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Centuries-old ships’ logs give insight into climate change

The study of climate change is no longer limited to laboratories and scientists. Citizen-scientists are helping with research, including a look back through centuries-old ships’ log books. Rachel Becker, environment reporter for CALmatters and formerly a reporter for The Verge, joins Hari Sreenivasan via Skype from Sacramento for more on what these handwritten histories are telling us.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The study of climate change is no longer limited to laboratories and scientists. Citizen-scientists are helping with research including a look back through centuries-old ships' logbooks.

    Rachel Becker, environment reporter for CALmatters and formerly a reporter for The Verge joined me recently via Skype from Sacramento for more on what these handwritten histories are telling us.

  • Rachel Becker:

    It's pretty big. So far about two hundred log books have been transcribed so far.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And these are people who are actually tasked with keeping track of the weather on a daily basis? These ships? So there'd be somebody who had to go test the water temperature, the air temperature of the barometric pressure and write it all down?

  • Rachel Becker:

    So these logbooks are coming from all sorts of different ships. There were merchant ships, traveling from the U.K. and Scandinavia down to trade with New Zealand and Australia. There were exploration vessels travelling all the way down to Antarctica. There were whaling ships hunting whales in the waters around New Zealand and Australia all the way down to Antarctica and they were marking down these measurements, you know, through sometimes horrendous conditions to write down you know, temperatures, air pressure, the things that are key to sailors but also now are useful to scientists who wants to know what the climate was like 100 – 150 years ago.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Now they haven't mapped that they haven't sort of translated all these or digitized all these books yet but have they found anything interesting so far from some of the observations?

  • Rachel Becker:

    So they're still processing the data. One thing that they'd like to do, I was speaking with a scientist at New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research named Petra Pierce who's part of this project, and one of the goals, she told me, is to basically be able to tie extreme impacts like flooding to what the weather was doing at the time. Maybe there was a storm or something strange going on with the weather. So that's one goal.

    Another goal is to round climate models in measurements from the past and so if these models can kind of ground truth their projections with past, what we know was actually going on historically, they can. potentially better predict what's going to happen in the future. So those are some long term goals.

    Right now they're still processing the data but they have had some interesting observations of icebergs further north in warmer water than they'd maybe expect observations of wildlife and the Aurora.

    And Pearce, the scientists I spoke with, told me that one of the really interesting logbooks, several of the interesting logbooks that have been analyzed came from Robert Falcon Scott's expedition to Antarctica in the early 20th century. And these explorers raced to the South Pole and on their way back they died but they were keeping their measurements right up until the end.

    And Pearce told me that you can see the measurements get more sporadic and infrequent and eventually the logbooks were rescued. And she told me it was very inspiring to see these people doing what they could and taking the measurements they could and taking the observations they could you know, right up until they couldn't anymore.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So also a question about the process if you're citizen-scientists, what about sort of the quality control? So what if I think it's a seven, am I the only person that's ever going to see that and then we're going to have bad data?

  • Rachel Becker:

    That's a great question. So they have multiple people transcribe each entry to weed out the outliers. So you know, maybe it really was a four but I thought it was a seven. But if everybody else thinks that the four then my data will get weeded out so they don't accidentally get propagated to the climate models.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Right. And what's their end goal? Once they get all these books finished what are they hoping to find?

  • Rachel Becker:

    They're hoping to fill in these gaps in the historical weather record for the water surrounding New Zealand. Because to understand how the climate has changed over the long term you need a starting point. You need to know what the climate was doing in the past.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right Rachel Becker from CALmatters. Thanks so much for joining us today.

  • Rachel Becker:

    Thanks so much for having me here.

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