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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.

Ice station Jeannette

We’ve not quite finished the Jeannette, but thanks to the excellent work of gastcra, clewi, jill, and the crew, I have already been able to reconstruct her route. And for this ship, we can learn a lot from just the route, because she spent nearly two years drifting embedded in the sea-ice.

The Arctic ocean has winds and currents, so the sea-ice does not just advance and retreat with the seasons, it also moves about. To understand its movement, nowadays we use ice stations and ice drifters: These are groups of people, or more often just un-manned automatic instruments, that are placed on an ice-floe and drift with the ice for months or years, recording its movements and the weather at their location. From them, we’ve learned a lot about how the sea-ice works and changes.

Jeannette was effectively the first ice station. The video shows the route of the ship reconstructed from her logbook, together with a sea-ice field. We don’t have good sea-ice records for 1879 so I’ve used the sea-ice from exactly 100-years later (as we did for the Thetis). We need to remember that the sea-ice in 1879 would not have been the same as that in 1979, but the comparison does add poignancy to the story of the voyage: They were unlucky not to escape the ice in the autumn of 1880, and they came so close to reaching the seasonal melt region around the New Siberian Islands – another couple of weeks, and maybe they would have escaped.

Our records from Jeannette end on June 13th, 1881, when she was abandoned and sank. But her contribution to science did not end there. Wreckage from the ship continued drifting across the Arctic Ocean, and was recovered in Greenland; and that evidence helped inspire Fridtjof Nansen to build the Fram and undertake an even greater Arctic voyage.

The new Jeannette opera house

Grand opening: December 24th, 1880

Grand opening: December 24th, 1880

In the evening we had a minstrel entertainment in the deck-house, somewhat improved over last year… The success of the evening, however, was Sharvell as a young lady, in an after-piece… A feature of the evening was presenting each guest, on entering, with a little button-hole bouquet of colored paper leaves… The jokes were of the usual order, some broad ones being inevitable… The most acceptable occurrence was the issue of a double ration of whiskey, with which, hot water, and sugar, we tried to be cheerful, and make Christmas Eve rather less dreary than many of our days now seem.

By December 1880 Jeannette had been stuck fast in the pack ice for well over a year, but Christmas Day was made as acceptable as possible by a good dinner.

And I think we may refer to our bills of fare with pardonable pride. Our mince pies were a work of art; though they were made from pemmican and flavored by a bottle of brandy, they were as delicate to the taste as if compounded from fresh beef from market. CHRISTMAS DINNER, 1880: the usual Saturday Soup, Roast Seal – Apple Jelly, Tongue, Macaroni, Tomatoes, Mince Pies, Plum Pudding, Figs, Raisins, Dates, Nuts, Candy, Chocolate and Coffee.

Reading these snippets from De Long’s journal from the Jeannette would strike a chord with any sailor. Christmas at sea seems much the same today – people still celebrate as best as they can even though they are far from home and hearth. The banquet remains the highlight of the holiday. But the work must go on, as the ship’s log shows: along with the note about the entertainment there are all the usual weather observations recorded. Considering the perilous journey the Jeannette logbooks endured from the Arctic ice to us, it is a miracle that these data still exist and can be used for science again, in new and powerful ways that De Long and his crew could not have imagined when they sledged these heavy volumes across the sea ice after the wreck of their ship, and then carried them on their backs to the cold Siberian shore.

Old Weather citizen-scientists are making the recovery and analysis of these hard-won data possible, while also getting to read the unedited stories from the Jeannette and many other ships in the new (and growing) Old Weather – Arctic fleet.


A winter reflection

An old shipmate of mine shares this poem every December, and it always makes me pause to reflect on my former career at sea, and those friends I’ve sailed with now scattered far and wide. And us Old Weather shipmates have also seen plenty of stories like this along the 45 million or so miles of ship tracks we’ve covered over the past ten years. Some, like that of the USS Jeannette, a worse tale. My own encounter with the hard edge of the ocean was on the distant rocky shore of a small island in the Beagle Channel, the strait in Tierra del Fuego named, appropriately, after the HMS Beagle. We were holed from stem to stern, but thanks to the ship’s engineers, lots of pumps, and an ice-strengthened hull of inch-and-a-half thick steel, it came out okay in the end. So as this horrible pandemic year draws to close, I say, shipmates, let us hold with hope – we will clear this weary headland and find the open sea again.

