Recap of Old Weather – Arctic: large-scale environmental data rescue through crowdsourcing

When Hurricane Sandy was trudging up the Atlantic coast, there was speculation as to whether it would turn into a storm that the east coast hasn’t seen in a century. But what about all the other large storms that just missed the east coast? What can we know about them when widespread observational records of storms don’t go back for more than a century? Or the decline in the extent of Arctic sea ice that’s been observed over the past three decades, has the extent ever been that low earlier in the 20th century?

Dr. Kevin Wood, who spent his previous 25 years before coming to the UW sailing the world’s oceans aboard traditionally-rigged sailing vessels, is currently a climate scientist at the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean (JISAO). He is also the lead investigator of Old Weather – Arctic, which is a joint collaboration between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Archive that tries to crowd-source environmental data to help answer the questions above.

Many of the questions above are difficult to answer because of a lack of widespread past observations, which are especially sparse over the oceans. The data, however, do exist within the pages of old naval ship logs. The citizen science project Old Weather was started to turn the information in old naval ship logs into usable data that can be fed into weather forecast models to forecast the weather of the past.


In his seminar talk, Dr. Wood walked us through the process of how the pages of these old ship logs are digitized, how the scribbles within the naval ship logs are then transcribed by tens of thousands of citizen scientists, how the data are then compiled into larger datasets of weather observations, and how those datasets are ultimately used to run weather forecasts of past weather (called extended reanalysis).

What was especially interesting for me to hear was why people started and stayed on Old Weather. According to one survey, the most popular reasons for participating in Old Weather were a) a general interest in science, b) a desire to contribute to research, and c) a general interest in history. These were reasons I’d expected to hear.

The two other reasons, I hadn’t expected. One was based on the growth of an online community that was built around the online forum where participants can share expertise, ideas, and any new findings. Dr. Wood explained that these forums helped connect the many citizen scientists who were otherwise separated by many time zones.

The second reason had to do with the right hand page of the log books. The left hand page was usually a table with the relevant meteorological observations. This was where all the data for the weather observations came from. The right hand page had all the notes of what happened on and around the ship. They included stories, such as that of the crew of the USS Jeannette that was on an Arctic expedition to the North Pole and became icebound for two years before getting crushed by the ice. The records from the Jeannette exist only because the crew hauled the logbooks over their shoulders to safety, which included carrying the logbooks through a mile of broken ice. The Old Weather project allows the citizen scientists to read firsthand about these travails, many of which may be read for the first or second time.

The Old Weather project, which was initially started with the goal of increasing the number of past weather observations over the oceans, has since led to other projects. The Old Weather – Arctic has now expanded observations to sea ice observations. Transcribers can also note any reports of auroras, which can help inform the space weather community about solar activity in the past.

As Dr. Wood noted, many of these developments were unimagined at the outset and could not have been done with a top-down approach. It goes to show again the importance of the conversations that occur over the forum.

I felt that the quote that Dr. Wood ended with is very appropriate to what Old Weather has become:

The scientific value of the work accomplished by these men, living and dead, can only be estimated after their observations have been compiled and computed, compared and applied – all of which will involve years of patient toil. – George Melville (1841-1912)

If you missed the seminar, you can find the slides of the talk here and a video recording was also made of the seminar. It should be posted within the next week. Stay tuned…

To read more about the project, you can check out the UW News article about Old Weather:

And contribute to Old Weather yourself at


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