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Project conclusion and summary of outputs

December 1, 2015


In May 2011 following a generous grant by the Leverhulme Trust, the ARCdoc team (led by the University of Sunderland and in collaboration with the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, the University of Hull and the UK Met Office, Hadley Centre) set out clarify and enhance our knowledge of climate change in the Arctic region using historical marine meteorological observations made on board Royal Navy, whaling and commercial (The Hudson’s Bay Company) ships, between 1750 and 1850.

The project was prompted by the growing need for a finer understanding of the nature of climate change in the Arctic region, particularly in the decades before anthropogenic greenhouse gases began to exercise an appreciable control on the planet. At the same time it drew upon the growing appreciation of ships’ logbooks in the provision of daily and detailed weather data from the years before instrumental observations formed part of the evidence base for such studies.



  1. To identify the full range of UK-based documentary and old instrumental sources for the Arctic region.

All such UK sources have been identified.

  1. To abstract the written, non-instrumental and early instrumental data, calibrate and verify them for inclusion in a structured and interrogatable database.

The narrative, non-instrumental, data have been abstracted and  calibrated, and a database and website prepared for its dissemination.

  1. To develop and improve methods for working with historical data and narrative accounts and expressing them in forms that lend themselves to scientific analysis.

New methods have been developed for treating, correcting and presenting the data.

  1. To use the outputs from objective 2 to provide an improved picture of climate 
(temperatures, wind circulations and ice coverage) during a key period in recent climatic history and to set those findings against the current understanding of conditions at the time.

For the first time a detailed picture has been re-created of Arctic climate and ice cover for the period 1750 to 1850, the data being expressed in index and quantified form.



The source material consisted exclusively of ships’ logbooks, principally in two forms; those of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and of the UK whaling enterprises. The former are held in the National Archives in Kew, the latter are scattered around the country but the largest and most important collection is found in the Hull History Centre.

All narrative accounts from some 150 logbooks were transcribed manually by the team, and then, once in ‘digital’ form, were processed to express the descriptions in terms of indices and numerical values. This task proved demanding of time as no OCR system could be used in the process.



Data abstraction: this remains a ‘manual’ task but, such limitations notwithstanding, the team have abstracted meteorological data from over 150 logbooks for the period and region in question. This notable exercise represents the complete abstraction of UK whaling and HBC logbooks for the century 1750 to 1850.

Data management: whilst much work has been completed in the last decade using ships’ logbooks, this was the first attempt to use those with an Arctic provenance; as such it produced a number of developments in data management. A system for indexing sea ice was required, and particular attention had to be paid to the question of correction from magnetic to true north wind direction records. Particular problems arose with whaling logbooks and the absence of location data. The only option was to carefully reconstruct the voyages day-by-day using such evidence as the logbooks provided and working on large-scale navigational charts to plot their routes.

Data storage and retrieval: these data have been stored, and are available, in a number of sets that allow future investigators to follow the research activities in detail. This takes the form of a) the original ‘raw’ daily data as abstracted, b) the same daily data but after correction and, c) summary sheets of the monthly data aggregated from the daily observations.

All project data is freely available on the website:( These consist of wind circulation and intensity indices of a form already in widespread use but, and importantly, added to these are:

  • sea ice and iceberg indices
  •  weather indices (for rain, snow and fog)

The HBC logbooks provide a near-continuous series for the study period, from which decadal changes in climate can, for the first time in his region be obtained. The whaling logbooks are more scarce and cannot yield the same continuity of evidence. They do however provide detailed and unique observations on ice cover, and penetrated into latitudes not frequented by any other vessels.



Ward, C. and Wheeler, D. (2011) Hudson’s Bay Company ship’s logbooks: a source of far North Atlantic weather data. Polar Record doi:10.1017/S0032247411000106 – This paper focuses specifically on those logbooks kept on board Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) ships on their regular annual voyages between the UK and Hudson’s Bay between 1760 and 1850. The style and form of presentation of the logbooks is reviewed and particularly those aspects that deal with the daily meteorological information they contain.

Ayre, M., Nicholls, J., Ward, C. and Wheeler, D. (2015), Ships’ logbooks from the Arctic in the pre-instrumental period. Geoscience Data Journal. doi: 10.1002/gdj3.27 – This paper describes the UK sources of data, their locations, the nature of the raw data and how they may be treated and expressed in a form that renders them appropriate for scientific analysis. Discussion also takes place of the database where the original and derived data can now be found and are freely available.


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