06 February 2021

Reuters: “Icebound–The climate-change secrets of 19th century ship’s logbooks”

It took Melville four more months to find De Long’s body. Nineteen other crew members also died, their heroic lives cut short by drowning, disease, exposure and starvation. But, thanks to Melville, the logbooks survived. Once, while battling through a snowstorm, he briefly considered reburying them to lighten his load, then changed his mind. Setting my teeth against the storm, he wrote, I would swear a new oath to carry them through, let come what might.

Thousands of miles away, and 138 years later, the Jeannette’s logbooks sit in a climate-controlled room in the U.S. National Archives in Washington, D.C. Every page has been digitized and uploaded to the web, then transcribed by an eccentric group of citizen-scientists called Old Weather.

For the past decade, its far-flung volunteers have shown that the Jeannette’s logbooks, and others like them, are more than what Melville called the records … of our two years of toil and suffering. They are rich repositories of data that can help us understand how profoundly the Earth’s climate has changed and what might happen to it in the future.

Meteorologists have long recorded the weather at land-based stations. But nearly three-quarters of the planet is covered by water, and that’s where most weather takes place. Thousands of ships have criss-crossed the oceans, noting the weather in handwritten logbooks that for decades sat forgotten in bookshelves and basements.

Andrew R.C. Marshall

Fascinating report about extracting data points about past climate from an unlikely source: the logbooks of the thousands of ships that have sailed the oceans in centuries past. Transcribing the handwritten logs is a painstaking, manual work, but it yields important insights about weather patterns, temperature, winds, and ice sheets going back to 1836. The results serve to confirm, once again, the extent of human-caused global warming.

Earlier this year, he was reading the Bear’s log from June 1918. It had set out to resupply the remote Alaskan outpost at Point Barrow, but heavy ice forced it to turn back. Purves looked at maps published by the National Snow and Ice Data Center, a U.S. government agency based in Boulder, Colorado, to see where the ice was in June 2019. What he found was sobering.

The ice in 2019 was more than 650 miles north of where it was on the same day in 1918, he says. You sit there and you think: Whoa.

Purves feels most people have yet to grasp the gravity of climate change. I’m 72, and I’m thinking I’ll still live to see a summer with no ice in the Arctic Ocean, he says. Will that be enough to wake people up? I really don’t know.

The Bear, ship built in Scotland in 1874
The Bear’s career spanned 89 years, two centuries, two world wars and both poles.

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