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Weather watchers unite

Volume 8 Number 2 February 13 - March 11 2012

Dr Joelle Gergis at the Victorian State Library. Photo: Peter Casamento.
Dr Joelle Gergis at the Victorian State Library. Photo: Peter Casamento.

A collaborative citizen science project proves that many hands make light work in uncovering Australia’s climate history. By Kate O’Hara.

From Dorothea Mackellar’s ode to her homeland to barstool banter at any Australian pub, there’s nothing we love to talk about more than the weather.

We also talk a lot about Australia being a young country, and when you factor in our limited records of climate behaviour any further back beyond the 1900s, there’s a tonne of conversation gold just waiting to be uncovered.

It’s a conversation topic which University of Melbourne researcher and project leader Dr Joelle Gergis hopes to spark up through this month’s launch of OzDocs, a citizen science project to uncover Australia’s climate history.

Along with colleagues and a number of project partners from around Australia and the world, Dr Gergis is part of the South Eastern Australian Recent Climate History (SEARCH) project.

Together, with the help of volunteers, they hope to create a resource that will increase our understanding of natural fluctuations in Australia’s climate. It will be the country’s first searchable database of climate information using a diverse collection of pre-20th century historical records.

“The Bureau of Meteorology – which maintains official Australian weather records – was officially established in 1908,” Dr Gergis says. “This means that our picture of our climate history before around 1900 is hazy at best.

“The great news is that through our project partners, which include the National Library of Australia, the State Library of Victoria and the State Library of New South Wales, we have access to an amazing amount of information about our climatic past.

“Our OzDocs volunteers will be working their way through logbooks of the first European explorers, governors’ correspondence, early settlers’ diaries, newspapers and the works of 18th and 19th century scholars.”

Following a pilot program last year, which tested an earlier version of the database with the help of volunteers from the State Library of New South Wales, the SEARCH team was successful in securing a University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor’s Engagement Award. The $10,000 grant has funded the further development of the database and software requirements.

The refined database will allow masses of data to be stored online and provide easy access to information for researchers, organisations, government departments and the public.

Among the many benefits of the project, Dr Gergis says a key motivation for her is to demystify some of the information about human-caused climate change.

“A big question the data will help answer is what our region’s ‘natural’ climate has been like since 1788. This may ultimately help us refine climate models, allowing us to more accurately estimate our climate before 20th century meteorological records became available,” she says.

“This project is also about helping the community understand the difference between natural climate variability and how industrially-driven climate change since the 1950s is amplifying our already extreme climate in ways not experienced in the past.”

Already the pilot project volunteers have unearthed some significant weather occurrences.

An inch of snow in inner Sydney during June 1836, a destructive caterpillar plague in 1825 indicating a particularly wet year, and accounts of storms that caused shipwrecks and flooded the streets of Sydney are all stories which have emerged so far.

Josh Cockfield, OzDocs volunteer co-ordinator, says anyone can sign up as a volunteer – all you need is an internet connection and a healthy sense of curiosity.

“We have some existing volunteers who worked with us on the pilot database and they’re a real mix. Some are retirees, some have a science background and some don’t, but all of them are enthusiastic about the work,” he says.

“The work of our volunteers is divided into categories of words and numbers, so we’re able to match the style of research to the preference of the volunteer. Most volunteers have a strong interest in climate and how it contributes to life in Australia. Many just enjoy the challenge.”

Registration for OzDocs is now open