Offers rescue Ben Nevis weather data

Royal Meteorological Society Collection

The scientists are looking for the public’s help in the rescue of a unique set of weather records collected at the summit of the UK’s highest mountain.

From 1883 to 1904, the meteorologists have been stationed at the summit of Ben Nevis, the logging of temperature, precipitation, wind, and other data around the clock.

Their measurements are held in five large volumes which now need to be digitized to be useful to modern researchers.

The public can assist the conversion to the www.weatherrescue.org web site.

It will involve the copying of tables in a database. The Experts say that the Ben Nevis records contain some fascinating reports on major storms of the period.

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There are also probably acquired knowledge on the peculiarities of mountain weather. A new analysis could eventually lead to improvements in the performance of today’s forecasting models.

“The data of these men has taken is incredible, and it is without doubt the most detailed mountain weather measurements, we are still the same today,” said Reading University Prof Ed Hawkins, who leads the Operation Weather to Rescue: Ben Nevis project.

“And because the data have been acquired over a century ago, it is a very good base from which to try to evaluate all the changes we have seen since our time.”

Royal society of Edinburgh

The Ben Nevis observatory was put in place to gather top of the atmosphere information. Today, this function is performed by the satellites, radars, and radiosondes (balloons). But in the Victorian era, placing the thermometers, rain gauges and anemometers on a high mountain, was the only systematic way to obtain the necessary data.

And at an altitude of 1,345 m (4,411 ft), the imposing Munro fitted the requirements perfectly.

The Scottish Meteorological Society, in large part, funded by the fiscal year, pay to put in a pony track, a low-rise building and a telegraph wire.

He had a second station set up at Fort William at the base of the mountain. This has allowed comparisons to be made with the time at the level of the sea.

Royal Meteorological Society Collection

Three or four men, the man at the top of the observatory at any time. One of these staff members would be the cook. They also had a pet cat.

The shift work, the meteorologists track the hourly changes in temperature, pressure, precipitation, sunshine, cloudiness, wind strength and wind direction. And these settings can be quite brutal on occasion, with winds of hurricane force and extremely heavy rainfall.

“At the beginning, when the snow was very bad, they had to tunnel their way out to make measurements,” said Marjory Roy, former Superintendent of the met Office, Edinburgh, and author of the definitive book on the observatory, The Weather of Ben Nevis.

“They had a plan, even if, for a tour – this is what you see in the photos. The tower enabled them to mount an anemometer and other instruments, but it also allowed to go out in the winter, when the snow was to the roof level.”

The observatory closed when the sources of public and private funding, not to cover the 1 000 pounds per year, the cost of operation.

Calum MacColl is a meteorologist who is originally from Fort William, and recognizes the Ben many moods. He said modern models still struggle sometimes with their forecasts for the conditions on the high part, and he is hopeful the Victorian era of the information may provide new benefits.

“In 10 to 20 years, the models have come on in leaps and bounds and have a real good go to try to score the complex orography (mountain topography). But they do not always get the peaks right and that can translate into inaccuracies in the conditions of the temperature, where the cloud base, and, a little more vital to the climber from the point of view of the strength of the wind speed.

“It may be 30, 40 or 50 knots. The decision of the former information on new models that could make a difference.”

Royal Meteorological Society Collection

In addition to the weather tables, the old volumes contain also a few beautiful sketches of the Northern Lights and some of the optical effects that can be created when the light of the sun interacts with the likes of ice crystals or dust in the atmosphere. These aspects are however to be studied separately.

Recovering old weather information is a daunting task. There are literally millions of documents of past centuries, which would be no doubt of the help of modern scientific study if only they could be converted into a usable form.

The Royal Navy, for example, has a huge archive of hand-written logbooks that need to be transferred on a digital medium at some point.

Professor Hawkins said optical character recognition tools to play their role in getting this old information in modern databases, but believes that citizen science is a powerful force.

“This is partly a question of confidence,” said BBC News. “Do we trust a computer to read some of these old logs perfectly, or do we trust the three sets of human eyes instead? And I think that for accuracy, the man’s eyes always do better.”

Royal Meteorological Society Collection

Royal Meteorological Society Collection

Operation Weather to Rescue: Ben Nevis project aims to have recovered two million data points of the mountain, the volumes in November.

The deadline coincides with the united KINGDOM, Natural Environment Research Council the free public event in Edinburgh in the middle of this month, called Unearthed. Staged at the Dynamic Earth venue next to the Scottish parliament, it will be the showcase of the vast efforts of great Britain in environmental sciences.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos