Innovative Journalism Linking Backyard Observations with Climate Science

The iSeeChange radio project in rural Colorado fosters conversations about the weird and wild weather of 2012, addressing a community’s questions about drought, wildfires and more while telling scientifically accurate stories about climate change.

In the North Fork Valley in western Colorado, strange events of late have people talking.

Back in April, Hotchkiss Fire District Chief Doug Fritz had to put out an unusual wildfire that erupted while there was still snow on the ground. The spring flowers in Nancy Zimmerman’s garden bloomed early and all out of order. And in June, Amber Kleinman noticed that mosquitoes were abnormally plentiful.

Then there’s the matter of the squirrels. Cassandra Shenk observed that squirrel corpses suddenly began appearing among the roadkill along a road near her home.

“I can’t say that I ever remember seeing a squirrel on our mesa before,” Shenk told local radio station KVNF in Paonia. “Squirrels have appeared, and I’m wondering, why?”

Journalist Julia Kumari Drapkin has been talking with valley residents about these observations for an innovative radio series she is leading called iSeeChange, which launched last spring at KVNF.

So far, the project has aired more than a dozen segments that offer scientific context for citizen observations. In an hour-long show broadcast in August, for example, biologist Michael Soulé, a Paonia resident, explained that exceptional precipitation last year had set the stage for a squirrel boom.

“In very wet years, you can count on rodents reproducing like crazy,” he said on the program.

Drapkin’s project taps into the conversations that Americans already are having about the extraordinary weather and environmental changes of 2012, such as the early spring, record-hot summer, and extreme droughts and wildfires. Her reporting connects laypeople with scientists, helping residents to understand unusual weather, changes in plant growth, and strange animal behavior in the context of long-term changes to the climate. In turn, residents soon will have a chance to compile detailed data about their community environment, which is drawing keen interest from scientists.

The Mystery of Out-of-Sync Flowers

Each iSeeChange story opens with observations from North Fork Valley residents, which Drapkin collects via Facebook, calls and e-mails to the station, and in-person interviews. In a recent segment, for example, gardener Nancy Zimmerman reported that her wisteria, clematis, and Chinese snowball bush bloomed in a different order than they had in the past.

Next, Drapkin interviews scientists, who explain how climate change might be playing a role in the changes that citizens are witnessing. Researcher Amy McKinney of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory said in the recent segment that earlier spring snow melts are changing the order in which wildflowers bloom.

Zimmerman, McKinney added, “has observed a very similar trend to what we’re seeing with the wildflowers. It’s all quite related.”


Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory researcher Amy McKinney says trends with wildflower blooms ‘all quite related.’

On the program, scientists frequently address North Fork Valley residents by name, giving the segments the feel of a friendly conversation.

“There is that sense of direct communication between the interviewees that you don’t get in a regular radio program,” said Michelle Nijhuis, a respected Paonia-based science writer who provides editorial guidance to the iSeeChange project. “It wakes me up as a listener.”

Turning Climate Reporting on Its Head

Drapkin’s reporting reverses the approach that journalists usually take in reporting on climate change.

Typically, “the scientist has the observations and asks questions, and then does a study, and then they publish that study, and then I do a story on it,” Drapkin said in an interview with The Yale Forum. “And if I have time, which I usually do not, we’ll go and find an anecdote from the local community to make it more familiar.”

Few scientific studies offer information about how climate change might be affecting a place as small as the North Fork Valley. That can confound journalists who want to help a community understand the issue. But Drapkin suspected that she could still find a way to create a dialogue about seasonal changes between scientists and local residents.

“I started thinking about, well, what if we could create a safe place for citizens and scientists to have this conversation about what is, in fact, happening in their backyards?” she said. “Let’s let the community have a space to make observations and ask questions, and then I’ll try and pair them with scientists who provide context.”

Drapkin is a seasoned journalist who has worked for the Associated Press, the St. Petersburg Times, The Nature Conservancy, and PRI’s “The World.” She and station KVNF won a grant for a year’s worth of funding for the iSeeChange project from Localore, a national initiative of the Association of Independents in Radio that promotes innovation in public media.

Noticing Change, and Talking about It

Delta County, which contains the North Fork Valley, is largely rural: its 30,000 residents are spread out over 1,100 miles. In the towns, ranches, orchards, and farms that dot the county, community members are closely attuned to environmental change.

