Working on oldWeather is a pretty wide-ranging education: we’ve got weather and climate, history, naval and maritime operations – and, it turns out, a sizeable chunk of geography as well. The logs are thorough in recording the ship locations, but they sometimes think that it’s enough to mention that they’ve sighted Qeqertarsuup Tunua, or anchored off Changqingshaxiang. To follow along, and to map the ships and use their observations, we have to turn those mentions into latitudes and longitudes.
This is another area where human ingenuity and effort are vital, and it’s another job we are doing well: The section on the forum dedicated to geographical help has yielded another project output – a database of port and place locations which is valuable not just to us, but also to other researchers trying to find out where their ships are.
One of the fun and useful tools Google have provided for us is an n-gram viewer. N-gram is a ugly but short term meaning a phrase containing n words: so ‘rain’ is a 1-gram, ‘clear sky’ a 2-gram, and ‘overcast with squalls, hail, thunder and lightning’ a 7-gram. Google’s tool shows us how common selected phrases are, and how their use has changed over time – I’ve found intriguing results with meteorological instruments, and ship details, for example.
How common is the word ‘barometer’? begs the question ‘how common in what?’ – English newspapers?, Canadian novels?, Spanish poetry?. The block of words used for the search is called a corpus, and Google offers several to choose from; but we don’t have to use any of them, because we have made our own. We actually have two
corpuses corpora to choose from: one from the Royal Navy WW1 logs, and a second from the US Arctic logs we are working on now. We don’t have a convenient web tool, but we can still search out the common words and phrases.
In the RN logs the most common 1-gram (word) is ‘to’, but if we disqualify ‘to’, ‘in’, ‘and’, ‘but’ and the like, the top 10 are ‘sick’, ‘ship’, ‘HMS’, ‘list’, ‘proceeded’, ‘hands’, ‘discharged’, ‘joined’, ‘arrived’ and ‘left’ – almost enough in themselves to give a sense of the naval language. Looking at popular longer phrases gives an even better picture: ‘joined ship’, ‘weighed and proceeded’, ‘hands employed cleaning ship’, ‘came to with port anchor’; all the way up to the likes of ‘Ship in dockyard hands for refit. Ship’s company employed as required on board and accommodated in sailors home’.
The US Arctic logs are much more variable, and we have not yet accumulated a really large corpus, but we can still find the popular n-grams, and they are quite different. The top 10 words are ‘ice’, ‘drift’, ‘lead’, ‘indicated’, ‘line’, ‘being’, ‘ship’, ‘large’, ‘slight’, and ‘pack’, and we can clearly detect a very desirable obsession with the sea-ice. Longer phrases include: ‘lead line’, ‘a slight drift’, ‘indicated by the lead’, ‘inches in thickness formed over sounding hole since noon yesterday’.
Those of us who use the oldWeather website every day have got thoroughly used to it, and take it for granted. But there is a lot of magic going on behind the scenes to make a complex interaction with the logbook images simple to use on each of many different computers and browsers, and keep working reliably however many people are using it simultaneously.
This magic is actually skill and effort, of course, and it’s made possible because oldWeather is one of the Zooniverse suite of projects. Zooniverse is an infrastructure for online public science: a core team of experts in building and using websites that let everyone do science, a group of 15 projects (oldWeather is one) each doing a different sort of science using Zooniverse tools, and an ever-growing community of volunteers working on the projects.
Most of the time I only concern myself with oldWeather, but last week I went to a Zooniverse-wide workshop in Chicago; where developers, scientists and volunteers from many of the projects got together to talk about technical innovation, good practice and new ideas. It was an excellent meeting, ably described here by our own Janet Jaguar, and in more detail here by Jules Wilkinson. I came away with some new friends, some new ideas, but perhaps most of all, with a renewed appreciation of how much we owe to the development team.
We’ve known for a long time that oldWeather is awesome, and now it’s official: We’ve won the Royal Meteorological Society’s IBM award for ‘Innovation that matters’.
Well done to everybody – there is innovation in just about all components of oldWeather: our weather and climate contributions, the design and user interface of our website, our links to archives and the humanities, the ship histories we are constructing, the surrounding and supporting work of the Zooniverse, and especially the extraordinary contributions of many volunteer participants, who have gone above and beyond what we asked in many productive directions.
When we started oldWeather it was just a climate data rescue project. It still does that and does it well, but we’ve grown into something much richer, more powerful, and more fun; and that’s the doing of the volunteer participants more than the science team – ‘innovation that matters’ indeed.
They don’t mention what it sounded like, but the log of the Thetis does say a lot about sea-ice. This isn’t surprising: they were sent to rescue the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition in 1884 because two previous resupply expeditions (in 1882 and 1882) had been blocked by the sea ice, and one ship (the Proteus) had been crushed by the ice and sunk. So manoeuvring through the ice was their major challenge.
