Geography Accessing and Visualizing Archived Weather and Climate Data
Lesley-Ann L. Dupigny-Giroux
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0240


The analysis of weather and climate information over varying temporal and spatial scales is critically important for understanding biogeochemical processes in the context of a changing climate. The instrumental record is relatively short, with observations beginning in the late 1800s in North America and earlier in Europe. Historical climatology refers to the use of documentary evidence (e.g., farmers’ diaries, newspaper entries, and whaling logs) to extend the instrumental record back through time. These observations are complemented by paleoclimatological records which include proxy data such as ice cores, lake and ocean sediments, and tree rings. The merging of all of these types of records typically involves data assimilation techniques, and the resulting time series of information are referred to as climate reconstructions and reanalyses. This article will highlight the various categories by which instrumental, historical, paleoclimate, and climate reconstructions can be accessed and downloaded, with special reference to in situ or point data versus interpolated or gridded datasets. Geospatial data access will also be presented, as will the commonly used analytical tools for data exploration. The article will conclude with Internet sites where weather and climate data and variables can be visualized, with a closing note on resources that are particularly appropriate for teaching/classroom instruction. Topics that will not be explored here include real-time weather data and forecasts; mesonet information; climate change data and modeling; metadata and data challenges such as inhomogeneities; and statistical and other numerical methods for data mining, analysis, or machine learning.

In Situ or Station-Based Data and Gridded Datasets

Daily and monthly data downloads of meteorological and climate observations can be accessed directly from websites or via file transfer protocols (FTP). The US NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) provide global and US individual station data in comma-delimited or tabular formats at their Data Access and Climate Data Online webpages. The methodology and ancillary information about these daily and monthly data downloads are provided in Menne, et al. 2018 and Vose, et al. 1992. Archived climate data can also be accessed via web services such as the Applied Climate Information System (ACIS) portal outlined in DeGaetano, et al. 2015, or in Geographic Information Science (GIS) formats as outlined in Daly, et al. 1994 and the NCEI’s GIS Portal. Finally, Fick and Hijmans 2017; MacDonald, et al. 2020; and the IRI/LDEO Climate and Society Map Room describe gridded climate datasets that are also available for downloading. Oswald and Dupigny-Giroux 2015 describes the underlying understandings about the use of these gridded datasets.

  • Daly, C., R. P. Neilson, and D. L. Phillips. “A Statistical-Topographic Model for Mapping Climatological Precipitation over Mountainous Terrain.” Journal of Applied Meteorology 33 (1994): 140–158.

    DOI: 10.1175/1520-0450(1994)033<0140:ASTMFM>2.0.CO;2Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Provided in Menne, et al. 2018 and Vose, et al. 1992. Archived climate data can also be accessed via web services such as the ACIS portal outlined in DeGaetano, et al. 2015, or in GIS formats as outlined in Daly, et al. 1994 and the NCEI GIS portal.

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  • DeGaetano, A. T., W. Noon, and K. L. Eggleston. “Efficient Access to Climate Products Using ACIS Web Services.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 96.2 (2015): 173–180.

    DOI: 10.1175/BAMS-D-13-00032.1Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Use of ACIS to provide “historical and recent in situ and gridded daily climate data (p. 173)” in ways better designed to serve decision-makers. ACIS Version 2.

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  • Fick, S. E., and R. J. Hijmans. “WorldClim 2: New 1km Spatial Resolution Climate Surfaces for Global Land Areas.” International Journal of Climatology 37.12 (2017): 4302–4315.

    DOI: 10.1002/joc.5086Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A database of gridded climate information available at varying spatial resolutions (from 30 seconds [2,400 feet] to 10 minutes [9.1 miles]) in GeoTIFF format. Time frames available include 1960 to the present, as well as CMIP6 downscaled projections of future climate. Data include common meteorological information, bioclimatic variables (“derived from the monthly temperature and rainfall values . . . represent annual trends . . . seasonality . . . and extreme or limiting environmental factors”), and Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) elevation data. WorldClim.

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  • IRI/LDEO Climate and Society Map Room.

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    A unique collection of mapped, gridded information compiled for selected countries and parsed by topic. Time frames of interest range from monthly, to seasonal and annual. The maps were derived using probabilistic percentile mapping and seasonal averaging, and include information from global meteorological entities such as the World Meteorological Organization and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

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  • MacDonald, H., D. W. McKenney, P. Papadopol, K. Lawrence, J. Pedlar, and M. F. Hutchinson. “North American Historical Monthly Spatial Climate Dataset, 1901–2016.” Scientific Data 7 (2020): 411.

