Climate detectives look to the past

There are millions of records of weather observations that can help us to understand weather and climate, if we can make them fit with more modern observations. We now have more powerful computers, and better ability to model the physics of the atmosphere, and we can apply this technology to records from long before computers were invented.

Teams of scientists from around the world work on what is called “reanalysis” of weather and climate records to make sure that relevant data can be found and made consistent for use in computer models.

Scientists identify what old records might be available and try to retrieve data that could be useful – whether its from old observational records or from satellites that were designed for other purposes. Rescuing this data can mean tracking down where it has been stored, or digitising data that has only been kept on magnetic tape or paper before.

A crowdsourcing project, called Old Weather, has been introduced to the Zooniverse group of citizen science projects. It asks participants to look at the log books of ships to find their weather observations from the middle of the nineteenth century. The log books carry really detailed accounts of the weather, which can be useful for building up a global picture.

By gathering observations from ships’  logs all over the world, the scientists can feed hundreds of surface observations into models.

The information from the many different places the ships sailed to can fill in gaps in records of weather measurements.

The new records generated by transcribing the ships’ logs will be a precious resource for scientists, and one that would take decades of work to compile without crowdsourcing.

The Old Weather project is just one example of the work that is going on to rescue data about worldwide weather – Australia has a similar project for ships’ logs. Citizen science and professional science projects collecting old data can help us understand climate variability in the past and feed the models that calculate what might happen in the future.

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About the Author

Ruth McAvinia

Ruth McAvinia

Learning Zone Writer

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