For a simple term, “climate change” carries a lot of baggage to unpack. The ecological and economic implications of a warming planet are far-reaching, the jargon is confusing, and the local impacts of climate change on weather patterns are often hard to verify at the speed demanded by the news cycle. These challenges push environmental reporters to get creative in pursuit of climate stories relevant to their audiences.

In an effort to bring local context to climate reporting in Western Colorado, Julia Kumari Drapkin started iSeeChange–an online weather and climate journal–in 2012 to help identify how the listeners of her local community radio station were being impacted by changes in the environment. Four years later, iSeeChange is a hybrid citizen-science, social media platform used by people around the world to document and share their experience of environmental change. Using geotagged photos coupled with data on the weather and atmospheric conditions, iSeeChange is working to create a collective climate journal for present and future generations.

“When I started iSeeChange, we talked to old ranchers, farmers and gardeners,” Drapkin said. “As the weather started getting weirder and weirder, people let us know. They said, ‘Hey dandelions are blooming earlier than I ever remembered’ and these tips put us ahead of mainstream media and government reports on the fact that we were dealing with the earliest spring on record for the continental U.S.”

Sharing Sightings of Environmental Change

The observations posted on iSeeChange range from those early blooming flowers, the impacts of drought on favorite trees, nuisance flooding in the neighborhood, and unexpected sightings of migratory bird species or algae blooms on the coast. People use the platform to flag their sightings and pose questions about the changes they are experiencing. Often, these posts start a conversation, which include scientists and journalists looking into the issue. Multiple observations in a community on the same topic can help draw attention to a potentially larger pattern.

“We are all experts in our backyards and our own lives,” Drapkin emphasized. “Over the past few years we’ve come to create something utterly unique: a way to combine stories and remote sensing data like carbon data that puts communities in charge of their own climate records.”

In June 2016, iSeeChange launched their tracker app in a partnership with NASA. The app enables users to report their observations including pictures, the metadata from their mobile phone, and related CO2 data taken from outer space. As part of the partnership, iSeeChange observations add an element of on-the-ground data collection to NASA’s CO2 monitoring mission (OCO-2). “NASA’s satellites provide a vital service as they routinely assess the state and health of Earth’s systems from the remote reaches of space, but is important to ‘ground-truth’ what we are detecting from space by comparing those measurements with observations from the Earth’s surface,” said Amy Kaminksi, senior policy advisor in the Office of the Chief Scientist at NASA Headquarters. “Citizens taking note of developments in their communities can help with that process.”

Partnering on Community Investigations

This social approach to climate data research has opened up new opportunity for journalists reporting on the environment to build a community around their coverage. For example, this summer iSeeChange is teaming up to investigate how the summer heat is affecting the health of residents of Harlem, New York in collaboration with radio stations WNYC, , the climate news service AdaptNY, and community organizations including WE ACT for Environmental Justice. The investigation includes experimental sensor-based data reporting techniques to capture hard-to-access residential temperature data with the help of community-based citizen scientists. “We were asking residents in Harlem to help us keep track of urban heat islands. Some of those residents don’t have computers, they’re using iSeeChange on their phones so we see it’s an experiment working with a community group as well as a local radio station,” Drapkin said. “We are working with the community first as opposed to just an afterthought and we’re seeing what it takes to engage in this collaborative way. We want to to answer peoples’ curiosity, start with what they’re seeing on the ground first, and then reach back up to the scientists who are looking at the bigger picture trends and the data.”

Since “It Will Feel Like 100 Degrees This Week as ‘Warm and Humid Airmass’ Arrives” then “Here’s How to Open a Fire Hydrant Without Getting Arrested”: Carlos M. Jusino

The focus on connecting the dots between climate data and the important anecdotes that reveals the human story of climate change have the potential to change the way climate stories are typically covered. Traditionally, climate journalism begins when a new policy is proposed or a scientist’s work is published in a research journal. With this source material in place, reporters then contextualize this information for the public interest and hopefully include the perspective of vulnerable communities in their story. By starting the coverage with the concerns and curiosity of the community and building a record of observations side by side with environmental data, iSeeChange is a social media platform with an important purpose and an exciting app for any GeoJournalist.