With some trepidation I accepted an invitation to give a short talk last week at a the Royal Astronomical Society. It was a specialist meeting about “Understanding the Space Environment Before the Space Age” so the Old Weather aurora data from the USS Jeannette was perfect. It was a chance to highlight some of the results from the “Going with the Floe” article published in Astronomy & Geophysics which I wrote with Chris Scott and David Willis. It was also a proud moment for this Zooniverse volunteer!

The USS Jeannette spent 2 winters trapped in Arctic ice. The crew made extensive detailed observations of the aurora throughout that time before the ice finally won and crushed the ship forcing the crew to embark on a 4 month long, 600 mile trek across ice and frozen water. Only 13 survived out of a crew of 30 but all the log books and diaries were saved.

Using the Old Weather volunteers’ transcriptions of the log books of the USS Jeannette we were able to reveal a picture of Arctic aurorae in the early 1880s. Severe space weather events are rare and looking back at historical proxies for auroral events, such as descriptions in the logs of Arctic explorer ships, leads to a better understanding of the long-term processes involved – and offers an insight into space weather before the space age.

Our Lost Explorers, Newcomb R L http://archive.org/details/ourlostexplorers01newc

We looked at the the effect of the phase of the Moon on the visibility of the aurora and the reported colours seen in the displays. We were even able to corroborate the position of the auroral oval by looking at the direction in which the aurora was observed from the Jeannette and checking this against information on geomagnetic activity recorded at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. We also found that a string of repeated colourful auroral observations returning over several solar rotations coincided with records of large sunspot groups recorded at Greenwich. (The full article is here.) 

I’m relieved to report that the talk was well received and generated many questions about the Old Weather project, its ships and logs and the transcription process.

You can see for yourselves what is waiting to be uncovered in the current batch of logs by going to Old Weather: www.oldweather.org.