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Crowdsourcing the weather of the past

Did it rain on the 12th of March, 1863? It’s a good question. In order to better understand our climate and its weather systems, we need as much data as possible. The more we know about the weather in the past, the better we can predict the weather in the future. But where do you go to get accurate historical notes on the weather?

The National Maritime Museum has an answer: ship’s logs. British Navy vessels travelled the world and kept detailed log books. They’re highly accurate, as it was an offence to falsify information in them. They give a rare insight into the weather of distant places where records were not yet kept, where development had not brought literacy, let alone thermometers and barometers. Since 70% of the Earth is ocean, log books also help to fill in the gaps between land-based weather stations, giving us a much better picture of past weather trends.

All those log books remain in the archives, long after the ships have been decommissioned and broken up for scrap. The British Library holds the East India Company log books for all the trade between Britain and China, going right back to 1780. Or how about Antarctic explorations, or even the Beagle voyage? Log books are a treasure trove of old weather, and altogether there are half a million of them in the UK alone, with thousands more around the world in other national archives.

And that begs the question – where to begin? And how long will it take to pore through those logs and transcribe and digitise that information? That’s where Old Weather comes in. This innovative website uses crowd sourcing to make that data available, with volunteers taking small sections of log books and transcribing them. Visit the website, and you can pick a ship from the list. You’ll see a picture of it, the name of the captain, and where it is in the world. If you want to get your hands on some history, and help out meteorologists and climatologists at the same time, it’s a pretty unique opportunity.

Visit oldweather.org for all the details, and this page to see a series of short explanatory videos.

20 comments

  1. It’s true that more information is a good thing. Unfourtunately the “Record” is based on ever fewer numbers of stations.

    That the stations and records dropped are mostly rural and higher altitude and latitude one’s in preference to air port and urban ones makes for some strange discontinuity’s. http://icecap.us/images/uploads/Stationdropout.jpg

    Notice how when the number of stations dropped rapidly the temperatures rose rapidly.

    Other older and un-adjustable historic records have also been dropped. http://www.climategate.com/czechgate-climate-scientists-dump-worlds-second-oldest-cold-climate-record?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+climategate%2FROux+%28CLIMATEGATE%29 “From plain reading of the Czech data we see that for the past 200 years the temperature in this part of central Europe has warmed by a statistically insignificant 0.25° Centigrade per century.”

    And the Oldest Continuious Temperature Record agrees with the Czech data. http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/jamesdelingpole/100022226/agw-i-refute-it-thus-central-england-temperatures-1659-to-2009/

    More Data is better if it is openly shared and available for independant verification, not hidden behind FOIA walls.

    1. I agree very much about sharing data and making it available for independent verification. And the adjustment of empirical data is an especially serious problem. A current example is Nic Lewis’s recent investigation showing that, before presenting them, the IPCC distorted the results of a peer-reviewed empirical study (Forster and Gregory 2006) re climate sensitivity. They did so by applying to the results what’s known as a Bayesian “uniform prior” – improper because it assumes in effect that strong warming is more probable than is shown by the results. In other words, they changed a published result – to make a 21st century warming of over 2 deg. C more probable. Yet warming of over 2 deg. Is basic to the case for urgent action to reduce GHGs. So this unwarranted adjustment may be an even more serious error than the Himalayagate scandal. As Nic says, “this error is highly consequential, since it involves the only instrumental evidence that is climate-model independent cited by the IPCC as to the probability distribution of climate sensitivity …”

      Nic’s findings are here:
      http://judithcurry.com/2011/07/05/the-ipccs-alteration-of-forster-gregorys-model-independent-climate-sensitivity-results/

      It’s interesting that such adjustments always seem to be biased in one direction.

  2. The two records i have posted are very much like the ships logs. They are the actual unadjusted historical records dating back 200 and 350 years respectively. The data speaks for itself without an agenda.

