Help Map Historical Weather From Ship Logs

Caitlin Dempsey


The Old Weather project is a crowdsourcing data gathering endeavor to understand and map historical weather variability.  The data collected will be used to understand past weather patterns and extremes in order to better predict future weather and climate.  The project is headed by a team of collaborators from a range of agencies such as NOAA, the Met Office, the National Archives, and the National Maritime Museum.

Information about historical weather, in the form of temperature and pressure measurements, can be gleaned from old ship logbooks.  For example,  Robert Fitzory, the Captain of the Beagle, and his crew recorded weather conditions in their logs at every point the ship visited during Charles Darwin’s expedition.  The English East India from the 1780s to the 1830s made numerous trips between the United Kingdom and China and India, with the ship crews recording weather measurements in their log books.  Other expeditions to Antarctica provide rare historical measurements for that region of the world.

By utilizing a crowdsourcing approach, the Old Weather project team aims to use the collective efforts of public participation to gather data and to fact check data recorded from log books.  There are 250,000 log books stored in the United Kingdom alone.  Clive Wilkinson, a climate historian and research manager for the Recovery of Logbooks and International Marine Data (RECLAIM) Project, a part of NOAA’s Climate Database Modernisation Program, notes there are billions of unrecorded weather observations stored in logbooks around the world that could be captured and use to better climate prediction models.

Weather measurements recorded in a ship log book.
Weather measurements recorded in a ship log book.

The Old Weather project is looking for help from the public to extract the lists of port numbers, the pressures, the temperatures contained in the logbooks which will then be inputed into computer models in order to produce better calibrated weather and climate models.

Climate reconstruction for 1911 based on a limited number of weather observations from ship log books.
Climate reconstruction for 1911 based on a limited number of weather observations from ship log books.

Users participate by first creating a  Zooniverse login that will work across all of the crowdsourcing partner projects found within Zooniverse’s network of ‘citizen science’ projects.  Then select from one of the 17 vessels available on the Old Weather project to digitize a log page for.  There is a quick tutorial that shows how to read the pages covering location information, weather, fueling, date, and observations.  Each page has a magnifying effect accessed by simply clicking on the log page image.  Then click on the tabs and enter in the requested information.  The more pages you log, the more points you earn.  The volunteer that has the most points for a ship is named as the captain of that ship.  Click on the vessel name to see more about that vessel, including a map of logged weather records and which other volunteers are inputing log book data.

H/T Geographic Travels

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

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