Polar News

Historic Ship Logs Could Hold Answers to Arctic Climate Change Questions

Centuries-old marine records provide wealth of information on climate, sea ice, and wildlife.


By Sean Myers

When Maribeth Murray, director of the Arctic Institute of North America, began recruiting her team to investigate historic climate and sea ice variability in the Arctic, she was looking for archeologists, ecologists and geographers. Old world handwriting expert wasn’t listed as a requirement, but is a skill that’s already coming in handy.

“We’re pulling together data from the logs of historic explorations ships, whaling ships, seal hunting vessels, as well as coastal trading posts,” says Murray. “We want to see what the Arctic marine ecosystem looked like before extensive anthropogenic impacts caused by human activity, and use that information to help address contemporary environmental problems linked to climate change.”

Murray received an Insight grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) earlier in 2015 to fund her four-year project, which will ultimately produce research to help build better Arctic climate models and develop marine ecosystem impact scenarios that can inform management and conservation.

Wealth of observations found in old ship records
Postdoctorate fellow Patricia Wells, an archaeologist and documentary researcher, arrived from the University of Western Ontario last month. She’s begun scouring journals from Hudson Bay Company posts along the Arctic coast between the Beaufort Sea in the west and the Labrador Sea in the east. These handwritten texts go back over 300 years.

“It takes a few days for your eyes to adjust to the language used and the style of handwriting,” says Wells.

“I’ve started with journals from the Hudson’s Bay Company housed in Government of Manitoba archives. I was happy to discover there are 92 coastal posts in my study area, all with preserved journal information.”

Contained in these records, and those written by crew members on a wide range of ships, is a wealth of observations on climate conditions, sea ice and even wildlife. The Hudson Bay Company, for instance, mandated that climate conditions be reported as matter of routine.

Overlap with work by international experts
“It’s a huge undertaking, no one has pulled all this together before,” says Murray. “People are definitely interested, I only had to make a couple phone calls and had interest from museums and archives in the United States, England and Denmark all wanting to collaborate.”

Some pieces of the work have already been completed by groups such as the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has captured most American whaling ship data, and Old Weather, an international citizen science initiative that has been digitizing ship records and using crowdsourcing to transcribe them.

“We’re looking to see how much overlap these organizations have with our work,” says Murray.

Combing through 400 years of colorful data
Her team also includes postdoctoral fellow Gabriela Ibarguchi, an evolutionary ecologist with expertise in biodiversity in polar environments, as well as a third postdoc fellow supported through the Eyes High program with expertise in climatology and geospatial analysis who will arrive in the new year, and likely a PhD student a little later on. They will be looking for museums and archives in Canada, the U.S., U.K., Norway and Denmark that might have records from ships that travelled through the Arctic over the past 400 years.

“The problem, and I guess it’s a good problem to have, is we have an embarrassment of riches,” says Murray. “There’s so much available, it’s just a matter of going through it all.”

And then there’s the task of building a baseline from all the observations they collect. Many logs collected information such as wind speeds, the thickness and texture of ice and the health of wildlife. But, for instance, wind speed might be reported in terms such as “a hearty gale.” Quantifying that in scientific terms with other observations that also use descriptions unique to the observer is another challenge. But the result should be some interesting snapshots from history.

Toward an understanding of how Arctic responds to climate change
“We’re not going to get consistent spatial and temporal coverage for the entire period in which we are interested, but rather a combination of data that is very rich temporally but spatially restricted (such as that from HBC post records), or information that is point data — from one place at one point in time. However, together these data sets can provide a lot of detail on short-term climate, weather and ecological conditions,” says Wells. “We can see how the Little Ice Age (approximately 1300-1850) impacted one specific area versus another specific area and then perhaps gain insight into why there may have been differences from one area to another.

“Climate and ecosystem modeling are complex activities and currently we lack both climatological and ecological baseline data that can contribute to a more robust model. Any time we can extend key time series like barometric pressure or species biogeography, it adds to our understanding of how the Arctic might respond to climate change in the future.”

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