It’s easy to talk about how climate change will alter Earth’s surface in the century to come. It will raise sea levels, flood cities, and set off droughts. As this month’s dire United Nations report shows, decades of climate science have made the worldwide dangers of human-caused warming unambiguous.
Yet it’s far harder to talk about how these changes will play out locally. No two places will experience climate change identically: The coasts of Borneo and the shores of Great Britain, for example, will see the land and weather transform in vastly different ways. But people living in the United Kingdom have a far better idea of what those changes will look like.
Call it climate science’s data gap. When studying the Earth’s climate, researchers must understand the past before they can understand the future. But across huge swaths of the world, scientists simply don’t have the data they need—especially the kind of in-depth, long-term observations that can place current weather in context—to understand that past.
These problems are particularly acute for countries in the global South. In 2015, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projected how climate change would affect temperature and precipitation values on each continent. In Africa, Asia, and South America, it rated more than 40 percent of its own predictions to be “low confidence.”