Researcher unboxing Canada’s climate history

Adela Talbot // Western News

History professor Alan MacEachern is compiling the country’s climate change history with access to a collection of documents from Environment Canada, on loan at Western’s Archives and Research Collections Centre.

A decade has passed since Alan MacEachern found himself in the basement of Environment Canada’s headquarters, amidst aisles upon aisles of historical weather reports.

There, the Western History professor found a treasure trove of previously untapped information that would offer insight on climate change in Canada. Hoping to unearth the documents and provide them a proper archival home, he arranged for the collection to be stored on a long-term loan at the university’s Archives and Research Collections Centre (ARCC). It is believed to be the first such archival arrangement between a federal agency and a university in Canada.

In 2014, the collection arrived at Western. Since, MacEachern has been compiling Canada’s climate history by transcribing previously ignored details in the reports.

“Environment Canada never did anything with the qualitative material; they always did things with the (climate data) numbers, but never with the words that these observers wrote down,” said MacEachern, Research Chair in the Department of History.

The collection consists of two parts.

The first part comprises all existing meteorological observations generated at thousands of weather stations across Canada, from the predecessor agencies of Environment Canada, from 1840-1960. That data alone amounted to roughly 1,000 boxes. Environment Canada has already extracted the data it wants from these observations to create the National Climate Data and Information Archive, but the forms contain lots of unexplored information of interest to environmental and historical researchers, MacEachern explained. These observations have never been studied. Much of the quantitative data – related to, for example, hail or wind – has not been extracted and has only been studied piecemeal.

The second part of the collection consists of 250 volumes of journals, observations, letter books, and correspondence related to Canadian meteorological and climatological history, and spanning the 1820s to the 1960s. Working with his students, MacEachern has been transcribing the qualitative observations noted alongside weather reports. They have gone through roughly 40 per cent of the collection so far, wading through an “astounding amount of information,” that will be useful to researchers at Western and beyond.

Climate change is the most pressing environmental issue of our time, MacEachern noted, and understanding climate change requires access to records of climate history. Having this collection on loan from Environment Canada ensures an important slice of our climate history is preserved and available for study.

“We are building a strong base of past observations – about birds, sightings of the first bird of the season, when and where plants are blooming, when ice is breaking up in the harbour. Things like that are pretty directly related to climate change and this shows how Canadians of the past understood nature, and what they thought was worth remarking on,” he explained.

“For instance, my students and I expected to come across references to Groundhog Day on Feb. 2. We found zero except for one reference to a bear – ‘I wonder if the bear saw its shadow today.’ That was in 1907, and that got me digging deeper. Earlier, in the 20th Century, we didn’t have Groundhog Day; we basically had ‘Bear Day.’ That was Canadians’ animal of choice for shadows. There’s just a lot of things you can tease out from what people observed about nature and how that changed over time.”

Within the documents MacEachern and his students are transcribing are also references to sightings of motorized vehicles, which adds another layer to our understanding of seasonal and climate change over time, he added.

“The ultimate goal would be to put together a massive database of these transcriptions, to do some research myself, but also to open it up for other people to do some research, whether they are into owls, lilacs, or what the weather was like in their hometown, or on their birthday, to be able to do that kind of research at a macro or micro scale,” MacEachern continued.

Since its arrival at Western, the collection has garnered more interest from Environment Canada, spurring on a desire and funding from the agency to digitize the documents. The government is also building a climate change portal and MacEachern hopes this collection will be one of its founding projects.

“What’s bafflingly weird is, at a certain point, because I knew they had had this material for so long but never used the qualitative stuff, I thought somewhere along the line, they stopped asking for qualitative data (to be recorded). So, I asked (Environment Canada) if they stopped, and they said no,” he continued.

“Even though the material now is digital, they still keep numbers and qualitative observations. They sent me something like 1.6 million observations from the 21st Century. That means I can do a lot more comparison of the early 1880s to material from today.”