    I have an interest in this sort of data for two reasons. First is my wanting to compare it to the existing two records shown and second is my grandfather served in the Royal Navy during WWII. So i will likely look up the ships he served on if possible.

    1. Here are 8 long-term unadjusted temperature records (including the CET record):

      As you say the data speaks for itself.

  3. “The data speaks for itself without an agenda”, “the data speaks for itself.”

    Data isn’t neutral guys. It has to be interpreted, understood, and put in context. Come on, you claim data has no agenda and then point me to James Delingpole and a website called ‘climategate’! Seriously?

    Global warming trends are neither confirmed nor refuted with local data. To attempt to do so is an abuse of the data.

    But this is not a forum for your skepticism. I you want to talk about shipping logs, let’s do that. If you want to talk hackneyed conspiracy theories about weather stations, go and talk about that with Anthony Watts.

    1. I am not interested in conspiracy theories – hackneyed or otherwise.

      All Amirlach and I are showing is that there are several old records providing instrument-based data that do contribute to an understanding of our climate and its weather systems and do help us to predict likely future weather. Unfortunately they’re little discussed. The Central England record is especially interesting. I’m not aware that anyone has attempted to adjust it but it is commonly cited from 1770 onwards thereby omitting the significant warming at the end 17th / early 18th century – greater than that at the end of the 20th century. No need to refer to the dreaded Delingpole – you can find it in the wonderful resource of global records here:
      http://www.john-daly.com/stations/stations.htm

      “Old Weather” isn’t the only initiative re ships’ logs. Such data are already contributing to better understanding of past (and therefore future) weather. And that is most welcome. See, for example, this about the “CORRAL” project: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/news/stories/2009/09/logbooksonline.aspx
      It’s interesting incidentally that the 17th/18th century warming found by the CET instrument record (see above) appears to be confirmed by a study of ships’s logs by Dr Dennis Wheeler of Sunderland University. It is referred to here: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/article4449527.ece

      An extract:

      “This [Wheeler’s research] shows that during the 1730s, Europe underwent a period of rapid warming similar to that recorded recently – and which must have had natural origins. Hints of such changes are already known from British records, but Wheeler has found they affected much of the north Atlantic too, and he has traced some of the underlying weather systems that caused it.”

    2. Another interesting study – this time of the log books of Arctic explorers – by Dr Chad Dick of the Norwegian Polar Institute suggests that recent melting of Arctic ice may have been the result of a natural cycle and not man-made global warming: http://www.infowars.com/articles/science/polar_history_icecap_melting_natural.htm

      An extract:

      “The finding opens the possibility that the recent worrying changes in Arctic sea ice are simply the result of standard cyclical movements, and not a harbinger of major climate change.”

      1. Further to my note above about log book evidence about 18th century ice conditions in the Arctic, here’s a detailed (and very interesting) study of historic variations in Arctic ice:
        http://noconsensus.wordpress.com/2009/06/16/historic-variation-in-arctic-ice-tony-b/

        It opens with the now famous (and, in view of recent Arctic ice loss, relevant) letter from the President of the Royal Society to the Board of Admiralty in 1817:

        “It will without doubt have come to your Lordship’s knowledge that a considerable change of climate, inexplicable at present to us, must have taken place in the Circumpolar Regions, by which the severity of the cold that has for centuries past enclosed the seas in the high northern latitudes in an impenetrable barrier of ice has been during the last two years, greatly abated.

        [This] affords ample proof that new sources of warmth have been opened and give us leave to hope that the Arctic Seas may at this time be more accessible than they have been for centuries past, and that discoveries may now be made in them not only interesting to the advancement of science but also to the future intercourse of mankind and the commerce of distant nations.”

        The information available to the Royal Society and the Admiralty came of course from reports by ships’ masters – such as Mr Scoresby, master of a whaler out of Whitby (as mentioned in this study).

