Weather records began at the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford in 1760, and careful daily records of air temperature and barometric pressure have been kept there since November 1813, the longest continuous weather records anywhere in the United Kingdom and one of the oldest anywhere in Europe.

Modern records are held on computer archives within the University of Oxford, but all of the older documents in manuscript format were in increasing danger of being lost entirely owing to slow fading of the ink and age-related deterioration of the paper on which they were written. Such long and carefully kept records are the lifeblood of climate science and the study of climate change, yet research access to the original records had to remain tightly restricted owing to their condition and vulnerability to handling damage.

In late 2021, and with the agreement of the University of Oxford, a project funded by a grant from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science enabled us to issue a commercial tender to catalogue and scan the entire series at high resolution. A well thought-out response from Autodocs fully met our requirements as to budget, document safety and insurance, off-site scanning, cataloguing and file naming conventions, and delivery in multiple formats (high-resolutions TIFF for archiving, lower resolution JPEG for more manageable online file sizes). In addition, owing to coronavirus restrictions, the collection and delivery of the documents had to be arranged in a narrow out of term-time window to meet the university’s strict social distancing requirements.

Once the documents had been collected and transferred to Autodocs Glasgow facility in early January 2022, scanning began: operations were managed by weekly project management calls between Autodocs and ourselves via video link. The project went without a hitch, and the entire series – 147 volumes, amounting to over 32,000 scanned pages and close to 2 TB storage, was successfully transferred in regular uploads over an FTP link. This priceless climate archive has now been saved from further deterioration, and once cataloguing has been completed will be made openly available to climate researchers around the world. A citizen science project to transcribe and digitise the barometric pressure records, a thrice-daily series commencing in 1811, is the next step. Making these records widely and freely available in digital format will ultimately lead to a better understanding of past weather patterns and extremes, and from there to a clearer grasp of the likely range of impacts from climate change in the coming years, decades and centuries.

Professor Ed Hawkins and Dr Stephen Burt

University of Reading

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