Cyclone Center: Armchair Storm Chasing with Scientific Purpose

Cyclone Center: Armchair Storm Chasing with Scientific Purpose

Citizen scientists are asked questions about image pairs like this in the Cyclone Center. (There's a tutorial to help along the way.)
Credit: Cyclone Center

Participate in hurricane research without getting wet! At the Cyclone Center, you evaluate images of tropical storms that occurred over the past 30 years.

The images you classify come from infrared sensors on weather satellites. They show temperature of the cloud tops. The web site guides you through the process of estimating wind speeds using the cloud patterns and temperatures in the image.

I talked with meteorologist Dr. Carl Schrek, one of the project developers, who told me that it’s okay to make your best guess. Some storms are easy to classify and others are not. That’s why Cyclone Center will have multiple people evaluate each image, said Carl.

Cyclone Center hopes to have 15 people classify each image. There are about 300,000 images. That means the project aims for nearly 5 million storm classifications. The project started in late September 2012 and so far 4000 volunteer citizen scientists have made 200,000 storm classifications.

And, now, I’m one of them!

I tried it. After logging in, I chose to classify a storm named Abigail. It looked a little messy, not the classic hurricane shape I was expecting. The information at the right helped me answer the questions I was given about Abigail’s shape and size. Did I do it right? Well, I’m not sure. I’m grateful that they are getting many people to evaluate Abigail. Having multiple people assess each satellite image, we can get a sense of whether there is agreement.

According to the project web site: “We hope that the application of thousands of classifiers will help resolve the differences in the global tropical cyclone record and improve our understanding of how the nature of these storms may have changed through time.”

Cyclone Center is a Zooniverse project, the same group of citizen scientists who classify galaxies (Galaxy Zoo), interpret historic weather (Old Weather) and understand whale songs (Whale FM) online. These are projects in which scientists have so much data that they need help looking through it so that we can all better understand the world. Cyclone Center’s scientific collaborators include the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites at North Carolina State University (CICS-NC), NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center and the University of North Carolina at Ashville.