Why a man from Northern Canada created a Twitter bot that monitors temperature trends

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Will Gagnon is a building engineer and a green building specialist with Ecology North, a local non-profit environmental organization. He created the YK Climate Watch Twitter bot to raise awareness about climate change in the North. (Submitted by William Gagnon)
Will Gagnon says it was a vulnerable moment that led him to eventually create a Twitter bot to raise more awareness about climate change in the North.

“I have nights that I don’t sleep because I think about climate change,” said Gagnon, a building engineer and a green building specialist with Ecology North, a non-profit environmental organization in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

Gagnon said he received counselling on climate change anxiety and realized he needed to do something besides worry: “Action alleviates anxiety.”

“The more you act on climate, the less likely you are going to be anxious about it,” said Gagnon.

His solution was to create bot that compares each day’s temperature to average temperatures in the community on that date, so people can see the trend for themselves.

The Twitter bot idea came to him while at a conference in Toronto late last year.

A Twitter bot is programmed to automatically run a Twitter account. It can be programmed to tweet, retweet, follow and unfollow accounts, among other functions.

Getting an alert about a daily temperature above [the average], I think that that can keep climate change on the forefront of people’s minds.

Grand Chief Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan

With the help of his tech-savvy friend Mackenzie Nichols, Gagnon was able to bring this after-hours, side project to life.

Ecology North’s YK Climate Watch Twitter bot is still in its infancy. Its official tweets started in January.

The bot automatically calculates the mean, or average, temperature of the day between 1971 and 2000. It then compares the historical average — or the “climate normal” which is the three-decade averages — to the average temperature of the day on Environment Canada.

It will only tweet an update, usually once a day, if the difference in temperature is above or below the average by one degree.

For example, last Wednesday the bot told users temperature in Yellowknife was 17 C warmer than the historical average. On Friday, the bot reported that it was 11 C warmer than the historical average.

Gagnon said, although the bot is showing temperature trends, it can give a daily reminder to people to be more aware of changes in climate around them.

“I want people to panic about climate change, but also to use this panic and turn it into climate action,” said Gagnon. “We can’t just pretend that nothing is happening.”

Researchers provide commentary to bot

Ecology North partnered up with Wilfrid Laurier University researchers to occasionally provide analysis on the trends tracked by the bot.

Jenny Hickman and Tim Ensom are researchers with Wilfrid Laurier University, who partnered with Gagnon on the Twitter bot project. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

“Weather and climate are not necessarily synonymous,” explained Jenny Hickman, a Laurier water quality research associate.

“But I think looking at or getting an alert about a daily temperature above [the average], I think that that can keep climate change on the forefront of people’s minds.”

Tim Ensom, a Laurier PhD candidate, explained that the North’s warmer March is tied to the El Nino weather system, which is associated with warmer than normal waters in the Pacific ocean.

But Ensom noted that the impacts are tangible locally for people, pointing to the weather-induced early closure of the Snowking Winter Festival over the weekend — a first for the festival in its 24-year history. Because of wet conditions and melting, the festival events could not go ahead.

Looking at the trends from the bot’s tweets, Ensom said temperatures this winter have been about six degrees above the climate normal. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

“El Nino events in the past 24 years, of which there have been about half a dozen, haven’t warmed things up here enough to affect the festival this way before,” said Ensom.

Looking at the trends from the bot’s tweets, Ensom said temperatures this winter have been about six degrees above the climate normal.

Ensom and Hickman will provide commentary on the Twitter page as weather anomalies occur or when people have questions about the data.

Searching for funding, partners

People involved with the bot project are currently working outside of their day jobs, said Gagnon.

But with more funding, Gagnon hopes to get Indigenous elders and experts to share stories and provide commentary from their communities.

The goal is to expand the bot to communities across the North.

Inuvik, Whitehorse and Iqaluit are next on the list, but Gagnon said he’s also searching for partners in smaller communities.

In the short-term, Gagnon hopes to project the Twitter bot on the outside wall of the Ecology North building on Franklin Avenue so people can see it everyday.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: The Arctic ‘locked-in’ for 3 to 5 °C temperature rise, UN report warns, Radio Canada International

Finland: U.S., Russia thwarting black carbon reduction efforts in Arctic, says Finland, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Temperatures on Svalbard have been above normal for 100 straight months, The Independent Barents observer

Russia: The island that disappeared in Arctic Russia, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Sweden ‘too slow’ in meeting emissions goals: climate report, Radio Sweden

United States: Federal judge says U.S. gov must reassess climate impacts of oil leases, Alaska Public Media

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Priscilla Hwang, CBC News

Priscilla Hwang, CBC News

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