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Salvaged Victorian-era rainfall data rewrites UK weather records

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Millions of archived rainfall records dating back nearly 200 years that were digitized by volunteers during the pandemic have broken UK weather records and given researchers decades more data on climate trends.

The University of Reading’s Rainfall Rescue project involved the transcription of 130 years of handwritten rainfall records, over five million individual observations, across the UK and Ireland.

The results revealed that the driest year ever recorded in the UK is 1855, the third gambling month is December 1852 in Cumbria and November of the same year is the recorded gambling month in many parts of the south of England.

But the project produced more than just new records. According to Catherine Ross, archivist at the Met Office, it has “broken the definition of archive”.

The UK’s driest years on record. (PA graphics)

“In its life cycle, a document goes from being a record, in daily use, to an archive where it is kept as part of a memory, in our case the National Climate Memory,” said Ms Ross.

“However, the 66,000 previously inanimate number sheets of this project have been given new life by putting data that can be interrogated and compared in the hands of scientists at the Met Office and around the world.”

Around 16,000 volunteers contributed to the transcripts, the results of which have now been made publicly available on the Met Office’s official national register and have spanned 26 years to 1836.

It has also increased sixfold the amount of pre-1960 observational data available to climate scientists and researchers.

ENVIRONMENT Climate

The wettest years on record in the UK. (PA graphics)

Professor Ed Hawkins, project leader and climate scientist at the University of Reading, said he was “impressed” by the effort of the volunteers who signed up for the projects during the UK’s first Covid-19 lockdown.

“Thanks to the hard work of volunteers, we now have detailed reports of the amount of rain that has fallen, since 1836, seen through the eyes of other dedicated volunteers from generations ago,” he said.

“To put that in context, 1836 was the year that Charles Darwin returned to the UK on the Beagle with Vice Admiral Robert Fitzroy, and the year before Queen Victoria came to the throne.

“As well as being a fascinating glimpse into the past, the new data allows for a longer and more detailed picture of variations in monthly rainfall, which will aid new scientific investigations two centuries later.

“It increases our understanding of extreme weather and flood risk in the UK and Ireland, and helps us better understand long-term trends towards the dramatic changes we’re seeing today.”

Observation taken at a rain gauge at Seathwaite on July 14, 1899

The paper records studied by Rainfall Rescue volunteers contained observations between 1677 and 1960, based on rain gauges located in almost every town and village in England and Wales. Pictured is an observation taken at Seathwaite in 1899 (University of Reading/PA)

The paper records studied by Rainfall Rescue volunteers contained observations between 1677 and 1960, based on rain gauges located in almost every town and village in England and Wales.

The number of pluviometers that contribute data to the national registry for the year 1862 increased from 19 to more than 700 due to digitization.

A marker included in the transcript was located next to Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top farm in the Lake District, where she wrote many of her most famous books.

Jacqui Huntley, a volunteer with the project based near Stanraer in Scotland, said she got involved with Rainfall Rescue because she’s a “weather fanatic, especially rain.”

She said: “And it rains a lot where I live in Scotland. Obviously, the data is valuable to scientists, but I also loved learning about the rain watchers who put so much effort into measuring the weather day in and day out.

“It’s been fun and a real team effort, from start to finish.”


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