What we’ve learnt about Australia’s climate history

This year our team completed a pilot citizen science project with over 1,000 volunteers, developed Australia’s longest daily weather record, analysed previously unknown weather extremes from the 19th century, and reached at least 1.6 million people through media coverage. 

Here’s an outline of our achievements this year and a summary of what we’ve learnt so far about Australia’s climate history.

Citizen scientists completed Australia’s longest weather record

A major accomplishment this year was the completion of a citizen science project covering historical daily weather records from Adelaide between 1848 and 1856. 

The aim was to fill a gap in Australia’s historical weather records. The record is now one of the longest daily weather records in the Southern Hemisphere! There’s more detail on our work and the objectives of our volunteer project in the video below.

As this was our pilot project testing the Zooniverse citizen science platform, a lot of planning went into the development and execution of the project. For example, there were over 500 comments submitted on our Discussion Forum between volunteers and our researchers between the project’s launch on 8 September 2020 and its completion on 24 November 2020. You can read more about the completion of the Adelaide project here.

We were so impressed by our wonderful volunteers – over 1,100 people from around the globe – who meticulously transcribed over 33,400 classifications from these Adelaide journals. We’ve kept all of the carefully transcribed remarks, so we will be able to refer to them when we’re reconstructing some of the key extreme events that show up in the weather observations. 

While all of our volunteers were amazing, we want to give a special mention to the volunteers who did some additional offline transcriptions and historical newspaper research. Many thanks to Wendy, Peter and Debra – you’ve uncovered some real gems in Australia’s climate history!

Analysing Adelaide’s climate history

We are pleased to report that there was a high level of agreement in the transcriptions entered through the Zooniverse portal. On average, around 90% of the observations showed that six out of eight transcriptions agreed with each other. Even among the remaining 10%, we still saw a consensus emerge, giving us strong confidence in the results.

You can see some preliminary results here, more detail on the Adelaide floods in 1848, and learn about previously unknown extreme weather events from 1847 here. Of particular interest was an intense heatwave uncovered in 1847, with temperatures of above 40°C observed throughout an entire week, which caused “forty-five deaths in two days… and funeral processions are to be met in almost every street”. We also found that the period 1843 to 1851 was fairly dry, with wet winters in 1846 and 1847.

   Adelaide Rain Days, 1843-1851

Adelaide Rain Days, 1843-1851
Each stripe represents each day over the 1843-1851 study period. The red stripes show no or very light rain, yellow shows moderate rain, and blue shows heavy rain or really wet days.

Successful media stories

Another great accomplishment was how engaged people and the media were in our research. Press coverage for the citizen science project alone included at least 20 newspaper, radio and online articles published two weeks into our launch. 

Our project reached a total potential audience of around 1.6 million people. We also had national coverage from an additional five media stories that were broadcast mid-project, which helped reinvigorate interest and gave a final push to complete the Zooniverse project this year.

Some media highlights for our Adelaide citizen science pilot included:

In addition, our Director Dr Joelle Gergis and researcher Dr Linden Ashcroft published a research paper on the development of the Adelaide temperature record in June 2020. The release gained national media coverage, including an article in The Conversation; We dug up Australian weather records back to 1838 and found snow is falling less often.

Dr Gergis also published several general interest articles, including expert commentary on the Black Summer bushfires in The Conversation and The Guardian, before announcing that she’ll be writing another book next year. 

Boosting our following

The Climate History Australia website, e-newsletter and social media accounts have also grown this year. Our website had an average of 1,500 page views per month. Our e-newsletter more than doubled in size this year, to 418 subscribers. We created a video for Facebook which reached over 24,000 people. And Twitter – which has been a particularly useful network for us to connect with diverse audiences – averages 20,200 impressions per month, peaking at around 40,000 impressions in October 2020.

Great connections 

We also established great connections with a range of professional organisations to help spread word of our citizen science projects through their networks, including; Zooniverse, Australian Citizen Science Association, Atlas of Living Australia’s Biocollect citizen science tool, Australian Meteorological Association, Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, Climate History Network, Climate Change Institute, and of course the Fenner School of Environment & Society and the Australian National University

Our team also worked closely with other climate researchers around the world, including Drew Lorrey, Rob Allen, Phil Brohan and Ed Hawkins to help design our pilot Zooniverse project.

Learning from the past, and looking to the future

The historical newspapers show us how extreme weather events have caused intense adversity for people over time. For many, 2020 has also been a year of adversity. By looking back through our past, we can reflect on our similarities with people throughout history, with sympathy for what they would have endured. 

Our work this year has proved that historical climate research has a very broad appeal across society both in Australia, and internationally. We have shown how Australian weather rescue projects have the ability to generate cross-generational discussion on history, science, weather, and climate. 

In early 2021, we will launch another citizen science project to transcribe recently discovered historical weather journals from the Perth Botanic Gardens from 1880 to 1900. We hope to have you on board to help with this important climate research. 

Sign up to our e-newsletter so you’ll be notified when we launch the new project! In the meantime, stay up-to-date with our research on social media via our Facebook and Twitter pages.