A Citizen Science of the Weather

Stormy Weather: An exhibit in partnership with the Met Office

By The Royal Society

Barometer chart (1682-12) by UnknownThe Royal Society

Early networks of observers

Access to newly developed instruments enabled scientists across Europe to record the weather. However, because instrument-makers could not mass-produce these objects and used non-standard methods, measurements and materials in their construction, instrument observations from a single location could vary quite dramatically. In addition, it was difficult to compare readings between locations, because there was no systematic way of representing the data. 

Great hail fallen in France (1686-10) by UnknownThe Royal Society

Scholars circulated tables containing barometric readings, such as in the previous image. But they also described or drew certain noteworthy meteorological phenomena, such as these hail stones.

Diary of the weather from Coventry (1707) by Henry Beighton (1687-1743)The Royal Society

Early meteorological observations were often taken by scholars who were not directly involved in weather science.

These neatly laid-out tables were collected by Henry Beighton FRS (1687-1743), an engineer who developed steam engines.

Weather diary model (1723) by James Jurin (1684-1750)The Royal Society

Forming scientific networks

From the early 18th century, non-specialists were encouraged to take regular weather readings. This was seen as vital in the accumulation of meaningful sequences of information. By circulating calls for contributions, and by providing instructions on how to lay out weather diaries, the Royal Society was instrumental in forming networks of observers and collecting weather observations from across the world. 

Portrait of James Jurin (circa. 1740) by James Worsdale (1687-1767)The Royal Society

In 1723, the Secretary of the Royal Society, James Jurin FRS (1684-1750) published a call for observations of the weather in the Philosophical Transactions. His proposal described which instruments to use, and how best to lay out a diary. Jurin called on all readers of the journal, Fellows of the Royal Society and members of other European scientific academies, to send their observations to be analysed, formatted and published by the Royal Society.

Weather observations from Leyden, Delft and Rhinsberg (1715/1723) by Nicolaas Kruik (1678-1754)The Royal Society

There were many responses to Jurin’s appeal, from all over the globe. The Dutch mapmaker Nicolaas Kruik FRS (1678-1764) sent his observations, taken since 1714, presenting them in an original graphic format.

His key explains that dotted lines represent barometrical readings.

The wind direction is indicated by what resembles today's wind barbs, while force is shown by the number of points along the barbs.

Precipitation, cloud coverage and lightning were given clear symbols which make Kruik's graph easy to read.

Meteorological observations at Clapham House, Deer Lake, Hudson's Bay Company, Canada (1808/1809) by Peter Fidler (1769-1822)The Royal Society

Agreements with the trading companies managing colonial expansion and exploration guaranteed that weather observations were taken across large parts of the world.

The records shown here are from Canada, made by Peter Fidler (1769-1822), an employee of the Hudson's Bay Company.

Average of winds in Canton, China (1771/1774) by UnknownThe Royal Society

Global coverage meant that scientists could start to establish the links between regional weather patterns and gain understanding of the Earth's weather system.

Meteorological Observations at the Cape of Good Hope (1836/1837) by John Frederick William Herschel (1792-1871)The Royal Society

Astronomers based at international observatories played a key part in forming meteorological networks.

John Herschel, while studying the night skies of the southern hemisphere, needed to keep track of observing conditions in South Africa. Since astronomers were experienced in using scientific instruments and in presenting data, their weather diaries were of high quality.

Great Exhibition first daily weather map (1851-08-08) by James GlaisherThe Royal Society

From the 19th century onward, the general public was increasingly called upon to make weather observations.

This map was drawn up during the 1851 Great Exhibition, using the telegraph network to obtain same-day observations from across Great Britain. The maps were sold for 1 penny to visitors.

Atmospheric effects of the Krakatoa eruption (1888) by Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, after William Ashcroft (1832-1914)The Royal Society

Observing Krakatoa

The Royal Society appealed for public observations in the aftermath of the catastrophic explosion of Indonesia’s Krakatoa volcano in 1883. Under the leadership of the meteorologist George Symons FRS (1838-1900), a committee was formed to gather and interpret intelligence on the global effects of the eruption. The Krakatoa Committee collected press reports on the incident and called for eye-witness testimony on the associated meteorological phenomena.

