A number of scientific efforts comparable to the climate index initiative mimicking the widely publicized Dow Jones Industrial Average are at various stages of development in the scientific community.

One such effort is that championed by climate change investments expert Dan Abbasi to help improve public understanding of climate change, described on this site in a recent posting.

Several other interests also have established indexes with similar aims.

For instance, an international scientists’ group launched an annual climate index at last December’s climate summit in Copenhagen. That measure, the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme index, has largely escaped notice in the United States, even though some of the scientists working on it are Americans. It is up and running at www.igbp.net.

The IGBP index and a handful of other environmental indexes – such as the Happy Planet Index that balances planetary degradation against human happiness, and the not-yet-ready Ocean Index – try to interpret quantities of data in ways easy for non-scientists to understand. These indexes have, of course, barely produced a blip on the public-notice index, obviously nothing even close to the daily media spotlight the Dow commands. Nonetheless, their sponsoring interests hope these planetary measures over time could help boost the emotionally driven climate debates in the United States with a dose of facts.

IGBP.net’s Annual Climate Change Index

IGBP is the longest operating international body for coordinating global change science. Its members are mostly scientists from around the world, and its staff is based in Stockholm.

The IGBP index measures carbon dioxide, temperature, sea level, and sea ice. It was the brainchild of Steven W. Running, Ph.D., who directs a numerical terradynamic simulation group in ecosystem studies at the University of Montana, and a small group of scientists he knows through the IGBP. He and international colleagues have been working on the index for three years.

“I still remember quite distinctly we had our executive committee meeting in Brazil three years ago,” Running said, “and I remember riding back to the airport in a bus in Rio and chatting with a couple of the other committee members, and it just kind of dawned on meci inflatables. A light bulb went off sort of the way it hit Dan Abbasi.” He used the words Dow Jones Industrial Average, because although it isn’t always useful, it is a regular, consistent number and indicator of economic performance that media outlets report day in and day out every day to people who can relate to it.

Disregarding ‘Noise’ Specifically to be Avoided

About a dozen scientists batted around ideas on which data sets would provide consistent reliable measures of the climate. They also considered ways to portray them.

“One of the concepts we talked about was the doomsday clock,” Running said, pointing to the iconic indicator made popular by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. They asked themselves how to distill their topics into something the media could digest and interpret.

“We batted it about for a year and a half … it kind of stalled for a while.”

The index is a measure of change in the four areas of carbon dioxide, temperature, sea level and sea ice. The scientists take the largest annual change ever measured, since 1980, and define that as 100. The composite graph of the index starts near 0 in 1980 and marches upward to almost 600 on the scale of change.

“We are measuring change,” Running said, “and we are trying to track whether in effect it is showing accelerating climate change impact or decelerating climate change impact.”

While some of the measurements that go into the index are compiled every day, a daily index could give people false despair or false hopes, Running said. For instance, atmospheric carbon dioxide, if calculated for a monthly index, would lead to the problem of the southern hemisphere’s being out of phase with the northern hemisphere because of the seasons. Portraying short-term variations, or “noise,” could end up making the index too difficult to interpret.

“You start getting into … noise that we specifically wanted to avoid.”

Similarly, the group ruled out still-difficult measures of carbon uptake by plants (Running’s academic specialty) and animal migrations.

They had not expected to unveil the index as soon as December 2009 but decided to do so at the Copenhagen summit. While delegates paid some attention to the index, “Copenhagen was such a circus that I don’t remember, in the major news organizations, this being picked up,” Running said. “There was a press conference in Copenhagen and some other things that were covered in Europe, but I don’t remember seeing anything in our major national news.”

Ocean Health Index Goes Beyond Climate Change

A separate group of scientists affiliated with the New England Aquarium, Conservation International, and the National Geographic Society is working on an index of ocean health it expects to launch in 2011.

Steven Katona, Ph.D., a former president of the College of the Atlantic and an adjunct senior scientist at the New England Aquarium in Bar Harbor, Maine, is managing director of the effort.

“The ocean covers 70 percent of the planet,” Katona said. “Most people now live within 100 kilometers, thereabouts, of the ocean, and so everything we do by necessity influences it now.”

The index includes dozens of measures in a handful of ocean stressor classes, all of which are now tracked regularly by various measures, but not yet joined in a single place for the public to review. The classes of stressors include climate change, ocean acidification, fisheries, eutrophication (creation of so-called “dead zones”), chemical contamination, decline in biodiversity (including habitat destruction), and other problems such as plastics pollution and sound (especially sonar and explosives), and invasive species.

Can all of these be joined into one number, so to speak? “Ideally, yes, but we’re still wrestling with that,” Katona said. “It will be a composite index, and while you have to look at a number of indicators for each category, clearly those can be put together as composites for the categories. We’re working on whether or how to consolidate further. And in a year we’ll know.”

Katona said the ocean index group is “well aware of lots of difficulties, like places where data are simply not as quality-controlled or even available at all and how to deal with that statistically.” He stressed that the participating scientists are not trying to reinvent anything or do a new measurement project; rather they “are collaborating with others who have already published or engaged with these kinds of studies.”

Avoiding Distractions of ‘Short-Term Chaos’

An index that comes out more often than yearly is unrealistic, Katona believes. Even if all of the ocean measurements this index will compile could be had daily (and many can not), “I’m not even sure you’d want to know, because it’s a great, huge distraction.”

“That’s exactly the problem that’s happened with climate change. People look out the window and say, ‘My god, it’s cold today. How can there be climate change?’ That’s really not what it’s about, and if you want to see long-term trends, you really need not to be distracted by all this short-term chaos that’s part of weather systems and what’s happening today. Practically speaking and, I think, philosophically, in these long-term things you want to pace the knowledge that you have to the rate of change that you’re hoping to see, the scale of change.”

Katona also stressed that the Ocean Health Index isn’t meant to be just a climate change index. Climate is just one of the indicators, he emphasized.

Other Climate Indexes to be Aware ofArctic Species Trend Index

Environmental Performance Index

Chesapeake Bay Report Card

Living Planet Report and Index

National Geographic Society’s Greendex report

IndiSeas Fishery Index

Topics: Climate Science