Harvesting Canadian climate data

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In December I found myself helping one of our graduate students with a data problem; for one of their thesis chapters they needed a lot of hourly climate data for a handful of stations around Saksatchewan. All of this data was and is available for download from the Government of Canada’s website, but with one catch; you had to download the hourly data one month at a time, manually! There is no interface to allow a user of the website to specify the data range they want and download all the data from a single station. I figured there had to be a better way, using R to automate the downloading. Thinking the solution I came up with might help other researchers needing to grab data from the Government of Canada’s website save some time in the future, I wrote this post to document how we ended up doing it.

Screenshot of Government of Canada’s climate website
Screenshot of Government of Canada’s climate website

The website itself is reasonably pretty but the way the web form worked to trigger the download of a CSV containing the data was a little tricky. You can see an example of the sort of data we were interested in here; interestingly you are only shown a single day of data but when you click the big Download button you get the entire month containing the day shown in the HTML table. The web form was setting some hidden parameters that were added to the current page’s URL once the Download button was clicked. Frustratingly, the same page that showed the HTML table also handled generating and returning the CSV download. Even more frustrating was that the script that they were using needed GET variables with almost the same names as some of the existing GET variables, just with different case, such as StationID and stationID, the latter of which is required for the CSV-creating script only. A further annoyance was that even though the CSV generated contained an entire month’s worth of data, the URL still needed to contain the Day GET variable.

I’m sure I haven’t whittled the URL down to the bare minimum required to trigger CSV generation and download, but I ended up using:


which will get you the data for May 2003 from station 28011 (Regina RCS).

Having figured that out, I needed a little function that would generate the URLs we’d need to visit to get data covering the periods we wanted. Because the student needed multiple stations and the time periods of interest differed between stations (stations got moved and picked up new IDs so we needed to track those movements) I wrote a little function that would create a whole load of URLS if given a set of station IDs and start and end years.

genURLS <- function(id, start, end) {
    years <- seq(start, end, by = 1)
    nyears <- length(years)
    years <- rep(years, each = 12)
    months <- rep(1:12, times = nyears)
    URLS <- paste0("http://climate.weather.gc.ca/climateData/bulkdata_e.html?timeframe=1&Prov=SK&StationID=",
    list(urls = URLS, ids = rep(id, nyears * 12), years = years, months = months)

The genURLS() function is pretty simple and just repeats each year integer in the sequence start:end 12 times, once per month, and then repeats the months 1:12 for as many years were requested. Then it builds up a character vector of URLs from these vectors years, months and id, the station ID.

If we wanted all the data for 2014 for the Regina RCS station then we could generate the URLs we’d need to visit as follows

regina <- genURLS(28011, 2014, 2014)

[1] 12
[1] "http://climate.weather.gc.ca/climateData/bulkdata_e.html?timeframe=1&Prov=SK&StationID=28011&hlyRange=1953-01-30%7C2014-12-31&cmdB1=Go&Year=2014&Month=1&Day=27&format=csv&stationID=28011"
[2] "http://climate.weather.gc.ca/climateData/bulkdata_e.html?timeframe=1&Prov=SK&StationID=28011&hlyRange=1953-01-30%7C2014-12-31&cmdB1=Go&Year=2014&Month=2&Day=27&format=csv&stationID=28011"
[3] "http://climate.weather.gc.ca/climateData/bulkdata_e.html?timeframe=1&Prov=SK&StationID=28011&hlyRange=1953-01-30%7C2014-12-31&cmdB1=Go&Year=2014&Month=3&Day=27&format=csv&stationID=28011"
[4] "http://climate.weather.gc.ca/climateData/bulkdata_e.html?timeframe=1&Prov=SK&StationID=28011&hlyRange=1953-01-30%7C2014-12-31&cmdB1=Go&Year=2014&Month=4&Day=27&format=csv&stationID=28011"
[5] "http://climate.weather.gc.ca/climateData/bulkdata_e.html?timeframe=1&Prov=SK&StationID=28011&hlyRange=1953-01-30%7C2014-12-31&cmdB1=Go&Year=2014&Month=5&Day=27&format=csv&stationID=28011"
[6] "http://climate.weather.gc.ca/climateData/bulkdata_e.html?timeframe=1&Prov=SK&StationID=28011&hlyRange=1953-01-30%7C2014-12-31&cmdB1=Go&Year=2014&Month=6&Day=27&format=csv&stationID=28011"

