Old Ship Logbooks Provide Historical Climate Change Clues

captain cook cruise ship photo

Image from jaredw_1986

Climate scientists the world over are about to receive a treasure trove of valuable new weather data from an unlikely source: old Royal Navy logbooks. The thousands of logbooks kept by British captains, some dating back to the early 17th century, were discovered by a team of academics and Met Office scientists, reports Times Online's Jonathan Leake.

Old logbooks provide reams of climate data
Sam Willis, a maritime historian at Exeter University, believes the measurements recorded in the 6,000 logbooks, which include everything from air pressure and wind strength to sea temperature, will prove invaluable in helping scientists reconstitute past climate change and dating.

officer logbook photo

Image from OneEighteen
Logbooks will help clarify the storm-climate change debate
The logbooks should help scientists determine how strong the relation is between past climate change incidents and higher storm frequency. While recent studies have suggested a link between climate change and storm frequency, it remains a point of contention between some meteorologists and climate scientists (a story which author Chris Mooney deftly laid bare in Storm World).

Dennis Wheeler, a geographer at Sunderland University, has already used some of this voluminous data -- he estimates that there are over 100,000 logbooks from 1670 to 1850 alone -- to show that past periods of extreme weather events may not have necessarily been linked to climate change:

The ships’ logs have also shed light on extreme weather events such as hurricanes. It is commonly believed that hurricanes form in the eastern Atlantic and track westwards, so scientists were shocked in 2005 when Hurricane Vince instead moved northeast to hit southern Spain and Portugal.

Many interpreted this as a consequence of climate change; but Wheeler, along with colleagues at the University of Madrid, used old ships’ logs to show that this had also happened in 1842, when a hurricane followed the same trajectory into Andalusia.

While most of the early logbooks contained little, if any, numerical data (since the ships lacked the necessary instruments), the ship officers described weather events in consistent terms -- which allowed Wheeler and his collaborators to accurately reconstruct a numerical record.

The mounds of data will eventually find their way into the International Comprehensive Ocean-Atmosphere Data Set (ICOADS), a global database managed by NOAA.

Via ::The Sunday Times: Captains’ logs yield climate clues (news website)

Looking for climate clues
::Looking to Leeches for Clues on Climate Change
::Fossilized Gnat Heads Point to Past Climate Change Incidents
::Ancient Antarctic Lake Could Reveal Clues about Early Life and Climate Change

Related Content on Treehugger.com