Logging old weather

Ever since the first Royal Navy vessels set forth to patrol the high seas, its ships have kept meticulous records of the weather. By the 1670s, the might of the British Empire was religiously keeping detailed observations on the state of the elements on and in the world’s oceans. Even during battle, ship crew members would be sent off to make a remarkable suite of measurements, including air and sea temperature, wind direction and speed, and air pressure. Dodging shrapnel hurtling through the air, these observations were diligently put into log books to help forecast the conditions individual ships might face in the near future. Even in the nineteenth century, however, it was realised there was considerable scientific value to this work beyond the immediate need of prediction. One of the most vocal supporters of their expanded use was the Rear-Admiral and great British scientist, Sir Francis Beaufort. Beaufort is best known today for his development of a scale that allows an estimation of wind strength from the state of the sea’s surface (or the tree in next door’s garden). But in 1809 he remarked “There are at present 1000 King’s vessels employed. From each of them there are from two to eight log books deposited every year in the Navy office; those log books give the wind and weather every hour…what better data could a patient meteorological philosopher desire?". Unfortunately his words went largely unheeded. Other time, the ships returned home and the log books eventually found themselves in the UK National Archives where most have been gathering dust...until now.

There's a wealth of climate data in ship logs
It’s only recently that the scientific value of this tremendous archive has been properly recognised. Scientists have increasingly pored over these chronicles to find out the state of the world’s weather through the centuries. Importantly, by their very nature, these records capture conditions at sea, providing a much needed view of 75% of the world’s surface. The problem is there is actually an embarrassment of riches; there is almost too much information. Where inroads have been made, the results have given fascinating insights into our changing planet. For instance, in 2006, a scientific paper by Drs Dennis Wheeler and Jose Suarez-Dominguez at Sunderland University looked at early naval records and found a large increase in the number of British summer storms during the 1680s and 1690s, all against a backdrop of generally cooler temperatures. More recently, Dr Joelle Gergis of the University of Melbourne reported weather observations made by HMS Sirius in 1787 as part of Australia’s First Fleet which show the summer at this time was unusually wet, most probably due to a La Niña in the Pacific Ocean. These and other studies all suggest the long neglected naval logs can help fill a valuable gap in our knowledge of historical climate change.

Although the data is safely archived, there’s a huge amount of effort needed to get it in a form that can be useful to science. The bottom line is the data has to be copied into an electronic format but the amount of labour required would be prohibitively expensive if it were fully costed. Fortunately, the increasing accessibility of the internet is allowing the public to take an active role in science without leaving the comfort of their own homes. And this is where Old Weather comes in. A consortium of research interests (including the Citizen Science Alliance and Atmospheric Circulation Reconstructions over the Earth or ACRE for short), the University of Oxford, the UK Met Office and Naval History.net have got together with the UK National Archives, National Maritime Museum and JISC to enlist the help of volunteers to work up these weighty tomes.

Focussing on ship logs from The First World War, the Old Weather website is a delight to visit. Even if you just want to see best practice in science communication, I can’t recommend the site enough; it’s interesting, intelligently set out and colourful. The opening page is filled with cartoons, sharp, snappy text and short movies that are professionally shot and explain what this citizen science project is all about. Old Weather builds on the superb work done by Zooniverse which aims to bring science to the public (much of it astronomical) online. It’s all very impressive.

If you’re interested in working with Old Weather, it couldn’t be easier. The First World War logbooks have been photographed and digitised where they are ready to be worked on. The pinch point is getting this data copied into a digitally useful form. This is where the public can help: by transcribing the handwritten entries, the measurements can be checked by researchers before being added to the growing body of data. After registering your interest, a few short films take you through the process: how to interpret the flowery writing scrawled nearly a century ago, what numbers to copy down (usually in the middle of the page), how to note any relevant remarks, and how to load all this information into the online data entry box that appears on the screen. The system is very user friendly and quite intuitive. Each page holds somewhere of the order of six weather observations and takes just a few minutes to copy.

When you consider British log books total more than 100,000 in number, while other nations and shipping lines have similar records, its clear this is just the start of a huge international effort to shed new light on old climate. It’s a wonderfully exciting time for marrying history with science.

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