U.S. Department of Commerce


Date of this Version



In: Climate Science Special Report: A Sustained Assessment Activity of the U.S. Global Change Research Program [Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, D.J. Dokken, B.C. Stewart, and T.K. Maycock (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA (2017), pp. 636-641.


U.S. government work.


Observations, including those from satellites, mobile platforms, field campaigns and ground based networks, provide the basis of knowledge on many temporal and spatial scales for understanding the changes occurring in Earth’s climate system. These observations also inform the development, calibration, and evaluation of numerical models of the physics, chemistry, and biology being used in analyzing the past changes in climate and for making future projections. As all observational data collected by support from Federal agencies are required to be made available free of charge with machine readable metadata, everyone can access these products for their personal analysis and research and for informing decisions. Many of these datasets are accessible through web services.

Many long-running observations worldwide have provided us with long-term records necessary for investigating climate change and its impacts. These include important climate variables such as surface temperature, sea ice extent, sea level rise, and streamflow. Perhaps one of the most iconic climatic datasets, that of atmospheric carbon dioxide measured at Mauna Loa, HI, has been recorded since the 1950s. The U.S. and Global Historical Climatology Networks have been used as authoritative sources of recorded surface temperature increases, with some stations having continuous records going back many decades. Satellite radar altimetry data (for example, TOPEX/JASON1, 2 satellite data) have informed the development of the University of Colorado’s 20+ year record of global sea level changes. In the United States, the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) National Water Information System contains, in some instances, decades of daily streamflow records which inform not only climate but land-use studies as well. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corp of Engineers have maintained data about reservoir levels for decades where applicable. Of course, datasets based on shorter-term observations are used in conjunction with longer-term records for climate study, and the U.S. programs are aimed at providing continuous data records. Methods have been developed and applied to process these data so as to account for biases, collection method, earth surface geometry, the urban heat island effect, station relocations, and uncertainty (e.g., see Vose et al. 2012; Rennie et al. 2014; Karl et al. 2015).

Even observations not designed for climate have informed climate research. These include ship logs containing descriptions of ice extent, readings of temperature and precipitation provided in newspapers, and harvest records. Today, observations recorded both manually and in automated fashions inform research and are used in climate studies.

The U.S Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) has established the Global Change Information System (GCIS) to better coordinate and integrate the use of federal information products on changes in the global environment and the implications of those changes for society. The GCIS is an open-source, web-based resource for traceable global change data, information, and products.