Project to help people catalog weird weather

By: Kevin Bunch | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published October 21, 2015

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METRO DETROIT — A climate science project to connect scientists to community members seeing weird weather recently has expanded across the nation, and its organizers are hoping to get input from Michigan residents.

Executive Producer Julia Kumari Drapkin said the project, called “iSeeChange,” is designed to let people report strange or unexpected weather patterns and its impacts, from unseasonable warmth and flowers blooming early to even the price of groceries at the store.

That information can then be coupled with atmospheric carbon data collected by the National Aeronautic and Space Administration and its orbiting carbon observatory, OCO-2. Coupling that granular data from the ground with large-scale research from orbit could help people try to find a link between changes on the ground and changes seen on a global scale.

“When people post about what’s changing in the environment, they can see what’s happening on the ground, and they can check in to the satellite data in space and look at the invisible aspects of climate change,” Drapkin said. “The other half of the equation is this invisible gas (carbon dioxide), this abstract concept we talk about with no concrete ways to interact with. This brings that aspect to the work: Here’s a tangible, visible way to engage with carbon and visualize it.”

Weird events can be subtle; for example, Drapkin said that in drought-stricken California, people have reported getting ants in their kitchen for the first time as the land dries up, because the ants will come inside looking for water. Even seeing more potholes in the winter and spring or needing to adjust the thermostat more often than usual can be an indication that something has changed.

Other indications include the northeast United States seeing more ticks than before along with a drought this year, and dry weather, wildfires and moths eating more trees in Saskatoon, Canada.

When participants mark something as weird or unusual, iSeeChange can then contact scientists to answer community questions and local news media for story ideas, she said, in an effort to connect the dots on how these local oddities are connected to global issues.

These reports from citizen scientists on the ground are helpful for researchers trying to determine what excess carbon in the atmosphere is doing to other parts of the planet. Drapkin said about half of all carbon emissions created by humans get absorbed by plants, the ground and the seas, but so far scientists know very little about that process and how the additional carbon is impacting it.

With more information, she said, scientists might be able to determine how much humanity can rely on these natural processes to sequester carbon emissions going forward, along with the knock-on effects from the additional carbon and rising temperatures.

People interested in adding text, photos or other items to iSeeChange can do so on its website,, by entering in the ZIP code or address where the report is coming from. While the website is mobile-friendly, Drapkin said they are working with NASA to launch a mobile app for Apple and Android devices, which she hopes will be available in November.

“This is a great way to engage the community, further inform our science investigation, and increase the value of the (OCO-2) mission to NASA and the American public,” Ralph Basilio, OCO-2 project manager, said in a statement.

While many people are focused on the sources of carbon pollution — industry, traffic and power plants, for example — Drapkin said seeing where that carbon is ending up and what it’s doing to the ecosystem in those locations is important too. 

So far, Drapkin said reports from the Great Lakes region have been limited to Chicago, but she is hoping to see additional information come in from Great Lakes region residents.

“We are a big fan of the Great Lakes. We would love some people posting about the weirdness to the north,” she said. “Particularly because we’ve been hearing a lot of weirdness in the lakes — algae blooms and unseasonable weather.”

The project originally started in 2012 as a way for residents in western Colorado to report unusual changes, Drapkin said, including those who doubt that humans are causing climate change. Getting information from residents who had lived there for years and decades proved so successful — with some even providing historical diaries from their relatives — that it was expanded beyond the state’s borders.