“If you’re not a rancher or a farmer yourself, you’re gardening, you’re out skiing, you’re biking,” Drapkin said. “Everyone is very engaged with their environment here, and they’re paying attention.”

KVNF Executive Director Sally Kane said the iSeeChange project’s focus on weather and seasonal changes is engaging to conservative farmers and ranchers often skeptical that people are changing the climate. Western Colorado saw much more precipitation than normal last year, and then came months of drought this year.

“The weather’s weird, and it’s blowing their minds,” Kane said. “It’s been a brutal season for them, and it’s gotten their attention.”

Paonia resident Amber Kleinman says that when she heard about iSeeChange, she knew right away that she wanted to participate. She raises chickens and vegetables on a quarter-acre plot, and she has years of observations about temperature and growth patterns recorded in her journals.

Like Nancy Zimmerman, Kleinman observed that this year, her garden is out of whack.

“A lot of us have been noticing these things and talking about them,” she said in an interview with The Yale Forum.

In June, Kleinman was working in her garden when mosquitoes swarmed her — in greater numbers and far earlier in the season than normal. Her observations on mosquitoes became part of an iSeeChange segment on the West Nile virus that aired in September.

A Farmer’s Almanac for the Digital Age

In addition to the radio program, North Fork Valley residents are talking about what they’re seeing in their community on the iSeeChange Facebook page. Recently, one participant wrote that Lamborn Mesa had received 0.9 inch of rain on September 11, and another shared a photograph of an autumn leaf.

In coming months, Drapkin hopes to involve this Facebook community and journal-keepers like Kleinman in an online spin-off of the radio program. On the new iSeeChange website, residents will be able to share their observations with other community members.

Like a farmer’s almanac, the website will be a place for people to keep an account of an entire year, recording data from rain gauges, the date when lilacs bloom, animal sightings, the time of potato planting, strategies for warding off pests, the quality of the year’s harvest, and so on.

Kleinman says she is eager to share information with other local growers: “It’s brilliant to be able to collaborate with other farmers and see if they’re doing the same things or if they’re seeing the same things.”

iseeChange and the virtual almanac also are attracting the attention of the scientific community. Drapkin presented the project at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in August and at NASA’s Earth Science Division in September.

Randy Friedl, deputy director for research in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s engineering and science directorate, says he thinks crowd-sourced efforts like the almanac can help scientists gather more data on local and regional phenomena, helping them improve their models. In addition, community-based projects can engage people in science — enabling them to become a part of the scientific process and giving them access to the scientific information they want.

“We have been unable, by and large, to really tell people what’s been happening at their level of experience,” he said. “I see an opportunity here to make NASA science a heck of a lot more accessible to the public.”

Listen to more iSeeChange stories.

Sara Peach

Sara Peach, an environmental journalist, teaches environmental journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: sara@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @sarapeach)
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2 Responses to Innovative Journalism Linking Backyard Observations with Climate Science

  1. John Garrett says:

    I see that Big Brother is hard at work censoring contrary opinion. The politicization of climatology by “Noble Cause Corruption” will ultimately damage its credibility.

    The CAGW conjecture is far from “settled science.” After seventeen (17) years of little-to-no warming, one would hope that inquiring minds might ask some inconvenient questions.

  2. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    Here in Ireland, on the far side of the Atlantic, climate denial is just as prevalent as in the States. And so, when unusual backyard observations are reported, the press, radio and private blogs frequently, indeed nearly always, try to fit them into some imagined idyll that pertained at least thirty years ago but no longer applies.

    For example, this autumn Swallows remained extremely late, with many still nesting in the first week of October, delaying their autumn migration. This would have been unheard of thirty years ago, when any sighting of a Swallow in October would have been noted with interest.

    The reason the Swallows stayed so late is that summer was extremely wet, which hampered the rearing of chicks. However, with global warming, the autumns are now always very mild and so it is possible for birds such as Swallows to nest much later than before.

    Was this picked up by the media? Not a bit of it. The only reports I read were of thousands of Swallows migrating briskly southwards in the last week of September and first week of October. This is what observers wanted to see. It didn’t matter that thousands of Swallows were still rearing chicks; they were ignored.

    And so it is great to see your report from Colorado on the iSeeChange radio project. That is honest reporting, and it is refreshing to see that. Best of luck with it.