Saturday, January 20, 2018
The citizen scientists behind NOAA's Old Weather project

The citizen scientists behind NOAA's Old Weather project

by Anupa Asokan (NOAA Research Communications)

Michael Purves

Michael Purves

Retired meteorologist and Old Weather project volunteer
 For a retired meteorologist like Michael Purves,who served Environment Canada and the Yukon Forest service over the span of his 40-year career, there was an obvious draw to the Old Weather Project. 

A citizen scientist program now in its sixth year, the Old Weather project asks volunteers to transcribe weather data from 19th century ship logs. These data sets are then used to better inform scientific analysis of Earth’s climate and climate change. As a seasoned meteorologist and history buff, Purves was immediately intrigued by the project and has been a dedicated volunteer since the early days of the program. Putting in a few hours each day, Purves aims to contribute five days worth of records to climate scientists each day.

To date, nearly 21,000 volunteers have transcribed over 7.5 million weather observations. A new, more efficient website launching this week, along with the addition of whaling ship records from the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Providence Public Library, and other museum collections, will help these numbers grow and add to the expanding community of dedicated Old Weather citizen scientists.

While Purves has a background in meteorology, Old Weather’s thousands of volunteers come from varying backgrounds, interests and geographical areas. 

Kathy Wendolkowski

Kathy Wendolkowski

EPA contractor and Old Weather project volunteer
Kathy Wendolkowski of Gaithersburg, Maryland, equally enjoys volunteering, but her time on the Old Weather project is a little harder to come by. Between getting her three children to and from school, playing fantasy football and her full-time job, Wendolkowski still manages to transcribe several pages a week. 

A connection to history

Drawn to the project with a vague or avid interest in weather, history, maritime culture or simply the desire to contribute to climate science, many participants are surprised to uncover a riveting first-hand account of history. “I do it to contribute weather data, but what really keeps me coming back are the stories,” says Wendolkowski. “The humanity of the men onboard these ships really comes through.” 

Helen Julian

Helen Julian

Franciscan sister and Old Weather project volunteer
Helen Julian, a Franciscan sister and priest within the Church of England, “jumped onboard” her first ship nearly four years ago and, like Wendolkowski, was quickly intrigued by the stories of the ships and their crews. “So many of us become concerned with our crews during times of war or when the Spanish flu breaks out. It’s silly in a way, because obviously whatever happened had happened, but there’s always a sense of ‘Oh, I do hope they come through it alright!’ You just feel so connected to the history.”

Others like Craig Gaston, a retired environmental statistician from Quebec, are focused on serving climate science and how their volunteer hours will help inform research. “In terms of contributing to the science of climate change, there’s nothing more important I could be doing.” Gaston feels so passionately about getting these data to scientists, he aims to transcribe 500 weather reports each day. He is one of a small group of committed volunteers that have each transcribed more than 10,000 logbook pages. Gaston vividly recalls his days transcribing the logs of the famous and ill-fated voyage of the USS Jeannette as if he shared some of the experiences with the men stuck in the Arctic. “It was such a remarkable story and I was really engrossed in it,

Craig Gaston

Craig Gaston

Retired environmental statistician and Old Weather project volunteer
looking for more information online and reading about their journey through Siberia after the ship went down and the recorded logs ended.”

The Old Weather community

While Gaston has now put a priority on contributing as much data as he can to scientists, he and the other volunteers emphasize the wonderful sense of community and camaraderie they’ve found in their fellow volunteers. The site’s associated forum gives volunteers a chance to connect and share information. “People with so many different backgrounds and areas of expertise are engaged in the forum. New people have come in with ship experience, that really contributes a lot and can help others better understand what they are transcribing,” says Gaston.

Helen Julian also loves the collaborative network facilitated through the forum, “The scientists are even engaged with the volunteers. They’re accessible, answer questions, and share information about their work we’ve contributed to. It shows they are appreciative of what we’re doing.”

A new Old Weather

As the Old Weather project expands its collection of records this week, the citizen scientists are excited to delve into the world of whaling. “It will be fascinating getting a sense of an industry that doesn’t exist anymore,” says Julian. Michael Purves is also anxious to learn a new perspective of history that was once alive and well near his home in British Columbia. Since it began in late 2010, the Old Weather project has clearly gained a dedicated cadre of volunteers.“It’s like an old friend at this point. Even if it’s been a while, when you go back the conversation just picks back up like you never left,” says Wendolkowski. “It’s one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever done.”

For more information on the Old Weather project, visit:

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