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ARCdoc in the Arctic

August 22, 2012

The ARCdoc PhD student, Matthew Ayre, is now working in the Arctic region. Here are his first-hand reports:

Wed. 22nd August 2012

Firstly I apologise there has been no mention of the following on the blog until now: confirmation of this trip was quite last minute.

I am currently somewhere over the Davis Straits at 35,000 feet or so on my way to Barrow, Alaska where I will be joining the US Coastguard’s flagship icebreaker research vessel; the Healy.  The Healy will be sailing north from Barrow, its primary research mission being to survey the extended continental shelf and will then return through the Bering Sea to Dutch Harbour in the Aleutian Islands. The five-week cruise is being lead by Professor Larry Mayer of the University of New Hampshire and is due to sail to higher latitudes than any other international Arctic research cruise this year.

I am joining the cruise in search of sea ice. The ships’ logbooks ARCdoc is working with contain, as you might expect, recordings of sea ice. However it wasn’t until the data abstraction was well underway that we realised how detailed the descriptions of ice actually were. The most detailed ice observations are found in the whaling logbooks. The whaling ships actively sort out the ice edge as this is habitat of their prize, the majestic bowhead whale (Baleana mysticetus). Subsequently they stayed alongside the ice, following it North as the  summer months proceeded (the whaling season generally lasted from March until September). Their logbooks have many observations of ice conditions at the time that can help us understand the position of the sea ice edge, the rate and distance it melted back and what kind of ice was present in the Marginal Ice Zone (the area between solid, continuous sea ice cover and open water). While there is no international agreement on how to measure the edge of the sea ice, it is generally accepted that it is the area of 15% ice coverage in the Marginal Ice Zone.

The whaling logbooks contain ~22 individual terms to describe the ice. The terminology is consistent across all the logbooks and appears to have already been established and in common use before Britain re-entered the Arctic whaling trade in 1750.

The key to utilising these terms in climate reconstruction lies in discover what they tell us about the ice. Thankfully William Scoresby Jnr, the famous whaler and scientist from Whitby, had the foresight to publish definitions for many (18) of these terms in his book ‘An Account of the Arctic regions, and a description of the northern whale fishery‘.

Many of the terms Scoresby recorded are still in use today, but they do not necessarily have the same meaning.

In order to unlock the true meanings of the ice terms found within the logbooks, ARCdoc are developing a sea ice dictionary. This will link historical ice terms with their modern counterparts allowing the direct comparison of historic ice data to modern and future ice conditions.

The ensure the accuracy of the dictionary all ice terms (published in Britain) have been sourced, from the earliest (Scoresby 1821) to the most recent (Marine Observers Handbook 11.ed 1995) and the evolution of each term tracked. The reason I am joining the Healy‘s cruise is to test the accuracy of the dictionary using parallel field observations of current sea ice conditions, using the oldest and newest terminology. The cruise may also help unlock the meanings behind the few ice terms Scoresby did not define in 1821 that are in common use throughout the logbooks.

The fact I am joining this cruise is still a little surreal. To experience the environment the whalers visited annually will give a whole new dimension and appreciation to the information in the logbooks.

I would like to extend a special thanks firstly to Professor Mayer for kindly letting me join his cruise, to Neil and Tim at the Jack Wolfskin store in York, UK for their technical expertise and support in preparation for this trip. Also the support the Leverhulme Trust and the University of Sunderland, without whom this would not be possible.

I intent to try to update this blog at least once while aboard and if possible update twitter on the cruise’s progress, although there is no guarantee I will be able to do this as internet connection aboard is intermittent and limited.

Twitter: Made_by_Matt

Lets hope I see some ice!



Here I am trying out my winter gear courtesy of Jack Wolfskin


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