find a scientist to answer it.’”
She says the concept is that everybody’s an expert in their own backyard. iSeeChange just taps into that expertise.
Drapkin says it’s a really old tradition to keep track of change—just think of the popularity of the Old Farmer’s Almanac. iSeeChange is an updated version of the idea. People can go to website and post observations of what they notice that’s unusual. Drapkin encourages posting photos and even sound clips. The subjects of posts could be plants, animals, or the even results of weather changes, like potholes.
“Those observations become data—data about changes that we’re experiencing season to season, year to year. Data about how those weather and climate changes are impacting our daily lives,” Drapkin says. “Lives and livelihoods are changing, and we want to know how.”
On the website, observations are layered with satellite monitoring of environmental conditions. The potential of the platform became clear with one of the very first participants—Maria Hodkins from Colorado. She’s been keeping a nature journal of her backyard since 2003, and when she checked the journal she noticed dandelions were blooming two and a half weeks earlier than two years before.
“Her observation was actually one of the first indications that we had heard of that there was an early spring happening in 2012 in western Colorado,” Drapkin says.
They checked in with a scientist, Mark Schwartz at the University of Wisconsin—he studies the start of spring using lilacs.
“And lo and behold, the spring of 2012 was one of the earliest springs in the history of the United States. And because people started keeping track of just the little details that were unusual, we started hearing about ecological trends from the community weeks to months in advance of mainstream news,” Drapkin says.
Fast-forward to 2015, and the iSeeChange Almanac is again seeing posts—and concerns—about an early spring in the West. People there were are posting about buds on fruit trees in February.
Drapkin says that may be hard to believe for those living in the Northeast, where “everyone seems to be stuck in this ice box.” But now that the East Coast has dug out of the snow and ice, Drapkin says iSeeChange is hoping more people here will participate in the project.
“This is a really unusual and important year of everyone to be keeping track of how that intense snowfall and how those intense temperatures have really impacted your infrastructure or your economies or your homes and your gardens,” she says.
Spring plants in the Pittsburgh area are just now waking up.
“This year, right now outside, I think the snowdrops are starting to bloom,” says Marjorie Radebaugh, the Director of Horticulture and Education at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. “And usually those bloom in January. But the ground was covered in snow, so they didn’t.”
Drapkin says these are just the kind of small observations iSeeChange is looking for to help tell climate change stories.
“Once you clue in to the little changes, it’s almost like your brain loves it. It’s like a surprise game,” she says. “It allows you to kind of check in about these little details that we notice all the time, and put it in a bigger picture.”
Photo top to bottom: Julia Kumari Drapkin, courtesy iSeeChange Almanac; Photo of Lake in Delaware posted by Eli Chen to iSeeChange Almanac in March.