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How a rush of lockdown volunteers rescued the UK’s hidden weather history

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<p>When it rains it pours.  Make hay while the sun shines.  Save for a rainy day.  Rain or shine.  The English language is full of phrases about the weather, especially rain, or the lack of it.  The fascination with the weather seems embedded in the UK’s national identity, but there are still plenty of people who need to learn about it.</p>
<p>Scientists know that there were terrible floods and brutal droughts in the country’s past that could happen again.  And as the climate changes, heavy downpours in particular are likely to become more common and even more extreme.</p>
<p>The government advises that the defenses must be able to withstand floods that are so rare that they only occur once every 100 years.  What is such a flood like?  We need as much data from the past as possible to accurately describe these events so that homes are properly protected.</p>
<p>Unfortunately, much of this information is stored in handwritten paper records that have been collected by amateur meteorologists over the centuries.  But thanks to the work of modern volunteers, millions of rainfall measurements have recently been made available to science, greatly expanding our understanding of Britain’s climate, revealing new records and shedding light on just how extreme weather can get. .</p>
<h2>A treasure trove of data</h2>
<p>Beginning in the 1860s, the British Rainfall Organization (BRO), led by meteorologist George Symons, collected rainfall observations from across Great Britain and Ireland by calling on volunteers to submit their records.  They unearthed measurements as far back as 1677, from newspapers and other publications, as well as diaries kept by weather enthusiasts.</p>
<p>The BRO collated these observations on 66,000 sheets of paper.  Each sheet contained measurements of the rainfall that fell each month during a particular decade in a particular location.</p>
<p>The new rainfall data was immediately stored in computers from 1960 onwards, and the sheets of paper were carefully stored in files where they were largely forgotten.  Converting the five million handwritten measurements into digital data that a computer can analyze is a daunting task that requires human eyes to recognize the often difficult-to-read numbers.</p>
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An old handwritten document with numbers on a grid.

An opportunity arose in early 2020 during the first national lockdown. The sheets of paper had been scanned by the National Weather Archive and the images were available online. The University of Reading has launched a citizen science project called Rainfall Rescue, asking the public to help make these measurements available to science once again.

The volunteers were shown an image of a single sheet and asked to write the values ​​for a particular year on the website. Each sheet was shown to at least four different volunteers to correct any errors. We estimate that the process would take many months. It only took 16 days.

We did not expect 16,000 volunteers to collaborate. Whether it was people with more time on their hands or those looking for a distraction during the pandemic, the response from the public was extraordinary. The data came in day and night. Some volunteers looking at more than 1,000 pages and 100 million keystrokes later, the project has produced more than 3.3 million rainfall measurements taken between 1677 and 1960 at thousands of locations. These are now available online and have been processed by the Met Office to improve national rainfall statistics.

New weather records

Before Rainfall Rescue began, UK records went back to 1862, but data was only available from 19 rain gauges for that year. Thanks to the efforts of volunteers, data from over 700 rain gauges is now available for 1862, allowing us to map rainfall variation in much more detail than ever before.

A line chart representing the number of rain gauges providing data with and without Rainfall Rescue.

A line chart representing the number of rain gauges providing data with and without Rainfall Rescue.

We can also look further back in time and map rainfall in the UK for every month since 1836. This is the year that Charles Darwin returned to the UK on the Beagle with Vice Admiral Robert Fitzroy (who later established the Meteorological Office ), and is the year before Queen Victoria began her reign.

Rainfall Rescue data prior to 1862 is new to science, so our records need to be updated. The driest year on record in the UK used to be 1887. Now it’s 1855.

February 2020 had been the test on record for many UK regions, while May was the driest in many places. But those records have now lost their status. For many regions, February 1848 was wetter than 2020, and for others May 1844 was third than 2020.

Other significant events also emerge from the data. April 1842 is now the driest April on record in the UK. November and December 1852 set records for being extremely wet, with significant flooding throughout the country.

We are just beginning to analyze the new data and still adding information from more locations. This will offer invaluable insight into how UK weather is changing and put recent weather into perspective, preparing us for the future with a better understanding of what the weather has thrown at us in the past.

A bar graph showing how much rain fell each year from 1836 to 2020.

A bar graph showing how much rain fell each year from 1836 to 2020.

The sheets of paper that made this possible were assembled by an earlier army of volunteers who dedicated themselves to recording rainfall, every day, often for many decades. Lady Bayning took measurements from 1835 to 1887, and even carried her rain gauge as she traveled from Norfolk to London for the season. William Buckley Pugh contributed 65 years of rainfall observations at his mill near Hull and later when he retired.

Thousands of people took action at waterworks, factories, vicarages, canals, railway stations, lighthouses and hospitals across Britain and Ireland. Their efforts, the vision of George Symons, and now the time and commitment of thousands of online volunteers have transformed our understanding of precipitation on these islands.

Imagine the weekly weather bulletin

Imagine the weekly weather bulletin

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This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Ed Hawkins receives funding from the National Center for Atmospheric Sciences and the Natural Environment Research Council.


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