The thing about wind

I’ve written before about my frustration/hatred of wind in daily life, but today I wanted to raise another complaint: using wind data in past climate research.

Wind direction is easy and cheap to monitor. All you really need is a damp finger and a decent sense of which way is north.

The strength of wind has also been observed for a long time, for its vital role in turning windmills and pushing ships.

But the thing about local wind information, is that it’s just not great for climate research.

The ease of watching the wind does not make up for that fact that it’s a pain in the arse to analyse when you are looking at long term changes in the climate.

And wind is predicted to change. A warmer earth means stronger weather systems and a shift in global wind patterns. This will in turn affect ocean currents and sea ice coverage and lots of other important things. So, we need to know how the wind is changing.

But historical wind records can be more like a drama queen than a reliable source of climate information:  irrational and highly sensitive to the smallest changes.

Wind data can be subjective

Wind observations have been taken for centuries, long before technical weather instruments like anemometers were used. Observing wind strength and direction was a vital part of any sailors’ duties, at land and sea. While direction could be recorded relatively accurately using a compass, converting what you see around you to a number is a subjective thing.

Here, for example, is the famous Beaufort scale (discussed in loving detail in this book):

Beaufort
The Beaufort scale for both land and sea, along with the associated estimated wind speed. Source: Howtoons

Now these descriptions are poetic, but what if you aren’t near a chimney, or any small branches?

Or, what if your wind strength scale had slightly different descriptions?

Francis Beaufort was not the only guy trying to turn the chaotic experience of wind into a numerical scale. During my recent work with historical wind data in Europe, I came across the Beaufort scale, a French wind strength scale and a nine-point strength scale used in Turkey. These indices all use different definitions to approximate the strength of wind.

Even worse, today, we use the speed of the wind to study it, so these values need to be converted to something approximating metres per second, or kilometres per hour, or knots, or cyclone scales, or tornado strengths.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Combining all of these different methods of measuring how strong and/or fast the wind is it a tricky job. It also means that we are comparing data with say, 13 different levels (0–12 on the Beaufort scale), with data that have many more (an anemometer can measure at 0.05 m/s intervals).

This is almost, but not quite, an apples and oranges scenario.

Also, wind data are mighty sensitive

Even once the Beaufort scale was replaced with good ole’ technology, wind data can still easily be rubbish, because they are extremely sensitive to the local environment.

This is fine if you are recording the wind at an airport for safe landings, or to see if a wind tunnel has accidentally been made, but if you want to look at large wind patterns over a long period of time, you might be in trouble.

The growth of a tree nearby, the erection (teehee) of a building across the road, or a small change in the location or height of the instrument can have a big impact on wind data. Temperature, rainfall and other weather variables can also be affected by these things, but wind observations are particularly fussy.

badwindexample
An example of wind speed being affected by local changes. Image: World Meteorological Organisation, so you know it’s legit.

It’s not all bad

I realise it sounds a lot like I’m saying observing wind is a waste of time. But things aren’t quite that bleak.

Understanding local wind is really important for many things, like renewable energy, aviation safety and urban planning.

And, to be fair, wind observations taken at sea are generally much better than on the land, due to the lack of trees, buildings and other terrestrial nonsense.

Climate models are also pretty good at deriving large-scale winds from air pressure observations, so most long-term wind studies looking at climate change use models instead.

Finally, there are methods of correcting the non-climate features in wind data, if you are careful and have good information about the weather stations (it’s been done in Canada for example, and the Iberian Pensinsula).

But be careful next time you explore some old wind data. There’s a hidden drama queen in there, who might be telling you more about the neighbour’s pine trees than climate change.

How’s about that weather then? 26 and 28 March 1844

People love talking about the weather. Whether it’s on Twitter in 2017, or in letters to the Editor in 1841, we are never short of a meteorological-based conversation starter, particularly in Australia.

The aim of these posts is to share some of the events that piqued people’s interest back in the day. Not always the hottest, driest, coldest or wettest day, but some days that got people whinging.

During this week in 1844, Sydney experienced a swing of temperatures which was echoed across the colony of New South Wales.

The Morning Chronicle reported a 6am temperature of 43ºF (6.1ºC) on the morning of 26 March 1844. This was the coldest March morning in the 10 years of published observations in the paper, although there is no information about where the thermometer was kept, so the data may not be that accurate.

26_March_temp
Morning Chronicle, 27 March 1844.

