Kathy Wendolkowski is an Oldweather.org volunteer who studies… (BARBARA HADDOCK TAYLOR,…)
GAITHERSBURG — — Kathy Wendolkowski is a 49-year-old suburban mother of three with a secret life.
When she is not busy in her kitchen, or doing data entry at home as a contractor for the Environmental Protection Agency, she slips back in time to 1922, joining the crew of the HMS Foxglove, a 1,200-ton minesweeper on patrol along the China coast near Fuchau, north of colonial Hong Kong.
Along with hundreds of OldWeather.org volunteers around the world, Wendolkowski works at her home computer, slowly paging through photo images of the daily logs of 282 Royal Navy ships that sailed the globe from 1914 to 1924.
By extracting the log-keepers' handwritten, six-a-day weather observations and transferring them to an online digital database, the volunteers are filling large voids in the planet's observational record. A more complete record can ultimately improve weather forecasting in many places around the world, and provide a more accurate accounting of how the global climate has changed over time.
From the log-keeper's precise handwriting, she learned that it was 64 degrees off Fuchau at 8 a.m. on Oct. 3, 1922. The wind was north-by-east, at Force 3, under cloudy skies. The barometer read 30.22 inches.
Wendolkowski typed the readings into the computer's digital form and moved on to the noon observation. "We're furthering the sum of human knowledge," she said with a smile.
Wendolkowski and other OldWeather volunteers are a small part of a worldwide effort to rescue old weather data from time and the elements. A diverse collection of nonprofit organizations, government agencies and private companies is working cooperatively to enrich the digital record of the planet's weather by including more places and reaching deeper into the past.
Few are more passionate than Rick Crouthamel about the need for such work. The Deale resident worked for the National Weather Service, helping to rescue historic weather data in Africa and elsewhere. He retired in 2004 in part because he believed the agency was doing too little to use old weather data to save lives.
He tells the story of a man he met in the 1980s in Bangladesh, where most people are subsistence farmers. The farmer told Crouthamel he saved 10 percent of his rice harvest each year so he could feed his family when drought came.
"I asked him how often he had a drought, and he said once every 10 years," Crouthamel recalled. When he asked the farmer how he knew that, the man replied, "Because I have been farming 10 years, and had one drought."
Crouthamel said 100 years of data would be needed to be confident of the actual frequency of drought years. "I was shocked at the vulnerability he was placing his family in because he didn't know the true threat of drought."
By extracting old weather data from 30 years of crumbling Bangladeshi records, Crouthamel discovered the actual drought interval was six to seven years. The farmer had just been lucky, and he was risking the lives of his children.
"It hit me so hard," he said. "That was my passion. I said, 'We have to rescue the data.' "
Today, working largely out of his home, Crouthamel heads an organization called the International Environmental Data Rescue Organization (IEDRO), a nonprofit doing much the same work he'd done for the weather service.
Today, some 50 IEDRO volunteers travel the world on data rescue missions, funded by NOAA, the World Meteorological Organization, and private donors.
They've found that colonial powers, religious organizations such as Jesuits, and some private entities such as Central American fruit companies, kept careful weather records — some for hundreds of years.
Some are well-preserved; others are fragile and crumbling.
In Mozambique, Crouthamel said, old paper records were wrapped in brown paper, but many of the packages had broken open and some were scattered on the wet floor of a tin shack. In Russia, rescuers have found hangar-sized warehouses crammed floor-to-ceiling with satellite imagery on reels of magnetic tape — tapes that become useless unless rewound once a year.
With local workers, IEDRO provides the materials and equipment to help them locate, organize, box and store the records. Then the volunteers train local people to set up and operate a digital camera and photograph every page.
The images are burned to a DVD and copied. The local meteorological service retains a copy for its use. The duplicate goes to the National Climate Data Center, in Asheville, N.C., providing the raw material needed to improve global forecast models and make weather predictions more accurate.
Better weather data for places like Bangladesh and Mozambique could save millions of lives. It could help farmers become better-prepared for bad weather, or anticipate where weather conditions will cause outbreaks of water- and insect-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue fever or cholera.