Climate detectives: What a Historical Climatologist does – an interview with George Adamson

This article was originally posted on Climatesnack by  on September 21, 2016:

Weather and climate shape cultures and the lives of people everywhere. People have been watching and recording the weather for centuries. Weather observations have been recorded in many different shapes and forms. Modern weather observations most often come in structured data from weather stations on the ground, ships at sea, planes in the sky and satellites far above the Earth’s surface. These observations are vital to run and verify our ever-advancing weather and climate models. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, the modern observations do not extend far back in time. But if people have been watching the weather for centuries, they must have told someone, or maybe drawn it, painted it or written it down. Maybe we could access these sources to help us better understand the changing climate. And if this weather information was recorded in different ways then maybe it can tell us something about culture too. To find this information, we need someone who knows where to look. We need a climate detective.

Today, this is where George Adamson and his colleagues come in. George is a Geography lecturer at King’s College London, and is officially known as a Historical Climatologist. A historical climatologist investigates historical documents for clues about what climate and weather was like before, and also how society interacted with the climate. These documents include old newspaper articles, weather diaries, personal correspondence, government records and ship logs [1]. Such documents need to be carefully interpreted, and historical climatologists need to call upon their skills in in both history and climatology [1]. They normally apply their skills to a single region at a time, and usually a single parameter, like rainfall, temperature, and tropical cyclone occurrence for example.

In George Adamson’s study, he spent two years searching for stories about the monsoon onset in Bombay. George spent most of his time at the British Library, but also at archives in India and the USA [2]. He read thousands of pages and recorded everything relating to weather and climate. For example, the local newspaper in Bombay published weather observations and editorials about the monsoon and local climate. And George read it all. He ended up with over 3000 quotes ranging from a couple of words (and numbers) to substantial essays [3]. But how would he use all these quotes?

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