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.
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
We launched the new www.oldWeather.org a month ago, which means that the volunteers using the site have provided quite a bit of new data, and we can start to analyse it. This is one of my favourite moments in any project – first blood, when we get the initial sense of what we’ve got, how it’s going to work, what we can learn from it.
One of the golden rules of statistical analysis is “first plot the data” – always start by making a simple visualisation, so you can be sure you understand what you’ve got, and you’re not missing anything obvious. But the oldWeather data is not easy to plot: the database contains records from hundreds of people making thousands of annotations on dozens of different logbook pages; what, exactly, should we look at?
So I’ve taken inspiration from Listen to Wikipedia, and asked ‘what would it look like if we could see (and hear) the data as it came in – in (accelerated) real time?’ The video below shows every contribution to www.oldWeather.org over a three hour period on December 3rd 2015. The number of pages shown is the number of volunteers contributing at each point in time. Each box drawn, and sound played, is one annotation, a contribution to the project. Blue boxes contain weather data, yellow boxes ship positions, orange boxes dates, and red boxes other events; pages that have moved on to the transcription phase have grey boxes.
December 3rd was when we launched the new site, so we can see a large change in the number of people participating as they learn about the launch. It’s instantly clear that it’s working – we are collecting annotations and transcriptions in quantity, as we hoped. There is much to be learned from careful examination of visualisations like this, but mostly I think it shows the power of the project – the awesome capability of collective public science.
Cruising the Arctic Ocean can be a slow and lonely business – long voyages, harsh weather, and endless danger from sea ice and other challenging events. Maybe you have a feeling you’ve been stuck for too long in the confines of a single ship on an endless voyage. So we’re very excited to report the first sightings of a new fleet – with new ships, and some new equipment.
The first thing you will notice is that oldWeather.org has changed a lot: it looks different, and the way we are transcribing is very different: The US ship logbooks contain what are basically tables of weather data, so we have tried to make capturing the information in these tables easier and faster, while retaining the flexibility to mark and transcribe other events. As always when we change the site, these new tools will take some getting used to, so please persevere and experiment until you find a way that works for you; there is help available on both the forum and Talk boards.
The new logbooks will also be a bit different from what we’ve been doing lately. We have split them into shorter deployments of a year or two; so completing a voyage will be less of a commitment, and you’ll have a chance for a bit of shore leave now and again, or to choose a different kind of ship altogether.
Thanks to Gina and Mark at the Archives, for finding and photographing all the new logbooks; to Roger and the Zooniverse development team for getting the fleet launched on the new website; and to our expert volunteers, for suggesting better ways to add voyages and preparing the help and reference pages for all the new ships.
We hope you will like the new oldWeather, but if you fancy something different, there are other options. The Whaling site is there with different logs and a different interface; and, just for those who love the original version, we are keeping it around – it’s now classic oldWeather.
What was life really like in the Royal Navy 100 years ago? Where did the ships go? How did the crews spend their days? What were the noteworthy, and the routine, events in their lives?
The Royal Navy logbooks we worked through in the original version of oldWeather provide a uniquely powerful insight into these questions – they are primary records of exactly what happened. But they are not easy to use – hard to read, not indexed, or searchable, and often full of obscure technical language.
When we transcribed the weather in the logs we caught many of the historical events as well, and we were able to make a formatted history file for each ship – linking each logbook page image to transcribed events and information from that day, and we assembled those ship histories on our partner website naval-history.net.
Those history files made from the raw transcriptions are a good start, but they are far from perfect: Some events we caught cleanly, some only half-stopped, and our decisions on what to leave were usually good, but not always. So our team of volunteer editors have been working through the raw files editing and improving them: reviewing the decisions made in the heat of transcription, correcting mistakes, merging multiple versions, adding missing events, incorporating pithy commentary and expert summaries of key points, and adding maps of the ship journeys.
As so often with oldWeather, this has been a lot of work – a major task tackled with care and patience by an increasingly-expert team of volunteers. Their achievement is clear to see, comparing the edited histories (in bold on this page) with the raw versions shows a huge improvement in clarity, accuracy, completeness, and value. And the score of the editing team has mounted steadily – they have just released their 200th edited ship history.
To get to 200 ships edited is an awesome achievement, but of course we still have power to add: HMS Cricket is done, as are Cardiff, India, New Zealand and Sydney; but Dunedin, Durban, Perth, Delhi and Capetown are yet to be conquered. Are you available for selection?
We’ve spotted the first signs of new ships on oldWeather. We are partnering with the New Bedford Whaling Museum to read and transcribe their collection of whaling ship logs. Whalers are not just historically important and interesting, their hunting grounds were well into the Arctic, so we’re hoping to get some particularly good sea-ice records from these logs.
These new logs look quite different to the government ship logs we are used to – they don’t have a uniform page structure with tables of data – so we are adding them in their own separate section, and the way to mark the page and enter data is a bit different. Please have a look at the new logs, and experiment with the new interface – it will take a while to get used to, but help and advice is available, as always, through the forum.
