Sunderland student's Arctic voyage to unlock words of the whalers
Released: Friday 15th June 2012 at 09:37
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, between 1750 and 1850, which contain descriptions of sea ice advancing and retreating, recorded by whalers who ventured farther north than anyone else and lived on the ice edge.
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.
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 (1789-1857). Scoresby wrote an account of the Arctic regions and also deciphered some of the log books’ terminology.
Matthew, 25, from Tynemouth, 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.”
He added: “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’, lead 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 whaling ships' logs, including records from a fleet owned by the Newcastle-based Palmer family, Royal Navy logbooks and data from the Hudson Bay Company, one of the oldest commercial companies in the world.
Ships’ logbooks were the main resource used to record the weather in the oceans. Officers kept careful records of the daily, and sometimes hourly, climate conditions. What that means today is modern researchers are able to find what the weather was like anywhere in the world on a particular day.
The three-year project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, is being 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.”
Dr Wheeler says that the 100-year period his team are researching is important climatologically because it pre-dates the emergence of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere; hence the logs contain information about the Arctic under natural weather conditions.
He added: "This is also an interesting time as there were some massive volcanoes and the sun was behaving rather oddly; it was a time of low solar activity known as the Dalton Minimum, it's all tied in with a very cold period for the world's climate. But the picture is not wholly clear and we already have noticed some conflicting reports from the ships' logs about ice advancing and retreating.
"We need to know what's happening, because changes in the Arctic today are important as they feedback into the global climatic system and if the ice change isn't responding to temperature, then to what does it respond and what is the background to it?"
The research team's findings will be presented at a series of international conferences in two years' time, and a report will be publicly-launched and made widely available.
Dr Wheeler added: "The logbooks are now no longer seen as someone tinkering around with old bits of paper; their information is taken seriously and gives a fascinating insight into life on board ship. There are personal observations about life, the people, places they encountered on their voyage of discovery.
"The logs from search vessels for Sir John Franklin and his crew, who disappeared on their voyage to navigate the Northwest Passage, are incredibly important from both a climatology and historic perspective."