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18th century ships' logs used for climate change research

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18th century ships' logs used for climate change research

Colour vista: ‘Whytootackay Island about three miles distant with natives in boat’ (Catalogue reference: ADM 55/95 folio 81)

Colour vista: ‘Whytootackay Island about three miles distant with natives in boat’ (Catalogue reference: ADM 55/95 folio 81)

A new partnership between JISC, the University of Sunderland, the Met Office Hadley Centre and the British Atmospheric Data Centre has enabled the use of historical naval logbooks in ground-breaking research on climate change. The logbooks include the famous voyages of Charles Darwin's ship, the Beagle, Captain Cook's HMS Discovery and William Parry's polar expedition in HMS Hecla.

The UK Colonial Registers and Royal Navy Logbooks (CORRAL) project has digitised nearly 300 ships' logbooks dating back to the 1760s, the images of which can be viewed at badc.nerc.ac.uk/data/corral. For the first time, the accurate weather information they contain is being used as scientific data to reconstruct past climate conditions.

Accurate observations

Research team leader Dr Dennis Wheeler of the University of Sunderland said: 'The observations from the logbooks on wind force and weather are astonishingly good and often better than modern logbooks. Of course, the sailors had to be conscientious – the thought that you could hit a reef was a great incentive to get your observations absolutely right!

'What happens in the oceans controls what happens in the atmosphere – so we absolutely need to comprehend the oceans to understand future weather patterns,' he added.

From history to science

Ships' logbooks were the main resource used to monitor the weather in the oceans. Officers onboard kept careful records of the daily, and sometimes hourly, climate conditions. What that means today is modern researchers are able to find out what the weather was like anywhere in the world on a particular day.

Oliver Morley, Director of Customer and Business Development at The National Archives, said: 'The logbooks have long been of interest to historians and naval enthusiasts, and the fact that they are now being used for scientific research is a great example of how archival information created for one purpose can be reused for something entirely different.'

Archives online

A fully searchable version of the logbooks, which also include unique accounts of life on board ship and the lands encountered on the adventurers' voyages, will be available on The National Archives' website in 2010.

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