UK weather records rewritten from Victorian rainfall data

Millions of archived rainfall records dating back almost 200 years which were digitized by volunteers during the pandemic have broken UK weather records and provided researchers with decades of additional data on weather patterns.

The University of Reading’s Rainfall Rescue project involved transcribing 130 years of handwritten records of rainfall – over five million individual sightings – across the UK and Ireland. The results revealed that the driest year on record in the UK is 1855, the third wettest month is December 1852 in Cumbria and November of the same year the wettest month on record for many parts of the south from England.

But the project produced more than new records. According to Catherine Ross, an archivist at the Met Office, it “broke the definition of an archive”.

Ms Ross said: “During its life cycle, a document moves from a record, used daily, to an archive where it is held as part of a memory – in our case, the national memory of the time. However, this project’s 66,000 once-inanimate number sheets have been given new life by placing data that can be interrogated and compared in the hands of scientists at the Met Office and around the world.

Around 16,000 volunteers contributed to the transcriptions, the results of which have now been made public in the Met Office’s official national record and extended it by 26 years to 1836. It also increased the amount of sighting data from before 1960 available to climatologists. and researchers by six.



Flood water is pictured in York last month after the River Ouse overran its banks. It is hoped that rainfall data from the 1800s, which has now been recorded and passed on to meteorological experts, will improve our understanding of extreme weather conditions and flood risk in the UK and Ireland.

Professor Ed Hawkins, project manager and climatologist at the University of Reading, said he was “blown away” by the efforts of volunteers who signed up for the projects during the UK’s first Covid-19 lockdown . “Thanks to the hard work of volunteers, we now have detailed accounts of the amount of rain that fell, dating back to 1836, as seen through the eyes of other dedicated volunteers from many generations ago,” said he declared.

“To put this into context, 1836 was the year Charles Darwin returned to the UK on the Beagle with Vice Admiral Robert Fitzroy, and a year before Queen Victoria ascended the throne. As well as being a fascinating glimpse into the past, the new data allows for a longer, more detailed picture of monthly rainfall variations, which will aid new scientific research two centuries later.

“It improves our understanding of extreme weather and flood risk in the UK and Ireland, and helps us better understand long-term trends towards the dramatic changes we are seeing today.” Paper records studied by Rainfall Rescue volunteers contained sightings between 1677 and 1960, based on rain gauges located in nearly every town and village in England and Wales.

The number of rain gauges providing data to the national record for the year 1862 has increased from 19 to over 700 due to digitization. A gauge included in the transcript was located next to Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top farm in the Lake District, where she wrote many of her most famous books.

Jacqui Huntley, a volunteer with the project based near Stanraer in Scotland, said she got involved with Rainfall Rescue because she is “a fanatic about the weather, especially rain”. She said: “And it rains a lot where I live in Scotland.

“Data is obviously valuable to scientists, but I also loved learning about the precipitation observers who have been so dedicated to measuring the weather day in and day out. It has been fun and a real team effort, from beginning to end.”

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