You Can Help Scientists Bring Climate Change into Focus

Learn more about how scientists use old weather data to reconstruct past weather.

Global weather reconstructions from National Maritime Museum on Vimeo.


In order to understand what the weather will do in the future, scientists need to understand what the weather did in the past. That’s a challenging endeavor because reliable, historical weather observations can be difficult to find.  Information is especially sparse where few people live to collect it, like the middle of the ocean (no offense, Hawaii).  In the past half-century, modern technologies like satellites, buoys, and planes have allowed scientists to get around this problem, but they only shed light on a tiny chapter of Earth’s climate history.  So how do scientists know what the weather was like before modern times for nearly 71 percent of the earth’s surface?

Some researchers take samples from the ocean floor which can reveal clues about how the Earth’s climate behaved millions of years ago, but these ocean sediment cores cannot resolve year to year weather data, let alone the daily and hourly data on which scientists rely today.  Luckily, weather data, particularly air temperatures and pressures, were recorded by mariners in their ship’s logbooks as they traversed the globe in the last few centuries.  There are at least 250,000 logbooks sitting in U.S. libraries alone, but many more can be found in Asia, South America and elsewhere which collectively represent billions of individual weather observations from around the world.  And these data are trustworthy.  The sailors and officers who made these observations were well educated, and it was an offense to falsify a log.  If scientists could put this data into their modern computer model simulations, they could generate approximate weather maps based on their understanding of ocean and atmospheric physics.  By lengthening their record of weather observations, scientists may be able to refine their estimates about how likely future weather patterns may be.

While this may sound like music to a climatologist’s ears, there is one monumental barrier to using these data: they’re not in the digital format that scientists require.  Even worse, no computer algorithm exists yet that can accurately interpret the subtleties of human handwriting, so logbook transcriptions must be painstakingly completed by hand.  One ship’s logbook transcription could take one person 28 years to complete, and even humans cannot always read one another’s handwriting, so it’s easy for one person make a mistake.  No one has a spare 28 years to complete this work, so how can scientists use this wealth of information?  That’s where you come in.

An international team of scientists has created oldWeather.org, a subsidiary of the Zooniverse Project that invites people from all walks of life to pour through these logbooks and enter the information into a database.  By “crowdsourcing,” scientists can dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes to transcribe a logbook, and having more than one set of eyes reduces the chances for human error.  So far, users, or “citizen scientists,” have transcribed more than 43,000 pages of logbooks.  This novel approach is a creative way for scientists to efficiently include historical records into their current experiments, and they could certainly use your help!  If you’d like to participate and learn about the maritime history – including juicy anecdotes that are captured in each day’s log – click here to help.  Your fellow scientists and future generations will have you to thank!

Learn more about how Crowdsourcing works:

The art of crowdsourcing from National Maritime Museum on Vimeo.


(Source: oldWeather, 2014, “Why Scientists Need You.” Accessed Online April 12, 2013. http://www.oldweather.org/why_scientists_need_you)

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