The USS Jeannette: Arctic explorer and Space Weather pioneer

Everyone likes a good story. When Old Weather began transcribing the logs of 19th century Arctic explorers it soon became clear that the USS Jeannette’s story was a particularly good one. In 1879, destined for the North Pole, the USS Jeannette and a crew of 33 left San Francisco amid much celebration and rejoicing. 3 years later only 13 crew members returned.


(U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

The story of the Jeannette is both epic and tragic. She was stuck in the grip of the ice floes for nearly two years before sinking as a result of being crushed by the ice. Then followed a 1,000 km trek across the ice. Eight crew members were killed in a storm and a further twelve died of starvation and cold. The story unfolded as the logs were transcribed. Before long it became clear that the logs also contained an unexpected resource. Night after night while imprisoned by the ice the crew of the Jeannette recorded their observations of the aurora. Volunteers took note and began posting these observations on the forum. Chris Scott from Solar Stormwatch realised that this might yield some interesting historical information and asked the volunteers to keep posting. After a few months there was quite a list. Historical auroral records are extremely valuable in providing a long term picture of solar activity and space weather and can lead to a better understanding of the processes involved. Having an interest in all things solar, especially Solar Stormwatch, and a fondness for a good spreadsheet I began collating all the aurora posts from the forum and it wasn’t long before Chris and I realised that there was some real science hidden in the Jeannette’s logs. Science which ought to be made public. Maybe we could write a paper.

The Jeannette’s Executive Officer, Lieutenant Charles Chipp carried out experiments whenever there was an auroral display and recorded his own observations together with readings from his galvanometers in a notebook that he intended to publish on his return. Lt. Chipp, however, was one of the twenty who didn’t survive the expedition but, incredibly, his notebook did and with Kevin Wood and Mark Mollan’s help it was located in the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration and was scanned for us to use.

Working with Chris Scott and a solar expert colleague of his, David Willis, I spent 2 years analysing the aurora data from the logs, crew members’ personal diaries and Lt Chipp’s notebook. We were surprised at the detail recorded and were able to examine the frequency, strength, direction and colour of the auroral displays as observed from the deck of the marooned ship. We also studied the effect of the lunar phase on the visibility of aurorae. With the help of records from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich we found instances of the auroral oval expanding equatorwards during great solar storms and found some evidence for auroral activity recurring at 27-day intervals implying that some active regions were surviving longer than one solar rotation. At a time when atmospheric science was in its infancy the crew of the Jeannette was doing a superb job of gathering valuable data.

As a volunteer citizen scientist, I am immensely proud that our paper has now been published in Astronomy and Geophysics the journal of the Royal Astronomical Society. It’s been quite a ride – fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. I am especially pleased that some of Lt. Chipp’s data has finally seen the light of day albeit 135 years late and we’re hoping to have a closer look at his galvanometer readings eventually. There are ship’s logs from all the other Arctic explorers to examine too – Old Weather seems to have become Old Space Weather!

You’ll find the paper in Astronomy & Geophysics here.  I hope you enjoy the read.

About juleswilkinson

Citizen scientist and volunteer. Forum moderator for the Milky Way Project, Solar Stormwatch, Science Gossip and Shakespeare's World. Owner of 3 telescopes, a dog and a meteorite.

2 responses to “The USS Jeannette: Arctic explorer and Space Weather pioneer”

  1. Elisabeth Baeten says :

    Wow ! Congrats ! 😀

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