Whaling Log Books From The Nineteenth Century Are Helping Modern Scientists Assess Climate Change In Remote Areas Of The World

komi$ar - - illustrative purposes only

During the middle of the 19th century, the whaling industry in the United States was at its peak. The oil from captured whales helped fuel the machinery of the Industrial Revolution.

At that time, steam engines were not commonly used at sea yet, so captains and their crews relied on the wind to steer them toward their prey. They kept records of the wind, which often involved vague descriptions of the wind’s strength each day.

Without the advanced technology of today, they had to estimate wind speed through visual observations and calculate wind direction by compass. For instance, they documented wind speeds as a “light breeze” or a “strong gale.”

Now, hundreds of years later, scientists are using the weather patterns that sailors jotted down in their logbooks to assess climate change in remote areas of the world. Details of their work can be found in a paper published in the journal Mainsheet.

A team of researchers in England is analyzing 4,200 logbooks from New England whaling vessels, beginning the process of turning the wind descriptions into actual data to measure how global wind patterns have shifted since the 18th and 19th centuries.

The team used the Beaufort Wind Scale, which was created in 1805, to convert descriptive terms to quantitative measurements and implement them into climate computer models. They are focusing on parts of the ocean where little data exists.

The Indian and Southern Oceans were popular destinations for whalers, but aside from that, other ships had no reason to venture into those areas.

So, the whaling logbook records are some of the only information scientists have of the weather back then.

According to Caroline Ummenhofer, a co-author of the study and an oceanographer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Falmouth, Massachusetts, whalers used a “really strong belt of westerly winds” called the “Roaring Forties” to pass through the tip of South Africa to the Pacific Ocean.

komi$ar – – illustrative purposes only

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