by Elizabeth Coughlin
The devastation and loss following cyclones, hurricanes, and typhoons is well documented. Pictures, news articles, and interviews combine with scientific investigation to create an idea of a storm’s effect. This bleak reality may seem unavoidable, but knowing what damage one of these natural disasters could bring before it’s arrived might be in the future. That’s because it’s one of the goals of the Cyclone Center project located on the crowdsourcing web portal called Zooniverse. The project aims to determine a more consistent- and thus, better- estimate of cyclone winds.
What is a cyclone anyway? Interestingly enough, the term ‘cyclone’ is- in this context- used to refer to anything from a hurricane to a typhoon (obviously including actual cyclones as well). Cyclone Center does not distinguish between these terms, and does not ask participants to categorize images in this manner. In this general sense, a cyclone is a circular air movement that start off over the warm ocean waters near the equator. Most have heavy rains and create strong winds that can pick up and throw very heavy objects. Some stay over the water, but others pass over land and can cause massive destruction with the accompanying flooding and strong winds.
Launched in September 2012, Cyclone Center was created to solve the inconsistency and contradiction among existing research regarding the wind speeds of tropical cyclone storms. Without clearly organized data available, it has been difficult to understand how climate change has affected the nature and strength of cyclones. Estimation of future trends has also been problematic, since any estimation has to be inexact in order to account for the lack of obvious trendlines. To solve this problem, Cyclone Center was created to make a new database of information. Since only a very small fraction of cyclones are measured directly by specially designed aircraft, Cyclone Center uses over 300,000 images taken from infrared sensors on weather satellites of tropical cyclones since 1978. These sensors provide an estimate of the temperature at the tops of clouds, which is represented with different colors in the images. Cloud top temperatures are very important because they give us an idea of the height of the clouds. Since temperature decreases with height, cold clouds are taller than warm clouds. The height of clouds is important since taller clouds are responsible for the heavy rain and thunderstorms of tropical cyclones.
What do we want to know about these cyclones? The project has decided not to bother asking for numerical data. What is asked instead, however, are four important questions about qualitative data: Where is the center of the storm system? What type of cloud pattern best describes it? How organized or intense is the cloud pattern? Does the system look stronger or weaker than 24 hours ago? This series of questi
ons is the result of a simplification of the Dvorak Technique, a 10-step identification method developed by Vernon Dvorak- an American meteorologist- between 1969 and 1984. Besides simplifying the Dvorak Technique, researchers working with the Cyclone Center also created a ‘Field Guide’ with example images and characteristics in order to aid identification.
Cyclone Center’s use of imagery is not especially innovative. Tropical cyclones do generally develop over remote areas of the ocean, where there are few- if any- direct observations of them. Since these storms are not directly measured, scientists have to use images of them to estimate the wind speed. However, the problems in other research projects lie in how the method of estimation is used. Even though different regions are under observation by different agencies, and it is known that each region’s storms behave differently, the algorithm used around the world is basically the same. As such, data tends to lean toward being nonsensical. In an instance noted by one of the project’s developers, some studies (in published literature) say that typhoon activity is increasing in the western Pacific Ocean, yet others say it is decreasing. Another challenge climate scientists face is from ‘best track data,’ a post-season analysis of each storm’s position and intensity in a region. Over time, with more data available, historical best track data has become too dissimilar with data created using more modern technology. Additionally, the best track data varies between the different agencies who put them together, in part due to access to different data and routine procedures. As such, differences occur far too frequently to accurately compare data.
Cyclone Center aims to create a new, unbiased database based around qualitative data. However, the scientists cannot analyze the over 300,000 images alone. So, they’ve turned to Zooniverse for outside help. This is what citizen science excels at– using thousands of participants to work through a formidably large dataset. Plus, since non-expert responses as a group are almost always just as good as a professional’s in cases such as this, the data can be used directly in scientific papers. As a result of Cyclone Center, scientists will have a massive new data set that has been classified and sub-categorized in order to aid a variety of studies and to be used to aid in prediction of future trends.
It’s vitally important that the strength of storms are accurately predicted. Societal benefits include more advanced (and more accurate) warnings that can give valuable time for evacuations and the protecting of life and property. There are also scientific benefits of this new information- such as helping answer if storms are getting stronger with climate change- but as a citizen science participant, the main benefit is knowing that every contribution can help save lives and minimize the effect of natural disasters like hurricanes. Participants in this project are helping create a safer future for those who have been or will be affected by storms. Identifying even one image makes a positive impact. To start contributing to this amazing project, visit their website (www.cyclonecenter.org), or learn more on their blog (http://blog.cyclonecenter.org/).