OLD whaling records from the North East are being used to investigate the impact of climate change on the Arctic.
Sunderland University PhD student Matthew Ayre is joining a US exploration vessel hoping to unlock vital information about the Arctic’s melting ice using log books from whaling expeditions more than 250 years ago.
As part of his studies Matthew, from Tynemouth, 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.
The whaling ships’ logs include 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.
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 21st Century 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 Arctic explorer, scientist and Whitby whaler William Scoresby Jnr who in the 19th Century wrote an account of the Arctic regions.
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.
He said: “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.
“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’; and 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 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. Ships’ log- books were the main resource used to record the weather in the oceans. Officers kept careful records of the daily, and sometimes hourly, climate condition, allowing modern researchers 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 maritime studies unit.