Scientists are turning to citizens to help them pore through old whaling ship logs to learn more about weather.
The project, called Old Weather: Whaling, transcribes log entries that describe Arctic weather patterns over the past two centuries to extract clues about how conditions may have changed. Changes in weather conditions in the past can help determine future climate change.
Many whaling ships sailed through Arctic waters in the 19th and early 20th centuries and documented their journeys. “Data about sea ice and other weather events are useful to climate scientists, while historians value knowing the course of a voyage and the events that transpired on board,” according Zooniverse, the citizen science web portal designed to assist scientists with their research efforts.
Participants help transcribe handwritten entries that only humans can read well. The transcriptions are then digitized. Data and analysis can then be amassed and gleaned from the entries.
Historical observations are often used by scientists to reconstruct changing sea-ice conditions. This gives them a better understanding of past climate conditions, which is necessary to make better projections for the future.
Melting Arctic sea ice is linked to rising sea levels and climate change worldwide. Theories abound that a warming Arctic redirects winds and weather conditions. It has been blamed for dips in the polar vortex, sending frigid temperatures to the U.S. and beyond, as well as for aberrational storms in the middle and lower latitudes.
Moreover, as sea ice melts, the earth’s ability to reflect the sun’s rays back into outer space is dampened. More heat stays trapped within the atmosphere and global temperatures rise.
Keen observations from polar weather conditions can be fed into supercomputers that run sophisticated climate models. It’s these models that the science community and governing bodies use to assess potential temperature rise, or global warming.
Targets, such as reducing carbon emissions to reach a threshold rise of less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), agreed to last week by 195 countries at the United Nations climate summit in Paris, are derived by looking at such climate model outcomes.
A consortium of government agencies, academic institutions and others zeroed in on the ship logs because they are detailed and honorably kept. Those involved ranged from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the University of Washington to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, which holds much of the original whaling data.
The team explains: “As whale populations along shorelines and in warmer waters were hunted down in the 1800’s, whalers were increasingly forced to brave dangerous and frigid Arctic seas, filled with ice floes and icebergs, to find their prey. Because of this, their logbooks contain rare, valuable, and accurate climate observations from locations where few others dared venture.”
These historical observations can assist tremendously with filling in the gaps in our knowledge of past sea-ice conditions, and will help scientists to improve our understanding of all forms of weather variability in the past and so improve our ability to predict weather and climate in the future.”
To get involved, log on to the Old Weather website and view a tutorial. From there, you can participate in the project, discuss topics and log book pages with the community.
It’s a fascinating way to explore history and help chart the future.
Thomas M. Kostigen is the founder of The Climate Survivalist.com and a New York Times bestselling author and journalist. He is the National Geographic author of “The Extreme Weather Survival Guide: Understand, Prepare, Survive, Recover” and the NG Kids book, “Extreme Weather: Surviving Tornadoes, Tsunamis, Hailstorms, Thundersnow, Hurricanes and More!” Follow him @weathersurvival, or email email@example.com
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