DSI Postdoctoral Research Scientist Kelton Minor bridges computational social science and environmental data science to better understand how humans adapt to global climate risks. “Up until very recently, much of what we’ve known about how the built physical and natural environment affects our daily lives has been constrained by our limited capacity to recall what we’ve done or experienced.” Minor explains. “Historically, we didn’t have a great sense of our complex interactions with the environments that we inhabit. Today, novel technologies and behavioral sensing data provide a new window into observing at scale how we interact with the world, and what the consequences of rapidly changing environments might hold.”

For his PhD in Planetary Social and Behavioral Data Science at the University of Copenhagen’s Center for Social Data Science, Minor conducted a sleep study that demonstrated how rising temperatures worldwide erode human sleep. The study analyzed data from sleep trackers used over the course of two years by over 47,000 participants from 68 countries around the world — including 10.6 billion minute-level observations. The research found that warmer-than-usual nighttime temperatures worsen sleep globally and that certain vulnerable groups — the elderly, women, residents in lower-income settings, and those already living in warmer climate contexts — are disproportionately impacted. The study received outstanding press coverage, including National GeographicWired, and the Guardian; in addition to reports on  CNNNPR, Fox News NY, and others.

Minor is a contributor to both the 2021 and 2022 reports of the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change,an international research collaboration that publishes an annual list of indicators to document the health impacts of climate change. As part of a Countdown working group, Minor led the development of a new indicator for 2022  that focused on heat, extreme weather, and its impacts on human sentiment. The team examined eight billion tweets in 13 different languages from 2015-2021, to understand how people are adapting to extreme climate events in their local environments. “We found that both extreme heat and precipitation worsen sentiment – they independently increase rates of negative expressions and reduce rates of positive tweets,” Minor says. “Importantly — we don’t have evidence that people are adapting well at this point,” he adds. “It appears that the psychosocial impacts of emerging extremes may far exceed those seen in the recent past.” Minor is currently working to expand the Lancet Countdown’s extreme weather indicator to track social responses to other emerging global climate stressors, including wildfire smoke.

“My research strongly suggests that, as a society, there are a lot of hidden human impacts that we are not yet adequately accounting for,” Minor explains. “Researchers working in the public interest can help to illuminate some of the hidden costs and tradeoffs of our changing environment, to better assess how society must mitigate and adapt both locally and globally,” he adds. At Columbia, Minor is working alongside faculty advisors Donald Edmondson and Marianthi-Anna Kioumourtzoglou to continue investigating the hidden social costs of the climate crisis. 

— Karina Alexanyan, PhD and Shane Tan