Captains’ logs yield clues to past climate and hurricanes

Records kept by Nelson and Cook are shedding light on climate change.

Note: What I find most interesting is the ‘Surge in the frequency’ of storms in cold periods. – Anthony

By Jonathan Leake, Times Online, UK

Britain’s great seafaring tradition is to provide a unique insight into modern climate change, thanks to thousands of Royal Navy logbooks that have survived from the 17th century onwards.

The logbooks kept by every naval ship, ranging from Nelson’s Victory and Cook’s Endeavour down to the humblest frigate, are emerging as one of the world’s best sources for long-term weather data. The discovery has been made by a group of British academics and Met Office scientists who are seeking new ways to plot historic changes in climate.

“This is a treasure trove,” said Dr Sam Willis, a maritime historian and author who is affiliated with Exeter University’s Centre for Maritime Historical Studies.

“Ships’ officers recorded air pressure, wind strength, air and sea temperature and other weather conditions. From those records scientists can build a detailed picture of past weather and climate.”

A preliminary study of 6,000 logbooks has produced results that raise questions about climate change theories. One paper, published by Dr Dennis Wheeler, a Sunderland University geographer, in the journal The Holocene, details a surge in the frequency of summer storms over Britain in the 1680s and 1690s. Many scientists believe storms are a consequence of global warming, but these were the coldest decades of the so-called Little Ice Age that hit Europe from about 1600 to 1850.

Wheeler and his colleagues have since won European Union funding to extend this research to 1750. This shows that during the 1730s, Europe underwent a period of rapid warming similar to that recorded recently – and which must have had natural origins. Hints of such changes are already known from British records, but Wheeler has found they affected much of the north Atlantic too, and he has traced some of the underlying weather systems that caused it.

His research will be published in the journal Climatic Change. The ships’ logs have also shed light on extreme weather events such as hurricanes. It is commonly believed that hurricanes form in the eastern Atlantic and track westwards, so scientists were shocked in 2005 when Hurricane Vince instead moved northeast to hit southern Spain and Portugal. Many interpreted this as a consequence of climate change; but Wheeler, along with colleagues at the University of Madrid, used old ships’ logs to show that this had also happened in 1842, when a hurricane followed the same trajectory into Andalusia.

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August 3, 2008 5:32 pm

Another nail in the AGW science coffin, but still not even a tack in the political one.

Mike Bryant
August 3, 2008 5:55 pm

So true Flowers4stalin. the story just isn’t scary enough.

Leon Brozyna
August 3, 2008 6:03 pm

Not everyone’s cooking the books, so it would seem; they’re just putting the appropriate spin on it to escape charges of heresy.
Enjoyed that little bit from Dr. Wheeler; further along in the story he puts himself on record as very much believing in AGW. Yet he shows that all the major events of late that are judged to be caused by AGW, have happened before. I remember reading so many times how storms would be stronger and more deadly in a colder climate because of the greater temperature gradient between the tropics and polar regions. I don’t blame Dr. Wheeler for qualifying his work by pledging his belief in AGW – as long as he continues to be a harmless team player, he can continue to receive his vital funding.
Just look – centuries of data and descriptions covering broad swaths of the planet’s surface. No wonder they’re excited – it’s more than what Hansen’s got to play with.

August 3, 2008 6:18 pm

No doubt the records provide useful historic weather information. This does not translate directly into, “unique insight into modern climate change, . . . . “

Steven Hill
August 3, 2008 6:35 pm

Does anyone really know why AGW is being pushed? The real reason that is, it’s clear that it’s not happening.

Mike Bryant
August 3, 2008 6:36 pm

Too bad England didn’t have the IPCC in ages past. By now, the British Empire would have fought climate change to a standstill. They would have surely conquered the entire earth, especially since they could loose a hurricane or a cyclone on any enemy foolish enough to challenge them. At least by recording the climate as best they could, they have given the IPCC the knowledge, the keys to empire as it were.

