Logbooks reveal hidden history of Yukon weather

The Yukon Research Centre has digitized 50 years of historical weather data and put it online for everyone to see. Somewhere in the Yukon Archives labyrinth sat logbooks from the White Pass and Yukon Route from 1902-1957.

The Yukon Research Centre has digitized 50 years of historical weather data and put it online for everyone to see.

Somewhere in the Yukon Archives labyrinth sat logbooks from the White Pass and Yukon Route from 1902-1957. Inside them was a wealth of weather data hidden, until now, from the eyes of climate scientists in the Yukon and beyond.

The books are scrawled in sloping, old-fashioned handwriting. They include hard data, such as temperature maximums and minimums, as well as anecdotal notes like “Dawson River closed,” and “Snowed all day today.”

“It’s kind of like reading an old scrapbook,” said Rick Steele, the Yukon Research Centre’s co-ordinator for technology innovation. “And you’ll see, ‘First sighting of the bluebirds today,’ ‘First boat arrived today.’ All these things that aren’t hard data, the way the temperature is, but they might be of interest to other researchers in the environmental field.”

The data were collected at 30 points along the railway and river highway system.

It took two students two years, working about three hours per day, (“because after that your brain gets kind of cooked”) to compile almost 80,000 data points into spreadsheets, said Steele.

Until now, the only consistent weather data for the Yukon dating back to 1902 has been from Dawson, he said.

“When (researchers) say, ‘this is what happened over 100 years,’ their point of reference is one data point: Dawson. And Dawson is a great town, but it hardly represents the whole climate regime of the Yukon.”

Aside from these logbooks, most of the weather reporting was really only established in the 1970s, said Steele.

The hope is that researchers will take this data and come up with some conclusions about how the Yukon climate has changed over the years, he said.

“I’ve lived here all my life. You don’t have to convince me that the climate is changing, right? But what we don’t’ know is actually what it’s changing from. We all have anecdotal memories of what things were like in the Yukon 50 years ago, but we don’t have any numbers. This is the closest we’re going to get to having a real kind of number portrait of what the climatic regime of the Yukon was 50 years ago. So that’s a big deal.”

The data is far from perfect.

“We don’t know the precise locations of most of these weather stations,” said Steele. “Were they up a hill, were they down by the river? Were they on the north side of the hill, the south side of a hill? Was the thermometer out in the sunlight, so were you getting direct sunlight readings, or were they in the shade? We have no way of knowing that.”

But anomalies in the data should be smoothed out by the volume of what is available, said Steele.

“You may have some bad data at points in there, you may have a careless guy, some guy in a station with a drinking problem wasn’t doing it quite right, but if you have a 50-year span, that’s probably going to normalize it. You’re going to get some kind of normalcy out of that.”

Right now, the databank’s website contains some archival photos, background information, and a Google map.

The map shows the 30 locations where weather data had been collected. For each, spreadsheets can be downloaded to show all the collected data.

The next step will be to really compile all of the information into a database, said Steele.

Eventually, you should be able to go into the data and say, “Give me Dawson, Mayo and Stewart Crossing and give me the max temperature each day there from 1942 to 1957,” and the database would generate a report, he said.

At this point, you would have to compile all of that yourself.

Steele would also like to see images of the original log books available online. The anecdotal reports are not available currently in the spreadsheets.

Students did go through the books and take digital photographs of every page, and if anyone would like to see those, Steele would be happy to send them a link to a Dropbox folder where they can be downloaded, he said.

He hopes that the data, now that it is available, will take on a bit of a life of its own

Improving the database could be “crowd-sourced” to researchers using it for their own purposes, he said.

“I’ve been to a lot of conferences. Every time I talk about this data set, I get snowed with business cards. I know there’s a lot of interest out there.”

Already, the Yukon College statistics teacher has asked to use the data in his class, to have the students analyze it and try to come up with patterns, said Steele.

“We want data to be open. We want people to have access to this stuff. We don’t know who’s going to have the use for it.”

The data is available at yukonresearch.yukoncollege.yk.ca.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at

jronson@yukon-news.com

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