    3. No, Jeremy, essentially data is neutral. The records to which I supply a link above provide evidence that, in eight widely separated locations, the instrument records establish (a) that temperatures have at most increased only slightly over a long period (and in two cases have barely increased at all) and (b) that in none of these locations has there been a change in the rate of increase since mankind’s GHG emissions became a factor. No doubt these results could be “interpreted”, “understood” and “put in context” by a “climate expert”. But the evidence would still be there – with its simple message.

  4. When the data is “interpreted”, “understood” and “put in context” by “climate experts”. You end up with the Data Fraud scandals seen in the US, New Zealand, Austrailia, Russia, Scandinavia and so on. Also the recent sea level adjustment scandal.

    The “interpitations” always seem to adjust the past downwards and the present upwards. http://sppiblog.org/tag/temperature-data-manipulation

    The point is the records should remain available in the Un-interperted, un-understood and not put into “context” by alarmists with an agenda. That way they retain historical value.

    They can then be examined and put in context by independant researchers. Before the raw data happens to get deleted again.

    1. I agree. There have been too many examples of data being adjusted and reinterpreted. The reason for this (and I’ll be charitable here) is probably because researchers have no doubt of the need for people to wake up to the dangers of AGW and don’t want anything to impede that message – i.e. “noble cause corruption”, where the end justifies the means. But it’s poor science and, in any case, is counterproductive: it’s one of the many reasons few people are any longer concerned about the dangerous AGW hypothesis.

      As I said, data are neutral. And should be left alone. It’s interesting that Jeremy seems to disagree.

      1. Not at all – some climate science (like most science) is admirable. But some – e.g. data “adjustment” – is poor science. And it endangers the good name of science in general. Surely, Jeremy, you don’t approve of that. Do you?

      2. Anyway the bulk of the thread is about the importance and extraordinary relevance today of old records. You should be proud: you’ve introduced a most interesting topic. By definition, mankind experiences weather and climate locally. And has always done so. That’s why the local records of the past (such as ships’ logs) are important. More important I suggest than the computer models of today.

  5. Back to the main topic and evidence of weather/climate from ships’ records. I referred above to the well-known letter from the Royal Society to the Board of Admiralty in 1817 drawing attention to how “the severity of the cold that has for centuries past enclosed the seas in the high northern latitudes in an impenetrable barrier of ice has been during the last two years, greatly abated” and how one of the ships’ masters reporting this was a Mr Scoresby – described as “a very intelligent young man”. Well, it’s interesting that in 1776 the Government had offered a reward of £20,000 (a huge sum in those days) to anyone penetrating north of 89 degrees and that our Mr Scoresby had a remarkable father (a neighbour of James Cook) who almost gained the reward: he got beyond 81 degrees in 1806. That was only 510 miles from the North Pole.

    All this does serve to corroborate the findings of the Central England instrument record I mention above, suggesting that the warming phenomenon may not have been restricted to England. And see also the current work being carried out by Dr Dennis Wheeler of Sunderland University also referred to above. Fascinating stuff.

  6. Here’s another traveller’s report from the past, not as old as those eighteenth century reports but interesting nonetheless. In May 1926, explorers in the dirigible “Norge” “saw much open water at the North Pole”. Here’s the cutting:
    http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=5louAAAAIBAJ&sjid=oNkFAAAAIBAJ&pg=6377,694076&dq=north-pole+water&hl=en

    In contrast, the view from a satellite just a few days ago shows no open water at the Pole:
    http://www.arctic.io/observations/8/2011-07-02/4-N83.994855-W146.347322

    1. > In contrast, the view from a satellite just a few days ago shows no open water at the Pole:

      http://www.arctic.io/observations/8/2011-07-02/4-N83.994855-W146.347322

      This view is off by 700km from the pole. Looks like the skeptics are not from this planet or missed the geography lesson which introduced the globe. However, they are good at copy & paste – a sign they manage at least three different keyboard buttons. But, did they learned already Earth is not flat?

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