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Historical Canadian climate data is now only a few clicks away

Concordia researchers create a new publicly available portal that retrieves weather information from as far back as 1840
January 7, 2019
Ali Nazemi: “We wanted to make the accessibility better so that people can get to the data more easily.”
Ali Nazemi: “We wanted to make the accessibility better so that people can get to the data more easily.”

A set of new online tools will allow you to navigate through historical Canadian climate data from your hometown to the Arctic, from now to the year you were born — and as far back as the 1800s.

Ali Nazemi, an assistant professor in the Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering in Concordia's Gina Cody School of Engineering, together with undergraduate student Shakil Jiwa, developed three new online apps: the Canadian Climate Data Accessibility Portal (CCDAP), Past vs. Current Cimate Comparison in Canada (PCCC) and Evolution of Climate Observatories in Canada (ECO-CAN).

These apps make data from all of Environment and Climate Change Canada’s climate stations across the country searchable in a number of different ways.

Users can query for monthly, daily and even hourly time series of weather variables such as temperature, precipitation, relative humidity and wind, compare the annual characteristics of weather data and visualize the evolution of publicly available climate observation networks in Canada.

The primary goal, Nazemi says, was to make previously difficult-to-access Canadian weather data available to researchers and to provide a synoptic view of how climate observations are available across time and space.

Data from climate stations — the oldest of which, in Toronto, was established in 1840 — have up until now not been very easy for researchers to work with. Accessing daily data for one station over several years using the internet required downloading one file per year.

As an example, the Montreal-McGill climate station operated from 1871 to 1993, and could therefore require downloading 122 separate files. This is 1464 files, if hourly data are required.

“It was a very frustrating issue. This has been a gap for me and other researchers interested in Canadian climate,” says Nazemi, whose background is in hydrology and water resources engineering.

“We wanted to make the data accessibility better so that the science community can get to the data more easily. This inevitably results in a better understanding of variability and change in weather and climate over Canada and its role in socio-economic activities and livelihood across Canadian communities.”

From left: Ali Nazemi and Shakil Jiwa From left: Ali Nazemi and Shakil Jiwa: "Climate change is often viewed as a political issue."

Changing public perceptions of climate change

Beyond its usefulness for researchers, the newly developed apps will also make valuable resources for the public. Nazemi says they specifically created a search function that would allow someone to compare data from any Canadian station in a reference year with current condition, a simple comparison, which can demonstrate how climate has changed over time.

“The public perception of climate change is rather biased as it is viewed often as a political issue,” he says. “We wanted to inject some factual knowledge here and help change how Canadians perceive a critical societal issue like climate change.”

Nazemi and Jiwa conceived of the portal last summer. Jiwa joined Nazemi’s lab after taking his calculus course and led the developments of the three apps.

“Hearing about the field of hydrology and contemplating its future impacts really sparked my interest in pursuing a project like this,” Jiwa explains.

Nazemi asked Jiwa if it would be possible to develop a solution to a colleague’s struggles with downloading climate station data. In response, Jiwa developed a set of computer codes to pull data directly from the Environment and Climate Change Canada repository — meaning the portal will always be up to date.

Since then, the project has evolved tremendously.

“Nazemi inspired me in terms of what researchers would be looking for when they’re getting data, and we gradually added several new features and filters,” Jiwa says.

‘We need to have that data so we can plan for the future’

Having access to all publicly-available climate stations in Canada, Jiwa and Nazemi developed a new visualization for the evolution of the Canadian climate network over Canada.

As Nazemi says, “This visualization is like a time map. People can see in a particular year and/or location how many stations there were.”

Because of this feature, Nazemi and Jiwa learned that the number of active climate stations across both Canada and Quebec has declined from its peak in the late 1970s and early ’80s, to rest around the same level as in the ’60s.

“Canada is experiencing the effects of climate change at two times the rate of the rest of the world,” he says. “It’s indeed concerning that the extent of data is decreasing. We really need to have these data so we can extract crucial knowledge from the past that can help us to better plan for the future.”

Meanwhile for Jiwa, the work with Nazemi has made him reconsider what he wants to do when he completes his degree.

“I enjoyed this project because of its potential impact and the broadness of the field itself,” he says. “The more I get into it, the more research seems like a viable option for me when I graduate.”

And for Nazemi, this is just a start: “We are now working on new products, aiming at bridging the gaps between environmental data, researchers and the public.”

Check out the
Canadian Climate Data Accessibility Portal.

Find out more about Concordia’s Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering in the Gina Cody School of Engineering



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