Icebound: The Climate-Change Secrets of 19th Century Ship’s Logs

By Andrew R.C. Marshal, Reuters

An eccentric group of citizen-scientists called Old Weather has transcribed millions of observations from long-forgotten logbooks of ships, many from the great era of Arctic exploration. As the polar regions grow ever warmer, the volunteers have amassed a rich repository of climate data in a 21st century rescue mission.

Historic photo of ship surrounded by sea ice.
Photo: Alaska and Polar Regions Collections, Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks
The Bear spent its most illustrious years in the treacherous waters of the Arctic in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service.

On November 14, 1881, an American called George Melville limped across a frozen delta in Siberia and pulled a pole from the snow with his frost-bitten hands.

Exhausted and half-starving, Melville was scouring the wasteland for fellow survivors of the most famous ship in the world. The USS Jeannette had set sail from San Francisco to conquer the North Pole. Instead, it quickly got trapped in ice and spent nearly two years drifting across the Arctic Ocean, lost to the rest of humanity.

When it was finally crushed by the ice, the Jeannette’s 33 crew members set out across the frozen sea. A storm separated them, and Melville mustered a team of locals in the desolate Lena Delta to find his missing shipmates. He braved the wilderness as the days grew shorter, his legs so swollen and blistered from exposure that he vomited with the pain.

First he found the pole. It marked the spot where George De Long, the Jeannette’s captain, had buried the valuables he had grown too weak to carry. They included Captain De Long’s most prized possessions: the ship’s four logbooks. These hefty, leather-bound volumes recorded, in intimate detail, the ill-fated Jeannette expedition and the discoveries it had made.

It took Melville four more months to find De Long’s body. Nineteen other crew members also died, their heroic lives cut short by drowning, disease, exposure and starvation. But, thanks to Melville, the logbooks survived. Once, while battling through a snowstorm, he briefly considered reburying them to lighten his load, then changed his mind. “Setting my teeth against the storm,” he wrote, “I would swear a new oath to carry them through, let come what might.”

Thousands of miles away, and 138 years later, the Jeannette’s logbooks sit in a climate-controlled room in the U.S. National Archives in Washington, D.C. Every page has been digitized and uploaded to the web, then transcribed by an eccentric group of citizen-scientists called Old Weather.

For the past decade, its far-flung volunteers have shown that the Jeannette’s logbooks, and others like them, are more than what Melville called “the records … of our two years of toil and suffering.” They are rich repositories of data that can help us understand how profoundly the Earth’s climate has changed and what might happen to it in the future.

Meteorologists have long recorded the weather at land-based stations. But nearly three-quarters of the planet is covered by water, and that’s where most weather takes place. Thousands of ships have criss-crossed the oceans, noting the weather in handwritten logbooks that for decades sat forgotten in bookshelves and basements.

In a sometimes-obsessive quest, thousands of Old Weather volunteers have extracted millions of observations about barometric pressure, wind speed, air temperature and ice from the old logbooks. These are fed into a huge dataset at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, creating what NOAA calls “a dauntingly complex, high-resolution, four-dimensional reconstruction of the global climate that estimates what the weather was for every day back to 1836.”

Or, as NOAA has nicknamed it, “a weather time machine.”

Many of the ships, like the Jeannette, hail from the great era of Arctic exploration, when crews risked everything in a race for the North Pole. Ships plunged into the frozen unknown and vanished, inspiring other ships to launch daring but luckless missions to rescue them. In an age when Arctic ice is fast disappearing, many Old Weather volunteers also see their work as a rescue mission, but with much higher stakes, as the warming Earth makes its own leap into the unknown.


“A SATELLITE VIEW OF 19TH CENTURY WEATHER”

Three years ago, a private Russian expedition searched in vain for the wreck of the Jeannette. The ship spent three days stuck in ice while hungry polar bears prowled around it. It didn’t, however, sink.

Portrait of Kevin Wood with lake in the distance.
Photo: REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson
JISAO’s Kevin Wood, the lead investigator for Old Weather’s Arctic project, read all 20 volumes of the high-seas adventure series “Master and Commander” in six weeks.

“That would have been quite ironic, don’t you think?” says Kevin Wood, who was on the ship.

Wood, a research scientist at both NOAA and the University of Washington in Seattle, is the lead investigator for Old Weather’s Arctic project.

Wood got involved in Old Weather after meeting its founder, a British meteorologist called Philip Brohan, at a conference in Baltimore. Over a drink at a nearby pub, Brohan explained his problem: Old Weather volunteers were working so quickly, they’d soon run out of the Royal Navy logbooks he had set them to transcribing in 2010.

So, in 2011, Wood set up a team at the National Archives to start digitising its 80,000 or so logbooks from U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships. Their weather observations, once extracted by volunteers, will help scientists build what Wood calls “essentially a satellite view of 19th century weather.”

At the time, these observations helped captains navigate safely and swiftly across a trackless sea. The logbooks were returned to naval authorities or ship owners, who used them to build pilot charts and guide later navigators. “Today, we can go back and reuse all that data, with a completely new purpose that they would never have imagined,” Wood says. “Every ship becomes part of our quest. Because the more data we have, the better the reanalysis will be.”

Wood handles the science for Old Weather, but as a sailor who spent more than 25 years roaming the world’s oceans, he seems equally smitten with the romance of the seafaring life. He describes himself as a “sporadically voracious reader” who devoured all 20 volumes of Patrick O’Brian’s high-seas adventure series, “Master and Commander,” in six weeks.

Although about 20,000 people have contributed to Old Weather over the years, Wood says a 50-strong community of stalwarts has done about half the work. One is Joan Arthur, who works as the office coordinator at an environmental institute at the University of Oxford. We meet on a chilly afternoon in late autumn, the city’s ancient, cobblestone streets teeming with students and tourists.

“Would you like some Victoria sponge cake?” she asks, leading me to a table in the institute’s tiny kitchen. Other staff come in and out, and at one point she breaks off to chat with a colleague about an algorithm that counts penguins.

Arthur, 61, whose father had served on a Royal Navy ship, first heard of Old Weather five or six years ago, through an ad on the university’s website.

She was soon captivated by the logbooks and the “thundering age” of exploration they recorded. “The stories are just so astonishingly epic,” she says. Her emails are punctuated with phrases such as “How exciting!” and “Oh joy!” One promises tales of “a mutiny, a death, a tussle with ice, scrappy writing, a spelling nightmare.”

Arthur worked on the Jeannette’s logbooks, whose weather and ice observations have allowed researchers to reconstruct the climate in an area of the Arctic that was then almost unknown. “It was basically the moon,” Kevin Wood says. “We had no information about it.”

Old ship’s logs can also offer new insights into extreme events such as storms or floods, which happen infrequently and therefore need a long history to properly understand. Data from the Jamestown, another U.S. Navy ship, and the Jeannette was reanalysed by NOAA’s “weather time machine” to reconstruct what had long been described as a hurricane that hit Sitka in Alaska in 1880. The reanalysis showed that it wasn’t a hurricane, but part of a much larger storm system known as an extra-tropical cyclone.

After working on the Jeannette for a while, Arthur switched to the Rodgers, a Navy ship that in 1881 was sent to find Captain De Long and his crew. She talks about the Rodgers as if it’s still afloat – “She’s a bit of a tub to sail” – but the Rodgers is long gone, its story almost as tragic as the ship it was meant to rescue.

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