Chilly mornings and premature frosts were also reported in the Hunter Valley, where correspondents claimed that the nights were “unusually cold for the season of the year”.

Two day later, on Thursday 28 March 1844, hot north winds with associated dust came upon Sydney in a late summer blast. George Peacock, the trained observer at South Head, on Sydney’s coast, wrote:

At about two o’clock am came on to blow very hard from north and north-westward, and subsequently, during the morning, moderated: atmosphere bright and clear. Just at noon a violent squall of hot wind came over from north-west by north, carrying along with it clouds of dust—and continued a hot and very strong wind till near sunset — veering towards west-north-west; atmosphere being very thick and hazy, but cloudless.

The highest temperature Peacock recorded that day was 87 ºF (30 ºC) at 2:30 p.m., up from 74ºF (23.3 ºC) at 8:30 that morning. The Chronicle reported a noon temperature of 80ºF, but interestingly a southeasterly wind, again suggesting that the observations weren’t done under the most rigorous conditions (read: maybe the paperboy took them??)

Regional correspondents also reported the hot blustery day. In Goulburn, southern NSW, the wind on the 29th was “unusually violent. Indeed the most disagreeable day we have had for a long season. Rain is much wanted to put the land in condition for the plough”. James Waugh at Jamberoo, also in southern New South Wales, recorded a maximum temperature of 90 ºF (32.2 ºC) in his diary (available at the State Library of New South Wales), with hot and windy weather.

The Hunter Valley felt the effects of the hot northerly too. On the 2nd of April, a Morpeth resident “of upwards of forty years” wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald of their fears that their sunflowers would “be apt to blights from the hot winds – that have been the case (in a great measure) this season”.

On the 6th, the word from Muswellbrook in the upper Hunter was that “The weather has recently been very sultry, and the late corn has suffered severely from hot winds”.

Hot winds like those experienced on 28 March are a common feature of Sydney’s climate. HC Russell, NSW’s Government Astronomer from 1870–1903, was interested in Sydney’s hot winds, dedicating several pages to the subject in his extensive 1877 summary of the climate of NSW. He wrote:

Of all the features of the climate of Australia the hot wind is in many respects one of the most remarkable and interesting, as it is the key which opens the explanation of the whole of our wind system….In character this wind is the most disagreeable known in Australia.

Tangent!

While the term wasn’t used at the time, the 28th of March sounds like a classic “brickfielder”, a strong dusty wind that blows during the summer months.

The term “brickfielder” was bandied about in the mid to late 1800s across southern Australia. According to this neat article, a brickfielder in the southern states was a hot dusty northerly, while in New South Wales it originally referred to a cool southerly wind which blew red dust from the brickworks into Sydney town.

Brickfielder
Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 10 March 1836.

It might be that in Sydney, a “brickfielder” was any old wind that brought dust with it. On 10 March 1836 for example, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser reported that a brickfielder had occurred “Tuesday last”.

The weather observations for that Tuesday last show a strong north north west wind, with high temperatures too.

brickfielder_data
Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 10 March 1836. 

In 2010, the Australian Meteorological and Oceanography Society ran a competition to give Melbourne’s dusty winds their own name, with the winner being the “Northerly Duster”. Is it yet to catch on.

It’s the little things

It’s been over four months since we said goodbye to the sunshine and summer of Catalonia and returned to the changeable grey of Melbourne. It’s incredible how fast things disappear into the past, and already our flat in Tortosa seems like years ago.

We will always have a home in Catalonia, as it will always sit in my heart. At the same time, it’s nice to be back among the wide streets and wide accent under the big Australian sky.

As H and I have plowed on with work and friend reconnecting and getting married (!), it’s hard to find time to miss the big life things that we had in Spain. The freedom, the castles, the late nights and the history. It’s more the little things, the subtle ways that I have changed since we flew out of Tullamarine on the first day of summer in 2014.

Seeing as its 12 days until Christmas, here are the 12 little things I’ve noticed since coming back home:

The Accent

I now pronounce my Rs. You can’t help Catalans with their English if you speak with an Australian drawl (e.g. “ya English is geddin heaps bedda” helps no one), so I have learnt to deliveR my Rs.

The Bathroom

Almost all public bathrooms in Spain have sensor lights that automatically turn on when you walk in (more for economic reasons than environmental ones I think). This is surprisingly easy to get use to. After a few incidences of dancing in the dark trying to turn on a sensor light that didn’t exist, I now have to turn the light switch on when I go. I don’t like it.