August 3, 2008 6:41 pm

Fascinating… And more evidence for our climate being the “same ole, same ole.”
When they “discovered” the Equatorial Pacific Warm Pool ( in 1996, innitial thoughts were that it was simply more evidence supporting AGW. After all, 13.5 million square miles of very warm water sloshing back and forth across the Equatorial Pacific could not have existed without anyone knowing about it, could it?
Wrong and right!
They were wrong in attributing it to AGW, and right is suggesting some one had to know about it. In fact, scientists have traced its very existence back to at least the 1700’s through ships’ logs! And yet even today, few have a clue about the very existence of what many scientists refer to as “Natures Thermostat!”
Jack Koenig, Editor
The Mysterious Climate Project

James S
August 3, 2008 7:07 pm

Of course hurricanes are more frequent when it gets cold – the temperature gradient between the poles and equator becomes larger and therefore you will get more frequent and more severe storms (which transport heat from the equator to the pole).
To try and claim otherwise shows that you don’t really understand even the basics of how the atmosphere works.

August 3, 2008 7:26 pm

I wonder if any of the (wealthy) gentleman farmers kept detailed weather records as well that may have been saved. I know that my grandparents and my husband’s grandparents did, but that stuff was dismissed as unimportant and discarded after their deaths.

August 3, 2008 7:27 pm

Leon Broznya,
In the times article it says:
Wheeler makes clear he has no doubts about modern human-induced climate change. He said: “Global warming is a reality, but what our data shows is that climate science is complex and that it is wrong to take particular events and link them to CO2 emissions. These records will give us a much clearer picture of what is really happening.”
Wheeler is quoted as saying Global Warming but not AGW. I may be wrong but the part about modern human-induced climate change could be the reporter’s spin on Wheeler’s quote.
Perhaps Wheeler is being clever and as you suggest, is trying to avoid having his funding cut.

Mike Bryant
August 3, 2008 7:41 pm

A few qutations about CHANGE courtesy of GOOGLE
Progress is a nice word. But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies.
* Robert F. Kennedy
The lapse of ages changes all things–time, language, the earth, the bounds of the sea, the stars of the sky, and every thing “about, around, and underneath” man, except man himself.
* Lord Byron
Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better.
* Richard Hooker
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.
* Lord Tennyson

Tom Bakewell
August 3, 2008 7:42 pm

The Royal Spanish Archives should also be looked at. They are incrediblly detailed and fairly well organized. As an example, they provideed the original plans for a fort the Spanish put up at the entrance to Lake Maracaibo in the 1700’s.
Thanks to Anthony for doing such a wonderful job in keeping up with the real (?) world and posting such informative reading.

Anthony Osborne
August 3, 2008 8:06 pm

Very interesting. When I worked at the Appleton Laboratory of the UK Science Research Council in the mid-70s, I attended a lecture by a Dr/Prof Joe King who was just getting interested in climate change.
Besides tree rings he identified ships logs as a valuable source of climate data. He also identified another form of written record extending into the medieval period, which were the records kept by the thanes. A thane needed to be in a position to justify that he was good steward of the land even when the harvest was not good. To do this he kept a record of the weather, the planting and harvest dates, etc., so for example, if the planting was late due to bad weather he was in a good position to give a good explanation to his master and hence justify his actions.
The above is the understanding that I took away from his lecture.

F Rasmin
August 3, 2008 8:11 pm

Another article from an Australian ‘newspaper’ complete with picture of crying polar bear.

August 3, 2008 8:20 pm

Dr. Wheeler; further along in the story he puts himself on record as very much believing in AGW.
You see this a lot in scientific papers. Typically in the conclusions section there will be a reference to global warming thats unconnected to the results of the study, especially when the results don’t support GW. I call it ritual obesiance to global warming.

August 3, 2008 8:30 pm

[…] the story on Watts Up With That? “Captains’ logs yield clues to past climate and hurricanes” 03 August, 2008 Global Warming Message Morphs as Earth Cools By Joseph D’Aleo, CCM, AMS Fellow […]

August 3, 2008 9:24 pm

Mr Swampie (19:26:05) and Mr Osborne (20:06:38) make interesting points. It is surprising how often old records of large English estates are discovered.
There are three main places to look: (i) the archives of the manor houses themselves, (ii) the archives of the Church of England (which was often entitled to a chunk of the profits) and (iii) local museums (many of which store cases of old papers from ancient estates).
I would happily drive round the country to see what can be found, but at £1.19 a litre I can’t afford the petrol.

