The "Nancy Grey" with a whale. Flickr/Library of Congress

One citizen-science project is asking for help transcribing 500,000 pages of handwritten accounts.

In the mid-nineteenth century, commercial whaling ships ranged the Pacific Arctic in search of whales and their critical, light-bringing oil. In between brutal storms, petty crew disagreements, and epic mammalian showdowns, however, there was a lot of waiting—and a lot of travel. On each ship, the first mate faithfully chronicled the minutiae in logbooks, recording latitude and longitude, temperature, weather conditions, the appearance of icebergs, and the locations of ice shelves.

These logs are a resource—and not just for whaling enthusiasts. A group of researchers with the online citizen-science project Old Weather are betting that knowing more about the past of the Pacific Arctic will reveal more about its future. Given the acceleration of global climate change, the stakes are high.

The Old Weather: Whaling project asks amateur scientists and historians—that could be you!—to log onto its website and transcribe sections from whaling logbooks written between the 1840s and early 1900s. Previously, the project had focused on the logbooks of U.S. federal ships, but this is the first time online researchers are being asked to look at commercial vessels.

“As whale populations along shorelines and in warmer waters were hunted down in the 1800s, whalers were increasingly forced to brave dangerous and frigid Arctic seas, filled with ice floes and icebergs, to find their prey,” Kevin Wood, the lead researcher on the project and a scientist with the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and the Ocean, told USA Today. “Because of this, their logbooks contain rare, valuable, and accurate climate observations from locations where few others dared venture."

The data gleaned from the musty logbooks will help scientists build more long-term climate pattern models using information that predates satellite technology. The scientists say that understanding weather and climate variability in the past will improve their ability to predict what lies ahead.

Pages from the log of the Trident, a whaling ship out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. These entries are dated to January 1870. (New Bedford Whaling Museum/University of Washington)

“These stories will provide the best historical documentation of the Arctic marine environment over the past two centuries that it is possible to assemble,” Wood said in a statement.

Online sleuths have their work cut out for them: The Old Weather team has uploaded more than 500,000 handwritten pages of logs. One researcher estimated the project would take the Internet about a year to complete.

H/t: The Guardian

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