A new platform from Google and Resources for the Future makes a wealth of data sets accessible with minimal fuss. Meet RFF Data Commons.
Given that climate change is scientifically complex and politically charged, empirical analysis of climate impacts is critical. Work from Resources for the Future (RFF) aims to improve related decisionmaking through rigorous economics research and data. Meanwhile, Google has launched Data Commons, a project that aggregates data of all kinds, from various sources, in user-friendly formats. Now, RFF and Google have joined in a powerful partnership called RFF Data Commons, which will help provide information that stakeholders need to solve crucial issues related to climate change, within a flexible web-based analytical tool.
In our launch of RFF Data Commons, we’ve incorporated data and analysis into the platform that are related to weather variability and weather extremes. This topic is a productive place to start: weather variability will become increasingly important in the future, as storms become more frequent and more intense, wildfires burn more acres with greater severity, flooding happens more frequently and causes more damage to existing infrastructure, and heat waves become more commonplace.
Current data on weather variability are limited. While RFF has been filling the gaps with data from our new Weather Variability Explorer data tool and other sources, RFF Data Commons can help explore this issue even further. The following case studies, which can be examined with the graphs and interactive tools available in RFF Data Commons, make data on some of the most compelling issues within the climate challenge more accessible and understandable.
How Extreme Heat Impacts Communities
Americans are more likely to experience heat waves now than in the past. In the United States, exposure to extreme heat is on the rise. The average American went from experiencing three heat waves per year during the 1980s to five heat waves per year during the 2010s. Heat waves also have become more severe over time. In recent years, the average heat wave has lasted about four days—one day longer than the average heat wave in the 1980s. Heat waves are not just uncomfortable—they also can lead to lasting impacts on people and the economy. Numerous studies have linked extreme heat with illness and death among vulnerable populations, such as older adults, very young children, and those with chronic health conditions; harm to crops; increased risk of wildfires; and damage to essential services like transportation and energy systems.
Almost all regions of the United States have experienced a significant increase in extreme heat exposure over the last several decades, but the trend is most concerning in the southern United States, where some counties are now experiencing more than 10 heat waves per year, on average. The average length of heat waves has increased the most in the southern and western United States and now exceeds five days in much of the country.
Heat waves tend to disproportionately affect communities that are less prepared to mitigate the negative impacts. The data in Figure 1 show the correlation between the number of heat waves in the most recent five-year period (2016–2020) and a measure of community-level resilience that’s available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Risk Index. We see a strong negative correlation between the number of heat waves and the community resilience score (both at the county level); in other words, communities with lower resilience tend to experience more heat waves.
Figure 1. Heat Waves Disproportionately Affect Communities That Are Less Resilient to Climate Impacts
We could use the large catalog of county-level measures available on Google Data Commons to further explore which populations are disproportionally exposed to extreme heat. For example, you can view the association between heat wave exposure and median income here.
Fires Are More Frequent and Getting Worse
Wildfires are growing in size and severity. Property damage, fatalities, and smoke emissions from US wildfires have increased sharply in recent years. For example, eight of the ten largest fires in US history (in terms of insured property losses) have occurred since 2017. The recent increase in wildfire damages is part of a longer-run increase in wildfire activity across the western Unites States. Data from the US Geological Survey’s Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity project show that wildfires burned more than twice the area each year on average in the decade 2004–2015 than in the decade 1985–1994 (Figure 2, left).
Fires have grown more severe over time, too. Among wildfire scientists, fire “severity” refers to the extent that the fire changes a site’s vegetation and soils. Fire severity was highly variable in the 1980s and 1990s, partly because relatively few acres burned during this time. However, since the 1990s, the percentage of forest burned at high severity has climbed, as shown by data from Parks and Abatzoglou (2020) (Figure 2, right).
Figure 2. Burned Area and Fire Severity Have Increased Over Time
Climate change drives larger and more severe fires. The increase in wildfire activity in the western United States has been caused by abundant fuels, an increase in ignition sources, and other factors, with climate change playing an important role. Data from Parks and Abatzoglou show the percent of forest area that burned in western US states in 2016 plotted against a relevant climate measure: vapor pressure deficit (Figure 3). In fire science, vapor pressure deficit frequently is used as a measure of dryness; it measures the difference between the amount of moisture in the air and the amount of moisture the air can hold when saturated. Vegetation tends to dry out and become more flammable when vapor pressure deficit is high.
Figure 3. Dry Conditions Are Associated with Larger Wildfires
In states that were relatively dryer in 2016 (when vapor pressure deficit was relatively high), the share of forest area burned tended to be higher. This relationship holds in most years, a pattern that you can explore in RFF Data Commons.
Wildfire Smoke Impacts Public Health
Wildfire is a major contributor to unhealthy particulate matter in the United States, where exposure to wildfire smoke has increased sharply in recent years. One of the most damaging pollutants from wildfires is PM2.5, or particulate matter that’s smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter. PM2.5 comprises a mixture of chemicals that can lodge deep within human lungs and even enter our bloodstreams. Numerous scientific studies have linked PM2.5 to health problems, including asthma, heart attacks, and premature death. Figure 4 shows concentrations of PM2.5 that are attributable to wildfire smoke across the United States during the period 2006–2020. PM2.5 concentrations above a threshold of 35 micrograms per meters cubed are considered harmful to public health and are in violation of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) as established by the Clean Air Act. In 2020, wildfires alone caused PM2.5 concentrations to rise above this threshold in seven states.
Figure 4. Wildfires Caused Particulate Matter to Reach Dangerous Levels for Public Health in Seven States in 2020
Concentrations particulate matter were estimated by researchers at Stanford University using statistical modeling and artificial intelligence.
The risk of exposure to wildfire smoke has increased across the United States. We can use these data to visualize where Americans are most at risk of being exposed to wildfire smoke and how this risk is evolving over time. For the period 2006–2010, 226 counties (home to 48 million Americans) exceeded the NAAQS standard for at least one day (Figure 5, top). Just 10 years later, during the period 2016–2020, the number of counties that similarly exceeded the NAAQS standard more than doubled (Figure 5, bottom), growing to 518 counties that represent 71 million Americans.
Figure 5. Number of Days with Unsafe Particulate Matter Attributable to Wildfire
Particulate matter from wildfire smoke combines with pollution from other sources. Wildfire smoke poses a significant threat to human health and the environment in the American West. In addition, PM2.5 from wildfires and other sources can combine to create hazardous conditions throughout the United States. On July 1, 2015, wildfires explained 69 percent of the variation in total PM2.5 concentrations in the western United States, 57 percent in the Midwest, 83 percent in the South, and 91 percent in the Northeast. The year 2015 was hit hard by wildfires, which were a contributing factor on nearly half of all days that harbored harmful levels of PM2.5 across the United States.
But wildfire need not drive up PM2.5 concentrations if we can keep the burning under control. On the same date in 2014, a year with far less area burned and far less wildfire smoke, wildfires explained only 44 percent of the variation in PM2.5 concentrations in the West and less than 1 percent in all other regions.
Data Access for the Future
RFF Data Commons offers a unique venue through which we can help other researchers, policymakers, and the general public engage with information that is critical to solving the climate challenge. We hope this project will help make connections, supported by data, that can point toward better decisions for a healthy environment and thriving economy.