HMS Plover High School Project

High school students comparing current temperature recording to 1850s data collected by the British Navy

JISAO research scientist Kevin Wood and other scientists with the international ACRE initiative are mentoring students who are evaluating air temperature and weather data collected in the 1850’s by the British Navy’s HMS Plover.

Large sea ice retreats like that which occurred in 2007, and the extreme weather of the past two winters, demonstrate the sensitivity of the Arctic to climate variability and highlight its potential as a harbinger of future change. However, to distinguish bellwether climate events from rare but ordinary fluctuations we need a long view into the history of the Earth’s weather. One source of historical weather information is the handwritten journals and logbooks of sailors who for centuries have left records of the weather and environmental conditions they encountered on their travels, in many cases every hour for years at a time. The records of the HMS Plover, a British navy ship that was stationed at Point Barrow, Alaska from 1852 to 1854, are a good example.

Groups of high school students in New York and Alaska are working on a project that will show how air temperature observations recorded on the Plover compare to the present. To do so they need to determine what methods were used to make the observations, and thus, how unrelated factors might have affected the readings. For air temperature measurements, the kind of shelter where thermometers are installed can have a large effect. Determining the bias associated with different shelter designs and other variations in method is an important and sometimes difficult step toward making historical and modern data comparable.

To estimate the bias associated with the instrument shelter the students will build a replica based on a description given by the ship’s surgeon, John Simpson. The replica will be outfitted with a modern electronic temperature sensor and an older ‘liquid-in-glass’ thermometer and then deployed at the NOAA Barrow Observatory for one year, beginning in July 2011. The parallel data from the Plover replica and the Barrow Observatory’s standard instruments will be used to estimate the bias due to the older shelter design. The students will also explore other issues such as the calibration and performance of the Plover’s actual instruments under Arctic conditions. With this information it will be possible to describe how the historical observations should be interpreted in the context of modern temperature data and the climatology of Barrow.

The students will have an opportunity to present their findings at a scientific conference and in a peer-reviewed article.