    DOI: 10.1038/s41597-020-00737-2Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    In this database, the ANUSPLIN thin-plate smoothing spline methodology was applied to the NCEI Northam “j” dataset to create monthly spatial models of mean maximum and minimum temperature and total precipitation from 1901 to 2016 across North America. These gridded, modeled data are available at the 60 arc-second (2-km) spatial resolution in netCDF format online. These data are of primary interest to bioclimatic, agriculture, and forestry studies.

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  • Menne, M. J., C. N. Williams, B. E. Gleason, J. J. Rennie, and J. H. Lawrimore. “The Global Historical Climatology Network Monthly Temperature Dataset, Version 4.” Journal of Climate 31.24 (2018): 9835–9854.

    DOI: 10.1175/JCLI-D-18-0094.1Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Additional information available online. GHCNm v4 data are also available online. Version 4 of the temperature component of the Global Historical Climatology Network (GHCN)-monthly (GHCNm) dataset.

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  • NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. Climate Data Online.

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    Online portal to the archives of historical instrumental weather and climate data at the station level, many of which begin in 1895. Daily to annual measurements are available, as are the thirty-year climate normals (definition as specified by the World Meteorological Organization [WMO]). Search tools include station identifiers, a mapping tool, or by selected datasets of interest. Links to unique datasets (e.g., county-level storm data and past forecast charts/analyses) are also available.

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  • NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. Data Access.

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    Online portal to the archives of weather information; global station-level data; satellite, radar, and model output; marine data and paleoclimatological records.

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  • NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. GIS Portal.

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    Web services portal for accessing surface maps of in situ data, regional snowfall index information, radar estimates, thirty-year climate normal, and other time-related maps for the United States and the world.

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  • Oswald, E. M., and L.-A. Dupigny-Giroux. “On the Availability of High-Resolution Data for Near-Surface Climate Analysis in the Continental U.S.” Geography Compass 9.12 (2015): 617–636.

    DOI: 10.1111/gec3.12249Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Discussion of the underpinnings and statistics used in the creation of commonly used climate gridded datasets.

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  • PRISM (Parameter-Elevation Regressions on Independent Slopes Model).

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    Climatologically aided interpolation of daily and monthly time series 1895–1980; time series for individual stations; thirty-year climate normals; average monthly precipitation and temperature for selected regions and countries.

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  • Vose, R. S., R. L. Schmoyer, P. M. Steurer, et al. The Global Historical Climatology Network: Long Term Monthly Temperature, Precipitation, Sea Level Pressure, and Station Pressure Data. ORNL/CDIAC 53. Oak Ridge, TN: Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, 1992.

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    Original development of the Global Historical Climatology Network (GHCN)-monthly (GHCNm) dataset. 325 pp.

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Historical and Paleoclimate Records

In historical climatology, documentary evidence is used to reconstruct weather and climates of the past, as well as their impacts on society. Brönnimann, et al. 2020; Dupigny-Giroux, et al. 2007; and Slonosky and Sieber 2020 outline the painstaking nature of the interdisciplinary data rescue efforts involved in the creation of these databases. The Atmospheric Circulation Reconstructions over the Earth (ACRE) project and Slonosky and Sieber 2020 also rely on assistance by citizen scientists around the world. Wilkinson, et al. 2011 delves into the observations derived from marine documents such as ships’ logbooks, while Mock 2012 highlights the use of historical records in climate reconstructions. Paleoclimatology uses proxy records such as fossils, pollen, and sediments to extend the written, historical record. Such observations, from the Past Global Changes (PAGES) paleoscience association and available through the EUSTACE (Brugnara, et al. 2019) and the NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) Paleoclimatology portals, allow for the reconstructions of past climates as a way to place present-day observations and modeled output into perspective, as reviewed in Dowsett 2020 and Jones, et al. 2009.

