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Old Ship Logs Reveal Adventure, Tragedy And Hints About Climate

Sep 3, 2014
Originally published on September 3, 2014 7:36 am

What can yesterday's weather tell us about how the climate is changing today? That's what an army of volunteers looking at old ships' logs is trying to answer through the Old Weather project.

One of those volunteers — or citizen scientists, as the project calls them — is Kathy Wendolkowski of Gaithersburg, Md.

Sitting in her kitchen, she uses her laptop to read from the logbook of the Pioneer, a ship that was out measuring ocean depths near Alaska on July 15, 1925. An image of the Pioneer's log from that day was posted online by the National Archives at the website OldWeather.org. Her task is to transcribe the logs' handwritten notes, from their elegant cursive script to something that can be digested by computers.

It's harder than it might seem. She remembers chatting with one of her fellow transcribers: "One poor guy said, 'Every day in the logs at 6 o'clock they have "suffer" in the logbook.' So I'm like, wait, no, that's 'supper,' because there's a tall thing on the 'p,' so it looks like 'suffer.' "

Mariners have long kept meticulous logbooks of weather conditions and descriptions of life onboard, and the National Archives in Washington, D.C., has pages and pages and pages of them recorded by sailors on Navy and Coast Guard vessels.

Along with the basic weather observations, the logbooks contain amazing stories of adventure, survival and mystery. A bouquet of dried flowers was sandwiched in one logbook. Another log describes a 1,600-mile overland journey to bring reindeer to some stranded whalers. And then there are the logs of the USS Jeannette. Its journey began in San Francisco in 1879, an ill-fated attempt to find an open-water passage to the North Pole. Two months later, the Jeannette was surrounded by ice north of Siberia.

Pack ice has always been a grave danger to ships. The Jeannette's engineer called the "roar and crash" of the ice around the ship blood-curdling. The logbook reads: "Calm light airs from the northeast. All hands employed cutting the ice away from the rudder."

Archivist Mark Mollan says the Jeannette was trapped in the ice for nearly two years before the sailors were forced to abandon ship.

"They all had to make for small launches dragging their scientific equipment and all the records they kept for those 21 months while they were drifting in the ice. So all of these logbooks and the equipment were part of that expedition, and they rest on our shelves today," he says.

It's a great story, but what does any of this have to do with weather now?

The Old Weather project is the brain child of Kevin Wood, a research scientist with NOAA and the University of Washington. He says the weather observations in the Jeannette's logbooks and in all the other logbooks tell their own stories and fill in the gaps of our climate knowledge. Take the observations of the ice, for instance. Wood says the ice that trapped the Jeannette in September all those years ago doesn't occur at that time of year anymore.

"As we recover more and more data and we can reanalyze the global weather patterns for those years, we're going to understand more about the way the arctic ice drifts and moves about in those days, which it may or may not do today," he says.

Scientists are able to do another cool thing with those long-ago climate observations, Wood says. They can plug them into a computer and produce a detailed weather map for that time.

But Wood says what's really important is what this tells us about the climate and its effects — from storms to ice floes — today. "Whether those kinds of events have stopped happening, whether they're going to happen more often or less often — that's the power of having a very long-term, complete reconstruction of the Earth's atmosphere," he says.

For volunteer Kathy Wendolkowski, a historian by training, transcribing the old logbooks is a way of honoring those who served on the ships and collected the data. She finds the project hard to resist: "It's just the human stories that are in these log pages, that just — how can you not?"

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

You know, usually it's helpful to know what the weather is going to be like tomorrow or maybe next week. But an army of volunteers is obsessing over the weather from the past. They're examining logs from old ships trying to see what they can reveal about today's climate. Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It's a gorgeous summer morning, and Kathy Wendolkowski is working on her laptop in the kitchen of her Gaithersburg, Maryland, home. As nice as this morning is, she's focused on the weather one day many years ago - July 15, 1925.

KATHY WENDOLKOWSKI: Wind direction is coming from the east. The barometer - 3. 18.

NAYLOR: Wendolkowski is reading from the logbook of the Pioneer - a ship that 89 years ago was measuring the depth of the ocean near Alaska. The Pioneer's logbook can be found at the website oldweather.org. Wendolkowski is a volunteer, one of many who are transcribing the log's hand-written notes from their elegant cursive script to something that can be digested by computers. It's harder than it might seem. She remembers chatting with one of her fellow transcribers.

WENDOLKOWSKI: One poor guy that - every day in the log at 6 o'clock they have suffer in the logbook and so, I'm like wait no, that's supper (laughter) because there's a tall thing on the Ps, so it looks like suffer.

NAYLOR: Mariners have long kept meticulous logbooks of weather conditions and descriptions of life on board ship, and the National Archives in Washington has pages and pages and pages of them recorded by sailors on Navy and Coast Guard vessels. Along with the basic weather observations, the logbooks contain amazing stories of adventure, survival and tragedy. Archivist Mark Mollan opens the log of the Bear, which in 1884 rescued a party of lost arctic explorers.

MARK MOLLAN: Here is the record dated June 22, Sunday, 1884. (Reading) Finding Lieutenant Greely and six men alive. The remainder of the party dead of starvation. Commander Schley and Lieutenant Emery landed at once with surgeon of ship, medical stores and provisions.

NAYLOR: Another logbook contained a bouquet of dried flowers in its pages - no one knows exactly why - and then there are the logs of the USS Jeannette. Its journey began in San Francisco in 1879 - an ill-fated attempt to find an open water passage to the North Pole. Two months later, the Jeannette was surrounded by ice, north of Siberia. Archivist Mollan reads from the logbook.

MOLLAN: (Reading) Calm light airs from the Northeast, all hands employed cutting the ice away from the rudder.

NAYLOR: Mollan says the Jeannette was trapped in the ice for nearly two years before the sailors were forced to abandon ship.

MOLLAN: They all had to make four small launches, dragging their scientific equipment and all the records that they kept for those 21 months while they were drifting in the ice, and so all these logbooks and the equipment were part of that expedition. And they rest on our shelves today.

NAYLOR: It's a great story, but what does any of this have to do with weather now? Kevin Wood is a research scientist with NOAA and the University of Washington - old weather is his brainchild. He says the weather observations in the Jeannette's logbooks help fill the gaps of our climate knowledge. Take the observations of the ice, for instance. Wood says the ice that trapped the Jeannette in September all those years ago doesn't even exist that time of year anymore.

KEVIN WOOD: As we recover more and more data and we can re-analyze the global weather patterns for those years, we're going to understand more about the way the arctic ice drifts and moves about in those days which it may or may not do today.

NAYLOR: And he says scientists are able to do another cool thing with those long-ago climate observations. They can plug them into a computer and produce a detailed weather map for that time. But Wood says what's really important is what all those long-ago readings tell us about the climate and its effects from storms to ice flows today.

WOOD: Whether those kinds of events have stopped happening, whether they're going to happen more often or less often, and that's the power of having a very long-term, complete reconstruction of the Earth's atmosphere.

NAYLOR: Wood says the data has helped shed light on recent ice melts in Greenland. For volunteer Kathy Wendolkowski, transcribing the old logbooks is a way of honoring those who served on the ships and collected the data.

WENDOLKOWSKI: It's just the human stories that are in these log pages that just - how can you not? (Laughter) That's what I get out of it.

NAYLOR: Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.