Climate scientists want to use weather reports made by British sailors in World War I but they are hidden in handwritten ship logs, and impossible for computer scanners to read. So the scientists have enlisted online volunteers to grab that weather data for computer analysis. Along the way, transcribers are reading about sea battles and daily life nearly a century ago on a British war ship. The World’s Clark Boyd has more. Download MP3
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MARCO WERMAN: I’m Marco Werman. This is The World. So-called “citizen-scientist” projects are popular these days. For example, you can download programs onto your computer that will help scientists search for alien life forms or even help find a cure for cancer. You don’t really have to do much. The software just crunches away when you’re not using your machine. But one online science project in Britain allows you to take a more active role. The World’s technology correspondent Clark Boyd tells us about OldWeather.org.
CLARK BOYD: Climate scientists rely on computer models to get a better sense of the Earth’s weather and climate patterns now and in the future. Those models make use of historical weather data. But that information isn’t always easy to come by. There are good land-based weather records starting around 1920. But if you want raw weather data from before that?
PETER STOTT: We have to depend on observations from ships.
BOYD: That’s Peter Stott, head of Climate Monitoring and Attribution at Britain’s Meteorological Office. He says that every ship in Britain’s Royal Navy kept logbooks.
STOTT: It’s the weather observations that they made, typically six times a day, and the data that’s in there is the temperatures, so it’s the air temperature and the sea temperature, and also the wind direction and the wind speed and also the pressure that they measured.
BOYD: But all of those observations are bound up in thousands of handwritten volumes, tucked away in archives. Stott says it would take a team of researchers decades to digitize all the information. And handwriting recognition software, he says, isn’t good enough yet to automate the process. So, he decided to get some help from the public. First, Stott turned to Chris Lintott at the University of Oxford. Lintott says they’re scanning the pages of the old log books, and posting them on the website OldWeather.org.
CHRIS LINTOTT: Old Weather.org is an attempt to unlock that information in the logs by inviting members of the public to come along and transcribe the information.
BOYD: They’ve started with 280 Royal Navy ships from right around World War I. Anyone who wants to help can go to the site, choose a ship, and pages of the old naval logs pop up.
LINTOTT: Every four hours, no matter what else was going on, whether they were in battle, whether they were busy dealing with horrible weather conditions, they would record the temperature, the pressures, and make a note of the weather. There are places in the logs where you see, enemy ship sighted, battle engaged, and then there’s a pause while they go and read the temperature.
BOYD: And so it’s not just climate scientists who are interested in these logs. Historians can find some treasures in them as well, people like Gordon Smith, who created the website naval-history.net.
GORDON SMITH: My grandfather was sunk twice in World War I, and received a distinguished service medal. And my father was killed at sea in 1943. And in my 40s, I decided I wanted to find out more about them
BOYD: Smith says he’s already found two ships on OldWeather.org that his grandfather served on back in the day.
SMITH: And in fact he was actually on board two of them when the logs were being written. So, for example, he was up in north Russia in 1919, stuck in an ice flow. And in the 1920s on another ship, HMS Curlew, he was in the Pacific and around the west coast of America. You know the thing where I can actually find out details about my grandfather’s life day-by-day is just tremendous.
BOYD: The creators of OldWeather.org say these logbooks are just the beginning. The British Royal Navy logs stretch back into the 18th and even 17th centuries. That’s some 300 years of untapped weather reports and history. For The World, this is Clark Boyd.
WERMAN: And you can see an animated video of how that website tracks centuries old weather stats. It’s at TheWorld.org.
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