Whaling Vessel Logs Are Helping Scientists Understand Arctic Climate Change | Connecticut Public Radio
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Whaling Vessel Logs Are Helping Scientists Understand Arctic Climate Change

Dec 30, 2015

Details from log books are helping scientists understand how Arctic climate has changed over the last two centuries.

A new project is using log books from historic whaling vessels to get a broader look at climate change in the Arctic. The project, called Old Weather: Whaling, is getting help from citizen scientists.

By the 1800s, whaling vessels were venturing further and further from ports of call in search of whales, including as far north as the Arctic Ocean. Forty to 50 ships a year would make the journey north, and log books offered a rare glimpse into what life was like aboard ship.

"If there are fights aboard, or if somebody dies aboard, and then a lot of accidents as well," said Mystic Seaport's Vice President of Collections and Research Paul O'Pecko. "It was a dangerous business in so many ways, you know, that people would lose limbs on a regular basis."

Log books also chronicled things like whale sightings. But O'Pecko admitted that for the most part, log books are filled with pretty mundane details.

"They will record the day, the hours, which way the winds are blowing. They will record their latitude and longitude, things like sea ice, storms, those type of things," O'Pecko said. 

The Horatio, whose logbook from a 1896 voyage to the North Pacific Ocean is being transcribed.
Credit whaling.oldweather.org

Now those details are helping scientists better understand how Arctic climate has changed over the last two centuries.

The project by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scans old log books and posts them online. Volunteers can log in and transcribe log book entries.

Those transcriptions will be pored over by historians and citizen scientists for log entries that detail things like the edge of the ice shelf, sea ice, and weather patterns. The details will help create a powerful computer model of Arctic climate, and how it has changed over time.

The Eliza Adams, a whaling vessel out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, sailed in the mid-1800s.
Credit whaling.oldweather.org

For example, very little is known about the state of Arctic sea ice before satellite technology.

"You look at what's happening right now in the Arctic -- in the northwest passage, about ships being able to make their way through the Arctic where they were never able to, not even to be able to come close to," O'Pecko said.

Mystic Seaport has sent 16 log books from its collection to be scanned for the project, including log books from six ships that were based in New London and Mystic.

For more information, and to volunteer, go to whaling.oldweather.org.