In a winter where “polar vortex” has become a part of everyday vocabulary and debate over the Keystone XL pipeline has encouraged discussion of climate change, the University of East Anglia’s Climactic Research Unit has shared a data set on Google Maps (it can also be viewed on Google Earth) that details changes in surface temperature during the last century. This data set allows easy access to both regional and global historical information on changing temperatures. The data set uses land area grids to calculate a global mean land surface temperature, and allows you to check out each grid to see historical information related to that specific region. Notably, however, the data set does not contain ocean temperature data, which is treated elsewhere.

This information comes at an interesting time, as some have wondered how the current cold weather in the United States challenges the discussion of global warming. Due to the Olympics, we’ve heard a lot about the contrast in winter weather this year between the United States and Sochi, encouraging questionably drawn conclusions about the validity of climate science. This, in turn, prompted a published letter from five leading climate scientists attempting to explain that the current cold weather neither undercuts evidence of climate change nor indicates that frigid winters are somehow an odd or unexpected side effect of global warming.

Moreover, the State Department is currently formulating its recommendation to President Obama regarding the Keystone XL pipeline. Late last month, it released an environmental impact statement that concluded that Keystone would not substantially worsen carbon pollution. The report’s conclusions depend in part on assuming away the potential that demand for oil will decrease, thus limiting the forecasted impact of Keystone. Keystone has certainly proved to be a divisive issue, pitting those worried about climate change against those who place more value on foreign policy and economic concerns.

As we continue to face decisions that involve controversial climate change concerns, will the increasing availability of information, such as temperature change data in a familiar medium like Google Maps, improve the public debate? Will people be able to use this kind of information to draw better conclusions, or is the climate change controversy driven by something else? Might increasing accessibility to this kind of information make a difference in the way the government conducts its environmental impact analyses — and ultimately, approval decisions — for projects like Keystone?

Emma Stephens

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