The function I used to grab all the data is a little more involved, partly because in a long-running job you don’t want a single error due to a bad download to cause the entire job to end. Another reason for some of the complexity is that if the job did fail for some reason, as long as the files downloaded up to that point were OK/readable, I didn’t want to download them again. Therefore the function downloads and saves all the CSV files first and only then do we try to read the data. The function is reasonably well-commented so I won’t dwell on those details

getData <- function(stations, folder, verbose = TRUE) {
    ## form URLS
    urls <- lapply(seq_len(NROW(stations)),
                   function(i, stations) {
                   }, stations = stations)

    ## check the folder exists and try to create it if not
    if (!file.exists(folder)) {
        warning(paste("Directory:", folder,
                      "doesn't exist. Will create it"))
        fc <- try(dir.create(folder))
        if (inherits(fc, "try-error")) {
            stop("Failed to create directory '", folder,
                 "'. Check path and permissions.", sep = "")

    ## Extract the data from the URLs generation
    URLS <- unlist(lapply(urls, '[[', "urls"))
    sites <- unlist(lapply(urls, '[[', "ids"))
    years <- unlist(lapply(urls, '[[', "years"))
    months <- unlist(lapply(urls, '[[', "months"))

    ## filenames to use to save the data
    fnames <- paste(sites, years, months, "data.csv", sep = "-")
    fnames <- file.path(folder, fnames)

    nfiles <- length(fnames)

    ## set up a progress bar if being verbose
    if (isTRUE(verbose)) {
        pb <- txtProgressBar(min = 0, max = nfiles, style = 3)

    out <- vector(mode = "list", length = nfiles)

    for (i in seq_len(nfiles)) {
        curfile <- fnames[i]

        ## Have we downloaded the file before?
        if (!file.exists(curfile)) {    # No: download it
            dload <- try(download.file(URLS[i], destfile = curfile, quiet = TRUE))
            if (inherits(dload, "try-error")) { # If problem, store failed URL...
                out[[i]] <- URLS[i]
                if (isTRUE(verbose)) {
                    setTxtProgressBar(pb, value = i) # update progress bar...
                next                             # bail out of current iteration

        ## Must have downloaded, try to read file
        ## skip first 16 rows of header stuff
        ## encoding must be latin1 or will fail
        cdata <- try(read.csv(curfile, skip = 16, encoding = "latin1"))

        ## Did we have a problem reading the data?
        if (inherits(cdata, "try-error")) { # yes hand read problem
            file.remove(cur.file)   # remove file if a problem
            out[[i]] <- URLS[i]     # record failed URL...
            if (isTRUE(verbose)) {
                setTxtProgressBar(pb, value = i) # update progress bar...
            next                        # bail out of current iteration
        } else {                        # read file OK, add station data
            out[[i]] <- cbind.data.frame(StationID = rep(sites[i], NROW(cdata)),
        if (isTRUE(verbose)) { # Update the progress bar
            setTxtProgressBar(pb, value = i)

    out                                 # return

The main infelicity is that you have to supply the getData() with a data frame containing the station IDs and start and end years respectively for the data you want to collect. This suited my needs as we wanted to grab data from 10 stations with different start and end years as required to track station movements. It’s not as convenient if you only want to grab the data for a single station, however.

One thing you’ll note quickly if you start downloading data using this function is that the web script the Government of Canada is using on their climate website will quite happily generate a fully-formed file containing no actual data (but with all the headers, hourly time stamps, etc) if you ask it for data outside the window of observations for a given station. There are no errors, just lots of mostly empty files, bar the header and labels.

