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Climate Change is Not Just Anecdotal
updated: Feb 13, 2014, 10:04 AM
Source: University of California Santa Barbara
UCSB geography researchers use real data from the department's climate monitoring stations to teach
students how to explore the environment
Climate monitoring stations take climate change beyond the anecdotal. These remote monitoring sites,
which collect measurements on such data as temperature, wind speed, precipitation, fog and soil moisture
offer more solid evidence of climate change.
To scientists in UC Santa Barbara's geography department, the climate monitoring stations are essential to
professors and students alike. They are used not only for teaching classes but also for a host of research
projects. For example, the stations contribute to the Innovative Datasets for Environmental Analysis by
Students (IDEAS) website, a repository for real-time and archived data from the five department stations:
Coal Oil Point; Painted Cave; two on the Sedgwick Reserve, Airstrip and Lisque Creek; and Mission Canyon,
a private station whose data is hosted by IDEAS.
"I'm very proud of our site," said department chair Dar Roberts, who teaches one of several undergraduate
classes that use the IDEAS website. "It's an educational site designed for easy understanding. Students use
it to learn how the physical environment operates by contrasting very different settings. The idea is that the
students do projects and link changes in the environment to plant responses."
Because the stations are located in different habitats, students can contrast data from, say, a coastal
location (Coal Oil Point) versus an interior site (Airstrip). "I collect leaf samples from the Santa Barbara area
and Sedgwick Reserve relatively close to some of the monitoring stations," said Susan Meerdink, a graduate
student and teaching assistant in UCSB's Department of Geography.
"When looking at the foliar chemistry and biophysical properties of the leaves, I find it is useful to know
what the environment was doing at the time of collection," she continued. "For example, if the water
content in the leaves is low it might be explained by some environmental properties, such as soil water
content, measured by the stations. Having the IDEAS dataset can be useful in explaining deviations in my
leaf dataset especially when analyzing seasonal changes."
"I like using real data from the UCSB climate monitoring systems because I can see how data values relate
to the real world with my own eyes," said Brittany Gale, an undergraduate student who took Robert's
Measuring the Environment class. "The data becomes more relatable and meaningful."
According to Roberts, a key component for studying geographical phenomenon remotely is the webcam,
although he says the equipment is difficult to keep online. But he believes their importance outweighs their
"Webcams are becoming major research tools and there's a huge amount that can be done with them, he
said. "We contribute our data to the Phenocam site nationally. This is really going to be the tool that allows
us to quantify phenology, because there are a lot of plant-derived metrics of phenology - the study of
how periodic plant and animal lifecycles are influenced by seasonal and interannual variations in climate -
that can be obtained only via webcam.
"For instance, it's difficult to know whether the plants have leaves or not unless you're actually taking an
image of the plant canopies," Roberts added. "And if you want to know if plants are dropping their leaves
earlier every year, again it takes a webcam or something like litter traps to determine that. I think webcams
are more interesting for students because they are more visual."
Now students also have access to data from 26 climate monitoring stations in the UC Natural Reserve
System (NRS), including four overseen by UCSB: Santa Cruz Island Reserve, Kenneth S. Norris Rancho
Marino Reserve, Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory and Sedgwick Reserve. This newly completed
statewide network delivers slightly different data than the climate monitoring stations run by UCSB's
Department of Geography, but according to Roberts, it offers increased diversity and more variability of
"The consistency of data across the NRS is important," Roberts said. "From a teaching point of view,
utilizing these data could make for a very interesting class. Imagine being able to ask questions about the
entire state. The NRS climate monitoring network could engender a powerful teaching model. And because
these are UC reserves, you could even design field trips or a summer course built around visiting these
sites. Students could do standard quantitative ecological measures at each site, then compare sites and
start asking questions about the differences between them."
While the geography department's five sites offer some wonderful contrasts, adding in NRS sites would give
students more opportunities to contrast vastly different habitats. But even with only seven years of data
from the departments sites - NRS sites only go back about three years - Roberts said he and his students
have made some fascinating observations.
"The species we saw at the Airstrip in Sedgwick were completely different than two years ago and a lot of it
was because of the really bizarre rainfall," he said. "We got no rain in January and it was really warm and so
it was a completely different species mix. Oftentimes, the species you see are going to change from one
year to the next in some of these grassland sites depending on the rainfall and temperature."
According to Roberts, learning from real data is incredibly important, as is having students do active
research projects. "We're being flooded with vast amounts of data from satellites, from weather stations,
you name it, and it requires a different way of formulating research questions," he said. Such questions
teach lessons in climate change that can be learned only firsthand.
"Real data made the learning process much more tangible," said undergraduate Ryan Fallgatter, who has
taken two geography classes that have used IDEAS data. "Because the data was coming from right here, it
was much less abstract and much more meaningful. We had actual numbers and could do a real analysis of
what we felt but couldn't quite articulate."
The IDEAS website was funded by the National Science Foundation's Course, Curriculum and Laboratory
Improvement program and by UCSB's Department of Instructional Development.
- See more at: http://www.news.ucsb.edu/node/013921/climate-change-not-just-
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