Arctic ship logs help scientists reconstruct climatic history

1 Jul

For those of us in the field of history, we often get some variation of the question, “Of what use is history, anyway?”

One specific answer is given in this High Country News article by Eric Wagner:

Arctic ship logs help scientists reconstruct climatic history — High Country News.

Here’s the beginning of Wagner’s piece:

The morning of April 19, 1875, dawned cool and foggy in San Francisco Harbor. Aboard the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey Ship Yukon, Assistant Commanding Officer Gershom Bradford stepped onto the deck. He watched as the men set up the rigging and filled large tanks with freshwater in preparation for the schooner’s upcoming voyage. He was eager to be underway. As was I, having recently joined the crew.

Well, sort of. As Bradford gazed into the mist 138 years ago, so do I gaze into my laptop’s soft glow. The officer’s script in the electronic scan of the Yukon’s logbook is antiquely florid, but I do my best to transcribe his observations. Once finished, I click “Save.” One day down, thousands to go.

This is Old Weather, a citizen-science project run in part by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Archives and Records Administration, as well as a host of museums, universities and historical societies. It conscripts members of the willing public, like me, to sift through logs from 19th and 20th century U.S. Arctic surveys, and transfer ship locations, weather observations, air and water temperature, and barometric pressure data into spreadsheets more suitable for statistical analysis. Ultimately, the data will help scientists better understand how the climate has varied in the past, and improve projections of change in the future.

I feel a thrill at the thought of joining the Yukon on this adventurous and newly virtuous mission. I chose her because she was one of the first American vessels to explore the western Aleutian Islands — a place I’ve always wanted to see. But when we ship out, we don’t head for Alaska. Instead, we sail up the coast to Eureka, where we spend a few weeks measuring the depth of the seafloor by day, returning to the harbor at night.

Sometimes we anchor off Humboldt Point, which I’m sure is very pretty.

Still, it’s not exactly the derring-do I was hoping for.


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