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Arctic whaling ship logs reveal climate change answers

RESEARCH VOYAGE: Matthew Ayre.

RESEARCH VOYAGE: Matthew Ayre.

WEATHER watchers have delved into a historic data book kept by whalers as they map out climate change through the decades.

A project led by the University of Sunderland is looking at logbooks dating back to the early 19th century kept by the expeditions, as well as explorers and merchants as they made trips to the Arctic.

The findings, which are helping experts in the ARCdoc research team gain a greater understanding of climate change, have included a conclusion that ice fronts recorded during those times were more advanced around the North Pole than they are today.

The logbooks include famous voyages such as Parry’s polar expedition in HMS Hecla and Sir John Franklin’s lost journey to navigate the Northwest Passage.

Some of the most significant information to be unearthed by the project is from painstaking analysis of 60 log books from whaling vessels, which contain descriptions of sea ice advancing and retreating every summer, with the crews recording the details as they ventured farther north than anyone else.

PhD Student Matthew Ayre has mapped what the ice was doing during that 100-year period, around the Davis Straits area, before greenhouse gases were in the atmosphere, and also used satellite data from the past 30 years as a comparison,

To understand how the data relates to today’s ice cover decline, Matthew had to translate the whalers’ archaic terminology into the first sea ice dictionary in standard 21st century observational vocabulary.

He traced every sea ice definition in UK history from satellite data of the past three decades, to the accounts of renowned Arctic explorer, scientist and Whitby whaler William Scoresby Jnr, who lived from 1789 to 1857, and wrote an account of the Arctic regions. He spent five weeks aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Healey, a research vessel and the US’s only operating polar ice breaker, as he recorded what was happening to the ice.

Matthew said: “Apart from modern-day research vessels, these are the only books in history from ships which seek out the ice edge in great detail and follow it. They describe various type of ice from ‘loose’ to ‘heavy’; using this data I was able to map the ice edge, which has never been done before in any great detail because it melts and freezes every year.

“For example we found that if you work your way through the months August to September, which is the time of maximum melt, data shows that in Baffin Bay there was a persistent feature of middle ice in the early 19th century which is not there today.”

Dr Dennis Wheeler, who is leading the project, said: “Significantly this is the first time we have ever had direct observational information on the ice fronts in the North Atlantic and Davis Straits area before 1900.

“Until the introduction of satellite information from the 1970s, we didn’t know what the ice was doing.

“Well, now we know that it was more advanced, therefore the retreat of the ice in the last 30 years is part of a more recent and new pattern of climate change, so these log books contain absolutely vital climatologically information.”

The three-year project has been funded by the Leverhulme Trust in collaboration with the Scott Polar Research Institute, The MET Office Hadley Research Centre and Hull University’s Maritime Studies Unit.

 

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