Climate Reconstructions, Reanalysis Datasets, and Data Assimilation

Climate reconstructions can be performed via data assimilation methods or by using historical documents and paleoclimatological records. The latter include, but are not limited to pollen, sediment cores, ice cores, tree ring data, and other proxy records. Examples of data assimilation methods and analyses are provided at the NCAR Climate Data Guide and Weather Forecasts and Analyses websites. The NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information Climate Reconstruction portal provides access to a range of reconstructed variables, while Mock, et al. 2007 and White, et al. 2018 detail the use of historical records for the reconstruction of selected events or case studies. Luterbacher, et al. 2002 and Luterbacher, et al. 2004 respectively use reconstructed information to explore sea level pressure changes and trends in temperature characteristics over the course of centuries. In climate reanalyses, past observations are combined with model output in a data assimilation to produce consistent time series. Dee, et al. 2016 summarizes the most commonly used reanalysis datasets, which include the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) ERA5 product, the NASA MERRA dataset described by Gelaro, et al. 2017, and the NOAA-CIRES-DOE Twentieth Century Reanalysis (20CR) project outlined in Slivinski, et al. 2019.

Climate Data Records and Essential Climate Variables

Climate data records (CDRs) are time series of observations that must be homogeneous, consistent, and long enough to quantify climate variability and change. With the exception of snow cover/extent records, they begin in or around 1979. The National Research Council 2004 report provides foundational background on the generation of CDRs from satellites. Popp, et al. 2020 explores the consistency with which CDRs are generated across agencies and platforms. CDRs can be accessed from the NCAR Climate Data Guide—Climate Data Records Collection, the NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information Climate Data Records Program, and NOAA NESDIS. Essential Climate Variables (ECVs) are empirical geophysical variables used to characterize elements of the earth’s climate. They are identified by the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS), outlined in Bojinski, et al. 2014 and Essential Climate Variables, and can be accessed through the EUMETSAT Climate Data Records (the Essential Climate Variables Inventory) and the European Space Agency (ESA) Climate Office Essential Climate Variables website.

Online Climate Data Analysis Tools

A number of online resources allow users to either graph data or perform analyses using techniques that are vetted for use in the atmospheric and geosciences. Graphing sites include the SCIPP NOAA RISA Data Tools, with powerful and user-driven analyses being available at the Climate Reanalyzer, the IRI/LDEO Climate Data Library, the NOAA Climate Resilience Toolkit Climate Explorer described in Lipschultz, et al. 2020, and the KNMI Climate Explorer outlined in Trouet and Van Oldenborgh 2013. These are complemented by NASA Giovanni and the NASA GISS Panoply Data Viewer, which are appropriate for various K-16+ audiences. Vetted methodologies are presented in the NCAR Climate Data Guide and Timofeyeva, et al. 2015.

Weather and Climate Data Visualization

In creating visualizations of weather and climate data, a number of considerations need to be addressed in order to reach diverse audiences. These include the color schemes that are most appropriate for users with differing vision abilities as described by Light and Bartlein 2011 and Stauffer, et al. 2015. Some online visualizations allow users to browse by event type or dataset such as NASA Worldview, NASA EarthData Visualize Data, and the NOAAView Data Exploration Tool. Others, like the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, include model outputs of ocean and atmospheric properties. Another grouping of visualization tools, such as NASA WorldWind, allows users to perform their own coding. The animation of satellite imagery is a characteristic of the NASA Global Climate Change data, as well as the Google Earth Timelapse described by Gorelick, et al. 2017.

Learning Resources

A number of data portals and methods exist for using the visualization of land, ocean, and atmospheric data in support of formal classroom pedagogy. The Teach the Earth web portal, from the Science Education Resource Center (SERC) at Carleton College, houses a number of key educational initiatives for K-12 educators and tertiary faculty. Sample projects include but are not limited to the CLEAN collection of climate literacy and climate change resources, and the InTeGrate (Interdisciplinary Teaching about Earth for a Sustainable Future) platform with resources about paleoclimatology, natural hazards, and geosciences. At NOAA, K-12 educators can access content, data, maps, graphs, and lesson plans on topics ranging from recent events and a global climate dashboard, to resources for teaching about climate literacy and energy in the classroom. The NOAA Climate Resilience Toolkit Climate Explorer is a portal to climate data, visualizations, and climate projections on the ZIP code spatial scale. The ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World and Predicting Weather with Real-Time Data portals allow educators to use ArcGIS online geospatial technology directly in the classroom and access lesson planning resources in support of those data and techniques. Additional tutorials on the use of regional and global climate and climate change resources can be found at the US Geological Survey Regional and Global Climate site. Larger science-museum types of exhibits can be found at the NOAA Science on a Sphere site.

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