Citizen Science

All Eyes on Cyclone Center: Crowdsourcing Climate Data

December 1, 2015

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Images identified as Eye scenes by citizen scientists. Image © Cyclone Center
Images identified as Eye scenes by citizen scientists. Image © Cyclone Center

Was Hurricane Patricia worse because of climate change or is it too early to link any single weather event to climate change?

You’ve heard conflicting stories. Experts argue over the impacts of climate change on specific storms, but one thing is clear: climate models agree that climate change will impact storm intensity in the future.

However, because researchers lack consistent data on the intensity of past cyclones (cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons are all the same weather phenomenon called by different names), it’s difficult to predict how much storms will change and which coasts will be most at risk in a warmer climate.

“Since tropical cyclones are rarely measured directly, agencies apply different observation sources and subjective judgments to arrive at a reasonable intensity,” explains Chris Hennon, chair and associate professor of atmospheric sciences and Cyclone Center scientist. “Thus, current records contain numerous contradictions and inconsistencies.”

Cyclone Center needs your help to make a more accurate, homogenous record of past tropical cyclones. 

Why Is Cyclone Center Important?

Cyclone Center, a project on the Zooniverse citizen science site, brings together satellite images of past storms to enlist citizen science help in determining wind speeds using a modified “Dvorak technique.”

“Dvorak technique” may make it sound complicated, but, long story short, by answering a few questions about satellite images, you can help scientists estimate storm intensity.

“Our ultimate goal is to produce a 32-year record of wind speed for every tropical cyclone that formed,” Hennon says. “The project will produce the most homogeneous record, which is attractive for researchers analyzing how tropical cyclones have been changing within the recent climate warming.”

Scientists will use that record to “hindcast” cyclone intensity. That means they will test theoretical climate models using past data to see how well each model predicts storm intensity.

“Our hindcasting experiment can then identify the most promising models going forward,” Hennon explains. “This will help to narrow the uncertainty in coastal risk.”

Uncertainty in current climate models inhibits not only our scientific understanding of how climate will change the planet, but also our ability to predict the strength and likely locations (over a broad scale) of future storms.

"Frances 2004 near Hispaniola" by Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons
“Frances 2004 near Hispaniola” by Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Though climate models will never predict the intensity or exact location of particular storms, they can provide a big picture of which coasts are statistically more likely to have storms land and a best estimate of expected storm strength.

Improved models give coastal communities a chance to prepare, which can save lives.

How Can You Get Involved? 

Go to Cyclone Center (sign up with Zooniverse if you would like to track your progress) and jump right into classifying.

There is a brief tutorial to get you started and a guide to help you if you run into trouble.

The questions are surprisingly simple, though I do recommend doing the tutorial before starting to answer. Who knew, for instance, that when classifying cyclones blue can be more “intense” than red!

Most importantly, remember, it’s okay to guess. Many people will evaluate the same data and your answers will be combined into a collective estimation of storm strength.

Cyclone Center volunteers have surprised the researchers with the accuracy and variety of their observations.

“Our citizen scientists have identified many interesting features in the images,” Hennon says, “such as twin cyclones, interesting eye shapes and unique cloud patterns that we will have to go back and investigate further.”

Try Cyclone Center! Learn about cyclones, answer thorny questions about climate change, and contribute to life saving storm prediction technology all in one day!

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa Feldkamp is the senior coordinator for new science audiences. She loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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