Sunderland student’s Arctic research

editorial image
Have your say

NOT every student goes on an intrepid journey to the Arctic as part of their coursework.

But that is what Matthew Ayre did for his PhD at Sunderland University.

The 25-year-old hoped to unlock vital information about melting ice, using log books from epic whaling expeditions more than 250 years ago.

As part of National Climate Week activities at the university, Matthew will give a talk to fellow students about melting sea ice and its wider and more damaging consequences to the planet.

His presentation includes the ARCdoc research project, led by Sunderland uni, which analyses historical ships’ log books of explorers, whalers and merchants around the Arctic to increase scientific understanding of climate change in 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

“Joining the polar ice breaker, Healy, for its 2012 Law of the Sea mission was an incredible experience,” said Matthew.

“To observe conditions similar to those encountered by the sailors who kept the logbooks I work with, added a whole new dimension to my studies.”

As part of his PhD, Matthew has been analysing 60 log books from whaling vessels between 1750 and 1850.

They contain descriptions of sea ice advancing and retreating, recorded by whalers who ventured farther north than anyone else and lived on the ice edge in their search for whales.

However, to understand how the data relates to today’s ice cover decline, Matthew has been translating the whalers’ archaic terminology into the first ever sea ice dictionary in standard 21st century observational vocabulary.

He said: “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.

“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 - which is happening further and faster than ever before.”

The three-year project is being led by Dr Dennis Wheeler from the university, in collaboration with the Scott Polar Research Institute.

He said: “Matthew’s research is going incredibly well and has been much enhanced by his time on board the Healy. Hopefully sound scientific judgements can be made about the sea ice cover.

“The whaling log books are the most interesting of all that we use given that the crews were not trained naval officers, and 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.”