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British scientists seek help extracting weather data from WWI naval records

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Monday, October 18, 2010; 5:36 PM


Looking back to see what's ahead

A bunch of British scientists needs help digitizing the weather information from World War I Royal Navy logbooks, and they're asking anyone with a few spare minutes to help. The Web site, which coordinates "citizen science" projects, launched on Oct. 12. (Most Zooniverse projects thus far have been astronomy-related, such as one asking people to look for solar explosions, or supernova.)

The goal of Old Weather is to make century-old weather data available to researchers and historians so they can create more-accurate climate change models. "If we wish to understand what the weather will do in the future, then we need to understand what the weather was doing in the past," says Clive Wilkinson, coordinator of the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, in a video on the site.

To join, you need to sign up for a Zooniverse account, a painless process that takes about two minutes. Then jump right in and choose one of 238 WWI vessels, choosing from among battleships, cruisers, sloops and others. The site provides video tutorials on how to read logbooks, such as where to find the latitude and longitude, the date and weather readings. Scientists need human eyes to complete this project because computers aren't great at deciphering the nuances of handwriting.

The folks behind Old Weather, including the University of Oxford and the National Maritime Museum, anticipate human errors, too. They hope that by "crowdsourcing" the logbooks, each entry will be looked at by multiple people and mistakes will be filtered out. Transcribing logbooks on Old Weather might be nerdy, but if you're going to waste time online anyway, at least this contributes to science.

- Rachel Saslow

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