The Cost

I have to pay $8 for a pot of beer now (rather that €1), and I don’t like that either.

The Dinnertime

This has been easy to get used to actually, and 7pm no longer seems like an offensively early time for tea. However I do miss the relaxing feeling of knowing that the shops are open until late, and there is no rush for dinner.

The Eating of Bread

Last Friday night I ate a hamburger and unconsciously turned it upside down, to avoid stabbing the roof of my mouth with hard baguette crust. This life hack had become second nature after 20 months of eating jamon bocadillos! Not really necessary for a hipster-friendly brioche roll.

The Fresh Food Aisle

On our first weekend back in Australia we went to a supermarket to get some vegetables. Apart from the heartbreak of seeing artichokes for $2.50 each (EACH!), I felt an extreme sense of guilt about not weighing and bagging my own vegetables and obtaining a sticker for the check-out guy to scan. Standard practise in Europe, I had forgotten that we don’t do it like that here.

The Gratis Water

It’s from the tap and it’s free at restaurants in Australia! I still find myself sculling all of the free water before we leave a table, just out of habit.

The Hourly Updates

In Tortosa we lived down the street from the town cathedral, which chimed every 15 minutes from 7am until midnight. It was sort of annoying at the time (particularly because the song on the hour went for about a minute) but now I really miss knowing the time without having to look at anything.

The Impromptu Celebrations

Last month I was in the city (as a free range researcher is wont to do) and I heard a big noise. Did I jump, or hide in fear? No! I automatically assumed it was a parade of some sort, and found myself looking for the marching band which would show up on the streets of Tortosa for celebrations large or small. In the end it was actually just a trolley.

The Joyful Disregard for Safety

There is a reason I don’t know the Spanish (or Catalan) words for ‘safety rail’, and there’s a reason why we loved visiting towers on our weekend. The freedom to clamber all over high, dangerous places is a wonderful treat that is hard to find in Oz. But that doesn’t mean we won’t keep looking.

The Kids Everywhere

I now expect children to be at every event and venue we go to, be it a 10am brunch or 10pm concert, because that was standard practise in Spain. There are plenty of kidlets at cafes here, but I see far fewer out for dinner.

The Love

Even after four months I have to stop myself from saying ‘Bon profit’ if I pass people eating their lunch outside. I’m still getting used to not giving ‘dos besos’ when saying hello. And I’m still missing the wonderful people we met on the banks of the Ebro.

More scientific posts will come in 2017 but until then, Bon Nadal!

img_8188
Merry Christmas from these two other little Catalan fellows!

A week in the life of the free range researcher

Since returning to Australia in August, my working life has taken a comfy new shape. Don’t worry, I’m still rescuing data to improve our understanding of European weather and climate. But now I work from home, surrounded by magpies and hot pies, rather than mountains and the hot Mediterranean sun.

As a remote researcher I am free to work wherever I like, keeping my own hours, and maintaining a level of dress sense that would embarrass most of you.

But despite the freedom that working from home provides, I’ve found that the days tend to slip into a weekly cycle. This is good for my sanity, and for my tracksuit pants, that do need a wash every now and again.

Monday: Home day

I dawdle out of bed at 8:30am, safe in the knowledge that it is still Sunday night in Europe and I have the whole day to prepare things for my colleagues’ Monday morning. Also, my commute is four seconds long. Trackies will remain on all day and productivity is high due to a lack of office distractions.

At about 11:30am I remember the pot of tea I brewed at 10am, and realise why tea cosies are such a good idea. Talking to myself and singing along to the radio while working are standard behaviours on a Monday, as well as a little indulgence of daytime television.

Tuesday: Chore day

Time to brave the outside world and buy some food. Might even put a load of washing on, and do the dishes. Tracksuit pants remain the uniform until lunchtime, when I head to the market and run those mail-collecting, appointment-making errands that you can only do from 9am to 5pm. This takes up most of the afternoon, meaning I am working frantically when 6pm comes around, ready to chat to colleagues who have just started their day. Emails are the last thing I see before I go to bed.

Wednesday: Friend day

Emails are the first thing I see when I get up. For all the freedom of being a roving researcher, the time difference does make it hard to switch off from work. To combat that, I have lunch with a friend and her newborn, again relishing the things that you just can’t do if you work in an office. Plus it gets me out of the house. Cut to 7pm and I am attempting to work, bring in clothes and prepare dinner at the same time. So much for no distractions.