We are also adding one other new thing: a way to add our own value to individual log images. We’ve always concentrated on transcribing the contents of the logs, but up to now we have not had a good way to add our own comments to them: or mark interesting pages, or flag mistakes made by the log-keeper, or tag pages to make groups. We are adding the ‘Talk’ system (as featured on other Zooniverse projects) to oldWeather to let us do this, and I’m really looking forward to what we can do with it.
Kelp is, perhaps, more important than you might guess: Not only does it thicken your toothpaste, it supports whole marine ecosystems where it grows. It is important enough to have a Zooniverse project devoted to watching it grow, through Landsat images.
Satellite imagery is a great way to monitor the world – providing frequent, comprehensive pictures of the whole planet. But in-situ observations also have their place: people on the ground, interacting directly with the system being monitored, can often provide a detail and precision that the satellite records lack.
One of the unexpected joys of oldWeather is that it provides in-situ observations of a vast range of different things. Most often kelp is mentioned in the logs simply as a highlight of a day at sea:
Fine weather. Light breeze from South. At 2.30 took in and furled the sails. Passed a piece of kelp. [Yorktown, May 1892.]
4 to 8 a.m. Overcast but pleasant. Airs from NE. Passed some kelp. [Same, a day later.]
Sometimes we see the kelp interacting with the environment:
Saw a large patch of kelp with a dozen seals hauled out on it. [Rush, June 1891]
Sighted a whale and a bunch of kelp. [Yorktown, May 1892]
At daylight passed much drift kelp, to one large batch a boulder about 3 ft in diameter was attached [Patterson February 1885]
Occasionally they do seem to be actively surveying it:
Steaming along at various speeds, locating outer limit of kelp beds off La Jolla, fog gradually increasing, log hauled in. [Pioneer, spring 1923].
Continued sounding passing inside of Aleks Rock. No signs of kelp were seen. [Patterson].
But the most interesting mentions feature it as a hazard to navigation. I suspect most of our log-keepers would see definite benefits in any decline of kelp:
Slowed down a few minutes on account of kelp. [Concord, August 1901]
4:15 Kelp ahead, full speed astern … Ran about 1/2 mile SWxW and ran into kelp again. Wreck bore E 1/2 N. Stopped and backed away from it [Patterson].
found four masted schooner “Watson A. West” in the kelp on the outer edge of the shoal, broadside to the beach, close in and in dangerous position [Unalga, October 1916].
Between six and seven o’clock, patent log registered only 3.9 knots: hauled in rotator and found it fouled with kelp; cleared it, and allowed 2.6 knots for the discrepancy. [Commodore Perry, July 1896].
Found spar buoy #16, two hundred yards NE of true position and in kelp. [Commodore Perry, February 1903].
At 10.36 sighted what appeared to be a pinnacle rock. Stopped ship lowered boat and after inspection the object proved to be a much worn spar, heel up, with kelp attached. [Yorktown, June 1894].
We don’t have that many observations of kelp – we probably won’t be much help to the Floating Forests team mapping the distribution, but we do have our own viewpoints to add – aspects that the satellites will never see:
oldWeather does not produce that many research papers: The process of science is changing fast at the moment – moving away from individual researchers and small groups working independently, and towards much larger consortia working together with big datatsets on major problems – fewer small papers, more big science. As a major data provider, closely linked into the international climate research community, we fit nicely into this new model.
But the academic papers industry is still out there, and now and again one appears that involves us directly. One of the major datasets we contribute to is the International Surface Pressure Databank, and Tom Cram and colleagues have a new paper about the data (including our contributions) and how it’s assembled and distributed through the excellent Research Data Archive at NCAR. It’s open access – free for all to read (here’s the link) – why not check out the oldWeather references and see exactly how our results are being used by researchers.
Today, 9th June, is International Archives Day, where archives around the world unite to celebrate their remarkable resources by sharing an iconic image from their collection. oldWeather is no archive, but we certainly do appreciate them, and we aim to add value to their collections through our transcription work.
So here’s an image in which we saw some special value – this is from the collection of the UK National Archives: The logbook of HMS Tarantula, from August 1920. Thanks to generations of archivists for preserving these records for use today; without their skill and dedication this record, and all the others from which we have learned so much, would have been lost forever.
On Sunday 29th Aug. aneroid was compared with Standard Mercurial in HMS Carlisle and found to be reading 0.26 ins. too low. An examination of the aneroid showed it to contain an ants’ nest and be otherwise defective. This aneroid is being surveyed and until a new one is received the Captain’s private Baragraph will be used. This barograph was corrected on 29th August.
oldWeather is, of course, a science project. Or at least mostly science. Or … OK, we do lots of things, plenty of science, but also work on history, archives, data visualisation, information retrieval, human-computer interaction, motivation, and much else. In fact, we are something of a poster child for the young research field of digital humanities.
If you are a researcher interested in the digital humanities, you might want to come to this year’s Digital Humanities at Oxford Summer School. In particular, Victoria Van Hyning, one of our friends from the Zooniverse is running a workshop on Crowdsourcing for Academic, Library and Museum Environments where participants will learn how to build their own citizen science projects, using the same Zooniverse technology that’s being used for developing oldWeather.
oldWeather has proved both fun and productive for almost everyone involved (very hard work, too, of course), so I’m keen to encourage other such projects. Try it – there must be many fascinating object collections that would benefit from examination by several hundred eyes.