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.