Through both sunny days and torrential storms, sailors cutting through the waters around New Zealand and Antarctica faithfully recorded the weather they encountered, building up a treasure trove of data. Over a century later, scientists are digging through these maritime records for insights about the past and future of the region’s climate — and they need the public’s help.
Knowing what the weather was up to in the past can help scientists calibrate climate models like the ones they use to predict how weather conditions are likely to change as global temperatures continue to rise. Sailors traveling around New Zealand from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s to trade goods, hunt whales, or explore Antarctica kept logs about the water and air temperatures, air pressure, sea ice, and wind. “Those logbooks are an absolutely massive source of weather data that we can use to improve our historical record of what we know about New Zealand’s climate and the climate of the surrounding oceans,” says Petra Pearce, a climate scientist with New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA).
The trouble is that these logbooks are handwritten, which means they’re hard for humans to read and even harder for a computer make out. So Pearce and a team of researchers turned to the public for help transcribing these logbooks. The project is called Southern Weather Discovery, and it launched in October 2018. Since then, volunteers have transcribed more than 200 logbooks from early 20th century merchant ships, Pearce says. “People do really want to be involved in science.”