We’d like to compare the Thetis’ observations with modern observations of sea-ice in the same place – as we do with temperature, pressure wind etc. This is a challenge, because modern observations come mostly from satellites; they are precise and quantitative and tell us the fraction of the sea (in each region) that was covered with ice on each day. Thetis’ log, on the other hand, contains statements like ‘working through slack ice and broad leads’ or ‘forcing a lead through heavy pack ice’; is this more or less than ’75% coverage’? The best place to start is generally just to plot the data, so the video below shows the movements and ice observations we’ve taken from the log, and a modern satellite ice climatology (HadISST).
We can tell quite a lot just from this: it looks as if they first met serious ice around Disko island, on May 22nd, while the modern estimates suggest that we’d expect this a little further north. But in general they are seeing ice in much the same times and places that the satellites do.
It’s not quite enough to compare the ship records with a single satellite field. Sea-ice severity varies from year to year, so we’d like to compare Thetis’ experiences with a range of modern years, not just an average year (a climatology).
I’m calling this an iceberg plot. You’ll need to look at the bigger version, but it shows that the period where the ship made observations of ice fits pretty well with modern expectations, but that those observations generally imply heavy ice cover, and the modern observations suggest heavy ice cover only in particularly severe years. So we can tentatively conclude that, in summer 1884 in Baffin bay, there was more sea-ice than usual (by modern standards) but that the coverage was within the expected current range of year-to year variability. This is consistent with their air temperature observations, which were colder than the modern average, but not dramatically so.
A remaining oddity, however, is the time of year of this voyage. Thetis set out in May, and reached her farthest north in June. Sea-ice cover in Baffin bay is still heavy in June, and doesn’t reach its minimum until September. If they had waited two more months before setting out they could have reached their destination with much less effort (look at the ice-cover at the end of the video, when they are back in New York). Thetis could not wait without leaving the men they were rescuing to starve, but the resupply missions in 1882 and 1883 could have travelled at more favourable times of year. If Thetis could get there in June 1884, but Neptune, Proteus and Yantic could not get there in August of 1882 or 1883 – does that mean that 1882 and 1883 were remarkably heavy sea-ice years?
I wonder if the National Archives have the logs from the voyages in 1882 and 1883.
It’s not enough just to launch an exciting new project. We also have to tell everybody it’s started so they know that they can join in. So as part of the oldWeather-Arctic launch we held a press event, hosted by our friends at the National Archives in Washington and splendidly organised by Linda Joy, from NOAA communications.
Most of the project participants live too far from Washington to attend (I phoned in, to help answer questions, but it’s not the same). However we were ably represented by Kathy Wendolkowsky and Kevin Wood, who explained to a fascinated audience of dignitaries and members of the press, what we are doing, why it’s important, and why it’s fun.
The Archivist and the Head of NOAA both spoke at the event, here’s what they said:
- Remarks by David Ferriero (Archivist of the United States)
- Remarks by Jane Lubchenco (under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, and administrator of NOAA)
Photo credit: Amy Cox (NOAA) – it’s a little blurry because she could not use the flash (it’s bad for the logbooks).
Today we launch a new fleet on oldWeather.org: the focus this time is on Arctic voyages, and the logbooks are from the collection of the US National Archives in Washington. We’ve ships from the Revenue and Coast Guard, the Navy, and the Coast Survey; and they include some famous names and some exciting voyages.
The Arctic is very sensitive to climate variability and change. This year (2012) was a record year for sea-ice: there was less sea-ice this September than for any other year for which we have good satellite records. But the satellite records only go back to 1979, and we need many more than 30 years of records to really understand how the Arctic climate behaves. This means we need to rescue the weather records of the people who travelled there – to read the logs of Arctic voyages.
If you joined in the original oldWeather, you’ll notice some differences in this new version: There are fewer ships (at least to start with, we’ll be adding more regularly), but the records for each ship usually cover many years, so we have just as many pages to read. These logbooks are also older (back to 1850 in some cases), and differently laid-out, so we’ve had to change the way you enter data: Basically it’s the same – select the location on the log page with an important record and then type the record into the pop-up box – but the details have changed. So whether you’re a new recruit or an old hand, please experiment until you get used to it – there is a tutorial to guide you, and help and encouragement on the project forum.
We’re still looking for all weather records, and anything else you read and think is interesting or notable. There will be plenty of notable historical events: the dangers of sailing through the ice add a lot of drama to the stories in the logs – whether you prefer the daring rescue by USRC Bear, ice and fire on the USS Rodgers, or the so-far-unknown adventures of less famous ships.