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Data Rescue Saves Lives
by Toni Rosati*

It seems there are very few true win-win situations these days. Politics are never easy, the war on terror doesn't seem to have a clear answer, and even climate change, so obviously happening in the minds of most scientists, is a source of skepticism in the media and public eye. In fact, the Pew Research Center , a non-partisan public opinion research organization, conducted two recent polls on the public perceptions of climate change. The April 2009 data showed a "sharp decline over the past year in the percentage of Americans who say there is solid evidence that global temperatures are rising" while the October 2009 survey dropped this finding another 14%, from 71% in April to just 57% believing there is solid evidence by October (people-press.org/report/556/global-warming). The polls were conducted before "Climategate".

Most scientists want to move forward on the climate debate by gathering more data. In that sense, we and the skeptics can actually agree on something - more data will give us better information. However, without spending millions of dollars, what can we actually do to meet these data needs? New satellites provide excellent data but are expensive and can only create current weather observations. Studying ice cores and tree rings yields important observations about historical environmental conditions, but these techniques are best suited for paleoclimate records, or pre-1500s, respectively. To get weather information for interim years, some researchers have turned to historic journals to interpret the casual descriptions of weather and sea conditions. But there is another way...

Retired National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist Richard Crouthamel founded the International Environmental Data Rescue Organization (IEDRO) in 2005 to provide a creative and relatively inexpensive solution to this problem. Recording information about weather has fascinated humans for centuries, and even developing countries have scores of records on daily temperatures, precipitation, pressure - and even glacial photographs dating as far back as the 1600s.

Regarding African data for example, much of the older African data (i.e. prior to the 1940s) are of excellent quality since, during that time, most African countries were colonies of European nations (i.e. Kenya, of Britain; Mozambique and Angola of Portugal; Niger, Mauritania, Senegal, and Chad of France), and the Europeans ran the various African national meteorological services with the same care that was used in their own mother countries. It is true that since the "independence" of many African countries, the funding for collecting data dropped, as did the meteorological services' attention to accuracy and care of their weather observations.  However, the quality many times depends on the staff rather than the wealth of the country.  Malawi, the fourth poorest country in Africa, has a first class meteorological service (considering their finances) with a dedicated staff, whereas Senegal, a wealthy Africa country, has difficulty. However, it can be said generally that the poorer the country, the greater the likelihood that a country's historical data is at risk; when people are starving, a government just cannot justify spending limited resources on rescuing and digitizing old data.

Handwritten data and strip charts alike are often poorly stored. Depending on the economic situation of the area, the paper that holds this irreplaceable information may be stored in huts, basements or other below-ground structures that can be flooded at any time. Sometimes the data is discarded or burned to create more storage space.

With a recent grant from NOAA, IEDRO is moving forward with its mission to "rescue weather data from developing countries..." by building partnerships with each country's weather service. IEDRO provides computers and basic photography equipment to local teams who organize and photographically capture the data. Most importantly, IEDRO trains the meteorological office staff according to its stringent quality standards. Once all photos pass this standard, IEDRO sends the data to NOAA for input into an internationally open weather data database.

Dr. Ed Root, one of IEDRO's talented volunteers, has created an automated digitizing method for the often-found strip charts. Hydro-meteorological strip charts look like pen traces on a grid. The charts are mounted on cylinders that rotate at a constant speed. A pen attached to a mechanical device records the changes in parameter values over time. Depending on the speed at which the cylinder turns, the charts may represent parameter changes over a 24-hour period or a 7-day week. Dr. Root's computer program analyzes the digital photographs of weather strip charts and extracts the data into useful tables or comma delimited files. While digitizing this information by hand can take 15-20 minutes per chart, the time required for the software to digitize a one-day weather strip chart is less than 5 seconds!

Rescued data, once analyzed, can save lives across the globe. The six primary paths that data rescue can take to save lives are through climate change, disease prevention, flood forecasting, safer infrastructure, preventing famine, and understanding history (www.iedro.org). Dr. Crouthamel relayed a painful story about a family of farmers in Pakistan . Given what they knew at the time, the family reserved the proper amount of food and seed to survive a 3-year stretch of difficult climate. But once the historic data for the area was analyzed, it showed that reserves for nearly 7 years were necessary to ensure survival. With extreme sadness Dr. Crouthamel said, "I know that family didn't survive much longer than a year from when I met them."

Even with its recent grant, IEDRO is still in need of donations, sponsorships, and volunteers. Anyone interested or with suggestions is encouraged to contact Richard Crouthamel at r.crouthamel@iedro.org or make a donation by visiting www.iedro.org.

Data rescue is by far the most inexpensive method to quench the thirst for more data. Rather than spending millions of dollars establishing new climate observation sites throughout the world, which will produce an accurate and complete climate record over the next 100 years, organizations like IEDRO can use a fraction of those millions to go to developing countries to rescue, validate, and digitize the billions of weather records which exist from the past 250 years.

Primary historical data brings depth to trend analyses and model accuracy. The use of this data can lead to better policy, better education, better agricultural and architectural decisions, and ultimately, save thousands of lives.

*Toni Rosati (zucca227@yahoo.com) is a research assistant at the University of Colorado , Boulder in the Judgement, Emotion, Decision and Intuition (JEDI) lab. Her most recent research, the public perceptions of tsunamis in Los Angeles , has been presented at AMS, CUB'sHydrology forum, SPSSI's biennial meeting, and the UCLA symposium of public health. She has been a volunteer for IEDRO since October 2009.

 

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