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Historic WA early settler weather journals set to help understand climate change

Wednesday April 21, 2021 - 00:23 EST

Weather journals kept by Australia's early settlers, detailing daily observations decades before official record keeping began, are expected to shed light on weather variability in one of the world?s climate change hotspots.

The handwritten journals, dating back to 1830, provide a detailed picture of weather events in Perth.

It is likely to be the oldest near-continuous record of daily weather observations in the southern hemisphere, made complete by a recent discovery of journal entries between 1880 and 1900.

Work has now started on digitising the data from the most recently discovered journals, with Climate History Australia launching a citizen science project to secure help transcribing 60,000 journal entries.

Historical climatologist Linden Ashcroft, who is a part of the Climate History Australia project, said the faded black ink notes ? written in neat cursive handwriting ? were more than just "beautiful" pieces of history telling the story of people living close to two centuries ago.

They also provided insight into contemporary weather patterns and how unusual they were.

"You know that climate in Australia is dominated by swings between drought and flood," she said.

"While 120 years of [Bureau of Meteorology records] sounds like a really long time, in terms of statistics it doesn't really give us a huge number of drought or flooding periods to work with."

Perth a climate change 'hotspot'

The effects of climate change on Perth make the journals particularly significant, with the city located in a region recognised by some climatologists as having been hit by climate change harder than almost anywhere on earth.

Climate scientist Joelle Gergis, who is also working on the project with Climate History Australia, said since 1970 rainfall in the region had decreased by 28 per cent.

"This record from Perth is really globally significant because it provides us with an opportunity to find out what the pre-industrial climate was like in Australia before we started to alter the chemistry of the atmosphere and the ocean with the burning of fossil fuels," she said.

Observations 'light up' the state

Dr Ashcroft said the Perth observations would allow them to "piece the puzzle" together, not just in WA but potentially further afield.

"If you imagine a map of observations in the past, where you don't have observations it's really dark," she said. 

"Having observations of Perth can really light up the whole of Western Australia and the Indian Ocean and allow us to understand what's going on in the whole southern hemisphere which to me is really exciting."

Early weather data ? some also dating back to 1830s ? had also been gathered from Cape Town in South Africa, along with New Zealand and South America, but a lot of it was patchy.

It is not known specifically who authored the historic weather journals, but Dr Ashcroft believed it was likely they were done by a professional.

She said the journals from 1830 to 1875 were generally from the Perth survey office , and the 1880-1900 entries from the Botanical Gardens.

It is hoped the digitisation work being done through the citizen science project will finished in the coming months, allowing researchers to thoroughly analyse the data.


© ABC 2021

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