NewsAugust 25, 2014

Visualize It: Old Weather Data Feeds New Climate Models

Brian Kahn

By Brian Kahn

Follow @blkahn

In the 1930s, there were no computers to run climate models or record weather observations. Instead, weather reports were written or typed on typewriters and forecast maps were drawn by hand.

Those observations from the past contain valuable data that can help scientists better understand what the climate may look like in the future. But gathering that data and making it usable is a tall task involving scanning millions of sheets of paper and transcribing them into formats that scientists can use.RELATEDDust in the Wind Never Looked So Stunning
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Yet that’s exactly what the International Environmental Data Rescue Organization (IEDRO) is doing by scanning old documents and then crowdsourcing the effort to decode an estimated 200 million old weather observations according to a piece by Rose Eveleth in The Atlantic.

The data IEDRO is uncovering, as well as what national meteorology services have already digitized, can be fed into climate models. That not only helps scientists understand how weather patterns fit within a larger climate context, but creates some stunning visuals as well.

Philip Brohan, a climate scientist at the UK Met Office Hadley Center, has used old weather data to show what a year of weather looked like in, say, 1936. The Dust Bowl was at its peak and a heat wave baked the Southern Plains in July. A total of 17 tropical storms formed in the Atlantic,  including 7 hurricanes, one of which made landfall in mid-September in the Carolinas. Aside from notable events, the animation also shows regular patterns that occur annually, such as the Indian Monsoon, which kicks into gear each summer.

Another animation serves as a reminder that even if the polar vortex rose to fame in 2014, it was alive and well in 1914.

The animations show the movement of winds and precipitation across the planet similar to the views we get from satellites today. However, they also show the limits of observations: the gray “fog” on the maps show areas lacking observations or where there’s uncertainty about what was happening. That gray fog underscores the value of efforts like IEDRO in enhancing our understanding of the past, as well as the present and future.

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