Old ships’ logbooks give scientists insight into climate change

old ships logbooks
Undated Handout photograph of 19th century whaling ship the Fleetwing. New Bedford Whaling Museum/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – An eccentric group of citizen-scientists called Old Weather has transcribed millions of observations from long-forgotten logbooks of ships, many from the great era of Arctic exploration. As the polar regions grow ever warmer, the volunteers have amassed a rich repository of climate data in a 21st century rescue mission.

On November 14, 1881, an American called George Melville limped across a frozen delta in Siberia and pulled a pole from the snow with his frost-bitten hands.

The title page of Volume 1 of the USS Jeannette logbooks is pictured at the National Archives building in Washington, USA, December 2, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

Exhausted and half-starving, Melville was scouring the wasteland for fellow survivors of the most famous ship in the world. The USS Jeannette had set sail from San Francisco to conquer the North Pole. Instead, it quickly got trapped in ice and spent nearly two years drifting across the Arctic Ocean, lost to the rest of humanity.

When it was finally crushed by the ice, the Jeannette’s 33 crew members set out across the frozen sea. A storm separated them, and Melville mustered a team of locals in the desolate Lena Delta to find his missing shipmates. He braved the wilderness as the days grew shorter, his legs so swollen and blistered from exposure that he vomited with the pain.

First he found the pole. It marked the spot where George De Long, the Jeannette’s captain, had buried the valuables he had grown too weak to carry. They included Captain De Long’s most prized possessions: the ship’s four logbooks. These hefty, leather-bound volumes recorded, in intimate detail, the ill-fated Jeannette expedition and the discoveries it had made.

It took Melville four more months to find De Long’s body. Nineteen other crew members also died, their heroic lives cut short by drowning, disease, exposure and starvation. But, thanks to Melville, the logbooks survived. Once, while battling through a snowstorm, he briefly considered reburying them to lighten his load, then changed his mind. “Setting my teeth against the storm,” he wrote, “I would swear a new oath to carry them through, let come what might.”

Thousands of miles away, and 138 years later, the Jeannette’s logbooks sit in a climate-controlled room in the U.S. National Archives in Washington, D.C. Every page has been digitized and uploaded to the web, then transcribed by an eccentric group of citizen-scientists called Old Weather.

For the past decade, its far-flung volunteers have shown that the Jeannette’s logbooks, and others like them, are more than what Melville called “the records … of our two years of toil and suffering.” They are rich repositories of data that can help us understand how profoundly the Earth’s climate has changed and what might happen to it in the future.

Meteorologists have long recorded the weather at land-based stations. But nearly three-quarters of the planet is covered by water, and that’s where most weather takes place. Thousands of ships have criss-crossed the oceans, noting the weather in handwritten logbooks that for decades sat forgotten in bookshelves and basements.

In a sometimes-obsessive quest, thousands of Old Weather volunteers have extracted millions of observations about barometric pressure, wind speed, air temperature and ice from the old logbooks. These are fed into a huge dataset at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), creating what NOAA calls “a dauntingly complex, high-resolution, four-dimensional reconstruction of the global climate that estimates what the weather was for every day back to 1836.”

Or, as NOAA has nicknamed it, “a weather time machine.”

A detail in Volume 1 of the USS Jeannette logbooks is pictured at the National Archives building in Washington, USA, December 2, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

Many of the ships, like the Jeannette, hail from the great era of Arctic exploration, when crews risked everything in a race for the North Pole. Ships plunged into the frozen unknown and vanished, inspiring other ships to launch daring but luckless missions to rescue them. In an age when Arctic ice is fast disappearing, many Old Weather volunteers also see their work as a rescue mission, but with much higher stakes, as the warming Earth makes its own leap into the unknown.

Three years ago, a private Russian expedition searched in vain for the wreck of the Jeannette. The ship spent three days stuck in ice while hungry polar bears prowled around it. It didn’t, however, sink.

“That would have been quite ironic, don’t you think?” says Kevin Wood, who was on the ship.

Wood, a research scientist at both NOAA and the University of Washington in Seattle, is the lead investigator for Old Weather’s Arctic project.

