From Wbrur by Hannah Chanatry
It holds manuscripts, manifests, banking records and crew accounts from New England’s storied whaling industry.
It also contains the largest collection of whaling logbooks in the world.
But mostly, they recorded the weather.
“So it’s latitude and longitude,” said Timothy Walker, history professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, “wind speed, wind direction, any changes in the wind direction, precipitation, cloud cover, sea state, and if they’re in the vicinity of any land, what the landmark is."
Walker is part of a team using those records to fill in gaps in modern climate science.
The Yankee whalers
The New England whaling industry developed around Nantucket in the early 1700s.
“It was a hard life, a dirty life. Their vessels were inundated with whale oil,” said Walker. “It was a situation where young men would try it for the adventure and then they’d had enough.”
The records of those adventures form the basis of the research project Walker is conducting with Caroline Ummenhofer, an oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
“And that is hard to come by in most places outside North America or Europe, and especially out over the oceans,” said Ummenhofer. “Having 30 or 40 years of records is actually very rare.”
It’s a time-consuming process, made more difficult by the need to decipher the handwriting and language style of the time.
“This was fascinating. It had nothing to do with the weather, but it was such a unique occurrence that I’d never encountered before,” said Walker.
When they do come across wind and weather descriptions, Walker and Ummenhofer convert them into data points that can be plugged into a computer database.
“The log keepers were very meticulous,” said Ummenhofer.
Contributing to climate science
This is not the first research project to use historical documents to study those changes; the Old Weather project uses shipping and whaling records to track changes in the Arctic, and old tidal records stored in England are being used to study sea level rise.
What’s unusual for Walker and Ummenhofer’s project is the focus on wind observations, and on the Indian and Southern Oceans. Observational data in this region is particularly sparse; Ummenhofer said most records only date back to the use of satellite imaging in the late 1970s and '80s.
But this is an area of the world that is experiencing huge changes.
“What used to be known as the Roaring Forties, the near 40 south westerly wind belt, that has actually shifted further south ... [and] should now be known as the Furious Fifties,” said Ummenhofer.
Scientists believe the shift is due to climate change. And the shifts have consequences, according to Gisela Winckler, a climate scientist and expert on the Southern Ocean at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.
Wind patterns affect both how the oceans store heat and cycle carbon, and can have a dramatic impact on weather.
The region is already seeing the ripple effects.
So far, Walker and Ummenhofer have made their way through about 50 whaling logs, and 14,000 entries.
- Weather Rescue at Sea: WeatherRescue.org looking at ship logbooks from the 1860s