Saturday, July 7, 2012

NOAA's website needs improvement

The day after this post was published, NOAA's 2011 "State of the Climate" report came out; see Judy Woodruff of PBS interviewing NOAA's Thomas Karl. 
Updated Sept  2 with NOAA response, appended to post.

Talking with an intelligent libertarian-contrarian recently,  I asked what institution he found credible; he said NOAA.

So I thought to myself "voila, my work here is done" - just point him to their website, offer some salient quotes, and at least we'll move on to the next barrier to acceptance.  But no -

Today I went to NOAA's website to reconnoiter.  The home page features the heat wave and wildfires but doesn't mention climate change; though under "Explore our agency" there's a box labeled "climate", that goes to a "Climate" page saying what services NOAA has offered: NOAA has "provided essential information about our climate that anticipates future risks, saves lives, protects property and safeguards the economy."

Provided to whom?  Understood by whom?

On this climate page, the term "global warming" appears not at all, and "climate change" appears just once, as part of a title: "NOAA’s Data Helps New York City Prepare for Climate Change (PDF)".
The page does direct readers to NOAA's climate portal,

So, what's on

Lots of Flash. (How do disabled users navigate this site?  How does Google index it?).  There's a "Climate Dashboard" that lets you play with climate data, but doesn't appear to have any general introduction.  There are links to a ton of assessment reports, but again, no single page explaining climate change, addressed to the taxpayers who NOAA works for.

The portal's (non-Flash) "Latest News" section has latest news - on the heat records currently being set, but again, no mention of climate change.  (I visited the most recent news link, "U.S. gets warmest May..."; and again, it's just data looking backward, it offers no vision looking forward, or any mention of climate change or global warming.).

The NOAA website seems to think it's a data  and news service, that it's not in the business of explaining publicly-controversial science to citizens.  Earth to NOAA: read Larry Moran's blogpost Communicating Science to Society:

"What we need is not more splash about the latest Nature paper... What we need is more articles on what evolution is and why it's so important. If science writers were really in the business of communicating science to the public then that's what they would be writing about. That, and topics like; what is DNA, how do genes work, what's in your genome, what causes speciation, why bacteria are important etc. etc.

The public needs to know the basics and they need to appreciate excitement of understanding what life is all about. They need Biology 101, not some senior level course that focuses on the latest research.

Just once, I'd like ... the science journalists [to] admit that they have been remarkably unsuccessful at educating the general public about science. Instead of telling us how to fit into the current failed system, I'd like them to ask us how they can change the way they write about science in order to advance science literacy."
Maybe NOAA doesn't consider telling the general public the basics about climate change to be part of its mission?  Who are its website's intended users?

IMO needs Annie Leonard, or someone like her, to provide a plain-english explanation of what the problem is and why we should care. (Not exactly: see update below)

Sept. 2 update:

First,  on rethink the Annie Leonard rec was misplaced, someone like a Climate Central scientist would be a much better fit.  Not sure what I'd been thinking when I wrote that.

Second, NOAA's program director David Herring has responded to this critique, saying that resources were limited, improvements are afoot, and much climate information is available on NOAA's site and  My confusion remains, though, that a) contrarians seem to feel they find support in NOAA's site, and b) I haven't found a (reasonably short) page there or at to direct them to, to indicate otherwise.  (There is a "human influences" flash/powerpoint presentation that wasn't readable online for me, and there's a climate literacy brochure, where IMO less relevant information effectively buries the salient points.)

From Dr. Herring's email: (ctrl+ or cmd+ to enlarge)
I agree with that statement (“NOAA's website needs improvement"), and the good news is we're in the process of making quite a lot of improvements.  I will summarize them for you below, but first I want to thank you for sharing your feedback.  We always appreciate hearing from our visitors.  Our modus operandi from the beginning has been to evolve our portal in user-driven ways.

For perspective, NOAA’s began several years ago as a rapid prototyping effort.  When we started, we had no operating budget and a small handful of personnel from different offices who hadn’t previously worked together, and who had fractions of their time to donate to the project.  We also had a very short developmental timeline (6 weeks) in which to stand up the site, we didn’t have a well-suited host environment, nor did we have a stable content management system.  We had to make some hard choices in the face of many constraints, and we knew that some of our choices weren’t optimal in the long run (such as our use of flash, which you referenced) but we had to live with them until we could get our “feet under us,” so to speak.

Fast forward to today, and we’re almost ready to stand.  We have procured and stood up a new host server system, we’ve just finished tailoring our new content management system, and we’ve completed a site-wide redesign of the interface.  We will also be simplifying our use of terminology and streamlining our navigation site-wide — all based on user feedback.  Our goal is to complete content migration to our new system, apply the new interface, and unveil the “new look” before the end of this calendar year.

