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#RainMustFall #CitizenScienceMustRise

By Joh Henschel and Margaret Koopman, SAEON
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Unperturbed by whatever came their way, except if it was a prolonged absence of rain, five generations of farmers diligently and keenly observed every drop of rain and meticulously jotted it down in the tome: “Wellwood Rain Records from 1874- “.

The latest entry in the book just scanned by SAEON, 14th June 2016, and since continued, may today not sound so spectacular except when you realise its magnitude of being the 51,709th day in an unbroken record starting 143 years ago on 19th November 1874.


An example of citizen science data analyses contained in the book Wellwood Rain Records from 1874-


The book that kept it all: details of 8 020 rainfall events and more between two covers (Picture: Joh Henschel)

Scanning across 408 pages, one finds not only quantitative data, but also entries describing the characteristics and timing of every precipitation event - thundershowers, gentle rain, drizzle, fog, sleet, snow, hail or storm - interspersed with all kinds of annotations. These remarks, summaries, cross-cutting and often quite complex analyses, highlighting high and low records of rainfall, and drawing practical conclusions, make this book exciting reading.

There is much more analytical value that others can derive from these records, now that they have been uploaded by SAEON and will be made available in the near future.

Good farmers can also be good citizen scientists

Five generations of Rubidges demonstrate that good farmers can also be good citizen scientists. They are not alone. Their neighbours, the Murray family, on the Eastern Cape farm Bloemhof near Graaff Reinet, have a record that almost matches the extent and detailed information content of long-term records, with a record stretching from 1898 to the present.

These records were kept, not because such record-keeping is legislated (which it is not), nor because anybody other than themselves expected it. To boot, they have not only kept records, but they have kept them and are more than willing to share them.


The figures that show it all – rainfall patterns in perspective (Picture: Joh Henschel)

Citizen science – a major opportunity for science

To scientists, these long strings of daily rainfall records are not just numbers to be crunched - which will, of course, take place - they are also an invaluable accumulation of evolving ongoing interpretations, sterling demonstrations of how citizen scientists themselves apply the knowledge they are gaining from their own investigations.


The gauge and measuring cylinder that collected it all: according to current farmer Robert Rubidge (pictured), this very funnel has been used from 1874 until today (Picture: Joh Henschel)

And these two farming families are not alone; there are many more that have provided SAEON with data, and many others that could still do so to enable SAEON to analyse long-term spatial variability of rainfall events across a close network of recording stations, as close as neighbouring farms, or the various stock posts within farms. Long-term analyses of spatial variability, something that farmers do informally all the time, are used to compare their farm with the neighbour’s, or one stock-post with the other.

With the help of such records, comparison across many decades allows us to establish how not only the quantity, but also the nature of precipitation is changing with global change. Recent decades of such records represent invaluable opportunities for groundtruthing remote sensing data.

Thus, farmers recording the best possible information about what transpires on their own land contribute effectively to international science - citizen science par excellence!

Invaluable tool

Citizen science not only concerns rainfall and not only farmers; it is an invaluable tool available to every South African citizen and beyond, to make their own lives more manageable and interesting. By sharing records to contribute to a far greater cause and increasing our knowledge across-board, such records enhance our ability to observe large-scale long-term processes in ways that are not otherwise possible.

Professional scientists are too few and far between - and individually too short-lived - over an average human lifespan, to be able to personally collect masses of data spanning decades to aeons, and regions to continents. The collective efforts of many citizens, who have diligently and reliably recorded climatic events, sightings of different plant and animal species, the birds and the bees, the flowering of shrubs or their demise, are still largely untapped.

These records, all carefully geo- and date-time referenced and verifiable where applicable, amount to a major opportunity for science.


The clouds that brought it all: seen from the top of the Compassberg (Picture: Joh Henschel)


The field assistant awed by it all: Omphile Khutsoane finished helping install a cumulative rain gauge in a thunderstorm up the Compassberg (Picture: Joh Henschel)

The synergistic interdependence between professional scientists and citizen scientists is becoming increasingly important, and it is up to both to recognise and make the best of these mutual opportunities. Involvement of citizen scientists renders science more encompassing, as it is a two-way discussion concerning data, interpretation and understanding and application at various levels.

SAEON is not alone in recognising the high value of citizen science. There are several other institutions that do so - academic, government or NGO.

Encouraging more farmers to share their records

To meet its mandate of detecting, understanding and advising the citizens of South Africa concerning environmental change, SAEON relies strongly on the relationship between professional and citizen scientists.

For the particular case of daily rainfall records, SAEON requests farmers in the Camdeboo and Inxuba Yethemba municipalities to share data so as to allow analyses of spatial dynamics across altitudinal gradients in that area. SAEON is furthermore keen to obtain similar data from farmers across South Africa.

While we pin our hopes to #RainMustFall, and not to rainfall dropping, we celebrate that many citizen scientists collect and share such quality records and interpretations. We also encourage more citizen scientists to come forth with their existing or newly initiated records, not only of rainfall, but of all matters concerning the environment.


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