Popular Science

How we know that climate change is happening—and that humans are causing it

It's a matter of how, not if
sun and snow

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“People come to Asheville to retire,” says Deke Arndt, “and data comes to Asheville to retire, too.”

He should know. Arndt and his colleagues sit atop a vast trove of current and historical climate data—data so valuable, it’s protected by multiple failsafes and even backed up on tape at an undisclosed, secure location, where it’s carried by hand in a nondescript suitcase several times a week. 

The data in question isn’t bank account information, or Social Security Numbers, or nuclear codes. It’s even more important than that: their data encompasses everything we know about our changing climate.

Arndt is chief of the monitoring section of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information, and he stewards data collected at weather stations, from satellites, by buoys, and covering every weather and climate condition you can imagine. How hot is the ocean? How big was that tsunami? What’s the weather like in space? The NCEI can (and does) answer every single one of those questions. 

All told, they host a mind-boggling 28.6 petabytes—data equivalent to 18 Eiffel Towers’ worth of stacked-up smart phones. Arndt and his colleagues spend their days poring over data, comparing the incoming numbers to the baseline they call “normal.” Using daily, weekly, monthly, and annual rhythms, they coordinate data collection and

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