Wood got involved in Old Weather after meeting its founder, a British meteorologist called Philip Brohan, at a conference in Baltimore. Over a drink at a nearby pub, Brohan explained his problem: Old Weather volunteers were working so quickly, they’d soon run out of the Royal Navy logbooks he had set them to transcribing in 2010.

So, in 2011, Wood set up a team at the National Archives to start digitising its 80,000 or so logbooks from US Navy and Coast Guard ships. Their weather observations, once extracted by volunteers, will help scientists build what Wood calls “essentially a satellite view of 19th century weather.”

At the time, these observations helped captains navigate safely and swiftly across a trackless sea. The logbooks were returned to naval authorities or ship owners, who used them to build pilot charts and guide later navigators. “Today, we can go back and reuse all that data, with a completely new purpose that they would never have imagined,” Wood says. “Every ship becomes part of our quest. Because the more data we have, the better the reanalysis will be.”

d handles the science for Old Weather, but as a sailor who spent more than 25 years roaming the world’s oceans, he seems equally smitten with the romance of the seafaring life. He describes himself as a “sporadically voracious reader” who devoured all 20 volumes of Patrick O’Brian’s high-seas adventure series, “Master and Commander,” in six weeks.

Although about 20,000 people have contributed to Old Weather over the years, Wood says a 50-strong community of stalwarts has done about half the work. One is Joan Arthur, who works as the office coordinator at an environmental institute at the University of Oxford. We meet on a chilly afternoon in late autumn, the city’s ancient, cobblestone streets teeming with students and tourists.

“Would you like some Victoria sponge cake?” she asks, leading me to a table in the institute’s tiny kitchen. Other staff come in and out, and at one point she breaks off to chat with a colleague about an algorithm that counts penguins.

Arthur, 61, whose father had served on a Royal Navy ship, first heard of Old Weather five or six years ago, through an ad on the university’s website.

She was soon captivated by the logbooks and the “thundering age” of exploration they recorded. “The stories are just so astonishingly epic,” she says. Her emails are punctuated with phrases such as “How exciting!” and “Oh joy!” One promises tales of “a mutiny, a death, a tussle with ice, scrappy writing, a spelling nightmare.”

Arthur worked on the Jeannette’s logbooks, whose weather and ice observations have allowed researchers to reconstruct the climate in an area of the Arctic that was then almost unknown. “It was basically the moon,” Kevin Wood says. “We had no information about it.”

Old ship’s logs can also offer new insights into extreme events such as storms or floods, which happen infrequently and therefore need a long history to properly understand. Data from the Jamestown, another US Navy ship, and the Jeannette was reanalysed by NOAA’s “weather time machine” to reconstruct what had long been described as a hurricane that hit Sitka in Alaska in 1880. The reanalysis showed that it wasn’t a hurricane, but part of a much larger storm system known as an extra-tropical cyclone.

After working on the Jeannette for a while, Arthur switched to the Rodgers, a Navy ship that in 1881 was sent to find Captain De Long and his crew. She talks about the Rodgers as if it’s still afloat – “She’s a bit of a tub to sail” – but the Rodgers is long gone, its story almost as tragic as the ship it was meant to rescue.

The Rodgers sailed from San Francisco on June 16, 1881, with 38 men on board. They had no way of knowing that, three days earlier, the Jeannette had already been crushed by the ice, and De Long and his shipmates had begun their desperate journey over an icy no-man’s land toward Siberia.

At first, the Rodgers sailed west, crossing the North Pacific to resupply at a port on Russia’s wild Kamchatka Peninsula. Then it headed north, passing through the Bering Strait, the sliver of ocean separating two continents, and into barely charted Arctic waters teeming with walruses, polar bears and whales. It was greeted by displays of the northern lights, which the ship’s awestruck logkeeper describes in terms of what sailors know best: the sea.

26 September: Remarkably bright star light and intensely brilliant and active aurora … It would occasionally burst into still brighter luminosity and the thin arcs uniting would form one broad belt of light heaving and tossing like the sea in a gale.

Nearly all U.S. Navy vessels had a scientific component, and the Rodgers was no exception. The instruments on board – chronometer, thermometer, barometer, compass – were, at the time, state-of-the-art. Its logbook begins with directions for recording everything from accidents and desertions to “the appearance of the Heavens.”

