Most climate change science is based on instruments and measurements, data points and trends. But there are of course more qualitative ways of watching the change, including the stories and observations of ordinary people. One recent study brought together over ten thousand eye-witness observations from around the world. In particular, it notes the experiences of people who live a subsistence lifestyle. Since they live close to the land, they are better attuned to the changes.
Overall, people noted three main things: changes in climate and weather, changes to the physical environment (floods, erosion), or changes to the living environment (plants and animals).
For example, people in Arunachal Pradesh, India, noticed that temperatures were higher and that rainfall was more erratic. There had been more floods, more erosion and more silt in the rivers. Plants were flowering at different times, and there were more problems with flies and other insects.
On the Crow Reservation in Montana, native Americans had seen less snow, lower water levels in the rivers and more fires in summer. Berries were ripening earlier, putting them at risk of late frosts.
Villagers in Burkina Faso reported more extreme seasonal temperatures, and more dust storms. Numbers of some trees had declined, while new species of grass had become established.
The change to climate and weather that was mentioned most frequently was changes in rainfall. This was often to do with rains arriving earlier or later, or the dry season being longer than it used to be. Rains are less predictable. Reductions in freshwater availability were often mentioned.
The most frequently mentioned changes to the living environment was reduced crop yields, often linked to increases in pests. Fish numbers, and changes to migration patterns and mating seasons were also observed.
There are a number of valuable insights in this sort of research. For a start, these real world observations confirm many of the projections. Climate research, by nature, has to look ahead to things that haven’t happened yet, leaving it open to questions about how accurate its models might be. It’s only later, when the changes manifest themselves in the real world, that we get to see if the models are correct. And so far, we’re seeing what we expect to see.
Secondly, climate change is a global issue, but it will be felt differently across the world. These diverse changes add detail and local perspective, showing how this long term worldwide problem is felt on the ground. We get to see what climate change really means.
And finally, this sort of research shows us how climate change is already disrupting people’s lives, in small ways and large, and how it might continue to do so. That can help inform adaptation efforts.
- You can read the full report here in Nature Climate Change.