On April 15th (2015) the (UK) National Maritime Museum is hosting a special one-day seminar organised by the (UK) Royal Meteorological Society. The meeting is in honour of the remarkable Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-1873), who established the value of marine weather observations for scientific research.
The meeting covers everything from using the very earliest records to make circulation indices, to modern satellite observations. The speakers include several members of the oldWeather science team, and one of the talks is about the leading current method of recovering marine observations: I’m talking about oldWeather at 14:40. (Full agenda).
It’s an open meeting – all are welcome.
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.
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: