U.S.S. Jeannette
U.S.S. Jeannette (U.S. Naval Historical Center photograph)

In the 1870s, the U.S.S. Jeannette set sail on a voyage to the North Pole. When the vessel reached the Arctic, it got stuck in ice floes. For two years, the ship, with its crew, drifted in frigid waters.

Wood: “Even though they were stuck in the ice, they still kept up weather observations day in and day out.”

Kevin Wood of the University of Washington says that nineteenth century naval and coast guard ships like the Jeannette kept meticulous records.

Wood: “The officers on the ship would record many weather variables every hour, so temperature, barometric pressure, wind, sea surface temperature. The ships’ log books, they’re really the only way we know anything about conditions over the ocean going back 150 or 200 years.”

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Until recently, these records could be accessed only by visiting the National Archives in person. But Wood’s team has been working with volunteers to photograph and transcribe the historical data. That makes it accessible to climate scientists who want to track and model changes over time.

When the surviving sailors from the U.S.S. Jeannette brought their observations back from the East Siberian Sea, they did not have global warming on their minds. But their records are shedding light on our changing climate.

Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media.

Diana Madson

Diana Madson contributed regularly to Yale Climate Connections from 2014 to 2021. She enjoys exploring U.S.-based stories about unexpected and innovative solutions to climate change. In addition to her...