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Sunderland graduate migrates 19th century whaling logbook research to Arctic Institute

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Published on 23 March 2017

Matt Ayre at the Arctic Institute in Calgary
Matt Ayre at the Arctic Institute in Calgary

A North East PhD graduate whose research revealed the secrets of early 19th century ice fronts that were more advanced around the Arctic than they are today, is continuing his work at the Arctic Institute of North America.

Matthew Ayre was offered a Post Doctoral Fellowship at the Institute, based at the University of Calgary in Canada, as a result of his work on the ARCdoc research project, led by the University of Sunderland.

ARCdoc analysed historical logbooks recorded by explorers, whalers and merchants during epic expeditions between 1750 and 1850. The project was created to increase our scientific understanding of climate change in this environmentally important region. The logbooks include famous voyages such as Parry’s polar expedition in HMS Hecla.

Some of the most significant data to emerge from the project has come from painstaking analysis of 60 logbooks belonging to whaling vessels, which contain descriptions of sea ice advancing and retreating every summer, all of which were recorded by whalers who ventured farther north than anyone else.

"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"

For his PhD, Matthew mapped what the ice was doing during some of that 100-year period around the David Straits area, and at a time pre-dating the emergence of significant volumes of anthropogenic greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. A comparison with satellite data from the last 30 years of this area shows the summer ice was then far more advanced than it is today.

Now considered a leading expert on historical log book analysis, the 29-year-old, from North Tyneside, is continuing his research with historical logbooks as part of the Northern Seas project at the Arctic Institute.

Matthew said: “I’m very excited to be starting this new opportunity in Calgary. The ARCdoc project was an incredible experience and has led to this life-changing opportunity at the ARCdoc institute.

“It’s new territory, exploring the Canadian archives, looking for new data and methods to analyse it.”

Maribeth Murray, director of the Arctic Institute of North America based at the University of Calgary, says: “Matt brings us needed expertise around the historical climatology of the Arctic. Obviously, he has an incredible amount of patience to make his way through so many old logbooks and he still retains a sense of humour. We are really pleased to have him here for the next few years.”

To understand how the data relates to today’s ice cover decline, Matthew had to translate the whaler’s 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 book’s terminology.

Matthew was also able to validate his 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, where he spent five weeks recording what was happening to the ice.

Matthew explained: “I was making observations every six hours on board Healy, using Scoresby’s definitions, comparing them to the Healy researchers’ own daily records, testing how accurate the sea ice dictionary was.”

He added: “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 in greater detail than previously thought possible. For example we found that if you work your way through the months August to September which is the time of minimum sea ice extent, the data shows that in Baffin Bay there was a persistent area of sea ice in the early 19th century, known as the middle ice, which is not there today.”

Matthew’s lecturer Dr Dennis Wheeler, who led the ARCDoc research, said: “The ARCdoc project was ground-breaking in its use of ships’ logbooks from the Arctic region, but none were more valuable than those of the whalers, who penetrated further north into the ice than any other vessels of the time. It was this unique collection of UK whaling logbooks that formed the basis of Matthew’s studies. His finding shed a whole new light on Arctic climate at a critical period in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.”

Key findings

- Historical Arctic whaling logbooks contain a wealth of meteorological, sea ice and iceberg observations. Observations are made with a structured and definable vocabulary allowing for translation into modern scales of measurement.

- Reconstruction of summer sea ice positions for the early 19th Maximum winter extend is found to be similar to the modern average. However, sea ice retreat during the summer months is far less pronounced, with the minimum ice extent much greater than the modern period.

- Extension of iceberg flux record for the Davis Strait/Baffin Bay. Showing highly variable patterns of iceberg carving rates.

- Detection of large scale atmospheric organisation regimes (North Atlantic Oscillation) through wind direction indices in both North Atlantic and Arctic Latitudes.

The three year ARCDoc project was funded by the Leverhulme Trust, led by Dr Dennis Wheeler, in collaboration with the Scott Polar Research Institute, the UK Met Office Hadley Research Centre and Hull University’s Maritime Studies Unit.

Explaining the study results, Dr Wheeler 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.

“We only focused on the North Atlantic and Davis Straits area which is a key driver in the global climatic system, and we have evidence of significant changes in frequency of rain, gales and snow.

“As a result of this data, you can begin to build up a clearer picture of climate change, before human impact begins to exercise any control on the global climate, this is the Arctic under natural weather conditions.

“We now need to ask some significant questions based on this empirical data of climate variation - what is driving this, is it solar influences, volcanoes or internal changes in oceanic circulation? Those answers could give us the key to understanding the climate of the past and that means if you want to predict the future climate, you can do so with a little bit more confidence than we do now.”