Climate scientists are relying on the records of 19th-century whalers to understand how climate change has affected some of the more remote regions of the ocean, including the Indian Ocean – where changes in monsoon patterns threaten nearly one billion people – and the Arctic.
“We’ve observed a lot of changes over recent decades, including warming oceans, melting ice sheets on Greenland, shifts in weather patterns, and more frequent, intense droughts and floods,” says Dr. Caroline Ummenhofer, a climate researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
The daily logs from a fleet of over 30 whaling ships are helping fill climate data gaps by providing perspective on changes in the marine environment. Similar records from trade and military vessels have also been useful, but their observations are largely confined to specific routes. In contrast, whalers often took several detours in an effort to chase down their prey.
Whalers kept meticulous notes as they pursued whales, documenting changes in wind speed and air temperature, ship maintenance procedures, and life on the water. Combined, this information can provide insight into how rapidly climate change has altered portions of the oceans where some recent and virtually no historical climate data exists.
For example, in 1871, several whaling ships were approaching a wall of ice that towered above the ship. Without any wind to help the ship detour, over one thousand people fled to nearby rescue boats. Amidst the harrowing details of this incident were descriptions of the damage done to the ship’s exterior by the ice. Now, almost 150 years later, it is safe to say that contemporary whalers would likely never find themselves in such a predicament due to the rapid decline of Arctic ice as the planet has warmed.
“[These] logbook-derived data will not only help push the instrumental climate record back to the late 1700s, but they can give us a much broader geographical distribution of weather data than is currently available,” says Dr. Timothy Walker, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth (UMassD), “This can lead to a better understanding of modern climate records and help predict future changes.”