What Decision Makers Think About Climate Apps

As many climate scientists and resource managers know, the road to climate adaptation is frequently strewn with obstacles. A major roadblock: too often resource managers and other decision makers lack useful climate science. The aim of publicly funded groups like CIRC and OCCRI is to remove these obstructions by working directly with decision makers to put climate science to use. But climate adaptation is a new field that’s still learning.

This is essentially what researchers Melanie Brown and Dominique Bachelet found in their recent article published in the journal Weather, Climate, and Society.

Brown and Bachelet interviewed Bureau of Land Management (BLM) managers in Oregon and Idaho to find out how climate scientists can help improve climate-related web applications by making them more useful and relevant for resource managers and other decision makers. What they found was disconcerting. The BLM managers reported that many of the climate applications considered were unhelpful or confusing. What’s more, many managers reported wanting features from the apps that the apps, their designers, and the state of the science could not deliver.

Here’s the background:

Climate scientists at groups like CIRC have a problem: they want to put their climate science to work in adaptation. To reach the largest audience possible, this often means building web-based tools that allow decision makers to see how specific climatological factors, including temperature and precipitation, are likely to play out as the climate changes.

The problem—to be very blunt—is climate researchers are good at being climate researchers. But they are not app developers. In other words, too often the needs of resource managers aren’t being met by climate scientists because they lack the right expertise. This is essentially what Brown and Bachelet found in their interviews with BLM managers. It’s also the conclusion of a 2015 US Government Accountability Office (GAO) study referenced by Brown and Bachelet.

Don’t get the wrong idea. The GAO study doesn’t point the finger at climate scientists per se. It fingers inadequate organization at the top. The study notes that the US lacks a centralized climate service that adequately funds and organizes climate adaptation like what you might find in Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. The study’s telling title is “A National System Could Help Federal, State, Local, and Private Sector Decision Makers Use Climate Information.”

That being said, US-based climate adaptation needs to continue regardless. Which is where constructive critiques like Brown and Bachelet’s enter the picture.

The 22 BLM managers interviewed by Brown and Bachelet all worked in sagebrush lands in Idaho and eastern Oregon. Sagebrush—if you didn’t know—is the common, catchall term for several species of stubby shrubs that grow throughout the western United States.

Sagebrush is also associated with the greater sage grouse, a bird well known for the male’s rather clamorous courtship displays involving air sacs in its chest and the bird’s recent delisting from the federal endangered species list. Listed or not, protecting the sage grouse—which still faces threats to its habitat in the intermountain West—remains a priority for the BLM, which oversees 35 million acres of the bird’s remaining habitat. Now the bird faces a new threat: climate change, which by one estimate could reduce the bird’s breeding range by some 71 percent by 2080. (Yeah, that’s a lot.)

This is the context in which Brown and Bachelet interviewed their BLM sagebrush managers about web-based science applications.

The researchers had their BLM interlocutors access and assess eight web-based applications, including several from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), CIRC’s parent group. The assessment revolved around whether the applications tracked or projected the climatic factors that the managers needed in their work. These included temperature and precipitation as well as wind speed and direction.

Brown and Bachelet also wanted to know how well these factors were presented or explained in each application, as well as how well each app explained the researchers’ assumptions. For example, many of the applications dealt with climate projections, so app users had to parse out sticky terms such as Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP).” Many (59 percent) didn’t know what the term meant, and the apps provided no clues, according to the survey results. A majority of users (73 percent) also expressed a desire to know more about the strengths and weaknesses of climate models, which wasn’t always thoroughly explained, according to the survey results. The survey found other problems as well.

Applications also reportedly suffered from simple design flaws, such as using colors to express quantities and not really getting the colors right. There were other problems as well, including the fact that many of the web-based apps didn’t work in the browsers the managers had to use on their BLM-assigned computers.

But perhaps the most troubling problem noted by Brown and Bachelet was a disconnect between what the applications were delivering and what the managers wanted. Nearly 90 percent of respondents said their management activities were largely dependent on seasonal weather events, including summer droughts and winter snowfall.

And in fact, many of the applications reviewed dealt in seasonal outlooks, though few managers surveyed reported using them. But what the managers really wanted were outlooks on the order of several years, something that simply cannot be accurately computed given the complexity of Earth’s climate and weather. The ocean and the atmosphere can give us clues about upcoming seasons on the order of three to six months, then confidence falls off. Reliability and confidence picks back up on the multi-decadal scale, say, 30 years out. So possible or not, the managers are nonetheless left with a large information gap, note the researchers.

Brown and Bachelet end their paper by stating the obvious, these tools need to be designed with the end user in mind. In their words: “Communication issues are widespread and usability projects should incorporate feedback from a variety of federal, state, tribal, and private landowners and managers.”

It’s advice we in the climate adaptation world should heed.

Note: For the authors this was something more than an academic exercise. Bachelet is currently a CIRC team member helping CIRC design its own Climate Tools. Both Brown and Bachelet work for the CIRC partner organization the Conservation Biology Institute (CBI) as well as Oregon State University, where both CIRC and OCCRI are hosted. One of the tools reviewed in the authors’ study was designed by CBI. Brown and Bachelet write that they will be using feedback from this study to help make this and other climate applications they work on more user-friendly. CIRC is currently undergoing a similar process for our new suite of Climate Tools.

Study: Weather, Climate, and Society

Citation: Brown, Melanie, and Dominique Bachelet. “BLM Sagebrush Managers Give Feedback on Eight Climate Web Applications.” Weather, Climate, and Society 9, no. 1 (2017): 39-52.

Photo Caption: Greater Sage Grouse. Photo taken in eastern Oregon. (Photo Credit: Oregon and Washington Bureau of Land Management, some rights reserved.)

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