Information Integrity and the Importance of Metadata

By MWOBS Staff

Climatology, or climate science, is the study of Earth’s climate by “recording and analyzing weather patterns throughout the world and understanding the atmospheric conditions that cause them” (National Geographic Society, 2023). Climatological records typically refer to periods of 30 years; new climate averages are calculated every three decades based on these records. It is here that the accurate documentation and dissemination of data is an integral piece of not only maintaining a clear picture of the past, but also better understanding implications for the future (for instance, when looking at mitigating climate change risk).

Mount Washington Observatory (MWOBS) maintains a 90+ year dataset, accounting for three 30-year climatological cycles of weather patterns in high altitude, complex terrain. As the only active meteorological station above 2,300 feet in mountainous New England, this means many entities, both regionally and nationally, rely on this data, including local businesses, outdoor recreation enthusiasts, mountain rescue teams, climatologists, data scientists, and the National Weather Service, to name a few. In a 2021 study measuring climate trends in the White Mountains, climate scientists from the Appalachian Mountain Club refer to MWOBS’ dataset as “one of the longest high-quality sets in the world” (Murray, 2021).

To maintain this data is no easy feat. Since its 1932 founding, MWOBS is home to weather observers year-round who track the weather every hour to ensure consistency, accuracy, and precision. This data goes through a comprehensive process: as Weather Observer Alex Branton describes, “We’re always doing routine instrument checks to make sure they’re operating correctly, and then looking at the previous day’s data, checking every form and digital database, to make sure everything is consistent.”

Specifically, some of this monitoring process is automated, but for the most part, it is a key part of the weather observer’s role on a nightly, weekly and monthly basis. For a more detailed look, the data collection process is detailed excellently in the video below.

Jay Broccolo, Director of Weather Operations, has been with the Observatory for over five years and has a keen understanding of the importance of day-to-day recordkeeping and the implications it has for larger datasets, or metadata, in determining weather and climatological trends in complex terrain:

“The Mount Washington Observatory hosts a treasure trove of information that plays a pivotal role in understanding the intricacies of climate dynamics in the White Mountains and similar high-terrain regions,” Broccolo says. “It’s a vital tool for researchers, policymakers, and anyone interested in the health and future of our planet’s mountainous areas.” This information is applied in a number of ways, as Broccolo outlines:

Long-Term Climate Trends: Our dataset, which spans nine decades, provides invaluable insights into long-term climate trends. This is particularly important in high-terrain areas like the White Mountains, where changes in climate patterns can have profound impacts on ecosystems, weather patterns, and even local economies. Below, climate charts found in the Observatory’s Extreme Mount Washington Museum, which were created in collaboration with the Appalachian Mountain Club and Hubbard Brook Research Foundation, highlight some of these trends. Learn more here.

Climate charts created in collaboration with the Appalachian Mountain Club and Hubbard Brook Research Foundation.

Extreme Weather Monitoring: Mount Washington is renowned for its extreme weather conditions. By continuously monitoring and recording these conditions, we can better understand the dynamics of mountain weather systems. This knowledge is essential not just for local forecasting but also for improving broader meteorological models.

Ecosystem Health: High-terrain areas are home to unique ecosystems. Our data helps in understanding how changing climate conditions affect flora and fauna, especially those species that are adapted to specific mountain environments.

Climate Change Impact Analysis: Mountains are among the first places where the impacts of climate change become evident. By analyzing our dataset, researchers can detect early signs of climate change, such as shifting temperature patterns, changes in snowfall and melting rates, and altered wind patterns.

Educational and Research Value: Our dataset serves as a resource for educators and researchers. It provides real-world data for studying meteorology, climatology, environmental science, and related fields.

Guidance for Policy and Conservation Efforts: The insights derived from our dataset can inform policy decisions and conservation efforts. Understanding how climate is changing in high-terrain areas is critical for developing strategies to protect these sensitive environments.

The long-term dataset is crucial for these efforts and is made possible by its dissemination of metadata, or more plainly, data about data, making it easier to understand, manage, and use the information effectively, allowing for accessibility and versatility across many use cases.

From a digital perspective, it allows for the use of vast amounts of data stored in various fields. In research and big data, this is indispensable for data discovery, linking different datasets, and ensuring that data can be reused and understood by other researchers and organizations.

Areas where metadata is applied include organization/accessibility (data retrieval), interpretation/understanding of content, management (ensuring consistency in complex systems), archiving/preservation, and perhaps most importantly, resource integration and sharing.

The aggregation of observations recorded hourly on the summit create this vast network of accessible data, and one could not exist without the other. By better understanding this relationship, we can better appreciate the importance of the hourly observations and daily checks that form an integral resource for understanding weather and create opportunities to build on datasets for the future.

For Broccolo and his research team, that means upgrading and expanding the database to best meet modern standards and ensure data integrity. “Our Director of Technology, Keith Garrett, is diligently working to upgrade and update our servers and databases to meet current standards as we expand our mesonet,” Broccolo explains.

The expansion, referring to MWOBS’ network of remote stations in the White Mountains, “will include 17 new strategically placed remote stations that will include the full suite of weather instruments plus some ecological monitoring instruments. We will also be adding weather instruments to our current weather stations that will enable our organization to capture more atmospheric variables at our unmanned weather stations, which will increase the resolution of our data.”

During these upgrades, metadata and data governance methods and protocols are being adjusted to utilize current best practices recommended by the American Association of State Climatologists Mesonet Steering committee, an overview of which can be found here.

Ultimately, these upgrades will allow for higher quality outputs and ensure best practices in meteorological research, climate science, atmospheric science, and environmental monitoring, as well as ensure long-term compatibility going forward.

With data quality and information sharing at the forefront of operational goals, the team aims to not only maintain MWOBS’ position as a highly trusted source of meteorological mountain data, but to also continue the expansion of that data in the name of collaboration and weather discovery to better understand our planet.

Pictured is mesonet station at 5300’ on Mount Washington Auto Road.

Mount Washington Observatory is a nonprofit research and educational institution. Our work in recreation and safety relies on your financial support. If you value our mission, please consider supporting the Observatory today.

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