Should we measure climate impacts by what they mean for people’s daily activities?

In a bid to provide a tangible understanding of the effects of climate change on daily life, MIT researchers have introduced a novel measure called “outdoor days.” 

This metric, developed by Professor Elfatih Eltahir and his team, assesses the number of days annually when outdoor temperatures are conducive to normal activities, be it work or leisure. That means being neither too hot nor too cold for people to go about their business.

The concept stemmed from Eltahir’s personal experiences during his daily walks in the Boston area. Observing changes in weather patterns firsthand, he sought to create a tool that would resonate with individuals on a more relatable level than abstract temperature rises.

Eltahir explained, “That’s how I interface with the temperature every day.” His observations revealed stark differences between regions, with some experiencing an increase in comfortable outdoor days while others faced a decline. 

For instance, Eltahir noted fewer suitable days for outdoor activities during his visits to Sudan, contrasting with his experiences in Boston where there have been more winter days recently when he could walk comfortably than in past years..

To implement this measure, the researchers developed a user-friendly website allowing individuals to define their comfort thresholds for outdoor activities. Users can then explore forecasts for their chosen region, with projections extending to the end of the century. 

Eltahir emphasises the interactive nature of the tool, stating, “We don’t tell people what an outdoor day should be; we let the user define an outdoor day. 

“Hence, we invite them to participate in defining how future climate change will impact their quality of life, and hopefully, this will facilitate deeper understanding of how climate change will impact individuals directly.”

Analysis of the data revealed significant global disparities, with winners and losers emerging. 

“We started looking at the data on this, and we made several discoveries that I think are pretty significant,” Eltahir said.

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Northern regions like Russia and Canada stand to gain more outdoor days, while countries in the global south, such as Bangladesh and Sudan, face a decrease. For Eltahir these highlight an all too common fact of climate change: “The North is gaining; the South is losing.”

Colombia, Ivory Coast and Indonesia were also highlighted as losing days.

Moreover, the tool highlights shifts in travel patterns, with people increasingly favouring destinations in northern Europe over traditional hotspots like the Mediterranean. 

Eltahir saw this localised information as pivotal in enhancing public understanding of climate change and informing decision-making processes.

Placing this kind of detailed and localised information at people’s fingertips, he said, “I think brings the issue of communication of climate change to a different level.” With this tool, instead of looking at global averages, “we are saying according to your own definition of what a pleasant day is, [this is] how climate change is going to impact you, your activities.”

Supported by the MIT Climate Grand Challenges project and the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, the “outdoor days” measure represents a significant step toward bridging the gap between climate science and public awareness. 

As Eltahir aptly concluded, “Hopefully that will help society make decisions about what to do with this global challenge.”