Climate Data and Topology

Project Summary

Graduate student: Hamza Ghadyali          

Faculty instructor: Dr. Paul Bendich

Course: MATH 412 – Topology with Applications

Themes and Categories
Paul Bendich

Graduate student: Hamza Ghadyali          

Faculty instructor: Dr. Paul Bendich

Course: MATH 412 – Topology with Applications

Highlights of Data Expedition

  • Students explored daily observations of local climate data spanning the past 35 years.
  • Topological Data Analysis, or TDA for short, provides cutting-edge tools for studying the geometry of data in arbitrarily high dimensions.
  • Using TDA tools, students discovered intrinsic dynamical features of the data and learned how to quantify periodic phenomenon in a time-series. 
  • Since nature invariably produces noisy data which rarely has exact periodicity, students also considered the theoretical basis of almost-periodicity and even invented and tested new mathematical definitions of almost-periodic functions. 


The dataset we used for this data expedition comes from the Global Historical Climatology Network.

“GHCN (Global Historical Climatology Network)-Daily is an integrated database of daily climate summaries from land surface stations across the globe.” Source:

We focused on the  daily maximum and minimum temperatures from January 1, 1980, to April 1, 2015, collected from RDU International Airport. 

Through a guided series of exercises designed to be performed in Matlab, students explore these time-series, initially by direct visualization and basic statistical techniques. Then students are guided through a special sliding-window construction which transforms a time-series into a high-dimensional geometric curve. These high-dimensional curves can be visualized by projecting down to lower dimensions as in the figure below (Figure 1), however, our focus here was to use persistent homology to directly study the high-dimensional embedding. 

The shape of these curves has meaningful information but how one describes the “shape” of data depends on which scale the data is being considered. However, choosing the appropriate scale is rarely an obvious choice.  Persistent homology overcomes this obstacle by allowing us to quantitatively study geometric features of the data across multiple-scales. Through this data expedition, students are introduced to numerically computing persistent homology using the rips collapse algorithm and interpreting the results. 

In the specific context of sliding-window constructions, 1-dimensional persistent homology can reveal the nature of periodic structure in the original data. I created a special technique to study how these high-dimensional sliding-window curves form loops in order to quantify the periodicity.  Students are guided through this construction and learn how to visualize and interpret this information.

Climate data is extremely complex (as anyone who has suffered from a bad weather prediction can attest) and numerous variables play a role in determining our daily weather and temperatures. This complexity coupled with imperfections of measuring devices results in very noisy data. This causes the annual seasonal periodicity to be far from exact. To this end, I have students explore existing theoretical notions of almost-periodicity and test it on the data. They find that some existing definitions are also inadequate in this context. Hence I challenged them to invent new mathematics by proposing and testing their own definition. These students rose to the challenge and suggested a number of creative definitions. 

While autocorrelation and spectral methods based on Fourier analysis are often used to explore periodicity,  the construction here provides an alternative paradigm to quantify periodic structure in almost-periodic signals using tools from topological data analysis.

Related Projects

KC and Patrick led two hands-on data workshops for ENVIRON 335: Drones in Marine Biology, Ecology, and Conservation. These labs were intended to introduce students to examples of how drones are currently being used as a remote sensing tool to monitor marine megafauna and their environments, and how machine learning can be used to efficiently analyze remote sensing datasets. The first lab specifically focused on how drones are being used to collect aerial images of whales to measure changes in body condition to help monitor populations. Students were introduced to the methods for making accurate measurements and then received an opportunity to measure whales themselves. The second lab then introduced analysis methods using computer vision and deep neural networks to detect, count, and measure objects of interest in remote sensing data. This work provided students in the environmental sciences an introduction to new techniques in machine learning and remote sensing that can be powerful multipliers of effort when analyzing large environmental datasets.

This two-week teaching module in an introductory-level undergraduate course invites students to explore the power of Twitter in shaping public discourse. The project supplements the close-reading methods that are central to the humanities with large-scale social media analysis. This exercise challenges students to consider how applying visualization techniques to a dataset too vast for manual apprehension might enable them to identify for granular inspection smaller subsets of data and individual tweets—as well as to determine what factors do not lend themselves to close-reading at all. Employing an original dataset of almost one million tweets focused on the contested 2018 Florida midterm elections, students develop skills in using visualization software, generating research questions, and creating novel visualizations to answer those questions. They then evaluate and compare the affordances of large-scale data analytics with investigation of individual tweets, and draw on their findings to debate the role of social media in shaping public conversations surrounding major national events. This project was developed as a collaboration among the English Department (Emma Davenport and Astrid Giugni), Math Department (Hubert Bray), Duke University Library (Eric Monson), and Trinity Technology Services (Brian Norberg).

Understanding how to generate, analyze, and work with datasets in the humanities is often a difficult task without learning how to code or program. In humanities centered courses, we often privilege close reading or qualitative analysis over other methods of knowing, but by learning some new quantitative techniques we better prepare the students to tackle new forms of reading. This class will work with the data from the HathiTrust to develop ideas for thinking about how large groups and different discourse communities thought of queens of antiquity like Cleopatra and Dido.

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