Christmas at Sea, by Robert Louis Stevenson, first published on December 22, 1888

The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
The decks were like a slide, where a seamen scarce could stand;
The wind was a nor’wester, blowing squally off the sea;
And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.

They heard the surf a-roaring before the break of day;
But ’twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops’l, and stood by to go about.

All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we hauled the frozen sheets, and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.

We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide-race roared;
But every tack we made we brought the North Head close aboard:
So’s we saw the cliffs and houses, and the breakers running high,
And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.

The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;
The good red fires were burning bright in every ‘long-shore home;
The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.

The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it’s just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessed Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard’s was the house where I was born.

O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My mother’s silver spectacles, my father’s silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china-plates that stand upon the shelves.

And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessed Christmas Day.

They lit the high sea-light, and the dark began to fall.
“All hands to loose topgallant sails,” I heard the captain call.
“By the Lord, she’ll never stand it,” our first mate Jackson, cried.
…”It’s the one way or the other, Mr. Jackson,” he replied.

She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward just as though she understood.
As the winter’s day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.

And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.

The Sitka Hurricane of 1880

Two reconstructions of the ‘Sitka Hurricane’. Pressure contours before (left) and after (right) adding oldWeather-Arctic observations from USC&GS Yukon. (Details).

Sitka is in the Alaska panhandle, at 57 degrees North. So the storm that hit them on October 26th, 1880 can’t possibly have been an actual hurricane. But it was a very severe extratropical cyclone – probably stronger than any storm that has hit the Sitka region since.

Worst-on-record storms for any region are worth studying – they set a benchmark for predictions of future extreme weather, and they are a great target for attribution – can we find out just why they were so bad? Some of our colleagues, led from the University of Bern, looked at this storm in the Twentieth Century Reanalysis. Almost immediately, they hit a snag:

Because the next assimilated pressure measurements are located more than 1000 km south of Sitka, the storm cannot be found in the 20CR2c ensemble mean

That is, because there are no pressure observations from the north-east Pacific in our databases for late 1880, the reanalysis uncertainty is so large we can’t say anything much about it.

But that was pre-oldWeather Arctic – since then we’ve put many new observations from oldweather into a major database update, and the Twentieth Century Reanalysis (20CR) team have been working night and day building a new version of their reanalysis. The resulting improvement is large – the image above shows a before-and-after reconstruction: The key is those black concentric circles – a characteristic marker of a storm in a weather map, and of course the yellow dots – those mark our new observations. The hero here is USC&GS Yukon, providing those vital observations in the north Pacific. (You can just about see the the Jeannette up there in the Arctic Ocean also, but she’s too far away to have much effect on this storm).

But Wait, There’s More!

When we sent out our last batch of new observations to the climate datasets we had not completed USS Jamestown, but now we have, and the Jamestown was moored in the harbour at Sitka at the time of the storm. So we shipped those data over to the 20CR team, and they quality controlled them and managed to add them to their system just in time to include them in the final reconstruction for their new reanalysis. So we have another new reconstruction, with our Jamestown observations in too:

Two reconstructions of the ‘Sitka Hurricane’. Pressure contours from 20CR2c (left) and 20CRv3 (right) adding oldWeather-Arctic observations from USC&GS Yukon and USS Jamestown. (Details).

Adding the Jamestown strengthens and improves the storm reconstruction still further (particularly apparent in the video diagnostic).

So thanks to everyone who has worked on the Yukon, the Jamestown, and 20CRv3 – between us, we’ve created a hurricane: An iconic storm which was missing in the last reconstruction is present in the new one. The uncertainty in the reconstruction is still large, but future researchers now have something concrete to work on.

neōn katalogos

It’s not all about the shiny and the new – we should appreciate, also, the virtues of the classics: In particular classic oldWeather, our original and ongoing project to rescue data from the US Government Arctic logbooks, which has now transcribed more than three million (3,000,000) weather observations.

