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“The Arctic is the canary in the coal mine"

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Published on 13 March 2019

Climate Change in the Arctic
Climate Change in the Arctic

A Sunderland graduate will be back on campus this month to discuss his vital climate change research using historical documents and helping to find a whaling ship lost in the Arctic for more than 116 years.

After achieving his PhD at the University of Sunderland in 2017, Matthew Ayre, whose research revealed the secrets of early 19th century ice fronts around the Arctic, was offered a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at the Arctic Institute of North America, based at the University of Calgary in Canada.

Since then his work has led him to the discovery of the wreckage of Scottish whaling ship Nova Zembla, in the Canadian High Arctic using historical documents and newspaper clippings connected to the 19th century whaling trade. 

Matthew’s talk at Sunderland will explore the history of the British whaling trade and its connections to the current Arctic climate, discovering the importance of the past to gain a greater understanding of the ever-changing polar north.

Matthew said: “I’m really looking forward to returning to Sunderland to discuss climate change which is the largest challenge facing humanity, and the Arctic is the canary in the mine.

“For nearly 40 years we have witnessed a near continual and increasing downward trend in the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice. Changes in the Arctic affect the rest of the world. To forecast the future of this rapidly changing Arctic it is necessary to put these observations into a longer-term context. Proxy records can help extend the sea ice record back millennia but do not have the resolution to capture change on the timescales witnessed today.”

Matthew’s PhD research at Sunderland was part of the ARCdoc project, which 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.

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 31-year-old, from North Tyneside, is continuing his research with historical logbooks as part of the Northern Seas project at the Arctic Institute.

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 will deliver his talk alongside Dr Debbie Smith, who led the ARCDoc research, is a fellow climatologist and retired University of Sunderland lecturer.

Tickets are limited and free of charge, but must be booked via EventBrite.

There is free parking at National Glass Centre. Refreshments are provided.

Dr Debbie Smith

Dr Smith was a lecturer at the University of Sunderland from 1979 until her retirement in 2013. She has led a number of funded international research projects in climate change, authored three books and published over 100 scientific papers.