Old Ships' Logs Help Forecast the Future


Clement Wragge understood the importance of keeping weather records.The colorful 19th century Queensland meteorologist saw the possibility of forecasting and tracking the path of tropical cyclones using weather observations from ships' logs.

The convention of naming tropical cyclones was begun by him — although he got in trouble once he started naming them for politicians he didn't like!

How were the Vikings such remarkable mariners?

He collected log books from ships that traversed the immediate Australasian region as well as the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans from 1882-1903.

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Now you can help scientists decipher the data in the log books kept by Wragge — you'll notice his letterhead at the top of many of the log book pages — as part of Weather Detective, ABC Science's new citizen science project.

How could weather records written down by a 19th century sea captain possibly be useful in the 21st century?

Anyone who's prepared for a cyclone or made farming decisions based on long-term weather forecasts will understand the value of accurate predictions on what the weather will do in the future.

And while these long-term weather predictions may appear definitive and insightful, they're only as good as the past data that they're based on. That's how forecasting works, it's predicting — or modelling — the future using what's happened in the past.

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So gaining as much information about past weather is really useful.

We have a good idea of the Earth's climatic history over thousands of years — mostly from geological sources — but this doesn't provide the level of detail required for forecasting weather.

"The quality and quantity of the data that you're putting in is essential to the sort of product you're putting out, because if you don't have enough you're not going to be able to produce anything meaningful," says Rob Allan, meteorologist with the UK Met Office, and and co-creator with Philip Brohan of Old Weather, the UK version of Weather Detective.

Sea surface temperatures are important

Sea surface temperature is actually a measurement of the temperature of the ocean, not the temperature on board the boat. It's measured by sticking a thermometer into a bucketful of ocean water.

Because the ocean is more homogenous than land, a single sea temperature reading can give an excellent indication of the sea temperature for a large area. Since the oceans cover 70 per cent of our planet, observations at sea are very important for understanding and predicting weather.

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