Friday, September 3, 2010

Stormy weather at the CCC summit

Navy mariners sailing the chilly waters around the Falkland Islands in 1914, gearing up for the battles on the horizon, were probably not thinking very closely about the weather. Nevertheless, strict and meticulous records were kept in the ships’ logbooks throughout WW1 and beyond. For climate scientists at today’s Met Office, trying to see back through the fog of missing weather data, to get a better picture of what the world’s climate looked like before proper records began, these log books are a gold mine of information.

Soon to be launched on is a volunteer computing project to help dig out this key data from the log books– pressures, temperatures, date, location. Optical computer recognition is not an option, this project needs human eyes – lots of them, as over 250,000 images have been scanned in to date.

Using this data, scientists can build up a much more complete picture of weather data, potentially covering hundreds of years. Philip Brohan of the Met Office reminded us of the devastating storm that hit Britain on October 16 in 1987 – those of us in the audience that were nodding in recognition giving away our age. But comparing this event to the last major storm of 1703 is difficult without the intervening data- not too many in the audience were able to recall that one quite so easily.

So for anyone interested in helping to fill in the gaps, it’s as simple as going online, picking a ship and joining the crew. Along the way, there’s also the chance of revealing fascinating historical details that perhaps no one else has spotted among the thousands of pages. The keeper of HMS Invincible’s log book, in between jotting down the weather that morning and evening, describes picking up survivors during the Battle of Falkland in December 1914. This is a well known event, but there could be others hidden away that are not yet uncovered. This is definitely a project I’ll be looking out for!

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