Britain’s official rainfall records now go back to the year before Queen Victoria took the throne, thanks to the efforts of thousands of volunteers who were confined at home during Covid and were brought together by their passion for a very British cause: the weather.
It began when Ed Hawkins, a climate scientist at the University of Reading in England, sent out a cry for help by transcribing more than 65,000 handwritten logs of monthly rainfall from across Britain and Ireland for three centuries.
The writing in the notes was too irregular to be machine-read; human eyes were needed. More than 16,000 people responded to Dr. Hawkins and together they chewed through the assignment in just over two weeks.
That was two years ago, during Britain’s first coronavirus lockdown. Now the country’s weather authority, the Met Office, has processed 3.3 million data points from the transcribed pages and added them to its national rainfall statistics, enriching the official record with many more observations and extending it back to 1836. Among the newly digitized information is new detail about the strange weather of 1852, when an exceptionally dry spring was followed by severe flooding in November and December.
“If the weather that gave us so much rain in 1852 happened again, it would probably bring more rain to our island because we live in a warmer world,” said Dr. Hawkins in an interview from Reading. Better information about past extremes can help strengthen our defenses against future ones, he said.
dr Hawkins and a team of volunteers and other researchers detail how they processed and cleaned up the data in a study published Friday in the Geoscience Data Journal.
“We’ve barely scratched the surface” of what there is to learn from the UK’s climate archives, he said. “The US also has huge archives at NOAA that haven’t been explored as fully as they could be,” he added, citing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Met Office knew the value of the data in the old rainfall log books when it scanned them in 2019, said Catherine Ross, the agency’s archivist and author of the new study. But only thanks to volunteers during lockdown in 2020, said Dr. Ross, the elaborate, sometimes idiosyncratic, handwritten information has been harnessed for scholarly analysis.
Records begin in 1677 with measurements from scattered observers. By 1860, data collection was coordinated by the British Rainfall Organization, which would later become part of the Met Office. More people participated: ordinary citizens, clergy, wealthy landowners who entrusted the task to gardeners and caretakers. The royals apparently belonged to this last category: among the archives are rainfall measurements from Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace and Sandringham House.
“We live in the Victorian era: people want to control, measure and understand statistically in much more detail,” said Dr. Horse. “There’s this heightened understanding of, ‘We can collect observations and do something with them.'”
In notes they kept with the rainfall logs, the recorders reveal the care they put into the task and some of the challenges. Rev. W. Borlase, of the village of Ludgvan, Cornwall, added this footnote to his reading for October 1770: ‘Receiver quite full. Could have been run over. I do not know.”
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Observers documented various humiliations inflicted on their rain gauges: vandalism by children; obstruction by bird nests; Damage caused by tourists, lawn mowers and ponies. The monks at Belmont Abbey in Herefordshire found a bullet hole in their measuring device in 1948. At a psychiatric hospital, records were suspended for more than two years in the 1950s because the meter had been “hidden by inmates.”
As World War II raged, a 1944 log stated that a rain gauge was “destroyed by enemy action.” In the village of West Ayton in 1949 the clerk ended the readings with the comment ‘too old to care now’.
Once the records were transcribed, the data had to be organized by precise location. This presented its own challenges. The notes for a rain gauge in Scotland describe it only as “in a ravine among the hills”.
dr Hawkins is perhaps best known for creating the climate strips, a way to visualize global warming. He is now involved in another online project to transcribe weather observations made by navigators traversing the globe in the mid-19th century. It’s part of a larger initiative, GloSAT, which aims to trace the record of the world’s surface temperatures – on land, ocean and ice – back to the 1780s. Currently, most global temperature records begin in the 1850s.
The additional information could help scientists better understand Earth’s climate before the industrial revolution and the associated large-scale carbon emissions from human activities. It may also reveal more about how the climate responded to several major volcanic eruptions in the early 19th century, including that at Mount Tambora in modern-day Indonesia, which cooled the planet and caused what is known as the “year without a summer.” ”
“We probably haven’t had a really big one since Tambora in 1815,” said Dr. Hawkins. “We’re probably overdue. Therefore, it would probably be very useful to understand in advance the consequences of such an outbreak.”