Whaling Logbooks Reveal Arctic Ice History


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

4246 Whaling Logbooks Reveal Arctic Ice History
Nineteenth Century whaling vessels are repaying their debt to the environment through data in their logbooks. Michael Rosskothen/Shutterstock

Modern whalers claim that their hunt is done for scientific, rather than commercial purposes. So far they don't seem to be learning much, since the question of why whales die when harpooned is considered settled science. However, there is one way in which whaling really is contributing to science – through the study of the logbooks of 19th Century whaling ships.

Many of these ships operated in Arctic waters and kept detailed logs of the conditions they witnessed. The data they collected is now being collated to give us a longer baseline against which to compare current reductions in polar ice.


Satellites have allowed us to witness the massive loss of summer sea ice from the Arctic in tremendous detail. Prior to the satellites' deployment, U.S. military vessels provided us with a rich store of data, but even that only extends what we know by a few decades. Glaciers on land leave a record of their travels, even if it is not always easy to read, but ancient sea ice is much harder to trace.

However, Dr Kevin Wood of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said in a statement: “Whaling ships provide a rich resource for us to use for the region north of Bering Strait. In some years there may have been 40 or 50 ships working in that sector of the Arctic."

Logbooks from these vessels stretch from the 1840s to the early 20th Century. "They're not doing the hourly instrumental weather that the federal ships did, but they talk about sea ice in a very thorough way,” Wood said. Records from multiple ships in the same area can be used to confirm accuracy.

Many of these logbooks have been collected from museums and libraries in cities that were once the home port for whaling vessels. However, turning more than 500,000 pages of handwritten notes into a searchable database is a huge task.


Wood has turned to volunteers for assistance, establishing the Old Weather website. Anyone wishing to assist with the process can visit the website, choose a voyage and examine scanned versions of the logbooks.

The writing can be hard to read, particularly given that time has turned many of the pages a similar color to the ink. Nevertheless, 3 million weather records have already been drawn from these pages, and there are many more still unstudied.

There is no doubt that Arctic ice was far more extensive throughout the era than today. For centuries the ice was so formidable that quests to find the north-west passage around Canada claimed hundreds of lives, with the most famous effort resulting in ships trapped in unrelenting ice for years. Today the same journey can be done in kayaks.

Nevertheless, finding out just what was typical before climate change took hold could help us establish not only where we have been, but where we are headed.

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  • Arctic,

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  • logbooks