Old Ship Logs Reveal Adventure, Tragedy And Hints About Climate

What can yesterday’s weather tell us about how the climate is changing today? That’s what an army of volunteers looking at old ships’ logs is trying to answer through the Old Weather project.

One of those volunteers, or citizen scientists as the project calls them, is Kathy Wendolkowski of Gaithersburg, Md.

She uses her laptop to read from the logbook of the Pioneer, a ship out measuring ocean depths near Alaska. An image of the Pioneer’s log from 1925 was posted online by the National Archives at the website OldWeather.org. Her task is to transcribe the logs handwritten notes, from their elegant cursive script, to something that can be digested by computers.

It’s harder than it might seem, she remembers chatting with one of her fellow transcribers:

“One poor guy said ‘everyday in the logs at six o’clock they have suffer in the logbook.’ So I’m like wait no that’s ‘supper’ ’cause there’s a tall thing on the ‘p’ so it looks like ‘suffer.'”

Mariners have long kept meticulous logbooks of weather conditions, and descriptions of life on board ship, and the Archives has pages and pages and pages of them recorded by sailors on Navy and Coast Guard vessels.

Along with the basic weather observations, the logbooks contain amazing stories of adventure, survival and mystery. A bouquet of dried flowers was sandwiched in one logbook. Another log describes a 1600-mile overland journey to bring reindeer to some stranded whalers. And then there are the logs of the U.S.S. Jennette. Its journey began in San Francisco in 1879, an ill-fated attempt to find an open-water passage to the North Pole. Two months later, the Jennette was surrounded by ice north of Siberia.

Pack ice has always been a grave danger to ships. The Jennette’s engineer called what he heard blood-curdling.

Here’s how the logbook reads: “Calm light airs from the northeast. All hands employed cutting the ice away from the rudder.”

Archivist Mark Mollan says the Jennette was trapped in the ice for nearly two years, before the sailors were forced to abandon ship.

“They all had to make for small launches dragging their scientific equipment and all the records they kept for those 21 months while they were drifting in the ice. So all of these logbooks and the equipment were part of the expedition and they rest on our shelves today,” he says.

Its a great story, but what does any of this have to do with weather now?

Kevin Wood is a research scientist with NOAA and Old Weather is his brain child. He says the weather observations in the Jennette’s logbooks and in all the other logbooks tell their own stories and fill in the gaps of our climate knowledge. Take the observations of the ice, for instance. Wood says the ice that trapped the Jennette in September all those years ago, doesn’t even exist that time of year anymore.

“As we recover more and more data and we can reanalyze the global weather patterns for those years. We’re going to understand more about the way arctic ice drifts and moves about in those days which it may or may not do today.”

And he says scientists are able to do another cool thing with those long ago climate observations. They can plug them into a computer, and produce a detailed weather map for that time, kind of like the wayback machine in those old Mr. Peabody cartoons.

But Wood says whats really important is what this tells us about the climate, and its effects from storms to ice flows today. “Whether those kinds of events have stopped happening, whether they’re going to happen more often or less often. That’s power of having a very long term, complete reconstruction of the earths atmosphere,” he says.

For volunteer Kathy Wendolkowski, an historian by training, transcribing the old logbooks is a way of honoring those who served on the ships, and collected the data. She finds the project hard to resist: “Its just the human stories that are in these log pages, that just….how can you not?”

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