Using Google to Track the Effects of Climate Change

Contributor(s): 
December 23, 2013

The internet’s vast quantities of information and its popularity among people all over the globe represent a tempting and enormous data pool for researchers. Political strategists, economists, and epidemiologists mine internet usage data to learn about human behaviors and cultural trends, producing interesting results (though sometimes flawed; see Butler 2013). Could scientists who study climate change use similar online data-mining tools to better understand and track the effects of climate change? A recent paper by Proulx and colleagues argues just that.

To demonstrate the concept, the authors used Google Trends, a free online data search engine, to see if they could accurately track phenological patterns (the timing of biological processes, like flower blooms and mosquito outbreaks, that respond strongly to changes in climate) across 13 countries between 2008 and 2012. Specifically, the authors queried Google Trends with the search terms “mosquitoes” and “pollen” and quantified the number of hits each search term received per week in each country. Their results showed clearly cyclical patterns, with each term searched for most frequently at the peak of mosquito or pollen season in each country, and searched for less during low mosquito or pollen season. Thus, Google Trends may be a useful complementary tool for tracking changes in phenology over longer time periods in response to climate change simply by monitoring the human reactions to these phenomena.

Citations:

Proulx R, P Massicotte, M Pepino (2013) Googling trends in conservation biology. Conservation Biology:DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12131

Butler D (2013) When Google got flu wrong. Nature 494:155-156