Every hour, the crew dutifully noted the ship’s speed and course, as well as the temperature, weather, wind conditions and barometric pressure. By late August, as the Rodgers neared Wrangel Island, the log began making the observations about ice that future scientists would find so valuable. For the Rodgers, however, monitoring the shifting ice that could trap or even scupper it was a matter of life or death:

Midnight to 2.20am: Ship in pack ice partially. Hove to under spanker and jib. 2.20am: Started ahead slowly under steam to work ship out of ice. Ship struck several times against heavy cakes… Shifting course to avoid ice, making good North-East.

Twice the Rodgers changed course to investigate what looked like “a black mass resembling a ship”; both times it proved to be a ship-sized chunk of dirty ice.

With pack ice closing in, the Rodgers headed south again. It had found no trace of the Jeannette’s crew, who by this time had begun their arduous trek across the ice, hundreds of miles to the west. But the Rodgers was about to get a taste of what the missing sailors were suffering.

En route, the Rodgers sent ashore Charles Putnam, the ship’s 29-year-old master, and seven other crew members. Equipped with 18 dogs, two sleds and a year’s provisions, Putnam’s team had orders to continue the search for the Jeannette along the Siberian coast.

The Rodgers sailed on to evade the ice – only to be destroyed by a fire that started in its hold just five months into its mission. Its crew and its logbooks were rescued, although there was one casualty. The ship’s dog, a sorry-looking mutt called One-Eyed Riley, died in the fire.

When Charles Putnam heard that the Rodgers had been destroyed, he raced south to help his shipmates. On the way a storm blew up, and Putnam – separated from his guides, half-blinded by snow – drifted out to sea on a chunk of ice.

Later that day, he was spotted floating about seven miles offshore. “A vigorous attempt was made to rescue him by four of the Rodgers’s crew and two natives in a canoe,” according to an official dispatch, “but owing to the intervening ice they were unable to reach him and were obliged to put back after getting three miles from shore. This was the last ever seen of Putnam.”

Poor Mr. Putnam,” Joan Arthur sighs. “I read that and it traumatised me for some time.” So did the death of One-Eyed Riley. “Bless his cotton socks,” she says. “He probably would have ended up in the pot anyway.” (Case in point: Snoozer, the last surviving sled dog on the Jeannette. The famished crew made him into what their captain called a “nauseating” stew.)

One-Eyed Riley was the only casualty of the burning of the Rodgers.

Most of her co-workers have gone home, and a janitor pushes a vacuum cleaner around Arthur’s feet. Oblivious, she taps at her laptop, explaining how the voyages of the Rodgers and the Jeannette provide scientific data not just about weather and ice.

In 2016, an academic paper on Arctic auroras was published in Astronomy and Geophysics, the journal of the Royal Astronomical Society in London. It was based on observations gleaned by Old Weather volunteers from logs written while the Jeannette was held captive by ice. Volunteers have also collected log entries about wildlife, kelp, comets and volcanic activity. “We’ve discovered volcanic eruptions that have not been recorded before,” Arthur says.

As Navy ships, the Jeannette and the Rodgers were run with a discipline reflected in their logbooks, which were usually detailed and legible. Not like the logs of whaling ships that Old Weather began transcribing in 2015. Whaling logbooks often have poor handwriting, worse spelling and erratic punctuation, Arthur says. Sometimes, as with this breathless scribble about a mutiny on the Lucretia in 1883, it’s all three:

At last the Capt told them the time was past for Agument and the first man … drew Pistol and said Shute you Son of a Bitch and did Shute at the Capt and jumped over from the Port Side of the Ship to the Starboard and was met by the Capt who Shot Him dead …

The whaling logbooks are challenging, but the extra effort is worth it, Kevin Wood says. Yes, the whalers make fewer daily observations than the Navy ships and generally lack instrumental weather data. “However, there are many more whaling voyages, and especially in the early years there are many ships out on the ice-edge at the same time in a given year,” he says. “This will significantly augment the picture we have of the ice.”

Helen Julian is a nun who lives in Darlington, in northern England. Her first logbook for Old Weather belonged to a 980-ton British naval sloop that patrolled the African coastline during World War I. It had what she calls “a very unexciting war,” but she was soon absorbed by the rhythms and details of life at sea a century ago.

