Feature Story | 7-May-2024

Explosions captured in old weather data that needs decoding

University of Reading

Volunteers are needed to help digitise decades-old atmospheric electricity records that have previously captured radioactivity spikes from nuclear bomb tests. 

Researchers at the University of Reading have launched AtmosEleC, a Zooniverse project that aims to develop our understanding of how electricity in the air is connected to climate variations. To do this, they are turning old paper records from the Lerwick Observatory in Shetland, UK, into digital data that can be studied using computers. The records were rediscovered by lead researcher Professor Giles Harrison in the Radcliffe Science Library of Oxford University. 

But the scientists cannot do this alone - they are asking for an army of volunteers to help them transcribe these records.  

Professor Giles Harrison, Professor of Atmospheric Physics at the University of Reading, said: "Finding the forgotten material in an Oxford library, visiting Lerwick observatory to understand how the measurements were made and then discovering links to modern climate questions has been remarkable.  

“There are about half a million entries to process. To truly unlock the opportunities from this incredible data, we need the help of dedicated volunteers to transcribe these records and make them accessible for the future. Volunteers will play a crucial role in advancing our understanding of the complex relationship between atmospheric electricity, climate change, and even the impact of historical events like nuclear bomb tests.  

“This is a unique opportunity for people to be a part of a pioneering scientific project that has already provided new insights into climate variations, and we expect it to provide many more." 

Decades of data 

The records from Lerwick cover a long period, from 1925 to 1984. During this time, the staff at the observatory noted measurements of the electricity in the air every hour. To study all this data, the AtmosEleC project needs help from volunteers to carefully read the old records and enter the values into a computer database. 

The digitisation of this data will enable scientists to learn more about how the climate has changed. Each thunderstorm across the world contributes a part of the total electric current that always flows in the atmosphere. This net current flow, and how it varies hour by hour over the day, was monitored at Lerwick. As the climate changes, the global thunderstorms change in their position and intensity, which is reflected in the data. Atmospheric electricity data is independent and complementary to climate data, so it provides additional information with which to test climate modelling. 

Going nuclear 

As well as showing changes in atmospheric electricity, the records also show the effects of nuclear bomb tests from the 1950s on the environment in Shetland. Scientists found that the records of electricity in the air changed dramatically after nuclear bomb tests in the early 1960s. At first, this was a mystery, but they eventually established it was because of radioactive particles that fell to the ground near the observatory, after the distant bomb tests. This discovery demonstrated how atmospheric transport of radioactivity material occurred over long distances.  

To learn more about the AtmosEleC project and how you can help as a volunteer, visit the project website

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