UMD Scientist Spearheads New U.S. Climate Indicators, Wins Scientific Award

By: Lee Tune, 301-405-4679
Publisher: UMD Right Now
Published: May 18, 2015

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The U.S. government’s recent release of climate change measures designed to help governments, businesses and individuals make decisions around climate change marked a major milestone for University of Maryland scientist Melissa Kenney. Kenney was a leader in the four-year-long development of recommendations and prototype indicators that formed the basis of the 14 proof-of-concept climate change indicators selected and released by the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

Kenney and co-leader Anthony Janetos of Boston University directed a team of more than 200 scientists and practitioners from 9 federal agencies, the private sector and academia that worked with the U.S. Global Change Research Program on this project. The initial 14 indicators communicate key aspects of the changing climate, such as temperatures over land and at sea, greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, the extent of Arctic sea ice, and related effects in sectors like public health and agriculture. Some measures show climate-related trends over time, while other indicators show how resources are impacted in the United States. The source data for each indicator are documented and traceable via the Global Change Information System.

“We [scientists] do a really good job tracking our physical climate system: arctic sea ice extent, air and sea surface temperatures, and a whole range of indicators that are tracked through NASA, NOAA, EPA and other Federal agencies,” said Kenney, an assistant research professor in environmental decision analysis and indicators at UMD’s Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC) and Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites.

“However, it is important for us to present such data in forms, like these new indicators, that can allow non-scientists to understand it, engage with it, and to integrate it with other information in ways that are useful for their decision making processes,” she said.

On the day the climate indicators were released, the Scientific Research Society, Sigma Xi, an international honor society of science and engineering that is one of the oldest and largest scientific organizations in the world, announced Kenney as the winner of its 2015 Young Investigator Award. The society noted her work on climate indicators as one example of why it was recognizing her overall actionable research program focused on the analysis and translation of multidisciplinary scientific knowledge to address tough societal environmental problems.  Sigma Xi hosted a public Google Hangout with Kenney about this project last week.

A Leading Indicator of Things to Come

According to Kenney, given the scope of the team’s recommendations, the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s newly released indicators are just the first step. “We’re embarked on a broad effort to create a system of indicators that captures our knowledge across the physical, natural and social science disciplines to look at climate changes, impacts and vulnerabilities,” she said. 

Kenney said feedback from the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s indicators will be used by her team in an interactive process with users, from legislative and business leaders to farmers and fisherman, to refine and expand the proposed indicator features and recommendations. This process she said will be analogous to user-driven software development.

One key focus for her team will be identifying and developing a set of “leading indicators” that are indicative of future climate impacts and vulnerabilities. These would be designed for use in planning and decision making in ways analogous to how leading economic indicators – like the ups and downs in the stock market and new housing permits – can be used to evaluate and make decisions around anticipated changes in sectors of the economy or in the economy as a whole.

“For decisions, we care about the past because it helps us to understand and to predict the future. A set of leading climate impact indicators could be a game changer for adaptation decisions,” Kenney said.

Reprinted from UMD Right Now with permission.