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Volunteers Needed To Unlock Historic Weather Secrets

NIWA climate scientists are asking for volunteers to help give its historic weather project a quick, sharp boost.

The scientists have accumulated a mass of weather data for a special project focused on a week in July 1939 when huge snowstorms blanketed the country – but the problem is the records are all handwritten and now need to be keyed into a computer.

NIWA climate scientist Dr Andrew Lorrey says there is much to be learned from historic weather that can help predict climate patterns today and into the future.

“For instance, was 1939 the last gasp of conditions that were common during the Little Ice Age which ended in the 1800s? Or the first glimpse of the extremes of climate change thanks to the Industrial Revolution?”

The July 1939 snowstorm project – dubbed “The Week It Snowed Everywhere” – were significant because of the extent of the snow. There were flurries recorded at Cape Reinga lighthouse, 5cm of snow recorded on the top of Mt Eden, Auckland and in Dunedin residents had to clear at least 100mm of snow from the streets.

As well as learning more about our past weather, Dr Lorrey is working with Microsoft via an AI for Earth grant to train machine learning tools to accurately transcribe old handwritten old logbooks. The only way to know how good the machine learning can do the job is to compare it to many people keying in the numbers to a computer database.

That’s why each handwritten record from that week in 1939 needs to be keyed in by 20 people.

“We need people to bombard this task so that we can get a robust enough result to compare to the machine learning results,” Dr Lorrey says.

If the machine learning is successful, it will mean the massive amount of historical handwritten weather data all over the world can be digitised at a far faster pace. This will enable the information to be used to produce better daily global weather animations, and a provide a longer-term perspective of past weather and modern events.

Dr Lorrey says the handwritten logs contain incredibly valuable information that can be fed into weather reconstructions to also help understand how rapidly the climate is changing.

“Many volunteers have already helped us key in hundreds of thousands of historic weather records. What we’re asking for now is a quick boost to get this particular week in the system as soon as possible. We are extremely grateful for any assistance as this is a huge task that would overwhelm us on our own.”

Anyone wanting to help out with the task can go to: www.southernweatherdiscovery.org

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