Ordinary citizens can help climate experts understand the data they rely on – via crowdsourced projects.
Most of us aren’t scientists, but there is a way for ordinary citizens to help climate experts understand the data they rely on – and it comes from crowdsourced projects at Zooniverse, a collaborative platform designed by scientists in the UK and the United States to promote citizen science.
The Southern Weather Discovery launch is an exceptional example. Right now, this new Zooniverse project is looking for volunteers to help log weather data from the 1800s and 1900s, all of it recorded by ships sailing in the Southern Ocean and the occasional Antarctic ice expedition. In fact, the archives even include findings recorded by members of Captain Robert Scott’s doomed trip to the South Pole in 1912.
“Even in the face of constant hardship during tough conditions, these sailors and explorers recorded weather observations for navigation and scientific purposes,” explains the team, which is led by scientists in New Zealand. There are Europeans, Australians and other researchers on the project too.
They have thousands of old ship log books and records from Antarctic explorations waiting in archives around the world, which they now consider a critical resource for climate science because for obvious reasons there isn’t a lot of data from land stations there. So they are asking citizen scientists to assist them.
That’s because computer algorithms still can’t handle the job instead of humans. “The writing is really curly so a computer can’t recognize it,” says Petra Pearce, a climate scientist for New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA). “So we need actual people to come and help us key this data and be able to insert it into global climate databases.”
Volunteers can go online in their spare time simply by creating an account. Once they’re logged in, they can start keying in the weather readings, primarily from whaling or cargo ships, but some from ice expeditions or even lighthouses. The website uses a 1938 log page from the MS Durham as an example: The ship traveled from Wellington to London along the Cape Horn route, and each day has readings taken four different times for temperature, sea ice, pressure and other conditions. All told, there are about a million observations.
The tasks are easy to load, and there’s an online tutorial to get started. There’s also a help desk. “The ship logs are time machines,” says Andrew Lorrey, the principal NIWA scientist on the project. “They would never have thought that we would be using their data to predict future climate change,” Pearce adds. “It’s really cool to think that we’re actually using their legacy to help ours.”
As awesome as this project is, if Southern Weather Discovery isn’t the right fit there are plenty of other volunteer options listed on Zooniverse. They’re in a range of science disciplines but also in literature, history, language and other spheres. You can help astrophysicists look for gravitational waves, search the forests of Borneo for orangutan nests via drone footage, or count the number of cells in fossil leaves for the Smithsonian Institute – all in your spare time.