Asheville-based atmospheric scientists are calling on "citizen scientists" to help classify images such as this color-enhanced satellite image of Hurricane Rita, located in the Gulf of Mexico in Sept. 20, 2005 in an online project that can help, among other things, find out whether hurricanes are generally gaining in intensity. Image courtesy of CycloneCenter.org.

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“Citizen scientists” can help researchers find if storms are growing stronger

As thousands of people still work to rebuild after the recent and deadly Hurricane Sandy, a group of atmospheric scientists in Asheville are asking for the public’s help in understanding and classifying these sometimes devastating storms.

Scientists from UNC Asheville and the National Climatic Data Center have begun a web-based project called the Cyclone Center to enlist “citizen scientists” to help classify images of hurricanes and similar weather systems, broadly known as tropical cyclones.

The research team calibrated data from 25 satellites that have taken pictures of tropical cyclones worldwide since 1978. The team then uploaded the resulting 300,000 images to the site, where anyone can view and help categorize them.

The project aims to achieve consensus on estimates of the intensities of past storms, and the result could shed new light on how hurricane behavior has been changing over the past 30 years, said Chris Hennon, project co-leader and UNC Asheville associate professor of atmospheric sciences.

Without the help of volunteers, it would take “a team of ten experts over a decade to go over all these images,” he said.

The system went live in mid-September. Since then, more than 2,000 people worldwide – including people India, South Africa and Thailand – have begun taking part. As of Nov. 16, the project has clocked 100,000 classifications. Their goal is to reach 9 million.

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Agencies around the world – those equivalent to the National Hurricane Center in the U.S. – have provided estimates of cyclone tracks and intensities, but these reports can vary widely. For example, Hennon said, three studies examining cyclone strength in the West Pacific showed opposite results because they used data from different agencies.

This “conflicting scientific evidence” poses a “big problem if you are trying to make a definitive statement on how typhoons have been changing,” Hennon said. “So we think that we can help to resolve that problem.”

The project’s goal of providing a consistent assessment of hurricane intensities through time would give scientists another tool for determining whether storms of the recent past have been getting stronger, he said.

Hennon said while there is a lot of uncertainty, the current thinking among atmospheric scientists is that there will be fewer hurricanes in the Atlantic basin, but the ones that do form are likely to be stronger.

The project’s web-based system boils down a complex flowchart to a process in which users view color-enhanced images and answer questions based on colors, shapes and sizes to estimate wind speed.

Hennon said that the human eye performs pattern recognition better than computers do.

The intention was to make the system simple and straightforward so anyone — including his grandmother who “knows nothing about meteorology” — could use it, he said.

People shouldn’t worry about being wrong, he added.

“There’s really no right answer,” he said. “Even experts disagree on these questions.”

Hennon said that incorporating the public’s opinion in this type of research hasn’t been fully endorsed by other tropical meteorologists, but he said he believes the results will have value and will hopefully be accepted.

The on-line system will filter out “rogue” users because 30 independent volunteers will classify each image. Project scientists will then determine whether there is consensus and perform additional quality control.

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CycloneCenter.org will likely be on-line for as long as it takes to classify all the images – perhaps as long as one to two years. The project’s final results will be made publicly available one to two years after that, he said.

A benefit of the project is the potential increase in the public’s enthusiasm and awareness of science, Hennon said. In addition, lots of people looking at data can lead to unexpected discoveries and increased accuracy, he said.

Cyclone Center is a joint effort among UNC Asheville, the National Climatic Data Center, the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites and the Citizen Science Alliance.

Hennon said the project has no financial backing and is being run in the researchers’ spare time.

You can go to CycloneCenter.org and give it a “whirl” yourself or call (828) 232-5159 for more information.

Nancy Casey

Nancy Casey is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact her at nancywcasey@gmail.com.

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