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“Invincible” climate prediction

The Battle of the Falkland Islands in 1914 is well documented, especially in the logbooks of one of its key battleships, the HMS Invincible.

HMS Invincible in 1914. Image courtesy Maritime Quest.

But the ship’s records contain more than just an account of a tempestuous sea battle — they also include an overlooked trove of archival information that could help climate scientists today. The Old Weather project uses the daily weather observations contained within these records to help better predict today’s cold snaps, heatwaves, floods and hurricanes.

“Mariners really care about the weather, and have done so for centuries,” explained Philip Brohan, a climate scientist from the UK’s Met Office Hadley Center. Invincible’s logbooks, for example, contain one weather observation for every four hours, making for an average of six weather records per day, or about 1,200 pages of data from the total of the ship’s various voyages. Each observation typically includes information such as wind speed and direction, air temperature and air pressure readings, the speed and direction of ocean currents, weather conditions, times, dates and exact locations. 

With thousands of such data points from just one ship, this makes for a wealth of information from the Royal Navy alone that can be fed into computer models of the atmosphere — which scientists can then use to help reconstruct the past climate.

Such climate information is invaluable to climate scientists such as Brohan, who face the immense challenge of understanding the weather and climate today. Historic weather records provide a window into the past, which he uses to build more complete models, not just of today’s climate, but its future path as well.

The Old Weather website enables volunteers from the general public  to extract data from a selection of Royal Navy ships via access to historic Navy documents, and transcribe interesting material. “Royal Navy logs are the low-hanging fruit of historical weather observations,” commented Brohan. (Other such sources include information from ocean buoys, satellites, weather balloons, coral growth rates, ice cores, tree rings, and pollen counts in sediment layers, to cite just a few examples from climatologists’s lines of inquiry.)

The logbook data also carry the benefit of being extremely regular and reliable — these observations were carried out on a clockwork-like basis by fairly well-educated men for that era, under strict oversight. In fact, it was a serious offense to falsify the data in a Navy logbook. (The Royal Navy’s historic penalties could be severe to modern eyes. For example, sleeping on watch was a crime punishable by death, according to the statutes of the British Admiralty’s Articles of War.)

In this dynamic animation of HMS Invincible's 1914 voyage and subsequent naval battle, a user can move a slider (right-hand corner) to whiz back and forth in time. As the ship moves around the world, its track is colored according to the sea temperatures it recorded as it went. Corresponding events from the ship’s logs at that time and place are shown on the left. Click on image to view the animation in action. (The most dramatic events occur on December 8.) Image courtesy Philip Brohan.

Enter the citizen scientist

The logbook data-retrieval project was born out of a collaboration between Galaxy Zoo, which was looking to expand its citizen-scientist approach into climate science, and ACRE (Atmospheric Circulation Reconstructions over the Earth), an international body coordinating climate research. There are millions of logbook records sitting in archives worldwide; they realized that the only way to practically digitize them in a reasonable time-frame was through the use of volunteers.

This ‘mass digitization’ will help the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 20th Century Reanalysis project build a 3-D global weather reconstruction spanning 200 years. Rob Allan of the Met Office and of ACRE said, “Those involved in Old Weather are part of a real scientific effort. Hopefully, they feel more informed about climate science.”

However, there is more to Old Weather than just scientific data. Its creators realized that digitizing instrumental weather observations might not be exciting. So, they recruited a naval history group interested in Royal Navy records. A ship’s logs detail where it went, tell about seamen killed in action, record the effects of disease and even give accounts of officers being disciplined for drinking too much gin. Brohan stated “This story is attractive to people . . . they want to know what will happen next to the ship and crew.”

One such collaborator is Gordon Smith, who works with the National Maritime Museum in London. Smith has a personal connection with the project, as he lost his own father during action at sea. He runs a naval website that helps people find out more about family members lost in 20th century maritime battles. “The site enables people to do in 10 minutes what took me 10 years to accomplish,” said Smith. His site provides detailed information about ships to Old Weather, and he thinks that the project is an imaginative way for people to learn more about family members who served at sea.

Old Weather’s transcribed data will help climate scientists create a reconstruction of the Earth’s climate that spans over 200 years. Image courtesy 20th Century Reanalysis project.

On the lookout

Currently, Old Weather works on a collection of 250,000 logbook pages from the First World War period. Its community has already transcribed half of these. The project is also expanding to include larger collections of historical weather observations that their community can digitize.

Meanwhile, scientists in the 20th Century Reanalysis project plan to combine Old Weather’s data with other global observation archives.

To process the climate data, the 20th Century Reanalysis project uses thousands of CPUs from two high-performance computers: the Cray Franklin XT4 HPC at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, California, and the Cray Jaguar XT5 system at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee. The storage is handled using Lustre (a combination of the words ‘Linux’ and ‘cluster’) disks, a file system capable of supporting petabytes of statistics, and thousands of computer nodes. These systems have a uniform infrastructure, allowing for faster simultaneous processing, which in turn helps researchers create dynamic simulations of the Earth’s climate.

All this information comprises a vast 250 terabytes of data, and making this information easily available can be challenging. Allan stated they are looking for an IT provider, such as NOAA’s CLASS digital library, to create an open source platform to store, visualize and provide easy access for users. 

The team expects that there is plenty of room to grow, as there is much more raw material to be tapped from the navies of other countries, and from a multitude of non-naval institutions as well. In a video distributed by the UK’s National Maritime Museum, Clive Wilkinson said: “There’s probably 250,000 logbooks in this country alone. There are logbooks in America, there are logbooks in South America, in Asia. There are literally billions of observations to be captured.”

With the help of this easily overlooked data source, citizen-scientists can be virtual crewmembers, gathering data about the weather from centuries ago, to help predict the long-term climate of the near-future.

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