Renewed interest in weathered records

Each week Cosmos takes a look at projects and news about citizen science in Australia. This week, we report on a new initiative launched by Climate History Australia at the Australian National University (ANU).

Scientists at ANU have an ambition to create Australia’s longest daily weather record, beginning in 1838, and they’d like help from citizen scientists.

“Recently, we discovered 170-year old weather journals taken at the Adelaide Surveyor General’s Office that will complete an eight-year gap to create Australia’s longest daily weather record,” says lead researcher Joëlle Gergis. “The journals are some of the oldest weather records in the Southern Hemisphere.”

The records were originally discovered during an online archive search by Rob Allan, who leads the international initiative ACRE (Atmospheric Circulation Reconstructions over the Earth).

“Some records popped out, and Rob thought, ‘are these some that we already have, or are they something new?’,” says Caitlin Howlett, ANU citizen science project manager for Climate History Australia. “Then Mac Benoy, who’s the citizen science project manager at the Australian Meteorological Association in Adelaide, got a volunteer to go in and actually see these records and say, yes, these are new, untranscribed, unanalysed and something that would be really beneficial.”

Howlett says citizen scientists will help digitise over 150 handwritten pages of weather observations taken in Adelaide between April 1843 and December 1856. The project will run through well-known online citizen science platform Zooniverse.

Hail storm
Snow in Petersburgh, South Australia on 20 July 1895. Credit: State Library of SA

“Computers can’t transcribe this data until there’s a huge breakthrough in AI – they have trouble reading cursive numbers and words, especially in tabulated formats like meteorological observations,” Howlett says. “The variables that volunteers will be working on include instrumental observations of temperature, air pressure, cloud type and wind. And they could include unknown details of Australia’s social and climate history – such as snowfalls, floods, heatwaves or bushfires.”

Howlett emphasises that a particularly good thing about these data is that they there were observations taken four times a day, six days a week – “only on Sundays and public holidays did they generally not take them and they include a huge range of variables”. So it’s a very thorough record.

Mac Benoy isn’t surprised at this detail. “Two hundred years ago, Australians were obsessed with the weather,” he says. “The invention of accurate thermometers and barometers allowed their passion to become a science, leading to ideas that one day they would be able to forecast the weather.”

Worldwide, the origins of scientific weather observations extend back another two centuries, to Medici-era Florence, Italy, and the emergence of the Medici Network in 1654. Inspired by Galileo’s teachings, the network aimed to discover key meteorological parameters and invent instruments to measure them – the key device was the Little Florentine Thermometer, invented in the 1640s.

Instruments and observations were more sophistciated by the time the Adelaide records were being taken, and according to Howlett, they’re“really fascinating” to see.

Hail storm
Angaston SA Hail Storm, 1894. Credit: State Library of SA

“It really gives a life to [stories of the era] when you can see all of these beautiful handwritten records and then you can put a face behind who would have written them,” she says. “It really transports you back to that time.”

Howlett says that because these are daily weather observations, they provide a level of detail that can’t be gleaned from other kinds of long-term climate records. “These particular records that were kept by the early settlers will probably uncover some new and really valuable insights into our nation’s natural climate variability, which is really important to understanding how people can be impacted by extreme weather events.”

Research leader Gergis – author of the acclaimed book Sunburnt Country: The History and Future of Climate Change in Australia and a lead author for the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report – has no doubt about the importance of this work.

“Historical weather records like these can give us an accurate picture of the range of climate extremes experienced in the past,” says Gergis. “This can help improve climate risk assessment needed for future climate change planning and adaptation.”

To get started, go to the Climate History Australia page on Zooniverse.

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