Bored at Home? Help Great Britain ‘Rescue’ Its Old Rainfall Records

Precious data points logged on paper are in dire need of a hero. Could it be you?

Man with umbrella
Britain's weather can be fickle, but digitizing past data could help researchers forecast the future. Jase Curtis via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0

If you’ve suddenly found yourself with a bit of extra time on your hands, Great Britain could use your help to understand the weather of its past—and forecast its future.

Through an ongoing campaign spearheaded by the Rainfall Rescue Project, climate researchers and meteorologists are calling on volunteers worldwide to help digitize reams of handwritten temperature and precipitation records from decades past. Fed into computer models, the data could both enhance our understanding of past periods of flooding and drought and help scientists keep pace with the world’s fast-changing climate.

For the project’s dedicated citizen scientist workforce, the low maintenance task of transcribing might provide “a welcome distraction” amid a pandemic that has forced much of the world indoors, says Ed Hawkins, a climate scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science and the University of Reading, in a statement.

Nowadays, the United Kingdom is old hat at logging data digitally. But the vast majority of data predating 1960 exists only as handwritten numbers on reams of paper. In recent years, fearing the fragility of the historical volumes, Britain’s Meteorological Office began scanning and uploading them online. Some 65,000 pages containing a total of four million measurements of monthly rainfall totals are now available on the Rainfall Rescue Project’s website, immortalizing data from the 1820s through the 1950s, reports Jonathan Amos for BBC News.

Hawkins and his colleagues are now calling on transcription-savvy citizens to take the records to the next level, transferring the data within to spreadsheets that can be easily accessed, manipulated and fed into climate models. This crucial intel could be a big windfall for water companies, which rely on consistently wet winters and springs to fill reservoirs. Severe anomalies in that pattern, Hawkins tells BBC News, threaten to “break the system.”

The digitization process isn’t intended to be very taxing on people’s minds or schedules, as it can be easily completed between other tasks.

“If you do just a couple of minutes every now and then, that’s great,” says Hawkins to BBC News. “If you want to spend an hour doing 30 or 40 columns, then that’ll be amazing. But any amount of time, it will all add up and be a tremendous help.”

Once transcribed and posted online, the data will be freely available for scientists to analyze for years to come. Most telling of all will be years of extreme observations, including the U.K.’s yearlong drought of 1921, or the unusually wet summer that hit the country in 1912. Without a clear understanding of long-term trends, scientists may struggle to differentiate the telltale signs and impacts of climate change from the region’s often unpredictable local weather, reports Fiona Harvey for the Guardian.

The Rainfall Rescue Project isn’t Hawkins’ first citizen science-driven rodeo. Three of his previous weather “rescue” projects—including one that digitized data collected by three men monitoring a remote weather station atop Ben Nevis, Britain’s tallest mountain—also sought help from eager members of the public. This latest endeavor, however, is Hawkins’ largest yet, involving more than twice the amount of data involved in his last three projects combined.

All told, the efforts could recover a wealth of precious observations from times long gone.

As Hawkins says in the statement, “We’re set to reach back further than ever in time to rescue millions of pieces of U.K. rainfall data.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.