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Uncovering Clues About the Arctic’s Past Climate in Old Whaling Logs

Arctic cruise passengers are being enlisted to help analyze logbooks kept by whalers nearly two centuries ago in an effort to better understand how sea ice in the region has shrunk.

Written by Megan Stewart Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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A cruise ship passenger examines a 190-year-old whaling ship logbook during a workshop aboard the Ocean Endeavour in July. The scientist in residence, Matthew Ayre, is in the background to the left.Photo courtesy Megan Stewart

In the third week of May 1827, the wood-built, double-hulled Dordon sailed in Canada’s eastern Arctic under wet snowfall. By early morning it had sighted a pilot whale, which the crew knew as a bottlenose. They harpooned their prey, stripping it of blubber in time to lay their sights on one of the coveted and oil-laden bowhead whales that were luring hundreds of vessels like the Dordon from English ports to the rich hunting grounds of the Arctic.

Weeks later, on the second-last day of July, the Dordon anchored to the leeside of an iceberg. It was the safest and most efficient way to sail eastward, back across the Davis Strait toward home in late summer.

In these same waters 190 years later, almost to the day, the sea was calm and the sun hot overhead. There were small, infrequent icebergs and “light breezes,” as the Dordon’s captain might have described them. Pages pulled from the log of the old whaling vessel were scattered about the Aurora Lounge, a top-deck bar aboard the Ocean Endeavour, a cruise ship operated by Adventure Canada. The sepia, handwritten pages were photocopied, laminated and in the hands of two dozen passengers taking time during their vacation to interpret Victorian naval narrative and pre-scientific oceanographic observations for the very modern data-mining application of analyzing climate change in the Eastern Arctic.

“There is no computer program in the world that can read that text and extract what I want, but there are loads of people in the world who can extract that information,” said Matthew Ayre, a historical climatologist for the Arctic Institute of North America based at the University of Calgary, who enlisted cruise ship passengers as citizen scientists aboard the Ocean Endeavour earlier this summer.

Back on board the Dordon, the whaler was sailing in a fleet out of Hull, England, with two other ships. Ayre had at least one of those logs and suggested a mother and daughter pair from Toronto tackle “some data verification.”

Kathryn Bryce, 24, scoured the pages of a second logbook. The Laurel reported a light breeze from the northeast as it fastened its hull to an iceberg “in company with the Dordon” to accelerate the voyage home. Ayre told them, “I haven’t looked at this. It’s as new to me as it is to you.”

Working in tandem with her mom, Bryce downloaded logbook files to her laptop with the intention of continuing the research on dry land so that together they could contribute to Ayre’s open-data project. “With more practice, it’s fun to do together,” she said. While one read passages aloud, parsing handwritten code for weather descriptions and whale sightings, the other typed out the paragraphs so they could enter specific details into Ayre’s online spreadsheets.

“There are other people who use these documents for other research,” he said. “This takes a long time – why do it twice?” Anyone can access the logbooks and his forms online. “These whalers also record anything that may have happened. They may have visited a community. They may have seen the aurora. Somebody may have died. This may be of use to me in the future and it may be of use to somebody else now.”

British whalers plumbed the Arctic from 1610 through to 1913, but during a 100-year industry peak that ended in 1860, more than 6,000 voyages were made from British ports. Of all those voyages, only 300 logbooks are known to exist in English today. Other logs were kept in Dutch and Basque. Ayre needs eight days’ worth of data from a month of observations for the data to be reliable.

The Ocean Endeavour plies ice-free waters in July. (Photo courtesy Megan Stewart)

The workshop was just one educational session aboard the Ocean Endeavour, a kind of floating lecture hall featuring Inuit artists, polar explorers and interdisciplinary Arctic experts along with about 140 passengers from Canada, Australia and the United States. While some preferred calling the voyage an expedition, the cruise drew working and retired professionals, most with means of course, and all with an avid interest in Arctic life and culture. (A NASA computer scientist from Palm Springs, California, was also on board. Margaret Atwood gave a speech; the Canadian novelist has been on more than a dozen trips like this one.)

“There is such a varied population on this boat – a lot of educated enthusiasts and ‘geeks in their own field’,” said Hilary Dawson, a passenger and historian researching Ontario’s first black high school principal. “It is interesting to read these logs for the content, but also the fact that actually you can write it down and make it easier for someone else to read and make it more widely available to people.”

Ayre was the first scientist to turn with such depth toward the eyewitness accounts of whaling logbooks as source material to translate into scientific standard. Similar feats have been accomplished with Hudson Bay accounts. His first task was to learn the lexicon. A bowhead whale, for instance, was given the generic label of “fish.” This was the hunters’ main target – a breathing barrel of oil sold across Europe at the time to illuminate homes, light city streets and make soap. Demand for whale oil helped drive the “first oil boom,” as Ayre put it.

He also established numerical benchmarks for all kinds of weather, so changing conditions could be entered into spreadsheets and plotted over time. “One day is the weather. Many days is climate,” he frequently told cruisers. But as Ayre emphasized to passengers who used magnifying glasses to decipher 200-year-old cursive: “Sea ice is the thing I’m most interested in.”

Previously, as a PhD candidate at the University of Sunderland, in the U.K., Ayre studied 36 logbooks from a 19th-century polar explorer and has since grown his collection to 120 logs from other fleets and expeditions. There is no shortage of material, just readers. “There are over 100,000 logbooks from the Royal Navy. It’s more than a lifetime of work for me,” he said.

Disclosure: The cruise line Adventure Canada paid for the author’s expenses as a passenger on the Ocean Endeavour.

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