Designing climate tools to be used – what does the ag industry need?

By: Dominique Bachelet

As a climate change scientist at the Conservation Biology Institute (CBI), I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to deliver climate projections and climate impacts data in a useful manner. This is a challenging part of my job, because I do not make decisions on managing natural resources, so I am not necessarily the best person to determine how climate research might inform such decisions. For practitioners whose day-to-day work is managing natural resources—forests, fisheries, endangered species and their habitats, for example—thinking about future climate and potential climate impacts is challenging in a different way. Practitioners have limited time and funding to digest and incorporate this material into their plans, strategies, and actions. I expect agricultural professionals face a similar challenge, so there’s an opportunity to share ideas on how to develop effective climate-related decision-support tools.

People sitting at tables in a meeting
Natural resource managers participated in workshops to provide input on what information and tools would be most useful to them. Lakeview, OR. Photo: Dominique Bachelet.

Here’s what we did. A team of us at CBI decided to directly engage managers by calling them to ask for advice on how to improve our web-based tools to help them use climate data. Through our interviews we wanted to understand what activities were affected by climate and whether they already had tools at their fingertips ready to serve up the answers they needed. It was also important to find out what design and what features were most attractive and useful to engage managers to thoroughly use the applications. Overall, managers liked the combined simplicity and complexity of the web tools we shared: “I like the way you can get different levels of information. […] I think that is a great way to connect with a lot of data that can be overwhelming and hard to deal with. This seems like a really good way to sort it out.”

With these managers’ feedback Mike Gough, our GIS analyst and web developer, started creating a series of web sites to deliver the most recent climate change projections to specific user groups. The first climate console was created for BLM managers in Utah. This was a bare-bones effort, as there was no funding for it. Our goal was simply to organize the data and make them easily accessible as web images and GIS layers through Data Basin, a data repository created a decade ago by CBI. The console also provides information on current human impacts on land and streams, soil characteristics, and climate exposure. Those results come from a decision support model created by Tim Sheehan at CBI, and are displayed as an interactive, transparent logic model that allows each node to be visualized on the screen, giving the user a better sense of local vulnerabilities.

The second console was designed for southern California and later expanded to the entire state. Because managers told us they wanted access to short-term forecasts, as weather might impact the effectiveness of their current activities, we included these, straight from NOAA, in addition to the climate projections to 2100. “It is interesting to compare across all the graphs (temperature max and min, and precipitation). Makes me feel better about what I’m seeing in the field and then correlate it back to the graphs.” This is a good approach for using current experiences to better understand future projections.

We also heard from managers that “when you start talking about climate change, I start thinking about how climate change is going to impact the current vegetation.” So the California console includes results from a vegetation model that helps them evaluate the sustainability of different vegetation types in the future. It estimates the amount of carbon held in the vegetation and soil for each vegetation type, and how possible future changes in climate, landuse, and events such as wildfires could affect them.

More recently, the sagebrush console includes climate projections for 11 western states. Because we initially developed this console for BLM sagebrush managers in Oregon and Idaho, it shows sagebrush cover and sage grouse range, so that climate projections can easily relate (by changing the transparency on the map) to their goals and priorities.

Map of the sagebrush console
Existing climate-change decision-support tools. A screenshot of the Sagebrush Console (http://climateconsole.org/sagebrush), shared with permission from Dominique Bachelet, Conservation Biology Institute.

These consoles are not set in stone and can always be modified, based on users’ feedback. They can also complement other climate-change tools designed specifically with agriculture in mind, such as the AgClimate Atlas. For example, Northwest producers of wine grapes or leafy greens might want to compare expected changes in their area with those expected in California’s Central Valley. We at CBI look forward to receiving your comments and thoughts on those sites and your ideas for new projects that are customized to answer critical questions. Agriculture is part of the past and future of western landscapes. We hope that natural resource managers and producers can work together and share the most effective tools to create sustainable landscapes given the future constraints of warming and growing population centers’ demands.

To contact CBI and provide feedback or discuss climate data needs, email Mike Gough at mike.gough@consbio.org or Dominique at dominique@consbio.org.