Logbooks from whaling ships part of climate change research

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. -- Maritime historians, climate scientists and ordinary citizens are coming together on a project to study the logbooks of 19th-century whaling ships to better understand modern-day climate change and Arctic weather patterns.

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Whaling ships kept meticulous daily logbooks of weather conditions during their often yearslong voyages searching the globe for whales, valued for their light-giving oil, said Michael Dyer, senior maritime historian at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts, which is supplying much of the data.

Some logs include information about life on board, such as sailors falling overboard, or being disciplined for stealing or other transgressions, and of course, notations whenever whales are spotted. More important for this project, they include precise longitude and latitude measurements, weather conditions, the presence of icebergs and the edge of the ice shelf.

"If they're cruising in the Bering Strait and there's ice, there will be a notation in the logbook that ice fields are present," Dyer said.

The project, called Old Weather: Whaling, is led by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The whaling museum is transcribing and digitizing its own logbooks, as well as original data sources from the Nantucket Historical Association, Martha's Vineyard Museum, Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, and the New Bedford Free Public Library.

The digitized logbooks are being posted online so ordinary "citizen-scientists" can help researchers sift through the vast amounts of information.

The museum has about 2,600 whaling logbooks dating from 1756 to 1965, but the project so far includes just about 300 logbooks related to whaling trips to the Arctic from the mid-1800s to the first decade of the 20th century.

One entry from the San Francisco-based whaler Beluga during a two-year voyage to the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas from 1897 to 1899 is typical of the information in the logs.

"Lat. 61.19. Long. 175.42. Fast to the ice till 6 A.M. then made sail and worked to the N.E. at 8:45 A.M. Commenced steaming. Steamed till 1 P.M. then struck open water. Carrying topsail and fore and aft sails. Steering from N.N.W. to N.E. as the ice allowed. Wind light and variable first part. Latter part strong E.S.E. winds thick and snowing. Ther. 30. Bar. 29.60."

On a most basic level, the information from an old whaling logbook can be compared to current conditions; for example, is there sea ice today in the places where whalers saw sea ice 150 years ago?

But the project is much more than that, said Kevin Wood, a climate scientist with NOAA's Joint Institute for the Study of the Ocean and Atmosphere at the University of Washington and a lead researcher on the project. By recovering as much weather data as possible, the information could help create sophisticated computer models of past climate and help predict future conditions.

He called it a "virtual time-travelling weather satellite."

"We can build an enormously detailed reconstruction of the conditions at the time ... and we can we can understand how the climate has been changing over a longer period of time," Wood said.

The project launched this month is an offshoot of Old Weather, an ongoing partnership between NOAA and Zooniverse, the citizen science Web portal that is looking at logbooks of other vessels, including merchant and naval ships.

Sifting through the documents is where the public comes in. There is just too much data for a small group of scientists to pore over.

High-resolution images of historical documents, extracted data and related research products are available online, sad Michael Lapides, the museum's director of digital initiatives.

Already, the logbooks of more than 20 whalers are online. The project is expected to take about a year, Lapides said.



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