The Boiling Frog Effect: When Abnormal Weather Becomes Normal

The Boiling Frog Effect: When Abnormal Weather Becomes Normal

Photo Credits: FRANCES C. MOORE / COURTESY

How studying 2 billion tweets led UC Davis researchers to understand when remarkable weather turns unremarkable

Frances C. Moore, an assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Environmental Science and Policy has been interested in the phenomenon in which extreme weather, after becoming increasingly frequent, is no longer considered extreme. This led to a study examining 2 billion geolocated tweets in the United States.

“I was thinking to myself, what would be the ideal dataset to actually measure it,” Moore said. “Twitter would be great because there are a lot of people on it, all over the country, talking about stuff continuously.”

The researchers studied tweets posted between March 2014 and November 2016 to understand which temperature changes caused the most tweets about the weather. Tweets about unusual weather for a particular time period in a specific area would decrease if the weather persisted year after year. The study found that on average, people normalize unusual weather within two to eight years.

“We didn’t actually conduct any new experiments but used existing social media data, weather data, climate model output and a sentiment database. However, acquiring, processing and combining all the data was a massive undertaking,” said Flavio Lehner, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “In a sense, the most novel part of this research is that we combined these very different datasets to answer a unique question that none of us could have answered by themselves.”

The study noted that this phenomenon is a classic example of the boiling frog metaphor, in which a frog is put in a pot filled with water which is slowly warmed to a boiling temperature. The frog is eventually cooked because it doesn’t notice the increasing temperature change over time. If the frog were suddenly put in a pot of boiling water, it would hop out instantly. The boiling frog metaphor serves to warn against the normalization of climate change

“Our research suggests that our psychological adaptability, a great strength to our species historically, may enable us to quickly normalize weather patterns that are historically unusual,” said Nick Obradovich, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. “The findings aren’t exactly encouraging for those of us concerned about climate change.”

Written by: Kriti Varghese — science@theaggie.org