Naval Records as a Resource for Climate Historians

7 12 2009

Thank goodness for European overseas imperialism!

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to get minimize the impact of European colonization on indigenous peoples on other continents. However, the age of European overseas expansion did leave us some fantastic archival sources useful to climate history. I’m speaking about the weather records created by ship captains in the Royal Navy and other European navies.

The Climatological Database for the World’s Oceans is an online database of weather data for the world’s oceans between 1750 and 1850. The database was created by several European Universities and was funded by the European Union between 2001 and 2003. You can download the database free of charge.

The Network In Canadian History and Environment describes the database as follows: “The database includes information from ship logs on British, Dutch, French and Spanish vessels. These logs almost invariably show daily records of weather conditions at noon local time each day. Thousands of log books were examined and uploaded to the database, which includes 280 280 individual entries. Most of the points appear in the North Atlantic Ocean, but extensive data for the southern tip of Africa and the Indian Ocean are also available. The most prominent period for data is 1778-1780, with relatively little data between 1808 and 1835. All of the original log books are housed in European archives.”

Ship's Log

“Each entry may include climatological information such as date, longitude and latitude, wind speed, wind direction, precipitation, temperature, air pressure and humidity – though the completeness of records varies widely. Because the instruments used by the sailors often pointed to the magnetic north rather than true north, the precise location of the record is difficult to discern. CLIWOC has provided a formula to correct for this but this is a complicated correction that casual users are unlikely to make.”

More information on the use of archival records in reconstructing climate history is available here.


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