Old Ship Records to Shed Light on Arctic Ice Loss

Researchers are looking to the past to gain a clearer picture of what the future holds for ice in the Arctic. A project to analyse and digitize ship logs dating back to the 1850's aims to lengthen the timeline of recorded ice data.

Published Dec 19, 2014 12:51 PM by The Maritime Executive

Ships filled with explorers have gathered scientific data about the Arctic for centuries. Now, scientists are hoping handwritten observations from the past will shed light on the future. An ambitious effort, aided by a global network of citizen scientists, is starting to decode and digitize tens of thousands of logbooks from ships dating back to 1850. Kevin Wood, research scientist at the University of Washington, has spent the majority of his adult life at sea. He says the data in these books will help scientists predict the fate of Arctic ice in the years to come.

Wood says: "What we have are the old records which are handwritten and we have these super computers. We need to get data out of these books, vast amounts of data, millions and millions of weather records, out of these books and into digital format and then into these databases where these re-analysis systems can take up the data and use it."

Wood says these observations lengthen the timeline of data scientists can use to create models. That, in turn, will lead to more accurate future predictions. The project began two years ago and Wood says it will take time for the data to be fully incorporated into future models. He says the Arctic described 140 years ago bears little resemblance to the Arctic of today.

"So the information in the logbooks, the descriptions and the things that they actually measure to me don't look like what I see when I travel to the Arctic every year. The ice is thicker, the ridges are higher, the keels are deeper, the ice is aground in places that are almost unbelievably deep, you know, well over a hundred feet deep, and those things we just don't see any more. And also the ice is thick and in places that it just doesn't exist anymore," Wood stated.

Sea ice cover has been significantly shrinking in the Arctic since satellite observations began in the late 1970's. Wood thinks the data also gives the sailors aboard these ships, many of whom lost their lives recording it, a voice that would otherwise have been left unheard.

Copyright Reuters 2014.