Climate Change Vocabulary: Indicators

How can you tell if climate change is happening? It’s certainly hard to look out your window and point it out. However, long-term monitoring of certain indicators is an important piece of putting together the climate change puzzle.
Indicators can range from the obvious such as temperature to the more subtle such as bird migration patterns and the timing of spring flower blooms. Climate change monitoring is getting a huge boost from a growing effort by some organizations and individuals trying to keep track of some of these indicators.
One example is the National Phenology Network (NPN). Phenology is essentially the study of seasonal natural phenomenon, particularly when plants bloom or animals migrate. NPN collates data from citizen scientists across the US in an effort to create a reliable record of how seasonality affects flora and fauna.
Rather than focus on every seasonal phenomenon across every region, NPN has picked out key indicators for different regions. Individuals and school groups then contribute their findings to the database. As the record continues to grow, it will offer a more coherent picture of what the effects of climate change might be on natural occurrences.
NPN’s record is fairly short. However, there are other climate change indicators that have been kept track of for much longer. One example is sea level rise, which has been kept track of since the 1870s.
Of course there are limitations to these longer-term climate change indicators. Sea level rise may have been kept track of since the 1870s, but it’s only since the 1960s that measurements have become more reliable. This is in part due to equipment and in part due to more stations, which help smooth out some of the data.
Certain localities also have long-term monitoring for temperature and precipitation. In upstate New York at a place called Mohonk Reserve, records have been kept for 114 years, each day, without interruption. While records this detailed are rare, they offer insight into the changes that have taken place in our climate system on a more local level.
In addition to these rare projects, monitoring of indicators has gotten a boost globally since the late 1970s when modern satellite equipment came into use. This allows for much more accurate measurements than ever before of phenomenon such as sea level rise, glacial retreat, and sea ice melt.
In the end, as our knowledge of the effects of climate change continues to grow, it will mean we are better able to adapt to them. Focusing on robust indicators is the best way to ensure that we have the best information at hand.
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