All the contributors I could not tell nor name, nay, not though ten tongues were mine and ten mouths and a voice unwearying, but now I will tell the leaders of the ships and the ships in their order:”

  • Of the Albatross (1884); leelhat and Hanibal94 were captains, with steeleye and jd570b and Zovacor, with 569 more. They brought 150,734 weather observations, rich in pressures, temperatures, and wind directions.
  • Of the Albatross (1890); hurlock and Ravendrop were captains, with p3nguin53 and listritz and 1049 more. They brought 62,931 weather observations.
  • Of the Albatross (1900); Danny252, hurlock and pommystuart were captains, with HHTime, JanetET-S and wendolk with 482 more. They brought 57,991 weather observations.
  • Of the Bear, veteran of many campaigns; lollia paolina, gastcra and Hanibal94 were captains, with DennisO, jil and pommystuart, with 410 more. They brought 349,015 weather observations
  • Of the Concord; pommystuart and gastcra were captains, with Hanibal94 and MAPurves, and 1207 more. They brought 380,191 weather observations.
  • Of the Corwin; gastcra, pommystuart and lollia paolina were captains, with but 24 more. They brought 9,588 weather observations.
  • Of the Jamestown (1844); kimma001 was captain, with gastcra and Zovacor and 92 more. They brought 83,533 weather observations.
  • Of the Jamestown (1866); leelhat, Hanibal94 and kimma001 were captains, with 445 more. They brought 128,922 weather observations.
  • Of the Jamestown (1879); lollia paolina was captain, with gastcra, LouisaEvers, smith7748 and 475 more. They brought 93,696 weather observations
  • Of the Jamestown (1886); leelhat was captain, with lollia paolina with 385 more. They brought 82,624 weather observations.
  • Of the Jeannette; gastcra, Clewi and jil were captains, with with 67 more. They brought 42,982 weather observations and much knowledge of the ice.
  • Of the Patterson; Hanibal94, gastcra and asterix135 were captains, with helenj, avastmh and 101 more. They brought 334,146 weather observations.
  • Of the Perry; leelhat and Hanibal94 were captains, with exim_202, elizabeth_s, and rbertin1068, with 427 more. They brought 7,352 weather observations.
  • Of the Pioneer; Hanibal94 was captain, with gastcra and helenj and 86 more. They sought out 182,586 weather observations.
  • Of the Rodgers; leelhat was captain, with Hanibal94, avastmh and 50 more. They saved 19,718 weather observations from the fire.
  • Of the Rush; lollia paolina was captain, with leelhat and researchib with 368 more. They carried 25,174 weather observations.
  • Of the Thetis; lollia paolina was captain, with jil, leelhat, KookyBird and 716 more. They brought 220,493 weather observations.
  • Of the first Unalga; Hanibal94 and propriome were captains, with gastcra and Caro, with 92 more. They brought 136,001 weather observations
  • Of the Second Unalga; Hanibal94 was captain, with gastcra, Caro, and 36 more. They brought 10,395 weather observations
  • Of the Vicksburg; leelhat and lollia paolina were captains, with 393 more. They brought 357,525 weather observations
  • Of the Yorktown; Lekiam and lollia paolina were captains, with gastcra with 737 more. They brought 279,546 weather observations
  • Of the Yukon; gastcra and Hanibal94 were captains, with 80 more. They brought 31,111 weather observations

All will be assimilated

Weather from a scout run of the 20th Century reanalysis, using the US oldWeather observations.

The observations we are recovering will have many uses, but one is clear – they will be assimilated into collective reconstructions of historical weather (reanalyses). We’ve done this already with the original set of Royal Navy ships, and now we are starting to use the US Arctic ship observations in the same way. Leading the way, again, is the 20th Century reanalysis (we are working on nineteenth century records at the moment, but it’s too late to change the name now); the video above shows a new reconstruction of the weather for 1880 and 1881, and stars three of our ships (red dots) Jeannette, Corwin, and Rodgers. As well as the wind (vectors), temperature (colours), sea-ice, rain (black shading), and observations used (dots), it shows grey fog masking the areas where the reconstruction is still very uncertain (because there are no observations there – yet).

The improvement from our new observations can be seen clearly in the gaps in the fog surrounding each red dot, but the effect can be seen even more starkly if we follow one ship:

Observations from the arctic voyage of the USS Jeannette.

The map shows the route of the ship and the sea-ice for the period. The graph shows sea-level pressure, and near-surface air temperature, as observed by the ship (red dots), as reconstructed by 20CR version 2c (not using the ship’s observations: light grey band), and as reconstructed by a scout version of 20CR assimilating the Jeannette’s pressure observations (dark grey band – starts in Nov. 1879). Small yellow dots mark the other observations available to the reanalyses. The narrowing of the band indicates a reduction in our uncertainty about the weather – an increase in the value of the reconstruction.

