British researchers are hoping to glean new information about Arctic climate change by digging through the historical records of polar explorers.
Historians will be looking for Arctic weather data in the logbooks of whaling ships, British Navy vessels and Hudson Bay Company ships from the 18th and 19th centuries, said Dennis Wheeler, a researcher with the University of Sunderland.
“It’s not until you begin to look at these documents that you can really get an appreciation of exactly how much information there actually is,” Wheeler told CBC News.
He said the logbooks, most of which are stored in London, contain a wealth of meticulously recorded data about daily weather conditions, wind readings, snow and ice cover. The data could help scientists better understand climate change today, he said.
“We know it was colder then, and we’ve got to check the temperature records to confirm that, and there isn’t any clear evidence that the ice was any more advanced than it is today,” Wheeler said.
“That raises all sorts of questions about how Arctic ice responds to global temperature changes. So, we do need to know more about this, in both the warming and the cooling point of view, to see how it changes.”
Emerging research field
Wheeler said it’s amazing how little research has been done on historic weather data, but he said the three-year research project is attracting a lot of interest now.
“The only way we know about climate change or environmental change anyway is by knowing the past temperatures, what the past environment was like,” said Alan MacEachern, a historian and director of the Network in Canadian History and Environment.
MacEachern said the field of historical climatology is still in its infancy in Canada, despite its obvious relevance in understanding modern climate change.
“Why isn’t it happening more? I’m not sure,” he said.
“I think the sources are kind of everywhere, and I think it’s taking a while for people to figure out exactly where they should start looking or even where they should stop looking.”
MacEachern said there is growing support for research into Canada’s environmental history, so he is encouraging students to start digging.