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Logbooks From 19th Century Whaling Ships Could Help Climate Change Scientists

A new crowdsourcing project lets amateur enthusiasts contribute, too

Logs like this one are being digitized in museums all over New England and used to help scientists understand climate change. (Frank Greenaway/Dorling Kindersley Ltd./Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Centuries ago, intrepid crews braved the frozen waters of far-off climes in search of whales. Their work fueled an industry—but it also left behind clues about climate. Now, reports The Associated Press, a Massachusetts museum is bringing together scientists and citizens to scour old whaling logs for climate information that could inform the present-day understanding of weather and climate change.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts and other New England institutions have contributed large amounts of data to the Old Weather: Whaling Project, which is being spearheaded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Washington. Members of the public can view and transcribe weather and environment-related data from whaling logs, which scientists will then use to compare against modern-day conditions and create computer models that simulate climate change. 

The public's role in the project is essential. As the AP writes, “There is just too much data for a small group of scientists to pore over.” That’s where the crowd comes in—on the website, participants can mark the locations of valuable weather data and observations and transcribe portions of the old logbooks. 

Whaling logs and journals offer a fascinating glimpse into the world of the whaling ships of yore. As ships made their way through Arctic waters, a log keeper recorded daily activities, other vessels they encountered and the animals they spotted. They also recorded details of the often-gristly whale hunts and kills that contributed to an enormous international industry fueled by the need for whale oil and baleen, which was once used in products like corsets and umbrellas. 

Eventually, the United States and much of the world's whaling industry died; New Bedford, Massachusetts launched its last whaling ship in 1927. But the logs of whaling crews live on. The hope now is that they’ll help scientists preserve the oceans and biodiversity that whalers once depended on.

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