So far we’ve only captured those three ships, but we’ll get to the rest – their observations and historical distinctiveness will be added to our reconstructions. Resistance is futile.

43 years in the North

The voyages of the Bear, Corwin, Jeannette, Manning, Rush, Rodgers, Unalga II, and Yukon

Today is the fourth birthday of oldWeather, and it’s almost two years since we started work on the Arctic voyages. So it’s a good time to illustrate some more of what we’ve achieved:

I’m looking at the moment at the Arctic ships we’ve finished: Bear, Corwin, Jeannette, Manning, Rush, Rodgers, Unalga II, and Yukon have each had all of their logbook pages read by three people; so it’s time to add their records to the global climate databases and start using them in weather reconstructions. From them we have recovered 43 ship-years of hourly observations – more than 125,000 observations concentrating on the marginal sea-ice zones in Baffin Bay and the Bering Strait – an enormous addition to our observational records.

The video above shows the movements of this fleet (compressed into a single year). They may occasionally choose to winter in San Pedro or Honolulu, but every summer they are back up against the ice – making observations exactly where we want them most.

So in our last two years of work, we’ve completed the recovery of 43-ship years of logbooks, and actually we’ve done much more than that: The eight completed ships shown here make up only about 25% of the 1.5 million transcriptions we’ve done so far. So this group is only a taster – there’s three times as much more material already in the pipeline.

Brightening the world

We launched oldWeather three years ago today (October 12th, 2010). It was an exciting but scary moment – would she float? We’d done everything we could, but you’re never quite sure until the splash has settled.

One thing we did know at launch was where we were going: The map of past climate variability and change contains some very large blank areas – great expanses of space and time where we knew almost nothing of what the weather had done. Ours was a voyage of exploration: We would sail, via the archives, into these regions and rescue their weather observations, adding systematically and permanently to the scientific records on which our understanding of the climate is based.

And it’s worked very well. As with any research project we’ve encountered plenty of surprises along the way, but they’ve been good surprises – we knew about the weather in the logs, but we didn’t realise just how much else was in there. So we’ve added detailed ship histories, maps, geographical databases, illustrations of the course of WW1, tales of life on board, …

But our primary aim is still the weather, and we’ve recovered an enormous account of historical weather information, more than 1.6 million new observations from our original set of Royal Navy logs alone. These new basic observations are a permanent foundation on which scientists all over the world can build new reconstructions and products, and today we can see such a building appear.

Gil Compo and colleagues, from NOAA/CIRES/University of Colorado, are using our new observations in an atmospheric reanalysis (20CR). Essentially they combine surface weather observations (such as ours) with information on sea temperature and sea-ice, and a physical model of the atmosphere, to make a detailed and comprehensive picture of the global weather. It takes some of the world’s largest supercomputers to do this analysis: 20CR was produced at the US National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center and the US Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility. But it’s worth the effort – not only do they make a global weather reconstruction, but they also calculate the accuracy of their reconstruction, and we can compare their new reconstruction with one they made earlier, to see how much difference our observations have made.

So the video above has four components:

  1. The weather. The reanalysis calculates everything about the weather: winds, temperatures, clouds, rainfall, the jet stream, … but I can’t show all that in one video so we’re only seeing mean-sea-level-pressure. The solid black contours show where this is low (bad weather), and the dashed contours where it is high (good weather).
  2. The observations. Grey dots mark observations we’ve had since before oldWeather started. Yellow dots mark new observations. Most (but not quite all) new observations are from oldWeather. (We are only part of a wider recovery program).
  3. The fog of ignorance. Grey fog marks the areas where we still don’t have enough observations to say exactly what the weather was doing.
  4. The glow of discovery. Yellow highlighting marks the areas where the reconstruction is much better than it was before (mostly because of our new observations).

That’s a lot to get in one image, but it’s the yellow that matters. Our work has cleared the fog, and illuminated the weather, over a huge area of land and ocean. The improvement stretches over about 20% of the Earth’s surface – more than 100 million square kilometres – and is there for every hour of the 9+ years covered by the Royal Navy logs we read.

That’s not a bad return for our three years hard work.