An Almanac in the Age of Climate Change

New Orleans, Louisiana

June 28, 2013

Julia Kumari Drapkin originally wanted to start iSeeChange, a media project that connects citizen observers and climate scientists, in New Orleans. As a Florida native who grew up swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, Drapkin never imagined herself living in Paonia, Colorado, (generous) population estimate: 2,000.

So when the producer at KVNF, the local radio station in Paonia, asked her to bring her Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant there, Drapkin found the town on a map. She had covered climate science from the Arctic to Mongolia to Australia and had a hunch that there was more to the simplified story about the ‘climate debate’ in the United States. After talking with the producer, Drapkin realized that Paonia—an eclectic town of coal miners, fruit farmers, and journalists in the North Fork Valley—was the perfect place to rethink that story.

Julia Kumari Drapkin (left) teaches road trippers Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein a thing or two about New Orleans snowballs.

Julia Kumari Drapkin (left) teaches road trippers Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein a thing or two about New Orleans snowballs.

“A farm or a ranch is a living science experiment,” Drapkin told us over snowballs (a delicious New Orleans treat) at Hansen’s Sno-Bliz. “I think a lot of assumptions are made about red versus blue, or rural versus urban—[assumptions about farmers like] ‘those guys are afraid of science.’ No. These guys are using genetics every day. These guys are much more engrossed in science in their daily lives than I was writing about climate science from my desk in D.C.”

An almanac for a digital age

The idea behind iSeeChange is to connect people making daily observations about the weather with scientists who look at regional or global climate trends. The project is a crowd-sourced almanac to which people can text or post observations about their dying fruit trees, the early flower blossoms, the longer fire season, the fact that their beehive has two queens—anything, really—and see if others are observing similar trends.

The online almanac is much like the traditional almanacs still found in Paonia’s grocery store. Some farmers in the area have kept journals of their observations since the Dust Bowl, and the online almanac presents a similar snapshot of daily life in the growing season. Drapkin thinks the almanac offers something that tends to be missing from the climate conversation: an actual conversation.

“Science says the anecdote isn’t science—it’s the opposite of science. And yet the anecdote can be just as informative,” Drapkin said. “It’s not perfect information, but it’s still relevant and salient. What we’ve done is we’ve taken these two types of information, which normally don’t play together, and juxtaposed them.”

A climate conversation

iSeeChange helps get around the stickiest conundrum that climate scientists face: the fact that climate science research is often on scales of time and space too long and large to be useful to decision-makers. The almanac flips the typical scientific process in which it is the scientist who makes the observations, forms a hypothesis, and then sets out to answer her own questions. Instead, with iSeeChange, the questions are posed by regular people, and scientists are enlisted to give context for what folks are seeing on a very local scale—often as local as their own backyards.

“As we started doing these question-and-answer stories, we found more often than not, citizens are seeing the same things that scientists are seeing. The difference is they’re not writing papers about it—citizens are making decisions,” Drapkin said.

iSeeChange and resilience

Though it is not the main purpose of the project, iSeeChange has the potential to become a platform for sharing ideas and strategies to adapt to a changing climate. Drapkin sees the almanac as a bridge across time and space that could connect communities experiencing similar climate impacts. She is now bringing iSeeChange to New Orleans, where she hopes to engage a larger, urban audience in the question-and-answer style almanac.

“As the land changes, because our cultural traditions are very much grown up from the land, the question becomes, how are we changing too?” Drapkin said.

iSeeChange is part of  Localore, a national public media initiative produced by the Association of Independents In Radio (AIR). The project was highlighted on a recent episode of This American Life, Hot In My Backyard. Check back next week to read about the Great American Adaptation Road Trip’s own visit to Paonia, Colorado and what we learned about how growers are using wind, water, and fire to help their fruit survive late frosts.

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