Historic Weather Projects meeting (Exeter University, October 22nd 2010): Report

Historic Weather Data Projects: Workshop
Exeter University, Oct. 22nd, 10:30 - 16:00
Ibrahim Ahmed Room, Reed Hall, University of Exeter

Aims and objectives of the meeting

The meeting was an opportunity to present a number of projects that are working with archival sources that contain information about historic weather, and to discuss the research objectives of these projects with an interdisciplinary group of stakeholders, including invited representatives from the maritime history community. Secondly, the group was able to address some of the issues of documenting, managing and using these sources for widest possible use and analysis, using e-research approaches.

Welcome and introductions: Lorna Hughes
The ACRE Initiative and Historic weather data: Rob Allan, Philip Brohan
Old Weather and Galaxy Zoo: Philip Brohan

JISC SAILS project: Lorna Hughes
Maritime History research challenges, digitization, and e-Research: Martin Robson, Laura Rowe

AHRC Network: e-Research approaches to historic weather data: sources collaborations and methodologies

AHRC BL India Project: Penny Brook, British Library

Ms. Lorna Hughes, King’s College, London
Mr. Richard Palmer, King’s College, London
Dr. Martin Robson, Corbett Centre, King’s College, London
Dr. Rob Allan, Met Office ACRE initiative
Dr. Philip Brohan, Met Office ACRE initiative
Dr. Penny Brook, British Library
Dr. Ed Hampshire, The National Archives
Dr. James Davey, National Maritime Museum
Prof. Henry French, Professor of Social History, University of Exeter
Dr Duncan Redford, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, University of Exeter
Dr Laura Rowe, Lecturer in Naval History, University of Exeter
Mr Richard Hammond, PhD Student, University of Exeter

Lorna Hughes presented the aims of the workshop, which were to discuss e-Research approaches to historic source materials that have data about historic weather, and related materials. These sources have a great deal of relevance to climate science; but they are also of interest across the scientific and humanities disciplines. The aim of the meeting was to explore these cross-disciplinary interests, and discuss ways in which these sources can be made more useful to researchers through e-Research approaches, to enable transformative interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research.

The meeting was also an opportunity to explore new funding opportunities, for high-impact projects based around digitization and e-Research.

Rob Allan and Philip Brohan presented the work the Met Office Hadley Centre ACRE Project’s data rescue and visualization activities. ACRE has digitized over 100,000 ships logs from collections in the BL and TNA, and the data extracted from these sources have been the basis for a series of complex visualizations showing historic climate change. These materials have also been the basis for a collaboration with Galaxy Zoo at Oxford to develop crowdsourcing approaches (e.g. Oldweather.org) to transcribe the climate data from the original logs.

At the Centre for e-Research, King’s College London, historic ships logs have been at the core of two projects: an AHRC Network grant to explore e-Research approaches to managing and analyzing historic source materials that contain weather data; and a JISC funded project, SAILS (Sailors Archives and Integrated Logbooks), which is exploring linked data approaches to enable links between RN service records and Ship’s Logs to “put sailors back in their ships”. The SAILS project has been driven by a need to develop an e-Research approach that is based on research challenges key to maritime studies, and exposing, structuring and linking ship’s logs with RN service records, in a way that addresses these questions.

Laura Rowe and Martin Robson presented some of the historic questions that can be uncovered by SAILS, and related projects, and indicated ways that future projects might address other methodological issues. These include:

1) What exactly happened in navy history? Much controversy has existed over a number of issues relating to who, what, when – for example, with regard to Jutland, what did they see? Visibility is crucial in naval warfare in this period; hence access to all RN log books will allow historians to understand exactly what could be seen from a ship and how that might relate to our understanding of the naval conflicts of the First World War.
2) What people do the RN employ during this time? For instance, where do the stokers come from, is a father in the RN useful for further promotion for officers, how do social networks work at this time, is it important for officers to marry into certain families? SAILS will allow users to explore personal, social and professional connections between what at first might appear as disparate networks. It might not provide the full answer, but it will allow more detailed and specific questions to be asked of the data. Also, are there differences in social background for officers who Capt a battleship / battlecruiser and those that choose another branch – such as aviation or submarines?
3) Using the log books, can we gain a picture of what the RN was doing on a daily basis during WWI. We think of the big battles – Dogger Bank, The Falklands, Jutland, but this was a minority of the vessels that made up the RN. What were the rest up to? How were they distributed across the globe to protect British Vital National Interests?
4) Who did officers serve with and serve under, and does that have an impact upon career progression?

Much of what we know about these questions is anecdotal, and not backed up by the empirical data in the sources. Other questions that could be addressed related to the social/cultural/demographic side of the RN: can height/weight data in service records indicate the health of those who joined the navy, and be the basis for comparison with civilians? What do they show about enlistment patterns from regions, including the industrial heartlands of the UK? Is internal migration related to Poor Law records? Many other historic questions have only been resolved through anecdotal evidence, and an empirical approach would be of considerable benefit. Ed Hampshire raised the example of the RN in the Indian Ocean on anti slavery duties – many crew enlisted specifically to fight slavery, coming from community based networks of evangelical associations. A detailed statistical analysis of logbooks and service records would augment the evidence of admiralty journals and minutes, which explain why ships were deployed.

These, and other research questions, are not just limited to UK sources; similar questions can be asked of navy records worldwide, hence the importance of initiative like Clive Wilkinson’s international records initiative. The sea is not a barrier, but a means of spreading culture and creativity.

Penny Brook described the BL India project. This is an area of priority for government, DCMS; and collaboration with the Indian ministry of culture. It is also an area of strategic priority for the AHRC. The aims of the initiative are to improve collections access; foster research collaboration; and a focus for climate research, for scientific, cultural and social impact.


There are many future research possibilities for research council funded projects that involve climate data, and what is required is an infrastructure and methodology for linking data outputs of discrete research projects, and data from dispersed collections, in a unified, federated way.

At the core of this would be an inventory of sources, taking a broad approach to projects and researchers who are identifying them, and providing a means to identify and discuss the research challenges that bring people together around these materials. There is a strong collaborative/public engagement focus to these materials (as evidenced by the Galaxy Zoo project).

A key challenge is collecting the data, and making it broadly accessible. This has the potential to be a large scale, high impact initiative, with broad value across communities. Developing a technology platform to gather, integrate and analyze this data would be a valuable, “big history” application.

A large-scale project would integrate: historic sources; ICT infrastructure and platform for data; structuring and representing data; climate change; community and crowdsourced work (both moderated and open; academic and public). The basis would be a sustainable data resource.

Recommendations and next steps

There was a great deal of interest in the AHRC Network grant. It was agreed that this would a good opportunity to produce a critical analysis of ongoing work in this field; and a series of recommendations for future funding, technology and investment.

The Network was also seen as a means for the group to work together on identifying future funding opportunities, and developing grant applications.

The group agreed to explore funding opportunities, e.g., Wellcome (colonial medicine?); EC funding; Mellon Foundation; RCUK grants (platform grants?).