Old Records

June 17, 2018
By Damond Benningfield


When the USS Jeannette was frozen in ice on an attempt to reach the north pole only 13 crew members survived along with the ship’s logbooks. Photo Credit: Public Domain

In July 1879, the USS Jeannette left San Francisco, headed for the north pole. No one had reached the pole yet, and scientists suspected it was ice free, with a ring of ice around it. Just two months later, though, the ship was frozen fast in the ice. It floated along for almost two years before the ice crushed it. Crewmembers then faced a long trek across sea and land that killed 20 of them -- only 13 survived.

But something else survived with those men: the ship’s logbooks. Crewmembers made hourly observations of ice conditions, temperatures, and other weather and climate information. Today, scientists are using those records to learn more about how the climate is changing, and what that’s doing to the Arctic ice.

In fact, researchers have digitized the logs of dozens of ships, from as far back as the 18th century. They’ve extracted weather observations from the books and incorporated them into an international database. That will provide a more detailed look at how the climate has changed.

The project is known as Old Weather. It began in 2010, in the U.K., and expanded to the United States a few years later. The logs came from British and American naval vessels, as well as whaling ships. The newest logs are from American ships of the Civil War era. Although they recorded relatively little about weather and icing conditions, researchers hope to extract some good nuggets anyway -- learning more about the future of our planet’s climate by learning more about its past.