Classrooms Explore Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health Using CHANGE Viewer

October 18, 2011

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The Earth’s climate is getting warmer, and the signs are everywhere. Global rain patterns are shifting, sea levels are on the rise, and glacial snow melt is at record high levels. As the Earth’s temperature continues to rise, we can expect even more transformation in our climate and environment. It is clear that current and future generations will face major challenges due to global climate change such as recognizing the evidence of these changes, identifying the potential impacts caused by these events, developing new strategies, policies and decisions to mitigate the risks, and finding ways to adapt to these changes.

With support from NASA’s Innovations in Climate Education initiative, the Institute for the Application of Geospatial Technology (IAGT) at Cayuga Community College and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) at the Earth Institute, Columbia University have partnered to develop an interactive tool using NASA World Wind to bring climate science and socio-economic spatial datasets into classrooms. NASA’s Innovations in Climate Education initiative supports the development of high-quality literacy resources to help better understand and explain the causes and effects of global change to students in K-12, higher education, informal and non-formal educational settings, and the general public.

Fig. 1. CHANGE Viewer used to demonstrate the population density dependent on water derived from fresh water bodies and melting glaciers. (Click for larger view.)

About the CHANGE Viewer
To engage future generations of decision makers and innovationists, the Climate and Health ANalysis for Global Education Viewer (CHANGE Viewer) interactive tool fosters analytical thinking about global climate change and the potential impact on human health by enabling investigations between climate and socio-economic and health data. Such investigations include examining where increases and decreases in precipitation patterns will alter maize and rice yields, or where increases in precipitation and temperature values will shift habitats suitable for mosquitoes carrying malaria (one of the oldest infectious diseases humans are still fighting).

The CHANGE Viewer uses NASA’s World Wind application to provide access to a library of scientific geospatial datasets relevant to exploring potential impacts on human health in areas of food security, water security and infectious diseases. World Wind provides 3D visualization components that interactively display geographic information on a globe. By leveraging Java Web Start technology, the end-user experience is enhanced as it seamlessly provides the most up-to-date version every time the program is launched. These updates include access to the latest Web-accessible, OGC-compliant services.

Two existing Web-based resources— the Population Estimation Service developed by the NASA Socio-Economic Data and Application Center (SEDAC) operated by CIESIN, and the Climate Mapper tool provided by IAGT for the SERVIR project— are brought together in the CHANGE Viewer. Merging these existing NASA-supported tools allows both the technical components and population statistics to be applied to and analyzed against climate- and human health-related datasets provided by CIESIN and SEDAC, such as global population grids, human migration related to rising sea levels, population access to a public health infrastructure, and malnutrition levels related to changes in temperature and precipitation that would impact staple food production.

The Population Estimation Service is a Web Processing Service (WPS) for estimating population totals and related statistics within a user-defined region. Using the Population Estimation Service via the CHANGE Viewer lets users quickly obtain estimates of numbers of people residing in specific areas— for example, where rising sea levels would force people to migrate. The population estimation results can be overlaid on other layers with adjustable transparency to view the distribution of population affected by global climate change or to download for further analysis.

Fig. 2. SEDAC’s Population Estimation Service provides an estimate of the number of persons per sq km dependent on water resources derived from the Himalayan Glacier melt and fresh water bodies. SOURCE: SEDAC Population Estimation Service. (Click for larger view.)

 The Climate Mapper presents both historical temperature and precipitation for the base period (1901−2002 and 1961−1990) and projections for the 2030s and 2050s. Developed as a plug-in for SERVIR, the data from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (CRU) database consist of monthly climate observations from meteorological stations and are interpolated onto a 0.5° grid covering the global land surface. The goal of this tool is to enhance vulnerability assessments as development planners consider adaptation strategies for projects.

Fig. 3. Yearly precipitation average for the years 1961 to 1990.  Source: Climate Mapper. (Click for larger view.)

Challenges Faced
Data management is one of the major challenges that the project currently faces. With such great numbers of data centers proliferating and spatial data providers creating and publishing datasets along similar themes, there is not enough institutional support and resources for teachers to explore these data archives. This presents a particular challenge for large enterprise-level organizations. IAGT and CIESIN are collectively managing a shared data environment, which will evolve and expand as datasets are acquired and published. This allows teachers to focus and utilize the most applicable and usable datasets for their lesson activities.

IAGT and CIESIN are also providing a distributed technical learning solution that enables the end-user to launch a full-featured desktop application. This is far more cost-effective from the schools’ perspective, as the solution avoids investment in technologies which quickly become obsolete. Other advantages of leveraging JAVA as an educational technology include:

  • Platform-independence: This is a significant advantage over other existing technologies and works well with all operating systems including Mac and PC.
  • Web Distribution: It does not require a physical download or special administrative privileges to setup. This reduces system and IT administration responsibility once the basic graphic card and JRE libraries are installed.
  • Versions and Updates: Java Web Start technology eliminates complicated desktop installations and guarantees that the current version of the application is running.

Building Connections and Linking Science to Classrooms
Combining socio-economic and health geospatial datasets from SEDAC, climate-related geospatial datasets from SERVIR, and the Population Estimation Service tool into a single portal, the CHANGE Viewer enables students and teachers to see the connections between humans and their environment and the changes in climate that will impact both. Based on the knowledge and experience acquired from working with educators to integrate geospatial technologies into the classroom, instructional material resources can be created and used to build teacher confidence in using the technology to ensure a successful exchange of scientific knowledge in the classroom.

As part of this project, we aim to support teachers by providing them with activities that can be easily integrated into the curriculum by aligning the activities to the National Science Standards and Geography Standards. The impacts of climate change and human health activities being developed fall under one of seven themes: desertification, disease, food security, migration, natural disasters, rising sea levels and water resources.

These activities focus on real-world issues humans currently face and will continue to encounter as changes in precipitation and temperature values impact agricultural lands and food production. This further impacts access and quality of food, altering the availability of freshwater, and exposing greater numbers of people to malaria for the first time via new habitats for malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

Teacher Training
To build teacher confidence and to further support student investigations in the classroom, both IAGT and CIESIN will be offering summer trainings for 9−12 grade teachers from across the country in 2012 and 2013. During these two-day workshops, teachers will learn how to integrate the CHANGE Viewer into their teaching environments using the activities developed to support climate and health investigations. Teachers will also gain a better understanding of the relationships between changes in climate and the impacts on human health, increasing teacher confidence to support their students in conducting their own scientific investigations. For more information on these opportunities and to access a beta version of the CHANGE Viewer, visit our project website.


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