The Royal Navy as Weather Observers

Sailors have been deeply concerned with the weather since ancient times: wind speed and direction, and estimates of ocean currents, were critical information for keeping track of the ship’s position. The Royal Navy records in the National Archives and the National Maritime Museum go back into the 17th century, and even the earliest logbooks contain descriptions of the weather of each day.

Raven Log

Most of the early records give only wind force and direction, but even in the eighteenth century some ships carried weather instruments (thermometer and barometer), and this became standard practice in the nineteenth century. Since then, every navy ship has recorded precise temperatures and pressures as a matter of routine, and this practice continues to today. This combination of obsession with the weather, a large number of ships supporting British interests all over the world, and exemplary record keeping and preservation, mean that the hundreds of thousands of historic naval logs which have survived to the present day have enormous potential to provide new information on how the weather changes and varies.

Old Weather is about turning that potential information into actual information. Paper records are great for long-term preservation, but for analysis and understanding we need computer-readable versions. Also, to find the interesting features and changes in the weather, the records need to be looked at by scientists. A lot of records requires a lot of scientists, and the large community of citizen scientists forming the Zooniverse could make a big difference.

[The above image is from the log of the Raven, for January 12 and 13, 1832]

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9 responses to “The Royal Navy as Weather Observers”

  1. Jean Tate says :

    What is the likelihood that other old, paper-based, weather records (as yet undigitized) will become available for deciphering and turning-into-digital-data? The British navy’s records must be only a small fraction of the reasonably accessible total, no?

  2. Chris says :

    We hope to expand Old Weather to include many other logs, and are already trying to work out how best to do this. The greater the response to Old Weather’s current incarnation, the more likely it is that we’ll be able to expand.

    Cheers

    Chris

  3. jill says :

    Hi Old Weather People,
    What a wonderful adventure! You must be learning so much, not only about weather conditions throughout the centuries, but also about the people who took the measurements – even in the middle of battle.
    I heard that “outiders” can help translate the original documents. If so, how do we go about applying for this fascinating job.

    Cheers, Jill

  4. Bert Meek says :

    hello,
    I was a lighthouse keeper for a short time in the early 60’s and have wondered what happened to all there log books when the lights became unmanned, this might be a new source of weather reports.
    I’m enjoying transcribing the logs it’s interesting to see how much coal was burnt in the bigger ships.

    good luck

    Derek

    • Philip says :

      We have asked Trinity House about lighthouse logbooks, and unfortunately it seems likely that they were all destroyed. If anyone knows of any that survived, please let us know.

      Cheers,

      Philip

  5. George says :

    Have you thought about approaching the Northern Lighthouse Board for old logbooks? They are responsible for all the lighthouses around the coast of Scotland and the Isle of Man.

    Yours,
    George

  6. Bert Meek says :

    Just a further note, how about the coastguard stations around the coast,?

    good luck,

    Derek

  7. Rosemary says :

    Do the merchant navy keep logbooks with weather information? It might be worth consulting any archives of their records as well.

  8. Alex Mackinnon says :

    It may be interesting to use the reverse Capcha – where the unknown characters are farmed out as a two part capcha -of course you already do this likely.

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