A SUNDERLAND student is joining a US exploration vessel hoping to unlock vital information about the Arctic’s melting ice using log books from epic whaling expeditions more than 250 years ago.
As part of his PhD at the University of Sunderland, Matthew Ayre is analysing 60 log books belonging to whaling vessels, from between 1750 and 1850, which contain descriptions of sea ice advancing and retreating.
Matthew has been translating the whalers’ archaic terminology into the first sea ice dictionary in standard 21st-century observational vocabulary.
To do this, he has traced every sea ice definition in UK history from satellite data of the last three decades, to the accounts of renowned Arctic explorer, scientist and Whitby whaler William Scoresby Jnr, who lived between 1789-1857. Scoresby wrote an account of the Arctic regions and also deciphered some of the log books’ terminology.
Matthew, 25, will now be testing out his ice data and the accuracy of his dictionary on board the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a research vessel and the US’s only operating polar ice breaker.
Matthew explained: “I’ll spend five weeks on board the Healy and record what’s happening with the ice.
“I’ll make observations every four hours using Scoresby’s definitions, comparing them to my dictionary and the Healy researchers’ own daily records, testing how accurate our data is and hopefully validate what is in the sea ice dictionary.
“Apart from modern-day research vessels, these are the only books in history 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 can map the ice edge, which has never been done before in any great detail because it melts and freezes every year – which is happening further and faster than ever before.”
Matthew’s study is part of a wider project called Arcdoc, led by the University of Sunderland, analysing historical ships’ log books of explorers, whalers and merchants around the Arctic to increase our scientific understanding of climate change in such an environmentally important region.
The logbooks include famous voyages such as Parry’s polar expedition in HMS Hecla and Franklin’s lost journey to navigate the Northwest Passage.
The three-year project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, is led by Dr Dennis Wheeler from the university in collaboration with the Scott Polar Research Institute, The Met Office Hadley Research Centre and Hull University’s Maritime Studies Unit.
Dr Wheeler said: “Matthew’s research is going incredibly well and hopefully this will be validated on board the Healy. Hopefully sound scientific judgements can then be made about the sea ice cover.
“The whaling log books are the most interesting given that the crews were not trained naval officers, they often ventured farther north than any others.
“The Arctic environmentally is a hugely important area, but we need to know how it behaved in the past in order that we can assess how it’s going to behave in the future; you can’t look forward without looking back.”