READING, England — Did the Victorians experience more extreme weather than people in the United Kingdom do today? Rainfall records have been rewritten after millions of reports dating back almost 200 years were rescued by an army of volunteers.
The Rainfall Rescue project was a labor of love that stemmed from people looking for something to do during the pandemic. Some 16,000 volunteers distracted themselves during the first COVID-19 lockdown by digitally transcribing 5.2 million observations in 16 days. The observation come from centuries-old gauges in towns and villages across the UK and Ireland.
The remarkable undertaking sheds fresh light on climate change and the impact of the industrial revolution. It shows 1855 is now the driest year on record, when just 786.5mm of rain fell in the UK. The previous record holder was 1933. Similarly, the record driest May was 2020, when only 9.6mm of rain fell in England. Thanks to the Rainfall Rescue Project, it was shifted back to May 1844, when England recorded just 8.3mm.
The scribbled notes span 130 years, and are publicly available in the official Met Office national record, extending it back 26 years to 1836.
“I am still blown away by the response this project got from the public,” says project leader Professor Ed Hawkins, a climate scientists at the University of Reading, in a statement. “Transcribing the records required around 100 million keystrokes, yet what I thought would take several months was completed in a matter of days. Thanks to the hard work of the volunteers, we now have detailed accounts of the amount of rain that fell, back to 1836, as seen through the eyes of other dedicated volunteers from several generations ago.
“To put that in context, 1836 was the year Charles Darwin returned to the UK on the Beagle with Vice-Admiral Robert Fitzroy, and a year before Queen Victoria took to the throne,” Hawkins continues. “As well as being a fascinating glimpse into the past, the new data allows a longer and more detailed picture of variations in monthly rainfall, which will aid new scientific research two centuries on. It increases our understanding of weather extremes and flood risk across the UK and Ireland, and helps us better understand the long-term trends towards the dramatic changes we are seeing today.”
Among other highlights, December 1852 is now the third wettest month on record in Cumbria (364.9mm). November of the same year is the wettest month on record for large parts of southern England. Floods are known to have occurred in a number of locations. They are known as the “Duke of Wellington Floods” as they started around the time of his state funeral in London.
The British have long loved monitoring the weather
The two-year project launched at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 puts rainfall changes due to manmade climate change in context.
“The UK rainfall record is notoriously variable, with extremes of weather presenting us with drought and flood,” says Dr. Mark McCarthy, head of the Met Office’s National Climate Information Centre. “The more we can shine a light into the earlier chapters and extremes within the rainfall record, the better we are able to understand the risks presented to us by climate change and future extreme weather events.”
Thanks to the British obsession with the weather, there are records from several thousand rainfall gauges sited across the country. But only a few hundred had been digitized – until now. It has been suggested our variable climate is responsible for disguising some of the impacts of global warming.
This makes it crucial to understand why some parts of the UK are wetter or drier than others, and to discern long-term trends. For instance, extreme years – such as the year-long drought of 1855 and the very wet end to 1852 — can tell scientists a lot. Their understanding will be vastly improved by analyzing the data from those years.
Water companies and government planners will also benefit, as the resilience of current systems can be compared with real historical conditions.
There were participants from a range of backgrounds, such as “Lady Bayning.” She recorded rainfall in Norfolk between 1835-1887 – even taking her rainfall gauge to London for the social season.
A vast number of locations with rain gauges were included, including one next door to Beatrix Potter’s Hilltop Farm in the Lake District, where she wrote many of her most famous books.
Rainfall has been monitored systematically for the whole UK since the 1860s when George Symons established the British Rainfall Organization. It co-ordinated voluntary rainfall measuring activities, which later became a branch of the Met Office. However, the majority of the observations made in the pre-digital age, before 1960, have not previously been transcribed from the original paper records.
Each of the 65,000 pieces of paper held in the Met Office National Meteorological Archive showed monthly rainfall totals across a 10-year period and had been scanned during 2019. Many of the recordings were written in ornate handwriting, requiring human eyes to transcribe it. The Met Office’s official UK rainfall series previously went back to 1862.
Extreme weather data paints new picture for the UK
Thanks to the Rainfall Rescue project, there is now around six times the previous amount of observational data for the years before 1960. The number of rain gauges contributing data to the national record for the year 1862 has increased from 19 to more than 700. These earlier, detailed records could also help increase knowledge of the impact of how weather is affected by climate change not caused by humans.
After all the data had been transcribed, eight dedicated volunteers helped arrange the data into chronological sequences for each location. The study, published in the prestigious Geoscience Data Journal, lists them as co authors.
Some 3.3 million of the newly-transcribed observations have been processed by the Met Office and added to the publicly available national rainfall statistics on its website.
“This project has broken the definition of an archive. In its lifecycle a document moves from being a record, in everyday use, to an archive where it is kept as part of a memory – in our case the National Memory of the Weather,” says Catherine Ross, Met Office archivist. “However, this project’s 66,000 formerly inanimate sheets of numbers have been given a new life by placing data that can be interrogated and compared into the hands of scientists at the Met Office and around the world.”
The participating volunteers expressed their admiration and thanks to the observers who creating the original detailed rainfall records, and to the British Rainfall Organization for coordinating their work.
Jacqui Huntley was one of the eight Rainfall Rescue volunteers based near Stranraer in Scotland who worked across the whole project. “I got involved because I am British and therefore a fanatic about the weather, especially rain. And it rains a lot where I live in Scotland,” she says. “The data are obviously valuable to scientists, but I have also loved learning about the rainfall observers who were so dedicated in measuring the weather day after day. It has been fun, and a true team effort, from start to finish.”
Report by South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn.