What links weather observations, citizen science, open data, the Met Office, contributions to climate science …?
It does all sound rather familliar, but actually I was thinking of The Secret Life of a Weather Datum – a project from the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Digital Transformations theme, led by the University of Sheffield and the University of the Creative Arts.
So while we are mostly interested in the effect of newly-recovered weather observations on our understanding of physical climate variability, The Secret Life are interested in the cultural effect of the same data as it flows through people, systems, and organisations – including oldWeather.
oldWeather has its own venue for high-quality science gossip, but in the late nineteenth century there were no internet forums; instead they had a printed magazine: Hardwicke’s Science Gossip: A Monthly Medium of Interchange and Gossip for Students and Lovers of Nature.
Today we’d call those ‘Students and Lovers of Nature’ scientists, so our friends at the Zooniverse have set up another transcription project, to read Science Gossip and related magazines, and find out what the citizen scientists of 100 years ago were interested in.
There is one thing in particular that we are also interested in – it’s a safe bet that the pages of those magazines contained information on the weather of the time; comments and perhaps original observations. At oldWeather we specialise in ship’s logbooks, but we are not fussy, and we value weather observations from any source. So we’ve added another tag to this new project for marking pages: #oldweather for any weather observations that turn up.
Florence Augusta Merriam Bailey was an eminent ornithologist round about a century ago. The Smithsonian have her diary from 1887, and are running a volunteer project to transcribe it. Despite the strong hints given in the printed page headers of her diary, Florence rarely included weather observations, but there is at least one:
Minus 26 degrees (presumably F), and down to minus 30 in the valley. That’s pretty cold even for New York state (where Florence was at the time). Why so cold? Now, that’s something we can help with, with our rich collection of historical observations and renalysis. I don’t usually do forecasts (there’s another part of the Met Office for that), but as this one’s for 128 years ago maybe we can stretch a point:
Forecast for Monday, January 3rd, 1887: The high pressure currently over the central United States will strengthen and move eastward, bringing clear skies, northerly winds, and very cold weather.
Just to put that number into context:
- Two million years ago ‘humans’ were new in the world.
- Two million months ago modern man appeared for the first time.
- Two million days ago Stonehenge was under construction.
- Two million hours ago the First Fleet set off from Portsmouth for Australia. (We’ve got their observations).
Two million weather observations ago oldWeather-Arctic was already on its way, and our mountain of vital data is now looking really impressive.
There’s a lot of history hiding in even purely scientific datasets. This movie shows just the locations of the 1.4 billion observations in the International Surface Pressure Databank (1851-2008), and in it I think I can see:
- The constraints on sailing-ship trade routes imposed by the global wind fields.
- The transition from sail to steam in shipping (late nineteenth century).
- The opening of the Suez canal in 1869 (01:30).
- The Famous Arctic voyage of Nansen’s Fram (03:20).
- The heroic age of Antarctic exploration (starting at about 04:00).
- The opening of the Panama canal in 1914 (05:10).
- The first world war (05:10).
- The second world war (07:00).
- Major administrative changes in India (08:00).
- The introduction of drifting buoys (1978: 10:20)
- And, sadly, a reduction in observations coverage in the last couple of decades as participation in the Voluntary Observing Fleet declines.
Of course these observations are not all that were made. Many more historical observations exist (on paper, or in restricted access collections), but these are the ones that are currently available to science. The process of rescuing the observations has also left its mark on the coverage – including right at the beginning of the video, where the coverage of ship observations reduces sharply in 1863 – the end of Matthew Fontaine Maury‘s pioneering data collection work. Various subsequent rises and falls in coverage result from the work of many other scientists and teams; including, of course, a large group of Royal Navy ship observations in the period around the First World War (starting about 05:00) clearly distinguishable just from their locations, as Naval ships move in a quite different pattern from commercial shipping. (Our US Arctic ships are not in this database yet – they will be in the next version).
We start 2015 with another big achievement – we’ve completed all 14 years of records (1922-1935) from the Pioneer. That’s more than 60,000 new weather observations from nearly 11,000 logbook pages. Congratulations to the lightning-fingered captain Hanibal, lieutenants gastcra, helenj, jill, pommystuart, and the 84 other crew, on another tremendous piece of work.
As a Coast and Geodetic Survey ship, Pioneer behaves quite differently from our earlier vessels – rarely venturing out into the open ocean and often staying in one place for extended periods of time. Possibly as a result of this, her logs rarely include latitude and longitude positions, preferring instead the current port or land location. This does make tracking her location more difficult, but with our excellent database of port and place locations and a little effort we can estimate a good location for almost every day.
oldWeather forum moderator Caro has been showcasing the history in our logs, by tweeting, every day, excerpts from the logs of exactly 100-years ago (follow along here). The terse style of the logs is a good match for Twitter, but on some days so much happened that we’d like to go into more detail. December 8th, 1914 was such a day, so Caro has written this post:
It’s been said before: oldWeather is not just about the weather. We transcribe history too and few of the historical narratives to emerge from our WWI ships’ logs can compare to the events that took place on this day, 8 December, 100 years ago: the Battle of the Falkland Islands. The logs of all nine Royal Navy ships involved ― Bristol, Canopus, Carnarvon, Cornwall, Glasgow, Inflexible, Invincible, Kent, and Macedonia ― have given our transcribers and editors first-hand accounts of one of the most important sea battles of WWI.
