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.”

The website says they’re around 89 percent of the way through the transcriptions, but Pearce says not to be fooled by that stat. This is a long-term project, and there are many more logbooks to photograph, process, and upload for people to analyze. Next on the list are logs from whaling vessels, which Pearce is particularly excited about because those ships went right down to Antarctica. “We don’t have really any data for Antarctica because, obviously, there was no one there 100 years ago, apart from the odd exploration,” she says.

The Verge spoke with Pearce about bad handwriting, the aurora, and expeditions that never made it back from Antarctica.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.


Photo: Southern Weather Discovery

What’s your favorite thing that you’ve learned during this process?

One of the most interesting things was reading the logbooks from Robert Falcon Scott’s 1911 to 1912 expedition to the South Pole. Scott was part of the British Antarctic expedition, and they sailed down there in a race for the South Pole. They got beaten by the Norwegians, and on their way back from the South Pole, tragically, Scott and the few of his men that were with him at the time died from exposure. But they were taking measurements of temperature and barometric pressure and things like that right up until they died on the ice. You could see their observations getting more and more sporadic over the last days of their journey before they died, and it was very humbling to think they kept going, even in the face of horrible circumstances. They kept going and kept taking these observations. They didn’t know what would happen with them. And to think that over 100 years later, we’re now using these observations for research to understand what was going on and what may happen in the future — that’s huge.

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