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See Inside February 2012

Volunteers Plug Holes in the Climate Record

Oldweather.com is one of a handful of online initiatives that marshals the general public to help scientists with cutting-edge research



Illustration by Mark Weaver. National Archives, England (ship and logbook)

Kathy Wendolkowski used to make candy in her spare time. for the past year and a half, this mother of three from Gaithersburg, Md., has been spending two to three hours a day on the Web site Old Weather (www.oldweather.org). There she transcribes temperature, pressure and wind-speed records from the logbooks of HMS Foxglove, a British minesweeper that patrolled the South Pacific in the years following World War I. It was a friend, a naval historian, who told her about the site soon after its launch in October 2010, Wendolkowski says. She quickly got hooked—not by the actual weather data but by the narrative of the Foxglove’s journey and crew, a story that played out alongside the thermometer readings in each day’s logbook entries.

Old Weather is one of a handful of online endeavors that marshal volunteers to help researchers, relying on thousands of “citizen scientists” to comb through data that would otherwise be impractical to mine, explains British paleoclimatologist Philip Brohan, the project’s lead scientist. Brohan, who estimates that it would take a professional transcriber 28 years to complete the work Old Weather volunteers finished in the project’s first six months, says that those transcriptions are invaluable to researchers like him, who scrutinize data from the past to help predict what we will see in the future. “Every time there’s a big storm, people ask, ‘Would this have happened in the absence of human impact on the climate?’” Brohan says. “Is it new or unusual, or is it the sort of thing that’s happened before? If we want to answer that question, we need to know how the weather has varied in the past.”

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