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Logbooks give clues on climate change

Christopher Werth Dec 4, 2009

Logbooks give clues on climate change

Christopher Werth Dec 4, 2009


Bill Radke: In a few days, world leaders will meet in Copenhagen to talk climate change. Trying to figure out what the climate will be like decades from now
isn’t easy. So for help, British scientists are looking to the past. Marketplace’s Christopher Werth reports.

Christopher Werth: At the U.K.’s National Archives in London, Dennis Wheeler slowly flips through the yellowed pages of a logbook kept by one of Britain’s most famous seafarers, the 18th century explorer Captain James Cook.

DENNIS WHEELER: “On a voyage around the world, performed in the year 1768, ’69, ’70, ’71.” OK. God, I hope he turned the gas off before he went.

But Wheeler is no historian. He’s a climatologist at the University of Sunderland who’s leading a project to digitize about 250 years worth of British Navy logbooks. Wheeler says sea captains like Cook kept detailed records of weather conditions: things like wind direction and air temperature. The logs are a wealth of information about what the climate was like before the Industrial Revolution. Wheeler says he gets one question from people all the time.

WHEELER: Why on earth look at the data of the past, because what we need to know is what it’s going to be like in 50 or 100 year’s time.

His answer has to do with computer models that climatologists use to predict future climate change. Those models can also be used to simulate what happened in the past, as a way to test if their projections are reliable. So now scientists will be able to compare their simulations of the 18th and 19th centuries to the actual weather data in the logbooks.

Rob Allan heads one of the largest historical databases on climate at the U.K.’s national weather service.

ROB ALLAN: It’s one check to say, can your models reproduce what we are saying appears to have actually happened in the climate system? If you can do that, you can feel more confident about using those models to project into the future.

Allan says historical information about storms and floods can be added to the mix, allowing climatologists to better predict similar conditions going forward. And that’s valuable to everyone from farmers to insurance companies.

WHEELER: So it’s only, rather bizarrely, it’s only by looking back that we can actually go forward.

Wheeler says there are 120,000 logbooks that date back before 1850, including books from the HMS Beagle, the ship that ferried Charles Darwin to the Galapagos. And once they’re digitized, climatologists from all over the world can get their hands on them.

In London, I’m Christopher Werth for Marketplace.

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