Applied climatology: Science in the service of society

applied climatology, climate literacy

Dr Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux explains applied climatology – science in the service of society – beginning with comment on climate literacy

Climate literacy is at once a body of knowledge, a way of understanding and acting in response to this knowledge.

“It is a distinct subset of science literacy, or the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to apply inquiry or problem-based approaches to new situations and decision-making. Climate literacy involves a deep appreciation of the complexity and interconnectedness of the climate system over space and time; the role that humans exert in modifying and interacting with the climate system; the ability to “act accordingly” having understood the above; and the recognition of bias or the change in behaviour due to insights gained about an issue or concept (Dupigny-Giroux 2008, 2010)” (Dupigny-Giroux, 2017:687)

The understanding of climate literacy rests on the distinction among weather, climate, the climate system, climate variability and change. When these terms are used interchangeably in the public lexicon, it produces confusion, bias and the erosion of the key tenets of science literacy in general (Dupigny-Giroux, 2017).

Challenges to achieving climate literacy include one’s life experience; the persistence of misconceptions; jargon used in the climate sciences; formal curricular elements and individual learning styles (Dupigny-Giroux, 2010). Achieving climate literacy calls for an interdisciplinarity approach; a predisposition towards lifelong learning; the ability to understand and synthesise climate processes that are connected over time and space; and the embracing of a “growth intelligence” (Dweck, 2006) habit of mind that involves persistence in overcoming individual barriers to climate literacy (Dupigny-Giroux, 2017).

Applied climatology and the AASC

Applied climatologists are particularly well-positioned to facilitate the paradigm shifts needed to achieve climate literacy. As one of the 10 branches of climatology, applied climatology dates back to the agricultural climate services of the 1850s. With a focus on the monitoring networks, curation and stewardship of climate data and information, applied climatology “describes, defines, interprets and explains” the influence of weather, climate and extreme events on sensitive sectors of society such as building design, planning, agriculture, the economy, insurance and other operational decision making (Landsberg and Jacobs, 1951; Changnon, 2005). A sample question would be, ‘How could 2020 be the second hottest year (as ranked by NOAA and the UK Met Office) on record (i.e. since 1895) during a La Niña cold event in the Pacific?’

The American Association of State Climatologists (AASC) is a non-profit organisation comprised of applied and service climatologists at offices around the contiguous U.S., Hawaii and U.S.-affiliated Pacific islands, who provide comprehensive expertise on weather, climate and climate-change-related issues to the stakeholders of their respective states and regions. The AASC is the local branch of a ‘three-legged stool’ along with the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (federal) and the Regional Climate Centers (RCCs) (regional). With their interdisciplinary training in meteorology climatology, social sciences and geography among others, AASC members perform research, outreach, communication and education to their constituents. They have also served as authors, lead authors and contributing lead authors on the last two U.S. National Climate Assessments and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports.

U.S. National Climate Assessment

In using a risk-based framing (familiar to natural hazards scientists), Volume II of the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) focused on the overlap between the peoples, landscapes and sectors that are of value and/or at risk to climate change, and of critical importance to decision-makers (USGCRP, 2018). Across the 10 regions into which the U.S. is divided, climate change impacts assessed in NCA4 revolved around ecosystems and ecosystem services; human health; Indigenous peoples; rural communities and their livelihoods; adaptation to climate change and adaptive capacity; agricultural productivity; infrastructure and transportation. In addition to summarising Key Messages and written content, these climate change-related risks were communicated to the users via geovizualisations (MacEachren and Kraak, 2001), virtual analytics, static and interactive graphics.

Communication and engagement with all audiences

Visualisations of weather and climate data should be designed to reach diverse audiences and be compliant with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 for accessibility of all graphics (Stauffer et al., 2015). Diverse audiences include, but are not limited to, varying age, religions, gender, national origin, race/ethnicity, identity and socioeconomic status. Additional considerations include digital access and internet connectivity, as well as the languages and platforms on which information is disseminated.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has revealed two truths in stark relief: the imperative need to address inequality and vulnerability of all populations and that compound stressors (the pandemic and our changing climate) must be addressed in tandem. In addition to the aforementioned diverse audiences, geographies of vulnerability that can act against a fully climate literate citizenry include mobility, health status, historical legacy and the nature and extent of social networks. To achieve climate literacy, a systems science approach to the co-production of knowledge and ways of knowing weather, climate and climate change data and information are essential. It should cut across the multiple temporal and spatial scales at which landscape processes operate and are monitored, while being responsive to the articulated needs of the stakeholders and decision-makers who rely on the interdisciplinary information provided.



Changnon, S.A. (2005) “Applied Climatology: The Golden Age Has Begun”Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 86(7):915-919. DOI: 10.1175/BAMS-86-7-915.

Dupigny-Giroux, L.-A. (2008) “Introduction – Climate science literacy – A state of the knowledge overview,” Physical Geography, 29(6):483-486 [guest editor of special issue on Climate Literacy]. DOI:10.2747/0272-3646.29.6.483

Dupigny-Giroux, L.-A. (2010) “Addressing the challenges of climate science literacy: Lessons from students, teachers & lifelong learners, Geography Compass, 4/9: 1203–1217,  10.1111/j.1749-8198.2010.00368.x.

Dupigny-Giroux, L.-A. (2017) “Climate literacy”, in The International Encyclopaedia of Geography: People, the Earth, Environment, and Technology, Wiley-Blackwell and the Association of American

Geographers, pp. 687-691. DOI: 10.1002/9781118786352.

MacEachren, A.M and M-J. Kraak (2013). “Research Challenges in Geovisualization,” Cartography and Geographic Information Science, 28(1), 3-12,  doi:10.1559/152304001782173970

Dweck, C. 2006. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.

Stauffer, R., Mayr. G.J., Dabernig, M. And Zeileis, A. (2015) “Somewhere Over the Rainbow: How to Make Effective Use of Colors in Meteorological Visualizations,” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 96(2): 203-216.

USGCRP, 2018: Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II [Reidmiller, D.R., C.W. Avery, D.R. Easterling, K.E. Kunkel, K.L.M. Lewis, T.K. Maycock, and B.C. Stewart (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, 1515 pp. doi: 10.7930/NCA4.2018.

About the authors

Dr Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux is a Professor of Climatology in the Department of Geography at the University of Vermont. She is the President of the American Association of State Climatologists, a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society and the African Scientific Institute. She is the lead author for the Northeast Chapter of the Fourth National Climate Assessment of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Dr Dupigny-Giroux is the lead editor of Historical climate variability and impacts in North America, the first monograph to deal with the use of documentary and other ancillary records for analysing climate variability and change for North America. 

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Professor & Vermont State Climatologist
University of Vermont
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