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With Better Data On Climate Change, Scientists Predict Extreme Conditions Earlier


Now, on this day of historically low, even dangerously low, temperatures in the upper Midwest, we bring you a story about how scientists are learning about climate change. They're getting more and better data. And now there is a push to use that data to help people cope with the extremes we know are coming. Joe Wertz of StateImpact Oklahoma and NPR's energy and environment team reports.

JOE WERTZ: Kirk Wilson is a burly guy with a big beard and a booming laugh who climbs tall towers for a living. He's parked his work truck next to one in a cow pasture in central Oklahoma. The outside of the truck features a colorful sticker for the jam band Phish. The inside is a heap of tools and boxes of precision instruments.

KIRK WILSON: And I'm just going to make a note of the serial number that's on this one.

WERTZ: The meteorological electronics technician grabs his climbing harness, which is a little snug on top of all the layers he's wearing to keep warm.

WILSON: We're changing the sensor that's at the top of the tower that measures the wind direction.

WERTZ: Wilson climbs to the top of a 30-foot tower. Another tech on the ground uses a sensitive GPS receiver to make sure everything is aligned before it's tightened in place.

CHRISTOPHER BIESCHKE: Three hundred fifty-four, 96, 179.

WERTZ: When this station is back online, it'll resume beaming bursts of observations on the wind and air pressure, temperature, soil moisture and solar radiation. On this day, the real-time info is helping forecasters track a winter storm. Long term, the measurements will fill enormous data sets used for climate science and agriculture, industry and government. Oklahoma has 120 of these stations scattered across the state, one of the largest and most sophisticated such sensor networks in the country.

CHRIS FIEBRICH: Yeah. So this chamber right here is where we calibrate both barometers.

WERTZ: Chris Fiebrich manages all this information at the headquarters of Oklahoma's Mesonet, where techs test sensors and banks of computers analyze and publish the field data.

FIEBRICH: We're not only collecting the data every five minutes, but we're trying to get it out to the decision-makers within five minutes.

WERTZ: Those decisions could be small ones, like postponing a high school football game, or ones with much higher stakes, such as predicting catastrophic flooding and wildfires.

FIEBRICH: We run a fire danger model for the state so that firefighters can know sort of how fast a fire might spread if it were to break out today or how high the flames might be. And that helps them pre-position things or get things ready.

WERTZ: Scientists who authored the recent National Climate Assessment say states should use more of this data for early warning systems that help communities prepare and adapt to the effects of climate change, dangers like droughts and epidemics.

KRISTIE EBI: There's enormous possibilities for how we could use early warning systems to make our health systems much more effective.

WERTZ: Kristie Ebi is a professor at the University of Washington who studies the health risks of climate change. She says in Phoenix, officials are using weather and climate data to predict and prepare for deadly heatwaves. In Singapore, the data are used to create a seasonal forecast for dengue fever.

EBI: It gives you four months' notice. If you've got four months, think of all the things that you can do in four months.

WERTZ: But Ebi says information isn't action. She says scientists had warned that climate conditions in Houston and Miami could mean more mosquitoes and outbreaks of Zika virus. They published a scientific paper. National media did stories.

EBI: But there was essentially no significant public health response.

WERTZ: The next step, Ebi says, is finding ways to respond to our increasingly accurate predictions about the effects of climate change. For NPR News, I'm Joe Wertz in Oklahoma City.


Joe was a founding reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma (2011-2019) covering the intersection of economic policy, energy and environment, and the residents of the state. He previously served as Managing Editor of Urban Tulsa Weekly, as the Arts & Entertainment Editor at Oklahoma Gazette and worked as a Staff Writer for The Oklahoman. Joe was a weekly arts and entertainment correspondent for KGOU from 2007-2010. He grew up in Bartlesville, Okla. and studied journalism at the University of Central Oklahoma.