The HMS Plover Project and the Duke Special Collections Library

The HMS Plover Project and the Duke Special Collections Library

image courtesy of Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering and Technology

We’ve just started working with Dr. Kevin Wood from the University of Washington’s Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean (JISAO) and his colleagues on an interesting historical climate/ecology project. In partcular, the HMS Plover project seeks to recalibrate temperature observations made by Dr. John Simpson and others aboard the HMS Plover at Barrow, Alaska.

The Plover was stationed at Point Barrow Alaska as part of the search effort for the doomed Franklin Expedition during the early to mid-1850s, and while they were there they made a series of air temperature observations that would be extremely useful for present-day climatological studies. The difficult part is that while the measurements were made in a fastidious fashion, the performance of the actual thermometer (and the effects of the shelter it was kept in) remain lost to history.

That is where we come in. Some of the documents from the Plover mission are held in the Duke Special Collections Library, and TJ Young from our lab will be exploring those records for more detailed temperature measurements and for further information on how the thermometer used by Dr. Simpson and others on the HMS Plover was installed in it’s shelter. Once these details are worked out, the reconstructions of actual temperatures by high school students at Commack High School (in Commack, NY) will begin in earnest!

The information below is a project description from Dr. Kevin Wood for the HMS Plover Project. The project is being coordinated through the international ACRE initiative (

The HMS Plover Project – Alaska to New York – via the Duke Special Collections Library

Large sea ice retreats like that which occurred in 2007, and the extreme meteorology of the past two winters, demonstrate the sensitivity of the Arctic to climate variability and highlight its potential as a harbinger of future change. However, to distinguish bellwether climate events from rare but ordinary fluctuations we need a long view into the history of the Earth’s weather. One source of historical weather information are the handwritten journals and logbooks of scientists and sailors who for centuries have left records of the weather and environmental conditions they encountered on their travels, in many cases every hour for years at a time.

The records of the HMS Plover, a British navy ship that was stationed at Point Barrow, Alaska from 1852 to 1854, are a good example. A group of high school students in New York and Alaska are working on a project that will show how air temperature observations recorded on the HMS Plover compare to the present. To do so, however, they need to work out what methods were used to make the observations (described by the metadata) and thus how unrelated factors might have affected the readings. For air temperature measurements the kind of shelter or radiation screen where thermometers are installed can have a large effect. Quantifying the bias associated with different shelter designs and other variations in method is an important and sometimes difficult step toward making historical and modern data comparable. With mentoring from JISAO research scientist Kevin Wood and other experts brought together by the international ACRE initiative ( the students will evaluate the Plover air temperature and weather data.

To estimate the bias associated with the instrument shelter the students will build a replica based on a description given by the ship’s surgeon, John Simpson. The replica will be outfitted with a modern electronic temperature sensor and an older type ‘liquid-in-glass’ thermometer and then deployed at the NOAA Barrow Observatory for one year, beginning in July 2011. The parallel data from the Plover replica and the Barrow Observatory’s standard instruments will be used to estimate the bias due to the older shelter design. The students will also explore other metadata-related issues such as the calibration and performance of the Plover’s actual instruments under Arctic conditions. With this information it will be possible to describe how the historical observations should be interpreted in the context of modern temperature data and the climatology of Barrow. The students will have an opportunity to present their findings at a scientific conference and in a peer-reviewed article.