Historical Documents and the Study of Climate Change

17 01 2011

According to CBC News, researchers are hoping to glean new information about Arctic climate change by digging through the historical records of polar explorers.

Alan MacEachern, who is a professor of  history at UWO and the director of (NiCHE) the Network in Canadian History and Environment was interviewed for this story.

“The only way we know about climate change or environmental change anyway is by knowing the past temperatures, what the past environment was like,” he said. MacEachern said the field of historical climatology is still in its infancy in Canada, despite its obvious relevance in understanding modern climate change. “Why isn’t it happening more? I’m not sure,” he said. “I think the sources are kind of everywhere, and I think it’s taking a while for people to figure out exactly where they should start looking or even where they should stop looking.”

In 2008, NiCHE hosted a two-day workshop on Canada’s Climate History. To watch videos of the presentations, click here. The Early Canadian Environmental Data Project can be found here. Detailed observations of the weather were kept at HBC trading posts, as George Colpitts explained in his talk. Another important source of information for climate historians are the ships’ logs of the Royal Navy. The project Old Weather is crowdsourcing the transcription of these documents.
In the last few days, stories about the possible role of climate change in the fall of the Roman Empire have been prominent in the media (see here for example) and the blogosphere (see here, here, here and here). Doubtless this historical debate will add fuel on the fire of the political controversy over the science of climate change.

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.

Canadian Historians and Climate Change

7 12 2009
Polar Bear: Image of Climate Change

Polar Bear at Cape Churchill (Wapusk National Park, Manitoba, Canada). Photo by Ansgar Walk

The great climate change conference has opened in Copenhagen. Some are branding this gathering as the most important international meeting since the Congress of Vienna. It remains to be seen what future historians have to say about it. Most historians hesitate to predict the future or how our descendants will view present-day events. In any event, historians have already said a great deal about past climate changes. You might think that climate change is a purely scientific topic about which historians would have relatively little to contribute. The reality is that historians’ work has been important in advancing the scientific community’s understanding of past climate changes and their impact on societies. Moreover, many of the existing climate models depend on data that historians have carefully gathered from archives all over the planet.

Patrick D. Nunn , Climate, environment and society in the Pacific during the last millennium; Brian Fagan; The Little Ice Age : how climate made history 1300-1850 ; The way the wind blows : climate, history, and human action edited by Roderick J. McIntosh, Joseph A. Tainter, Susan Keech McIntosh; Richard H. Grove, Ecology, climate and empire : colonialism and global environmental history, 1400-1940.

Canadian historians have researched a variety of topics related to climate change. The Hudson’s Bay Company archive is a particularly useful resource for climate-change historians because the clerks at HBC posts were required to record the daily temperature. The post records provide information about climatic conditions in the days before national weather services began collecting records. A list of other records related to the climate history of Canada is available here.

Last year, an academic conference on Canadian history and climate change was held at the University of Western Ontario. The presentations were recorded and are available online here. More information about the Early Canadian Environmental Data project is available here.

Athabasca Tar Sands, Early Twentieth Century. Image Source: Library and Archives Canada

Also, check out: Paul Chastko’s history of the Alberta tar sands,  Developing Alberta’s Oil Sands : from Karl Clark to Kyoto.

Update: the blog at Activehistory.ca has some more information on historians and climate research.

HBC Records as a Source for Studying the History of Climate Change

26 09 2009

In this video of a presentation he gave in October 2008, historian George Colpitts of the University of Calgary discusses how the records kept in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives can be used to study the history of climate in Canada.  The records kept by the trading posts and ships of the Hudson’s Bay Company have been used by many different types of Canadian historians (economic historians, gender historians, Native Land Claims researchers). Now they are being used by environmental historians working on the very important topic of historical climate change.

HBC Ships in Hudson Strait, Summer 1819

HBC Ships in Hudson Strait, Summer 1819

Colpitts gave this presentation at the Canadian Climate History workshop at the University of Western Ontario. You can watch the other presentations here.

Image Source: Library and Archives Canada.