Communicating Science! With Your Friends


Howdy folks, I’m Zach, I live in Wisconsin, and I like water. I imagine you’ve heard a lot of stereotypes about Wisconsin – we love cheese, we wear cheese on our heads, and we love beer. Well let me just start by saying that these stereotypes are absolutely … 100% true.

Graph of Madison, Wisconsin Rain-Off

I just got back from the NW CSC Climate Boot Camp 2013 (It was amazing!), and one of topics that we covered was communicating our science within our social networks. I think that this is something that we all struggle with because the nuances of the work that we do can be REALLY COMPLICATED! and HARD TO EXPLAIN! in a simple fashion.

I wanted to use my inaugural post to this blog to talk about one way that I’ve come up with to connect what folks are observing in the Madison weather to actual climate data.

Madison Precipitation

Madison has had a rather, let’s say feisty climate during the past several summers. 2008 saw record floods in the central part of the state, 2012 brought an extended drought, and thus far, 2013 has seen a precipitous amount of rainfall. In fact, earlier this summer, it felt like it was raining literally every day.

Earlier this summer, ever the curious scientist, I asked myself, “Do the Madison rainfall data support this feeling that it’s been raining a lot?” For my Master’s research I looked at trends in Wisconsin’s historical precipitation, so I had a data set of daily precipitation data for Madison dating back to 1869 that I could easily go to for the answer.

As it turns out, it has been very wet in Madison thus far. In fact, as of August 1, it has been the wettest year to date in the 145-year record. The precipitation gauge at Madison’s airport has received a total of 35.0 inches of rain thus far, edging out the closest competitor – 2008 – by 1.5 inches. For comparison, the 30-year normal is about 34 inches per year.

Those two years have by vying for the crown throughout the summer, with 2013 making a strong recovery after the large June rains that brought on the 2008 floods across the region.

Communicating the Data

To communicate this data, I turned to the tried-and-true method of making a graph in Microsoft Excel. (Hate if you’re gonna hate, but I’ve got a thing for cheesy graphs and graphics developed using Microsoft Excel and Paint) I have been periodically making updates to a cumulative precipitation plot that I’ve been calling the “Great Madison Rain-Off” and posting them on my Facebook page.

Interestingly, the response has been fairly positive, with the graphs usually receiving more likes and comments than my usual insightful, snarky observations about Madison living. I even had a professor from another department whom I am Facebook friends with ask me when there was going to be a new update of the graph.

Although 2013 has been really wet, it still has a way to go to catch the all-time leader 1881, which entered the clubhouse with a whopping 52.9 inches of precipitation. I have recently added 1881 to the cumulative “horse race” that is the Great Madison Rain-Off.

What Does it Mean?

I will be the first to admit that this isn’t exactly the hardest hitting science in the history of the world, but I think it is a good way to connect my work with Madison’s climate to what the folks in my social network are observing every day. They have (rightly) observed that it has rained a lot, and Madison’s historical precipitation record supports those observations.

Communicating climate science was a big theme at this year’s Climate Boot Camp. I have found that the folks in my social network have been fairly receptive to my somewhat tongue-in-cheek method of communicating climate and hydrology to them. It has also been enjoyable for me to come up with a way to embrace my science nerdiness in a fun way.

Another lesson we learned at Boot Camp this year was that scientists are people too. I think that folks respond positively in an informal setting like Facebook or teh Twitterz if you show that you take your work seriously while not taking yourself too seriously, and I recommend giving it a try if you can.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s