and Galaxy Zoo Could Aid Global Climate Project
Leading climate scientists will gather in
the UK this week to finalise plans for a revolutionary project aimed at transforming their ability to predict
meteorological disasters. The goal is to create an international databank that would generate forecasts of
The scientists' plans include:
■ Creating a global network of weather stations that would provide daily temperature
readings for any spot on the planet. At present, only monthly readings are generated for the United States and
Europe, while virtually no data is provided for much of Africa, the Amazon and Antarctica.
■ Digitising old sea logs - including those of the Bounty, the Beagle and Scott's
Discovery - to build up a data set of historical weather patterns.
■ Persuading many countries that currently refuse to provide meteorological
information to the rest of the world to open their data banks.
■ Seeking help from web companies and organisations such as Google and Galaxy Zoo to
help volunteers decode data. In this way, meteorologists hope to transform their long-term forecasts.
"It is now very clear that humanity is changing the climate through the greenhouse
gases we are pumping into the atmosphere," said Peter Stott, head of climate monitoring at the UK Met Office, one
of the organisers of this week's meeting. "But we don't know yet, and what we really must find out is how those
changes will affect a particular area.
"We need to answer key questions such as whether the onset of the monsoon in India
will be delayed, how the frequency of droughts in the Horn of Africa is changing, or whether Europe will experience
more severe heatwaves in future."
In recent months Moscow has been blanketed in smog from burning peatlands, a giant
island of ice has splintered from Greenland and floods in Pakistan have killed about 2,000 and left millions
homeless. Scientists believe that, as climate change takes an increasingly tight grip on the planet, more and more
of these events will happen. They want to learn how to predict such occurrences and give vulnerable areas accurate
warnings about potential catastrophes.
However, meteorologists are limited by the lack of data they receive from monitoring
stations around the globe. Although there are more than 6,000 such stations providing data about temperatures,
wind, precipitation and other variables, these only generate monthly averages for a particular locality.
"We need to get daily temperature readings if we are going to make accurate
forecasts," said Peter Thorne, of the Co-operative Institute for Climate and Satellites in North Carolina. At the
same time, swaths of Africa and Antarctica and much of the Amazon have no stations at all.
One of the aims of this week's meeting is to discuss ways in which daily readings
could be generated by increasing the number of these remote, unmanned stations. It is intended to begin
negotiations with countries that refuse to give out readings from weather stations on the grounds that such
information could be sold. Simply opening these nations' data banks would double the information available to world
However, it is the decoding and digitising of old logs from some of Britain's most
illustrious sea voyages - a process likely to involve assistance from organisations such as Google - that promises
to be of particular public interest. Throughout the 19th century and for many of the early years of the 20th
century, Britain's navy ruled the oceans. Daily information about weather conditions recorded in logs gives an
invaluable insight into climate patterns for these decades. Examples include the logbooks of the ships of the East
India Company, which are held in the British Library, the logs of Royal Navy ships during the first world war,
which are held in the UK National Archives, and those of the major Antarctic expeditions, which are currently being
digitised by the Met Office.
"The problem is that the data is stored in old logbooks and it is an extremely
laborious business to turn that information into digital form," added Stott.
However, recent developments on the web have provided precedents for providing help
for such work. Three years ago Chris Lintott, an Oxford physicist, set up a website called Galaxy Zoo which asked
the public to help classify photographs of a million galaxies. It has turned into the biggest citizen-science
experiment on the web. Galaxies can be classified as spiral, elliptical or merging. However, with images of more
than a million taken by astronomers, their categorisation - crucial for understanding the evolution of the universe
- was daunting until Galaxy Zoo was set up. By logging on, members of the public can classify galaxies and have
proved as good as, and in some cases better than, professional astronomers.
Now meteorologists hope that Galaxy Zoo, whose organisers have been invited to this
week's climate meeting, can provide a model that will allow the public to help in the massive job of digitising the
weather data left by sailors.
"We need not only to create climate data sets at daily or even shorter timescales, at
a resolution of a few kilometres at most, but to generate data sets as far into the past as possible," said Stott.
"That is why we are planning to take all these different approaches."
by Robin McKie (science and technology editor for the
Observer). - 8th September 2010