One other thing to note is that getData() returns the downloaded data as a list and no attempt is made to flatten the individual components to a single large data frame. That’s because it allows for any failed data downloads (or reads) and records the failed URL instead of the data. This gives you a chance to manually check those URLs to see what the problem might be before re-running the job, which because we saved all the CSVs will run very quickly from that local cache.

To see getData() in action, we’ll run a quick job, downloading the 2014 data for two stations

  • Regina INTL A (51441)
  • Indian Head CDA (2925)

First we create a data frame of station information

stations <- data.frame(StationID = c(51441, 2925),
                       start = rep(2014, 2),
                       end = rep(2014, 2))

Then we pass this to getData() with the path to the folder we wish to cache downloaded CSVs in

met <- getData(stations, folder = "./csv", verbose = FALSE)

This will take a few minutes to run, even for just 24 files, as the site is not the quickest to respond to requests (or perhaps they are now throttling my workstation’s IP?). Note I turned off the printing of the progress bar here, only because this doesn’t play nicely with knitr’s capturing of the output. In real use, you’ll want to leave the progress bar on (which it is by default) so you see how long you have to wait till the job is done.

Once this has finished, we can quickly determine if there were any failures

any(failed <- sapply(met, is.character))


If any had failed, the failed logical vector could be used to index into met to extract the URLs that encountered problems, e.g.


If there were no problems, then the components of met can be bound into a data frame using rbind()

met <- do.call("rbind", met)

The data now looks like this


  StationID        Date.Time Year Month Day  Time Data.Quality Temp...C.
1     51441 2014-01-01 00:00 2014     1   1 00:00           **     -23.3
2     51441 2014-01-01 01:00 2014     1   1 01:00           **     -23.1
3     51441 2014-01-01 02:00 2014     1   1 02:00           **     -22.8
4     51441 2014-01-01 03:00 2014     1   1 03:00           **     -23.3
5     51441 2014-01-01 04:00 2014     1   1 04:00           **     -24.3
6     51441 2014-01-01 05:00 2014     1   1 05:00           **     -24.3
  Temp.Flag Dew.Point.Temp...C. Dew.Point.Temp.Flag Rel.Hum....
1                         -26.3                              77
2                         -26.1                              77
3                         -25.8                              77
4                         -26.3                              77
5                         -27.1                              78
6                         -27.0                              79
  Rel.Hum.Flag Wind.Dir..10s.deg. Wind.Dir.Flag Wind.Spd..km.h.
1                              13          <NA>              22
2                              12          <NA>              26
3                              12          <NA>              22
4                              13          <NA>              18
5                              13          <NA>              14
6                               9          <NA>               6
  Wind.Spd.Flag Visibility..km. Visibility.Flag Stn.Press..kPa.
1                          19.3            <NA>           95.38
2                          24.1            <NA>           95.38
3                          24.1            <NA>           95.39
4                          24.1            <NA>           95.47
5                          24.1            <NA>           95.56
6                          24.1            <NA>           95.60
  Stn.Press.Flag Hmdx Hmdx.Flag Wind.Chill Wind.Chill.Flag
1                  NA        NA        -35              NA
2                  NA        NA        -36              NA
3                  NA        NA        -35              NA
4                  NA        NA        -34              NA
5                  NA        NA        -34              NA
6                  NA        NA        -30              NA
1 Snow,Blowing Snow
2 Snow,Blowing Snow
3 Snow,Blowing Snow
4 Snow,Blowing Snow
5              Snow
6              <NA>

Yep, a bit of a mess; some post processing is required if you want tidy names etc. The student was only interested in temperature and relative humidity so I dropped all the other met data and data quality columns and then only had to update a few variable names. I purposely didn’t have getData() fix this in case the data format on the Government of Canada’s climate website changes.

A final note, I could have run this over all the cores in my workstation or even on all the computers in my small computer cluster but I didn’t, instead choosing to run on a single core overnight to get the data we needed. Please be a good netizen if you do use the functions I’ve discussed here as other people will no doubt want to access the Government of Canada’s website. Don’t flood the site with requests!

If you have any suggestions for improvements or changes, let me know in the comments. The latest versions of the genURLS() and getData() functions can be found in this Github gist.

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