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Volunteers around world putting old weather data online

Moldering records being digitized in Maryland

January 03, 2011|By Frank D. Roylance, The Baltimore Sun

"Old weather data is the one vaccine that can save people from a whole host of maladies — from starvation to disease, with the same data," Crouthamel said.

When the images of the old weather records reach NOAA, it's the job of the Climate Database Modernization Program to convert them into a digital form that can be accessed by anyone over the Internet, and integrated with global climate models.

Tom Ross, who heads the $17 million-a-year program, said there are 97 different projects under way to convert old weather records into modern digital formats. Among the records are TIROS weather satellite photos from the 1960s, "paired" photos of Alaskan glaciers from the early 1900s, drawings of sunspots, marine fisheries data and weather-balloon data from developing countries.

"If we got funded for another 20 or 40 years, we still wouldn't be done, there's just so much out there," Ross said. One example: 75,000 boxes of hourly U.S. airport observations — 410 million of them — from the dawn of commercial aviation in the 1920s to the 1940s.

John Jacobs is program manager for HOV Services, the Beltsville company that does much of the digital scanning for the climate database program. "Originally this … was going to be thrown out," he said. "Now, scientists are saying it's a treasure trove."

After the records are scanned, they are farmed out for keyboarding. The program uses both volunteers who work online from home, and contractors providing more than 300 jobs in high-unemployment regions such as West Virginia, Kentucky, and in Oakland, in Western Maryland.

Once the data is available in digital form, it's up to the weather and climate scientists to process it and integrate it into modern climate models.

Among the organizations doing that work is Atmospheric Circulation Reconstruction Over the Earth, or ACRE, led by Gil Compo, a research scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"The idea," he said, "is to take the available global weather data, synthesize or combine them in a mathematically rigorous way, to make a global weather map, for every six hours, as far back as we can go in time, and then use those maps to do climate studies."

Among the questions scientists can then ask, he said: "How have storms changed over the past 130 years? How do climate models simulate those changes? Has El Nino changed? How does climate respond to volcanoes?"

The troves of data that could be used to construct the maps seem endless.

"You also had doctors taking weather observations, looking for a connection between health and the weather," Compo said. "The British told all harbormasters they had to take a certain number of observations every day around the world. The Russian Empire had a great network that expanded with the Trans-Siberian Railway." The French, Dutch, Germans collected data on the colonies they controlled, the Chilean Navy and even the Jesuits "were very interested in making weather observations."

Helping to extract the data from such dusty record books from around the world are people like Wendolkowski.

"Humans are much better at recognizing handwriting than computers," Compo said. "It is somewhat tedious … but I would say it's really important."

So far, OldWeather.org reports its volunteers have completed more than 240,000 pages of logs from 39 ships that sailed for the Royal Navy between 1915 and 1923. That's about 30 percent of the ship-log work.

Wendolkowski, who holds a master's degree in history, confesses the ships' notes on air and water temperature, wind and barometer readings aren't nearly as interesting as the log-keepers' reports on the daily happenings on board.

After a while, she and her 103 online colleagues working and cross-checking the Foxglove logs begin to feel like they're part of the ship's crew, speak in the first person and present tense about life aboard "their" ship.

"Hong Kong is a huge meeting-place," she said. "Ships are coming and going all the time. We exchange salutes with them. Italian and Japanese … even a Chinese admiral came on board a couple days ago. It's very weird talking about this."

In just two months, she said, "I've done 600 some-odd weather observations on 100-something pages of the log. … It's an addiction."

An earlier version misspelled the name of Gil Compo, a research scientist at the University of Colorado. The Sun regrets the error.


Maryland weather blog: Frank Roylance on meteorology

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