Back on November 1, Admiral von Spee and his German cruisers had defeated a Royal Navy squadron near Coronel, Chile. British losses were heavy; the ships Good Hope and Monmouth were lost and with them the lives of about 1600 men. Glasgow and Otranto escaped. The British Admiralty, realising the danger of the German ships escaping into the South Atlantic and disrupting the Allies’ operations along the African coast; or sailing around the Horn to attack the now almost defenceless British base in the Falkland Islands, sent a squadron to the South Atlantic to track down von Spee’s cruisers. Eight Royal Navy warships assembled at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands on December 7. The old battleship Canopus had been set in place as guardship for Port Stanley, resting on the mud, since mid-November.
On 8 December, the German cruisers Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Nürnberg, Dresden and Leipzig, together with three auxiliary vessels, gathered to attack the Falklands and raid the British facilities there. Gneisenau and Nürnberg detached from the rest of the German squadron and moved to attack the wireless station and port facilities of Port Stanley. The two raiders were seen by a hilltop spotter who reported their approach to Canopus, waiting out of sight behind the hills.
The logs continue the story:
- 9.19am Canopus: Opened fire fore & aft 12” turrets on Gneisenau & Nürnberg
- 930am Canopus: Ceased fire. Enemy retreated
- 9.30am Glasgow: Weighed and proceeded
- 9.50am Kent: Proceeded to follow enemy. 3 more German cruisers reported in sight, Scharnhorst, Leipzig, and Dresden
- 10.15am Glasgow: As requisite keeping touch with enemy; squadron weighing and proceeding from Port William
- 11.43am Carnarvon: Bristol ordered to take Macedonia & destroy transports
- 12.57pm Inflexible: Opened fire at extreme range on Leipzig, firing 12 rounds of 12 inch, apparently making no hits
- 12.57pm Invincible: Invincible opened fire
- 1.25pm Invincible: Enemy’s light cruisers observed to spread to starboard
- 1.33pm Invincible: Scharnhorst & Gneisenau opened fire
- 1.35pm Invincible: Cornwall, Kent & Glasgow ordered to chase enemy light cruisers
- 2.51pm Inflexible: Opened fire on Gneisenau, 15,200 yards, Invincible engaging Scharnhorst, the leading ship in line ahead
- 3.00pm Glasgow: Opened fire & engaged Leipzig with 6″ gun
- 3.30pm Bristol: Fired 2 rounds fore 6″ and ordered Santa Isabel and Baden, German colliers, to stop; crews ordered to abandon ships. German crews transferred to Macedonia
- 4.01pm Inflexible: Scharnhorst listing heavily to starboard, two funnels gone, and ship on fire. Ceased firing on her
- 4.15pm Carnarvon: Opened fire [on Scharnhorst]
- 4.17pm Carnarvon: Scharnhorst turned over & sank bow first; cease fire
- 5.00pm Kent: Kent proceeded in chase of Nürnberg
- 5.30pm Cornwall: Opened fire [on Leipzig] with 6″ guns & continued action with all guns
- 5.40pm Macedonia: Opened fire on Baden
- 5.48pm Inflexible: Finally ceased firing [on Gneisenau]. Signalled to Carnarvon, “I think enemy have hauled down their colours”
- 6.02pm Invincible: Gneisenau sinks. Invincible, Inflexible and Carnarvon proceeded at full speed to pick up survivors
- 6.45pm Kent: Opened fire and finally ceased fire at 6.57pm; Nürnberg sank at 7.25 pm
- 6.50pm Cornwall: Enemy [Leipzig] on fire fore and aft
- 7.00pm Bristol: Macedonia ordered to remain till colliers sunk and proceed to Port Stanley with crews
- 7.23pm Kent: Stopped and endeavoured to pick up [Nürnberg] survivors
- 7.53pm Macedonia: Baden sank
- 8.15pm Macedonia: Opened fire on Santa Isabel
- 9.00pm Cornwall: Stopped; lowered port boats to pick up [Leipzig] survivors
- 9.23pm Cornwall: Leipzig foundered
- 9.30pm Macedonia: Santa Isabel sank
The German auxiliary Seydlitz and light cruiser Dresden escaped. Almost 1900 German seamen lost their lives; 10 British were killed.
One hundred years on, we remember all those who died at Coronel and the Falklands and in the battles to come.
Today is the last Thursday in November, and our friends in the U.S.A. are celebrating Thanksgiving. This festival has not caught on here in the UK, so I’m spared the turkey, and the pumpkin pie.
But I do know about being thankful, and today I’m particularly thankful for the 19,683 people who have transcribed at least one logbook page for oldWeather. Every one has made a contribution, from those who visited only once, to those who have done thousands of pages, and help guide and drive the project and its community. I’m proud to count them all as co-investigators.
So it’s an appropriate day to release a revised version of the project credits reel: