updated 10/12/2010 3:46:19 AM ET 2010-10-12T07:46:19

British researchers need your help to plug holes in the climate record, the latest project in one group's ongoing efforts to enlist citizen scientists in their research.

Scientists at Oxford University are today announcing the "Old Weather" project, which uses crowd-sourcing technology, volunteers and British naval ship logs from the World War I era.

Citizen-researchers will look through images of these logs for weather data that will be used to fill in gaps in large-scale climate models, which combine current and historic weather observations.

"Historical weather data is vital because it allows us to test our models of the Earth's climate," said Peter Stott, head of climate monitoring at the British Meteorological Office. "If we can correctly account for what the weather was doing in the past, then we can have more confidence in our predictions of the future."

The logs come from British ships that sailed from 1905 to 1929, a time when sailors wrote down temperature, wind and other climate data every four hours. Sailors also jotted down info about enemy ships, wildlife and any other happenings on board.

The 280 ships include the HMS Caroline, which survived the bloody Battle of Jutland; gunboats HMS Mantis and HMS Moth, which patrolled the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Iraq; and the HMS Dwarf, which fought a German ship off the coast of West Africa.

The Old Weather project is the latest citizen-based science project by the organizers of "Galaxy Zoo," which has enrolled 320,000 volunteers in several countries to process images of stars, galaxies and other astronomical formations.

Human volunteers process data more accurately than computers, according to Lucy Fortson, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Minnesota and a member of the Galaxy Zoo's executive team.

"Machines only do what they are told," Fortson told Discovery News. "Humans are really good at finding the serendipitous."

Since launching in 2007, Galaxy Zoo volunteers have sifted through millions of images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and found several new objects, as well as a new class of small, round, green-colored galaxies dubbed "Green Peas."

"Galaxy Zoo" has become so successful that the organizers expanded to include images from the moon, solar storms and merging galaxies. "Supernova Zoo" pits computer pattern-matching software against volunteers in a race to classify images taken from several optical telescopes.

"So far, the humans are winning," Fortson said.

Radio astronomers are also getting into the game -- recruiting high school students to search through several months of deep-space data from the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia.

Green Bank astronomer Rachel Rosen says the "Pulsar Search Collaboratory" has trained more than 200 student volunteers since 2008.

Shay Bloxton of Summersville, W.Va., is one of two high schoolers to find pulsars. She did it by logging into her home computer after school and scanning page after page of astronomical data.

"I looked through 2,000 individual plots -- and each plot has 30 pages -- before I found one," Bloxton said. "You have to be able to understand a bit of science and what a pulsar is, but it's pretty exciting."

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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