Data Storm: What To Do With All This Climate Information?

Researchers hope making climate data more widely available will help society reduce its vulnerability to climate change. Credit: iStock. 

A few weeks ago someone told me the current university freshman class, the class of 2014, is comprised of people that have probably never used a floppy disk to store and save computer information. Of course, here I’m referring to the 3 1/2” hard-coat discs that could store 1.4 MB of data — even I didn’t use those big 5” or 8” floppy discs. Isn’t it incredible to think that as long as these students have been using computers, they’ve had access to larger storage devices, like CDs, DVDs, and USB drives now on the gigabyte scale?

One of the reasons storage technology has advanced so rapidly in recent years is because the massive amounts of data being collected around the world every day demand it. Today’s issue of Science devotes a special section to the abundance of data generated in all scientific disciplines and how it is being used to push scientific boundaries. One commentary, co-authored by Jonathan Overpeck, Gerald Meehl, Sandrine Bony and David Easterling, points out the challenges that come along with the vast quantity of climate data, including how best to use all the data and how to make sure uncertainties are properly communicated when the data is made open for everyone to use. 

Just how much climate data is there? It’s hard to say, but in 2002, NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center reported that it had 1.3 petabytes (or about 500 million floppy discs worth) of digital climate data. Nearly 10 years later, that number has multiplied, probably exponentially. Today, the German Climate Computing Center has 60 petabytes of data.

Climate data is of course used by scientists in their research and analysis of past, current, and future climate change. But today the information is also commonly used by policy makers to inform strategies to prevent and adapt to climate change, and the authors say even more data should become available so that society can reduce its vulnerability climate change. As the authors advocate in Science:

“Quite literally, climate data provide the backbone for billion-dollar decisions. With this gravity comes the responsibility to curate climate data and share it more freely, usefully, and readily than ever before.”

As outlined in the article, there are many sources of climate-relevant data. Weather records of air pressure, temperature, precipitation and cloud cover all enhance our understanding of the climate system. Many observations are gathered right at the Earth’s surface or the oceans, but satellites also monitor weather and long-term climate change. Satellites measure things like sea ice coverage, sea surface temperatures, and acres burned by forest fire, all of which can be indicators of a changing climate. Records from ice cores, from tree rings, and from rock layers all say something about past climate conditions. This data — which all needs to be stored — can be analyzed in its own right, but much of it is also integrated into computerized recreations of past climate or simulations of the future. The output from these models are also rich in information that can potentially be used to shape the decisions people — both individuals and governments — make about the future. 

One of the most underutilized aspects of all this climate data is its potential to help communicate climate science to the public. But even this is beginning to change and become more common. NASA's Earth Observatory has, for years, compiled satellite data and found unique ways to display climate patterns. Other news organizations are also experimenting with ways to illustrate climate data effectively. Take this 2007 New York Times graphic on sea ice retreat, for example.

At Climate Central, we’re also generating and repackaging climate data, making it more engaging and easier to understand. And soon you’ll see even more coverage of unique data here, as our new data journalist, David Kroodsma, puts climate model data in a context you can use. Stay tuned!