History Plays Part in Telling the Future; Centuries-Old Whalers' Logbooks Are Used to Measure Climate Change

Article excerpt

Byline: Tony Henderson

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. …