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1800s-Era Sea Logs Chart Course Of Climate Change

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1800s-Era Sea Logs Chart Course Of Climate Change

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1800s-Era Sea Logs Chart Course Of Climate Change

1800s-Era Sea Logs Chart Course Of Climate Change

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A May 6, 1818, entry from the Meteorological Journal and Sea Log of His Majesty's Ship Isabella notes the wind direction from the south, a barometric pressure reading of 29.52 inches and a temperature of 53 degrees Fahrenheit. National Archives in Kew, Surrey. hide caption

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Climatologists don't just use the latest, cutting-edge data to map the future of weather. Now they're cracking open logbooks kept by sailors during the early, harrowing naval voyages of the likes of Capt. Cook and Charles Darwin.

Dennis Wheeler, of the University of Sunderland in Britain, is one of those climatologists. His team is reaching back — way back — 200 to 300 years for the weather data inside those logbooks so they can post them online.

These logbooks fill the gaps in our meteorological history by providing information about the oceans. "[Oceans are] so big, and they're such an important part of the whole climatic system," Wheeler tells All Things Considered host Guy Raz.

The data his team gathers can then be used to calibrate the models climatologists use to predict climate change.

"The more data we have from the past, the more accurate our picture of the past, the better the calibration on those models," he says.

He's also been able to use the data to track the polar ice caps.

"These ships were careful to record their encounters with icebergs, pack ice and ice that would freeze them up for the winter," he says. "So we are able to plot very carefully, year by year, where the ice advanced and how far it retreated."

The team is digitizing the logbooks and will make them available online next year — but Wheeler says it's thrilling to handle the original materials.

"Some of the older ones that we use from the less famous voyages, we're aware that when we open those pages, it's probably the first time they've been opened in the 200 years since they've been written."

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