International Environmental Data Rescue Organization: Rescuing At Risk Weather Records Around the World
In the middle of my crazy spring semester a few months back, I got a message about volunteer opportunities at the International Environmental Data Rescue Organization (IEDRO). I get emails from from VolunteerMatch.org every so often because I am always curious about virtual volunteer projects (ie, ways you can volunteer via your computer while in your pajamas). I filed the message away for when I actually had more time to take a closer look and it has finally made it to the top of my list.
A non-profit organization, IEDRO states their vision as being “.. to find, rescue, and digitize all historical environmental data and to make those data available to the world community.” They go on to explain on their website:
Old weather records are indeed worth the paper they are written on…actually tens of thousands times that value. These historic data are of critical importance to the countries within which they were taken, and to the world community as well. Yet, millions of these old records have already perished with the valuable information contained within, lost forever. These unique records, some dating back to the 1500s, now reside on paper at great risk from mold, mildew, fire, vermin, and old age (paper and ink deteriorate) or being tossed away because of lack of storage space. Once these data are lost, they are lost forever. There are no back up sources; nothing in reserve.
Why are these weather records valuable? IEDRO gives lots of great examples. Old weather records can:
- inform the construction and engineering community about maximum winds recorded, temperature extremes, rainfall and floods
- let farmers know the true frequency of drought, flood, extreme temperatures and in some areas, the amount of sunshine enabling them to better plan crop varieties and irrigation or drainage systems increasing their food production and helping to alleviate hunger.
- assist in explaining historical events such as plague and famine, movement of cultures, insect movements (i.e. locusts in Africa), and are used in epidemiological studies.
- provide our global climate computer models with baseline information enabling them to better predict seasonal extremes. This provides more accurate real-time forecasts and warnings and a better understanding of global change and validation of global warming.
The IEDRO site includes excellent scenarios in which accurate historical weather data can help save lives. You can read about the subsistence farmer who doesn’t understand the frequency of droughts well enough to make good choices about the kind of rice he plants, the way that weather impacts the vectorization models of diseases such as malaria and about the computer programs that need historical weather data to accurately predict floods. I also found this Global Hazards and Extremes page on the NCDC’s site – and I wonder what sorts of maps they could make about the weather one or two hundred years ago if all the historical climate data records were already available.
There was additional information available on IEDRO’s VolunteerMatch page. Another activity they list for their organization is: “Negotiating with foreign national meteorological services for IEDRO access to their original observations or microfilm/microfiche or magnetic copies of those observations and gaining their unrestricted permission to make copies of those data”.
IEDRO is making it their business to coordinate efforts in multiple countries to find and take digital photos of at risk weather records. They include information on their website about their data rescue process. I love their advice about being tenacious and creative when considering where these weather records might be found. Don’t only look at the national meteorological services! Consider airports, military sites, museums, private homes and church archives. The most unusual location logged so far was a monastery in Chile.
Once the records are located, each record is photographed with a digital camera. They have a special page showing examples of bad digital photos to help those taking the digital photos in the field, as well as a guidelines and procedures document available in PDF (and therefore easy to print and use as reference offline).
The digital images of the rescued records are then sent to NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) in Asheville, North Carolina. The NCDC is part of the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS) which is in turn under the umbrella of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The NCDC’s website claims they have the “World’s Largest Archive of Climate Data”. The NCDC has people contracted to transcribe the data and ensure the preservation of the digital image copies. Finally, the data will be made available to the world.
IEDRO already lists these ten countries as locations where activities are underway: Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Niger, Senegal, Zambia, Chile, Uruguay, Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.
I am fascinated by this organization. On a personal level it brings together a lot of things I am interested in – archives, the environment, GIS data, temporal data and an interesting use of technology. This is such a great example of records that might seem unimportant – but turn out to be crucial to improving lives in the here and now. It shows the need for international cooperation, good technical training and being proactive. I know that a lot of archivists would consider this more of a scientific research mission (the goal here is to get that data for the purposes of research), but no matter what else these are – they are still archival records.