Using Old Ships To Do New Science

By: Praveen Teleti

Weather Rescue at Sea: its goals and progress update.

Observing the environment around us is fundamental to learning about and understanding the natural world. Before the Renaissance, everyday weather was thought to be works of divine or supernatural hence beyond human comprehension. Trying to understand the weather was considered so futile that an indecisive or fickle-minded person was called weather-cock, who could turn any way without any reason. In some quarters, efforts to hypothesise rules of atmosphere, let alone forecast the weather, was considered heretical and blasphemous. 

 However, weather played a significant role in day-to-day life from timings of sowing and harvesting, well-being of cattle and other domesticated animals, trade-commerce, even outcomes of conflicts. The treatise written on weather by Greek philosopher, Aristotle in 340 BC was forgotten, and no gains were made on the understanding of the subject until 17th-18th Century. The weather phenomena was too abstract to comprehend without systematic accumulation of weather observations, and it became possible only after invention of weather instruments. Figure 1: The average number of observations recorded per month for each year in the ICOADS (International Comprehensive Ocean-Atmosphere Data Set) dataset, the sizes of data points are proportional to the percent of oceans covered by observations that year. 

Due to the precarious nature of life on sea, mariners started observing and recording weather several times a day, as recognising potential tempests in the vicinity and moving away could save their ship and their lives. Taking precautionary actions also made commercial sense in reducing loss or damage to the goods during transit. Ship owners and insurance providers encouraged and later mandated that weather observations be taken and recorded in an orderly fashion as to derive long-term benefit out of it.  

Sharing weather information was beneficial to all ships irrespective of nationalities, or the nature of companies operating them. However, by then no one common method or units of measuring the weather existed, which made the observations from different ships incompatible. To solve such a problem of incompatibility of information, a maritime conference in Brussels took place between major European powers in 1854.  

In the maritime conference of 1854, it was proposed to standardise methods of observation taking and keeping of logbooks, this led to an increase in the number of usable observations from 1854 onwards. About the same time, the sinking of the Royal Charter ship in a storm off the north coast of Anglesey in October 1859 inspired Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy to develop weather charts which he described as “forecasts”, thus the Met Office was born. He used the telegraphic network of weather stations around the British Isles to synthesise the current state of weather.  

There is a scientific interest in understanding the climate of the early industrial era against which our present climate could be measured. Invaluable data from many hundreds of thousands of such ship journeys can be used to inform and to estimate the changes that occurred over many decades. Data rescue (transcribing hand-written observations into computer readable digital format) of historical logbooks has been taking place for decades, but to manually transcribe an almost inexhaustible number of logbooks by individual researchers, would take thousands of human lifetimes. 

As a result, large gaps have remained in our knowledge of the climate, both in space and time. The 19th Century has fewer observations available than the 20th Century in the world’s largest observation meteorological dataset, ICOADS version 3 (International Comprehensive Ocean-Atmosphere Data Set, Freeman et al. 2017). On closer inspection, the average number of monthly observations and percent of global coverage in the 1860s and 1870s is poor compared to other decades after 1850 (Figure 1). 

With this context, the Weather Rescue At Sea project was launched to use the citizen science-based Zooniverse platform to recover some of these observations and make them usable, with a focus on ships travelling through the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Ocean basins in the 1860s and 1870s. Filling in the gaps in our knowledge will remove ambiguity in how the climate varied historically in many regions where observations are currently poor or non-existent. 

The data generated through this project will help fill many crucial gaps in the large climate datasets (e.g., ICOADS) which will be used to generate new estimates of the industrial and pre-industrial era baseline climate. But more generally, this data and data from other historical sources are used to improve the models and reanalysis systems used for climate and weather research. We need your help to data-rescue these weather observations so that scientists can analyse these observations to better understand changes in the climate since and forecast changes in the future. 

Figure 2: Ship tracks of some of the ships recovered through WRS data-rescue project 

Progress so far: Out of 248 ship logbooks used for this project, 213 logbooks are more than 80% finished, while 35 logbooks are complete. Meaning all positional and meteorological observations (e.g., Sea-level pressure, Air Temperature, Sea water Temperature, Wind speed-direction) in 35 logbooks have been transcribed (Figure 2). To date more than two million dates, positions and weather observations have been transcribed. 

We need your help to get this project across the finish line, let us give a final push to complete all logbooks. Check the poster below to volunteer. 


Freeman, E., S.D. Woodruff, S.J. Worley, S.J. Lubker, E.C. Kent, W.E. Angel, D.I . Berry, P. Brohan, R. Eastman, L. Gates, W. Gloeden, Z. Ji, J. Lawrimore, N.A. Rayner, G. Rosenhagen, and S.R. Smith, 2017: ICOADS Release 3.0: A major update to the historical marine climate record. Int. J. Climatol. (CLIMAR-IV Special Issue), 37, 2211-2237 (doi:10.1002/joc.4775).

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