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Notice to Mariners: Crowdsourcing Logbooks from the Age of Sail

An example of the kinds of logbooks the Weather Rescue at Sea project is making available to “citizen scientists”

An example of the kinds of logbooks the Weather Rescue at Sea project is making available to “citizen scientists”

The first map of the Gulf Stream, which Benjamin Franklin helped create by tapping the combined knowledge of the whalemen and merchant captains of his day

Although enormous multi-million-dollar projects like the Large Hadron Collider and the Human Genome Project with their legions of Ph.D.’s tend to grab headlines, there’s still a part to play for the “citizen scientists” of the world. Amateur birders have long contributed to an understanding of avian population movements. Similarly, amateur astronomers have made substantial contributions over the years, discovering comets and asteroids and even helping identify exoplanets.

Now there’s a chance for mariners to show their stuff as part of the Weather Rescue at Sea Project.

U.S. Navy lieutenant Matthew Fountaine Mary reviewed thousands of ships’ logs to create his first detailed map of the world’s trade routes

U.S. Navy lieutenant Matthew Fountaine Mary reviewed thousands of ships’ logs to create his first detailed map of the world’s trade routes

According to project organizers, scientists trying to determine how the climate of the early industrial era measures up against the climate today have a problem in the absence of quantifiable data prior to late 1800s. The good news is this kind of data does exist, having been recorded in countless logbooks by thousands of different ship captains in the waning years of the Age of Sail. The bad news is the challenge of teasing out this mountain of data so that it can be studied by researchers.

According to Weather Rescue at Sea, “In 1854, a maritime conference of seafaring nations tried to codify observation taking and recordkeeping to standardize and share observations among themselves. That process amassed an enormous number of 'standard' logbooks containing detailed sub-daily weather observations at sea from around the globe, [however] very few of these logbooks have been transcribed into digital format for modern-day scientists to analyze and understand.”

The organization goes on to say that while this kind of data “rescue,” i.e., transcribing hand-written observations into computer readable digital format from historical logbooks, has been taking place for decades, to manually transcribe the almost inexhaustible number of logbooks in existence by individual researchers, would take “thousands of human lifetimes.”

Enter the sailing community.

To solve the problem, the Weather Rescue at Sea project is using a citizen science based Zooniverse platform that makes it possible for thousands of volunteers to review scanned copies of actual logbooks online and then codify the enclosed data. Follow this link [https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/p-teleti/weather-rescue-at-sea]to an easy-to-use platform that allows you to start transcribing data from an image of a logbook page right away.

The first map of the Gulf Stream, which Benjamin Franklin helped create by tapping the combined knowledge of the whalemen and merchant captains of his day

The first map of the Gulf Stream, which Benjamin Franklin helped create by tapping the combined knowledge of the whalemen and merchant captains of his day

In the early stages of the program, Weather Rescue is focusing on logbooks archived at the UK Hydrographic Office in Taunton, England, due to the many logs there are from voyages to the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans in the 1860s and 1870s.

“The data generated through this project will help fill many crucial gaps in the large climate datasets, which will be used to generate new estimates of the industrial and pre-industrial era baseline climate,” Weather Rescue at Sea says. “More generally, this data and data from other historical sources are used to improve the models and reanalysis systems used for climate and weather research.”

On a side note, in taking part in the study, sailors and weather watchers will also be writing the latest chapter in a long tradition of using the weather data generated by merchant mariners to better understand the nature of the world’s oceans. In 1775, for example, Benjamin Franklin created the very first chart of the Gulf Stream using information obtained from various merchant seaman and whaling captains.

Similarly, U.S. Navy lieutenant Matthew Fountaine Mary pored over thousands of ship’s logs during his time as the superintendent of the United States Naval Observatory prior to the Civil War to develop the first accurate charts of the trade winds and ocean currents sailors rely on to this day.

So if you live up north and find yourself with time on your hands as you await the return of sailing season, why not pay the Weather Rescue at Sea page a visit and spend a few minutes making a little maritime history?

February 2022

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