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Scientists Need Your Help Rescuing 100-Year-Old Weather Records

A new citizen-science project needs volunteers to digitize decades of temperature, rain and barometric data from across western Europe

(Met Office)
smithsonian.com

Scientists can measure changes in climate for thousands or even millions of years by deciphering clues in nature—analyzing tree rings, ice cores, lake sediments and more. But reliable, standardized records for weather only stretch back around 100 years. Now, as Jonathan Amos reports for the BBC, scientists are hoping to recover more of that historical weather data—and they need your help.

Many historical weather records, particularly those from before 1950, have never been brought into the digital age, which makes that data inaccessible to scientists. So a new citizen science project, called Weather Rescue, is seeking volunteers to tease through weather reports from the early 1900s and enter the data into a digital database by hand. The initial batch of data covers years from 1900 to 1910—but they hope to eventually digitize even earlier records. An eager group of 855 volunteers have already classified 33 percent of the reports so far.

The records comes from the "Daily Weather Reports" stored in the U.K.'s Met Office, Amos reports. Robert FitzRoy, the founder of that office and captain of the voyage that took Charles Darwin around the world, started these telegraphed transmissions in 1860, soon after the organization began. The reports came from across western Europe, according to the project website, from Sweden to Spain and from Ireland to Germany. Together, they create a detailed picture of conditions at the time, including temperature, wind, rainfall and barometric pressure.

According to a Weather Rescue blog post, once the project is complete, the team will publish the final results in an open access academic journal and send the data to various international weather data archives. It will not only give historical information about local weather, but it will also help scientists create more accurate climate and weather models and add more context to modern weather events.

“Whenever we have big weather events today we need to ask ourselves, have we seen them before?” Hawkins tells Amos. “And if we go further and further back in time and don’t recognize such big storms or such heavy rainfall, then we can be more confident that the changes we're seeing today really are the result of shifts in the climate system.”

This is not the team’s first weather recovery effort. As Kate Ravilious at The Guardian reports, the team behind the latest project rallied 3,600 volunteers earlier this year to transcribe 1.5 million observations collected by a weather station on top of Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in Great Britain located in central Scotland. Between 1883 and 1904, a corp of “weathermen” lived on top of the mountain, recording hourly measurements. Included in the data is information from the 1903 Ulysses Storm, mentioned in James Joyce’s novel, which caused widespread damage in Ireland and passed over the top of Ben Nevis.

Other teams are also hoping to recover weather data from old observations, employing the power of the crowd. Another project, called Old Weather, led by Kevin Wood of the University of Washington, is looking through the log books of whaling vessels as well as Navy and Coast Guard vessels to find older data about weather in the Arctic.

That’s just a chip off the iceberg. As Rose Eveleth reported for The Atlantic in 2014, the International Environmental Data Rescue Organization estimates there are 200 million weather observations across the world that are not digitized and therefore not used by contemporary researchers.

Collecting that data, however, is not particularly fun. “You’ll show up to a place and you need dust masks on for days at a time,” IEDRO volunteer Theodore Allen told Eveleth. “You’re crouched over running through dusty, dirty weather records in a damp room. It’s not very glamorous.” 

Other efforts attempt to gather information from even older observations, some dating back to the 1600s and the advent of the first thermometers. Collecting and digitizing old records is just the beginning. To actually use the data, the researchers need to correct for things like collection methods, convert measurements from archaic temperature scales and account for changes in land use (like paving an area in blacktop) that could artificially change measured temperature. But hopefully adding a few more decades—or centuries—to the mix of weather data will be worth all the dust and people power.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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