How Long-Dead Arctic Explorers Are Helping to Improve Climate Science

Corwin1907The Revenue Cutter Thomas Corwin, in which John Muir sailed as part of an Arctic research trip. Photo: Frank H. Nowell

In July 1879, 33 Navy men set sail for the North Pole aboard the U.S.S. Jeannette Arctic expedition. That fall the ship became mired in ice off southern Alaska and drifted for three years. Its hull was later crushed and the crew abandoned the ship, pulling smaller crafts over the ice, searching for open water. In the end, only 11 men survived. But the logbook, in which the ship's crew wrote detailed weather and sea ice observations, also survived.

Climate scientists are hoping the data inside that and many other Naval and Coast Guard ships, dating back to the mid 1800s, will improve climate science and boost the accuracy of modeling for future weather patterns. Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) began digitizing these logbooks. Now,, a collaboration between a number of academic, government and citizen science research organizations, is spearheading the Arctic Rediscovery Project, an effort to transcribe this massive amount of data, a vital first step in the data analysis process.

Last month, sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean fell to the lowest extent in the existing records, which extend back to 1979, when satellite-based data first became available. This was an alarming discovery, especially given the absence of extreme weather that has precipitated ice loss in years past. But the Arctic Rediscovery Project could greatly improve climate scientists' understanding of Arctic sea ice by extending the archives of scientific sea ice data by more than 100 years.

Filed To: Adventure, Science, Sailing

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