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

The 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.

Once collected, the data will represent "a marked incremental improvement to what we know about Arctic ice and that will really change what we can say about the future," says Kevin Wood, a research scientist at NOAA's Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington. "I would not say it's going have a major impact, but you never know."

The weather data from each logbook, which includes temperature, barometric pressure and other variables such as wind, cloud cover and wave action, will go into a database and used for retrospective analysis. This, explains Wood, will allow climate scientists to sample data as far back as possible and then "reconstruct the atmosphere in the Arctic for every six hours, from 1850 until now."

Here's a video from Old Weather about how weather data is used to reconstruct climate maps:

In fact, all of the videos and simulations on the Old Weather Vimeo page are pretty fascinating.

The logbooks will do more than let climate scientists tap into more of the Arctic's recent history, they will also likely provide valuable insights for historians, biologists and a long list of other interested parties.

"The National Archive is excited because we will be posting copies of the logbooks to our website, so anyone who has access to the Internet will be able to look at these pages," says Mark Mollan, a Navy/Maritime reference archivist with NARA.

Each logbook follows a generally standard format, with weather data on one side and the facing page used for observations. "Sometimes there are multi-page reports that detail on overland rescue operation," says Mollan. "We found some actual flowers tucked into a logbook from 1891. We're now trying to identify them with DNA analysis."

The spread of sickness among crewmembers would also be documented, which can be valuable for epidemiologists tracking the history of specific ailments.

The team also hopes to scan logbooks from the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the Providence Public Library, notes Wood, who says whale ship logbooks also offer clues into the historical pressures placed on specific fisheries. "As I read through these old whaling logbooks I came across one from 1854. The crew was near Kamchatka and they could see 50 whaling ships, all trying to kill Bowhead [whales]. So, pressure on that fishery might be even worse than we thought."

In addition to Navy and Coast Guard logbooks, those belonging to the ships of the Revenue-Marine fleet, an old maritime law enforcement agency, are being digitized. This includes that of the Revenue Cutter Thomas Corwin, in which John Muir sailed as part of an Arctic scientific research trip in 1881.

It's hard to imagine how exciting and terrifying (not to mention, long, cold and tedious) these expeditions were. The crews were isolated for months or years and had no means for two-way communication. But as a volunteer, you can help climate scientists unlock the knowledge that the logbooks hold. and citizen science service Zooniverse are recruiting citizen scientists to help transcribe the digitized pages. It's a huge job—each page is transcribed by three individuals in order to ensure accuracy—but the sooner it's done, the closer climate scientists will be to unlocking the value the logbooks hold and improving climate science. You can get started at the OldWeather.orgwebsite.

But first, check out this short video that overlays recordings of Arctic sea ice movements atop images and narration from Arctic explorers:

—Mary Catherine O'Connor

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