Thursday: Outing day

After three days of being home-based, it’s time to go rogue. My home Internet is struggling to upload the data I need to send to Europe, and my tracksuit pants are starting to smell. Off to the city for me!

I start in a café, feeling like one of those stylish people who work on their laptop in a café. I listen to some St Germain while I code and drink too much tea and try in vain to get the free wifi to upload 5GB of data. I leave, hepped up on tea and busting for the loo, and hole up in a university library instead. Here the toilets are free and (if you’re lucky) the eduroam Internet works. I might even organise a work meeting with a local collaborator, to remind myself of the wide and wonderful world of research in which I am still living. How fun to have an outing!

Friday: Friday

After yesterday’s exhausting outing. I’m ready to bring in the weekend with another productive day at home. Might even stay in my PJs for a while and start working early, before my brain wakes up enough to procrastinate.

While working from home means that you can really do it at anytime, I try to keep my weekends for living. I attempt to draw a line under what I have done for the week, and set things up to start well the following Monday. In reality, this means making a long list of things I haven’t quite finished, waiting for me and my pot of tea on Monday morning.

 

This, so far, has been my experience of working remotely. Is it how you work from home? How do you stay motivated when working by yourself? How does one make a good tea cosy? Please, let me know!

 

Meeting your heroes

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to receive a ERASMUS+ Mobility Grant to visit one of the pillars of climate science, The University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit.

CRU is responsible for one of the most widely-used long-term climate datasets in the world, the HadCRUT record. It also has an impressively long history of historical data research. I was therefore really excited, and pretty nervous, when I got off the double decker bus at UEA on Monday morning. I was going to meet my heroes, peoples whose names I only knew from my well-thumbed copies of their papers. Eep!Read More »

Holiday! Celebrate! By working?

This week, I have had the unadulterated luxury of being on holiday. And not a travelling holiday either: a plonk yourself next to the pool, sunset drinks, working on your tan, proper vacation. Although it’s been great, these kinds of breaks are not my usual fare. I am much better at seeing and doing than I am at sitting still.

2016-05-18 19.17.28
Not a bad place to sit still really…

Plus, like most scientists, I couldn’t quite shake what Dr Climate refers to as holiday guilt — the idea that I should really be working rather than lounging around. While I know this is common for most people, it seems particularly rampant in academics.

Obviously, too much work and not enough play is bad for your mental health and work productivity. But, if you have to address your gnawing conscience, is there some good that can come out of a little bit of work in between swims?Read More »

What to do at EGU

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend the European Geosciences Union conference in Vienna, affectionately and efficiently known as EGU.

Over 13,000 scientists from across the world get together for a week to discuss the centre of the earth, far flung space and everything, literally everything, located in between. Seeing so many researchers together, in so much comfortable footwear and with such a wide array of backpacks, is a special experience indeed.

This was my second EGU, but my first as a grown-up scientist rather than a student. The first time was completely overwhelming, and I left thinking that mass meetings were not my scientific bag.

But this year was very different. I got some useful feedback on my work, met heaps of new people in my field, connected with some people I’d been longing to collaborate with, and re-connected with great old colleagues and friends.

I am a bit more experienced now it’s true, and know a few more names and faces. This year I was also fortunate to give a talk , and give it at the start of the week, meaning that a) my presentation was out of the way early and b) the few people who did see my talk had more time to catch me and ask questions.

But I was also more prepared this year, and I think I’ve figured out a few of the dos and don’ts  (dont’s?) of EGU. They are, in the order that I thought of them…Read More »

Why we need old weather data

When people ask me what I do here, my standard response is “Soy investigadora, en el Centro de Cambio Climatic”. Most people take this to mean that I work with the political and economic solutions required to solve the diabolical problem of climate change (which they then quiz me about), but sadly this is not true.

I work with old weather.

Yep, old numbers. Historical weather observations taken up to 250 years ago. I find them, digitise them, and check them to see how reliable they are.

When I occasionally manage to explain this in my basic Spanish, people generally look disappointed, confused, and then they slink away.

Recovering old weather data is not at the “coal face” of climate change research (haha, pun), and many people may think that it’s not really important for helping us figure out how we are going to manage the future.

How wrong they are!Read More »