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U.K. scholar brings whaling logbook research to UCalgary's Arctic Institute of North America

Research into old marine records shines new light on climate change in the North
March 22, 2017
Matthew Ayres is a new postdoctoral scholar at the Arctic Institute of North America. He will present his research at the next Arctic speaker series April 19. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Matthew Ayres is a new postdoctoral scholar at the Arctic Institute of North America. He will present his research at the next Arctic speaker series April 19. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

It almost seems like kismet that Matthew Ayre would wind up at the University of Calgary as a postdoctoral scholar with the Arctic Institute of North America (AINA).

While working on his PhD in geography at the University of Sunderland in the United Kingdom, he read a UToday story from late 2015 about AINA director Maribeth Murray receiving funding to investigate historic sea ice variability in the Arctic from old marine logbooks. He knew at once that was where he needed to go next.

“I contacted them and said I’m doing the same thing,” says Ayre, who arrived in Calgary in January. “When I saw they were looking for a postdoc, I applied right away.”

Ayre's research involved analyzing historical logbooks

Ayre’s own research revealed that early 19th century sea ice fronts around the Arctic did not retreat as far back during the summer as they do today. As part of a project called ARCdoc, Ayre analyzed historical logbooks recorded by explorers, whalers and merchants during epic expeditions between 1750 and 1850. The project was created to increase the scientific understanding of climate change in this environmentally important region.

The logbooks include famous voyages such as Parry’s polar expedition in HMS Hecla. To complete his thesis, Ayre had to translate whaler’s archaic terminology into the first-ever sea ice dictionary in standard 21st century observational vocabulary. To do this he traced every sea ice definition in U.K. history from satellite data of the last three decades, to the accounts of renowned Arctic explorer, scientist and Whitby whaler William Scoresby Jr. (1789-1857). Scoresby wrote an account of the Arctic regions and also deciphered some of the logbook’s terminology.

Ayre was also able to validate his data and the accuracy of his dictionary on board the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a research vessel and the United States’ only operating polar ice breaker, where he spent five weeks recording what was happening to the ice.

Meanwhile, at the University of Calgary, a team of researchers pulled together by Murray at AINA had started going through journals from Hudson Bay Company posts along the Arctic coast between the Beaufort Sea in the west and the Labrador Sea in the east. These handwritten texts go back over 300 years.

Declining sea ice has implications for global climate

Detailed monitoring of maritime meteorological conditions in the Arctic only really began with satellites in the 1970s. There were some limited records taken earlier in the 20th century but before the First World War, the most detailed observations can be found only in these old logbooks.

“The satellite data we have from the past 40 years or so about sea ice shows a steep decline,” says Ayre. “We need to know what happened with sea ice historically to put these changes into context.”

Receding sea ice has implications for the global climate, explains Ayre. Sea ice has a strong albedo, meaning it reflects a large proportion of incoming solar radiation, helping to regulate global temperature. Additionally, when sea water freezes the salt drains out of it; this creates a layer of cold, dense briny water that sinks into the deep ocean. This process is crucial part of the thermohaline circulation — a global circulation of currents that transports heat and salt throughout the oceans. If sea ice continues decline at current rates the Arctic could become sea ice-free during the summer months, which will have unknown impacts on global climate.

“The ice is receding quickly. By better understanding historical sea ice patterns we can better predict what will happen in the future,” says Ayre. “Hopefully this will give us a better picture of how climate change is affecting the north.”

Ayre to present his research at Arctic speaker series April 19

Along with Murray, Ayre has joined postdoctoral scholar Patricia Wells, an archaeologist, and Ravi Sankar, a coastal modeller, both of whom are working on different aspects of the project. It is funded through an Insight grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, announced in 2015.

“Matt brings us needed expertise around the historical climatology of the Arctic. Obviously he has an incredible amount of patience to make his way through so many old logbooks and he still retains a sense of humour. We are really pleased to have him here for the next few years,” says Murray.

Matthew will be presenting his research at the next Arctic speaker series hosted by AINA on Wednesday April 19. His talk, entitled  Considering Myself in the Bosom of the Arctic: What Have Corsets got to do with Climate Change? will recount the history of the Arctic whaling industry and how the logbooks surviving from this dangerous endeavour are shedding new light on sea ice conditions of 18th and 19th centuries.