What Can 19th Century Whaling Diaries Tell Us About Climate Change?Historians in the News
tags: environmental history, whaling, maritime history, primary sources
Tucked away in the New Bedford Whaling Museum is a room full of records.
It holds manuscripts, manifests, banking records and crew accounts from New England’s storied whaling industry.
It also contains the largest collection of whaling logbooks in the world. Logbooks were a legal record of each voyage, in which first mates documented whale sightings, other ships and the occasional fight on board.
But mostly, they recorded the weather.
“So it’s latitude and longitude,” said Timothy Walker, history professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, “wind speed, wind direction, any changes in the wind direction, precipitation, cloud cover, sea state, and if they’re in the vicinity of any land, what the landmark is."
Walker is part of a team using those records to fill in gaps in modern climate science. The goal is to compare historic wind patterns with wind patterns today, especially in the Indian and Southern oceans. Researchers are trying to get a clearer picture of just how much climate change is affecting the region.
“Whaling ships followed the whales, and so they [went] into some of the most inaccessible and least visited parts of the oceans,” said Walker. “Consequently, they’re recording data that doesn’t exist anywhere else. It’s the only place we can get this data going back to the middle of the 18th and 19th centuries.”
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