“The right thing to do is bring the topic into the public conversation,” says Blasting News Zack Labe, Arctic climate specialist at Colorado State University, when asked how to tackle climate change. As a machine learning researcher and data scientist, Labe is sharing a series of charts and tables on Twitter with the goal of improving general public education on climate change. For BlastingTalks - a series of interviews with business, political, and cultural leaders about the crisis we are facing, including COVID-19 - Labe explains that his "biggest challenge is to get people interested in the Arctic," a "key part of the entire Earth system.”

Labe believes that with the help of machine learning, Arctic climate change can be better analyzed and therefore stopped, so he remains optimistic: “We still have the potential to really make a difference."

Read the interview with Zack Labe in Italian.

Blasting News: You are an Arctic climate scientist at Colorado State University.

On your Twitter account, you bring climate data to life in a series of graphs and charts to help social media users understand climate change better. When and why did you start this process of improving the general publics’ overall literacy on climate change?

Zack Labe: Initially, I didn't intend to work in science communication even though I love it now. It all started at the beginning of my graduate studies where I read many scientific articles and especially more and more studies on the Arctic climate.

They were showing these numbers that other scientists were doing and I realized that they were difficult to visualize. If a researcher cannot understand these visualizations, how can we communicate them to a larger audience?

The Arctic is a region that changes so quickly. The scientific process is long and it takes years to publish new studies and articles.

This is why it is important to communicate this data in a visual and accessible way, in real-time, to follow what is happening.

What role does the Arctic play in influencing global climate?

First of all, you have to think of the Arctic, like a refrigerator that sits on top of our planet.

The Arctic Ocean is this brilliant white surface covered in sea ice.

During the summer, you receive sunlight, which when it hits this shiny white surface is reflected back into space and creates heat. Some of this heat escapes into space and does not heat the atmosphere. As we warm temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions, there is less of that white surface. So now you have a dark ocean left. People think that water reflects sunlight as well, but it is actually this dark water that absorbs sunlight and stores heat in the ocean. Then some of that heat is released into the atmosphere and therefore causes more warming in the Arctic. Therefore, you have what Arctic scientists have called "Arctic amplification", which is just further warming of the Arctic. It really affects the global climate.

Then, of course, there are many reasons why scientists are looking at the Arctic, such as how it affects ocean circulation or weather patterns. So the Arctic is really a key part of the whole Earth system which is completely connected.

You recently shared a graph showing that the “sea ice was thinner than average across nearly the entire Arctic Ocean last December.” Are we going to reach a point of no return?

The climate models that I use for my research and communication are certainly not sharing an optimistic view of what the future holds, but I try to remain positive. When you look at the climate model projections for the Arctic, we know it's going to heat up faster than in other parts of the world.

However, if you look at the amount of warming, possibly projected into the future, that warming range is actually greater. So you might see it as an uncertainty since it is bigger than other parts of the world.That said, if we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions using evidence-based policies, we can truly avoid the worst-case scenarios of the Arctic.

Sea ice is frozen seawater. So if the temperatures are cold enough in the ocean and the atmosphere, the ice will stay. I think we still have the potential to really make a difference in Arctic climate change.

Do you think that these alarming visualizations will help change people’s perceptions and mindsets on climate change?

I hope it changes mentalities but I think it is working.

I see it, not only because my graphics are shared on Twitter, but I have also been contacted by journalists who write on these topics. I think the right thing to do is bring the topic into the public conversation. I'm a climatologist, but outside of work and communication, I don't often talk about climate change. Most people don't. We could talk about the weather today but how often do we go into detail? So I think my graphics have their weight in the discussion around climate change in the public conversation. Hopefully, this will let people see this data in a different way, and it will really make them interested in how they can find out more about it. I always try to share links to the data in my tweets, so people can dig deeper if they're interested.

What measures do you think are within the reach of the public authorities and that must be applied so that we can start to reverse the situation to avoid the total loss of ice cover in the Arctic sea?

I am not an expert in politics but my answer to this question comes back to what I just said, it must be talked about. We do not talk enough about climate change. In the United States, we are in a politicized environment and people avoid subjects like climate change because they are afraid of what others might think. We need to talk about it and it starts with more votes. It's the easiest thing people can do to support evidence-based climate policies. If politicians see their constituents talking about climate change, that's going to be one of the things they decide to work on.

How could machine learning and big data analysis help us predict the future climate and avoid its deterioration?

I have two answers. First, we have an incredible amount of data from satellites or from climate models. To be honest, we don't really have enough people and funding to look at all the data that is actually available. Machine learning is a tool we can use to analyze as much data as we want.

Another thing I'm working on right now is how we can use machine learning to learn new sciences. In the past, machine learning was that kind of a buzzword and people would buy this machine learning, but they weren't sure of how it worked. But it worked. So that's what fascinates me. I'm working on these new tools where we can actually understand how the machine learning model learned, how it makes its decision.

That is probably going to reveal new and exciting sciences that can contribute to understanding future climate.

Several indigenous communities live in the Arctic and the impact of climate change on their lives and communities is huge. Can you tell us more? Is there a way to give voice to these people?

I'm really trying to get more and more involved in this issue in order to give a voice to the indigenous communities of the Arctic. There are several scientific networks present to help these indigenous communities in Alaska, including one that I created. These networks build trust and relationships with these communities and allow scientists not only to understand but also to exchange their observations.

So by listening to the history of indigenous communities and by observing the changes they see, we can use this really important data to move forward. Giving a voice to these communities is important in order to find solutions to global warming.

How can we make humankind feel individually concerned by this ecological crisis?

I think my biggest challenge is getting people interested in the Arctic. It is a remote area that the majority of people will never visit or see. But yet, connections with that region that may not seem obvious at first affect our lives. For example, one is the warming of ocean temperatures in the northern Pacific Ocean, bordering the Arctic, an area called the Bering Sea.

There is a lot of lobster and crab fishing in this region. However, fishermen have big problems because the marine ecosystem is affected by climate change. If the fishing industry has problems, then we're going to see problems as consumers: the cost could go up or there could be less stock available. By realizing this, the consumer halfway around the world will realize the importance of making these types of connections.

If social media can help, it also makes climate deniers communities grow and helps share their ideas faster. Were you ever confronted with them online? Do you think there is a solution to change their beliefs?

When I started out on social media, I used to interact with people who would misinform themselves about climate change.

Even though I get nasty comments every day, I have now chosen not to actually interact anymore. I hit that mute button quite frequently on Twitter. I find that almost everyone at this point acknowledges that climate change is ongoing and is an issue. The problem is, a lot of internet users are just looking to get attention on social media. So I think the main thing is not to give a voice to these nonsense arguments on social media that have been saying the same thing for years. We must give a voice to real science, but also to people who tell human or ecosystem stories. I think this is really going to reduce these uninformed climate communities more and more over time.

So you would say there is no hope of changing the minds of climate change deniers?

I only use pure data and I even show them how the data was calculated. So if these climate change deniers can't be convinced by real data, it's going to be complicated. The people who can be convinced are surely the people who are undecided. I think it's the people who can change their minds and make a difference, not the people who are loud and troll on the internet.