Century-old logs of whaling ships might help create better data for climate-change models

Three masted whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan at full sail, circa 1927; Old Weather, a citizen-science project, is helping improve climate-change models using data from old ships' logs.

What does a long-forgotten whaling ship have to do with future climate change?

A lot, it turns out.

Old Weather, a citizen-science project, is helping improve climate-change models using data from old ships' logs.

The project, part of the Zooniverse citizen-science portal, is a collaboration among archives, museums and libraries, scientific institutions, and national meteorological services including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Met Office, Britain's national weather service.

Users can choose from a variety of whaling expeditions from the 1880s and the early 1900s; they then can help annotate or transcribe those ships' logs. Each of the whalers sailed through Arctic waters, driven to colder and more challenging territory by a whaling boom that wiped out whales in warmer and less dangerous waters earlier in the 19th century.

Their risk could be science's gain. The crews of whaling ships kept detailed logs that collected all kinds of information on the world around them. They contain detailed weather observations, such as what the temperature was at a specific time and place.

The ships' crews also documented water conditions and Arctic ice. Today, loss of sea ice is a leading indicator of a changing global climate. Information about what the ice used to look like can help scientists create better models and more accurate predictions about how the climate may change in the future.

Humans are better at reading the old-fashioned script of the logs than computers (for now). Users can either mark up the documents, pointing to key information, or pitch in on transcription. The project's blog highlights how scientists use the data and the many scientific projects that incorporate the data. (One, the International Comprehensive Ocean-Atmosphere Data Set, has collected millions of historical weather observations.)

Every new contributor blows even more wind into science's sails. Get started at Oldweather.org.

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