“You always have a very particular relationship with your first ship,” she says. “It’s a bit like falling in love. You can’t always say why.”

We sit in the living room of her modest home, the last of the day’s sun slanting through its bay window. Helen Julian, who is 64, belongs to an Anglican religious order of sisters called the Community of St Francis. She wears a wooden, T-shaped crucifix, or St. Francis cross, over her blue tartan sweater. She describes herself as an introvert, but she’s outgoing and eager to dispel myths about her religious calling.

“If you need a friendly nun, I’m here,” she says. “I’m all in favour of making ourselves known to people who actually want to take us seriously. It’s not all ‘The Sound of Music.’”

St. Francis is the patron saint of ecology, and Helen Julian says Old Weather feels “like part of my discipleship.” She heard about the group by chance, on a radio program, and saw it as a way that someone with no scientific background could help climate science.

“It’s a contribution to an important cause and to another form of community,” she says, meaning the nerdy and unfashionably courteous Old Weather Forum, an online chat room that many volunteers speak of with affection. In one chat titled “Signs of OW addiction,” a volunteer said she continued to transcribe a logbook despite going into labour.

Helen Julian is currently working on the Fleetwing, a 19th century whaling ship whose logbook was kept by the captain’s 14-year-old daughter, Adaline Heppingstone. Whaling captains often brought wives and children on voyages, she says, but it was rare to find a log written by a teenage girl.

At the time, American whaling ships were floating abattoirs, their decks slippery with blood and oil. Many logs detail the gruesome, round-the-clock task of processing the whale: slicing off the blubber, boiling it to extract the oil, harvesting the bone. Some logs record a kill with a whale-shaped stamp.

The interests of 19th century whaling captains and 21st century climatologists converge on a long-suffering species: the bowhead whale. Bowheads feed by filtering the ocean with long vertical plates in their mouths called baleen, a substance once highly prized for making everything from horse whips to corsets. Whaling ships hunted them by patrolling the ice-edge where the bowheads fed, which meant their logbooks were filled with observations about ice.

These observations were taken when the Arctic felt impossibly remote from everyday life. Today, says Wood, we know the Arctic plays a vital role in regulating the Earth’s climate, and that changes there will affect us all. Melting ice exposes more ocean or land, which, because it is darker, absorbs more sunlight and causes more heating. Melting ice on land also causes sea-level rise.

In 1882, the Fleetwing was part of a US fleet searching Arctic waters for bowheads. They have the longest life spans of any whale: 200 years or more. There might be bowheads alive today who remember the mass slaughter of their species – who might even have fled from the Fleetwing’s approach.

In some of her entries in the Fleetwing’s logbook, Adaline writes of everyday pastimes. She does embroidery with her mother and takes walks on the deck. She plays checkers with the captains of nearby whaling ships, and records a visit by some “Esquimaux” selling fox skins.

In others, domesticity comes with a dollop of gore. Over a few days in April, in precise cursive with little flourishes on the capital letters, Adaline describes the crew butchering whales and boiling the blubber into oil.

Saturday 22: Today we got our first bowhead this year. We had a fine breeze and struck at 3 o’clock P.M. and we are cutting him in now it is a large one … I have been working on my lovely little cushion today, and Mother has been sewing on a wrapper that she is making.

Sunday 23: … we had a hard time to cut our whale, as it was quite rugged, but we got it all safe.

Monday 24: It is snowing a little at times but not so hard that it keeps us from boiling. This afternoon Father and Mother covered the sofa to save it from getting any oil on it.

Three weeks passed, with Adaline recording a few sightings but no catches. Then, on the afternoon of May 17, the crew spotted a whale and her calf, “and struck right away.” Writes Adaline: “We got the calf too – it was very small. We took it in on deck. We are cutting.”

Apart from the logbook, Adaline left little trace in the world. Helen Julian, transcribing the log in her cosy living room in England, had assumed the captain’s daughter had died very young. But then she was directed to a website that uses crowdsourcing to locate old graves. It noted that Adaline had died in South Yarmouth, Massachusetts, in 1957.

Helen Julian was delighted; she and the whaler’s daughter had drawn closer. “She was still alive when I was born. We overlapped. Just.”

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