While I agree with much of what you said in your blog, I thought I’d note a few points on which I don’t agree — not to be defensive, but rather to call your attention to some aspects of that you may have overlooked; or that we were already in the process of addressing about the time you wrote your blog.  For example, had you played with our “Global Climate Dashboard”?  It’s a data-driven readout of the changing state of Earth’s climate system.  The first tab focuses on parameters of global climate change, and users can click the “?” buttons to get more information behind each trend.  The default top two parameters are global mean surface temperature and carbon dioxide concentration.  The Dashboard, with its supporting short articles, is an “evergreen” resource on the site that explains the basics of climate change in an obvious, interactive and easy-to-understand way.  I encourage you read its series of articles and see if you agree.

Note also that in July we added a third (“Climate Projections”) tab to the Dashboard.  Again, click the “?” button and then the “Read more” button.  Here we turn the visitors attention from historical and present trends to a forward-looking vision of the future.  It reads: “According to climate scientists, our world is highly likely to continue to warm over this century and beyond. … The main reason for this temperature increase is carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping “greenhouse” gases that human activities produce. The biggest source of added carbon dioxide is from people burning coal and other fossil fuels.”

You asked, “Who are the website’s intended users?”  Last month, we updated our "About NOAA" page and your question is addressed in both the “mission” and “background” sections.  Each tab on the main page is designed to meet the needs and interests of four groups:

1.     ClimateWatch Magazine is a popular-style magazine for the science-interested public seeking information about topics in climate science, adaptation, and mitigation.

2.     Data & Services is a gateway for scientists, resource managers, businesses and other interested members of the public who want to find and use climate data.

3.     Understanding Climate is designed for policy leaders, decision makers, and resource managers who want authoritative, peer-reviewed climate science information to help them understand and manage climate-related risks and opportunities.

4.     Education offers learning activities and curriculum materials, multi-media resources, and professional development opportunities for formal and informal educators who want to incorporate climate science into their work.

One last point regarding your statement: “The NOAA website seems to think it's a data and news service, that it's not in the business of explaining publicly-controversial science to citizens.”  And you said: “Maybe NOAA doesn't consider telling the general public the basics about climate change to be part of its mission?”

I feel these statements miss the mark on two levels:  (1) we have hardly sidestepped explaining the basics of climate science.  In addition to the articles I cited above that reside behind the Dashboard, please also consider this short list of articles’s ClimateWatch Magazine that explain the facts and relevant facets of climate change:

- “Carbon Dioxide: Earth's Hottest Topic is Just Warming Up” -

- “Before the Next Flood” -

- “Counting Blossoms Along a Canyon Trail” -

- “Can Record Snowstorms and Global Warming Coexist?” -

- “An Upwelling Crisis: Ocean Acidification” -

- “Will Boulder's Water Supply Stand Up to Climate Change?” -

- “Will Hurricanes Change as the World Warms?” -

- “Time and Tides” -

- “Short-Term Cooling on a Warming Planet” -

See also, for example, our video lecture series titled “Climate Change: Impacts, Perceptions, and Solutions” here:

And our slide set library in the “Understanding Climate” section:  (Note, in particular, the slide sets titled “Human Contributions to Global Climate Change” and “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States”.)  In short, we have explained the basics of climate science in different ways in different locations throughout the site.  Still, we agree with you: there is more we can do, and we plan to do more.

(2) I wouldn’t agree that our sole, or even our main purpose, is to address the socio-political controversy surrounding attitudes and perceptions about global warming.  NOAA’s job is to tackle the bigger problem of advancing understanding of Earth’s climate system and sharing that information with the public.  To put it another way, we *are* a data service and we report climate news because we are mandated by Congress to play those roles and because we receive public demand for them.  However, we are more than those things and so one shouldn’t “narrowcast” us to solely those roles.  The scope of climate science includes but goes far beyond the socio-political controversy.  There is, for example, natural climate variability, which is a complex and fascinating subject all by itself.  We know there are oscillating patterns in Earth's climate system which have major impacts on our lives with or without global warming.  We don't fully understand these oscillating patterns, but they are “major players” from time to time in almost every aspect of our lives (the economy, energy demand and use, agriculture, health, extreme events such as droughts and heat waves, marine ecosystems, etc).

I hope this clarifies our mission, target audiences, and next steps we have planned for  Please feel encouraged to let me know if you have further concerns or criticisms.  Your (and others’) feedback is always welcome and appreciated.

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