Geography: Maynooth geography students rescue 1400 years of Irish rainfall data

Rainfall data sample
Tuesday, January 10, 2017 - 10:30

Maynooth geography students rescue 1400 years of Irish rainfall data

In an ambitious research led teaching experiment, undergraduate students at Maynooth University Department of Geography have been collaborating with Met Éireann to rescue historic rainfall data. As part of their continuous assessment 154 third year students in the GY313 Climate Change class successfully transcribed 1.2 million days of rainfall and associated metadata across the island for the period 1860-1939. This data was previously only held in paper copy in archives at Met Éireann and unavailable to science and scrutiny. The success of the students makes a major contribution to understanding the historic climate variability of Ireland, a sentinel location on the western margins of Europe. The derived dataset will be published and made available for researchers and can be used to better understand natural and human driven changes in Irish rainfall.

The assignment, devised by Dr. Conor Murphy and colleagues (Dr. Catriona Duffy, Dr. Ciaran Broderick and Ciara Ryan) at the Irish Climate Analysis and Research UnitS (ICARUS) provided students with images of annual rainfall sheets (see image) together with templates used by Met Éireann in transcribing the data. Using video and text supports, together with an online discussion forum for additional support, students double keyed more than 1400 station years of rainfall data. The assessment process was linked to creating a correct data series whereby differences in double keyed sheets were identified and a master (correct) series created by teaching staff. In tandem with the data component of the assessment students were also required to write a critical reflection on the importance of historical climatology. Three hundred station years of data previously transcribed by Met Éireann was used as a benchmark against which students showed that they were as accurate as the professionals in the process. Among the data transcribed is a daily rainfall series for Straffan Co. Kildare that extends back to 1883. Given its local relevance, this series will be integrated into teaching in other undergraduate and postgraduate modules.

Speaking on the success of the project Dr. Conor Murphy stated that “this is a remarkable achievement by the students who have created a dataset that for some stations doubles the temporal extent of data available and provides a unique and valuable resource. This is the first time that a data rescue activity of such magnitude has been successfully completed by students and integrated into course assessment."  

Dr. Ciaran Broderick highlighted that “given the huge volumes of data currently held in Met Éireann and other meteorological organisations there is huge potential to scale this up to other Universities so that valuable data can be unlocked to further insights into changes in climate and associated processes.”

Dr. Catriona Duffy, a postdoctoral researcher with ICARUS, said that “this assignment is unique in that it actually integrates students into research and gives them first-hand experience of the process. We have been delighted with student feedback on learning outcomes and they seem to have been highly motivated by the knowledge that they were contributing to the science and making a valuable contribution beyond the classroom”.

Ciara Ryan, a Maynooth University Hume Scholar who will be working with the derived dataset as part of her PhD stated that “this dataset will now be quality assured and used to develop a long term network of daily rainfall stations across the island and will underpin work on past weather extremes, climate change signals and can even be used to reconstruct river flows to explore historical floods and droughts in more detail.”

Dr. Murphy and his colleagues now plan to write up the assignment and associated methodology as a paper so that others can replicate its success. They will also be writing a paper describing the data and metadata and will be giving all 154 students authorship on that.