Professor uses historical whaling ship data to chart climate change

A joint research effort by faculty at UMassD and WHOI looks to provide valuable data

Old whaling logbook
A whaling logbook from the 1600s.

Professor Tim Walker (History) lives in the perfect part of the world for his new research project. Southern New England is home to over 5,000 whaling ship logbooks from the 1700 and 1800s that are full of historical information. The ship’s captain maintained these legally mandated books on a daily basis and filled them with valuable weather data from across the world. For Walker and his research partner Caroline Ummenhofer, a climate scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, this longitudinal weather data gives great insight into how oceans and the overall climate have changed over the last few centuries.

The logbooks, with notable collections in Nantucket, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and Providence Public Library, contain valuable information such as the ship’s location, precipitation, temperature, wind speed and direction, and storms.

"We can go in and record the data and build up a mosaic of data points which then allows the scientists to calculate a model of what the weather might have looked like at that time and place,” Walker told VICE News.

Professor Walker with historical logbooks
Professor Walker reading logbooks in Nantucket

After reading the logbooks, Walker enters the location and weather data into a database. Then Ummenhofer compares the historical and current readings to see what has changed over the years. They are especially interested in the intensity of Monsoons in the Indian Ocean that occur in the “Roaring Forties”, a wind belt that flies across the 40-degree latitude line. By building a historical record of the weather, Walker’s hopes that climate scientists will find irregularities in the current trends.

"We like to think our project [is] fascinating because it’s marrying together two skillsets that you normally don’t get to have together like a climate scientist that uses high-end computer modeling that is dependent on a historian in an archive reading old handwriting," Walker said.

Read more on Walker’s work.


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