German postcard addressed to chairman of the Krakatoa committee (1885-02-26) by UnknownThe Royal Society

Responses were received containing descriptive accounts of unusual atmospheric phenomena, together with drawings and measurements.
This postcard from Germany was addressed to the Secretary of the Committee, the meteorologist Robert Henry Scott FRS (1833-1916), who followed FitzRoy at the Board of Trade.

Letter from det Danske Meteorologiske Institut reporting on meterological phenomena in iceland (1884-04-03) by V. Willaume FaulzenThe Royal Society

The Committee had called for any accounts of the 'remarkable sunrises and sunsets, or sky colouring at any hours'.

This summary by the Danish Meteorological Institute shows that the phenomena was of interest to the wide network of professional meteorologists.

Cloud shadow, noon (1888) by Leo Krauss and Company (fl.1880s-1890s), Eduard Moritz Pechuël-Loesche (1840-1913)The Royal Society

The meteorological phenomena were caused by the dispersion of volcanic ash in the atmosphere and provided stunning imagery.

Krakatoa afterglow effects (1884-01-11) by Archibald Henry Swinton (1845-1936)The Royal Society

Many casual observers noted with precision what they were seeing and were anxious to contribute to the Royal Society report.

OWS Weather Reporter - Radiosonde being prepared for launch (1950) by Meteorological OfficeThe Royal Society

Citizen scientists

19th century scientific professionals kept meteorological observations and amateurs answered specific call for contributions to the field. Interest in meteorology did not stop there however. There is a long tradition of enthusiasts joining in efforts to keep local weather reports and many still contribute to measuring and recording the weather across Great Britain. 

Weather Diary (1827) by Orlando Whistlecraft (1810-1893)The Royal Society

The title page of this weather diary was beautifully illustrated by its observer, Orlando Whistlecraft (1810-1893).

Whistlecraft was a shopkeeper in 19th century Suffolk, who devised his own system of observations and kept a systematic diary from 1827 to 1892.

Weather Diary for March, page 2 (1833) by Caroline Molesworth (1794-1872)The Royal Society

This weather diary was carefully devised by Caroline Molesworth (1794-1872) in the South of England. An avid botanist, Molesworth noted observations on plants as well as animals.

Here you can see that in 1832, the apricot trees and the strawberries began flowering on March 20th.

Weather Diary, page 2 (1771) by Thomas Hughes (1742-1813)The Royal Society

In this volume of weather observations, Dr Thomas Hughes recorded historical events as well as more casual references to the weather. He even recorded a neighbour getting lost in the fog.

Here are his experiments with a thermometer inside his house, then by the open front door, and finally in his garden.

Weather Diary, page 1 (1771) by Thomas Hughes (1742-1813)The Royal Society

Historical diaries retain scientific value as they are used today to improve our understanding of global warming.

Private weather station (2020) by Catherine RossThe Royal Society

Today's weather enthusiasts may contribute by maintaining local weather observatories anywhere in the country. 
These stations can send their readings automatically to the Met Office.

Once received, the observations are uploaded onto the UK Met Office Weather Observation Website, where photographs and other contributions can also be held and made available.

Stormy Weather- from lore to science (2020) by The Royal SocietyThe Royal Society

Citizen scientists who make personal observations have been at the heart of weather observation since its very beginning. Today’s need for large datasets from across the globe continues to make meteorology a participative science. To discover curious world of weather sayings and pre-science struggles to understand our atmosphere, browse to our story, Weather Lore. 

Credits: Story

All rights reserved © The Royal Society 2020

The digital and physical exhibits were curated by Dr Catherine Ross (National Meteorological Archive, Met Office) and Dr Louisiane Ferlier (The Royal Society).

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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