Mike Bryant
August 3, 2008 9:37 pm

I join all who care about the arctic and the polar bears in demanding the closing of all areas of sea ice to icebreakers, diesel, nuclear or otherwise. Surely everyone can understand that breaking big pieces of ice into little pieces of ice hastens the melting of the sea ice. I further propose that every environmental group, and anyone other group, who cares for Mother Earth, adopt a piece of the sea ice, say 300 or 400 square kilometers or so, in order to keep the sea ice free of soot or any other particulates which have been deposited there by dirty coal plants in China and Russia. This will raise the albedo of the ice so that the solar energy is reflected away. Failing this you may consider painting your small portion of the sea ice a nice glossy white.
Thanking you in advance for your assured participation,
Mike Bryant

Bobby Lane
August 3, 2008 9:50 pm

There is at least one inconsistency, possibly more, in this story from The Sunday Times.
First, during an era before industralization began, it says:
“Wheeler and his colleagues have since won European Union funding to extend this research to 1750. This shows that during the 1730s, Europe underwent a period of rapid warming similar to that recorded recently – and which must have had natural origins.”
Okay, and then it says this:
“Wheeler makes clear he has no doubts about modern human-induced climate change. He said: “Global warming is a reality, but what our data shows is that climate science is complex and that it is wrong to take particular events and link them to CO2 emissions. These records will give us a much clearer picture of what is really happening.”
First off, if what happened then is similar to what has happened in the most recent decades (i.e., warming), and that first warming trend was admittedly due to natural causes, what makes them so sure this one is not also fueled primarily by natural causes? Secondly, he never says it is human-caused, not verbatim at least, and he definitely thinks it is “wrong to take particular events and link them to CO2 emissions.” Hence, if these records are supposed to help shed light on “what is really happening,” and it aint CO2 according to Dr. Wheeler, then it’s gotta be something else.
I wonder if when the research is complete, they could be persuaded to publish their findings in the journal called Nature. It would be fitting after all.

Evan Jones
August 3, 2008 9:52 pm

What about diaries and journals? It was very typical to describe the weather as the first point of info.

Bobby Lane
August 3, 2008 9:56 pm

Well, let me correct myself a bit. Maybe they are making a bit of a case for natural causes, if I read it right. That would be more consistent with the first statement. But Dr. Wheeler’s “Global warming is a reality” certainly does not help given the heavily biased picture about what “global warming” means, the popular view being that it is human-induced, which clearly Dr. Wheeler does not embrace if his comments are to be taken at face value.

Bobby Lane
August 3, 2008 11:02 pm

A thought just occurred.
In the Mid-West US, at least, the ripest time for really strong storm systems is in the Spring and the Fall when cooler air pushes down from Canada to and clashes with warmer air coming up from the Gulf of Mexico. If that particular principle is valid elsewhere, like across the Pond where many of our storm systems proceed to next, then it would make sense that as the planet cooled that the extremes in temperature between clashing air masses would result in, on average, stronger storm systems.
Strong storms, particularly severe thunderstorms and stronger tropical storms, are noted for their “cold cloud-tops.” So if the upper airs where these storms develop and “live” are getting cooler from the top down, then that would provide an atmosphere conducive to more severe storms. It might possibly also lower the altitude that the tops of storm clouds need to reach to become severe given all other conditions are equal. If indeed we are entering a period of cooling as seems likely that we are, then we would be right to expect an increase in severe storms at least in the mid-latitudes. Temperature difference is the primary cause of winds, if I am not mistaken, so stronger winds generally and greater tornadic activity is not out of the question whatsoever. Of course, sadly, this will no doubt be blamed on “human-induced climate change.”
If the oceans cool and the winds increase, it might mean lesser chances for tropical storms, which feed on ocean heat content and do not develop well in an enviroment filled with strong wind shear. And there is nothing so deadly to a hurricane as a strong frontal system digging far into the South and picking it up as it sweeps off the East coast of the US. But given the events of the Perfect Storm (minus the back-up in the global conveyor) that might indeed contribute to stronger storms in England and northern Europe via energy transfer as one storm absorbs the other given the fact that cold air contains less moisture. The absorption of even a weak hurricane into an energetic but moisture-starved mid-latitude system would definitely kick-start a monster as that episode showed (Grace was only a Cat 2).
Thus while the possibility remains for increased cyclonic activity, in the tropics it might mean weaker storms on average (as so far the 2008 Hurricane season has showcased) even if they are more frequent in development. Meanwhile, in the mid-latitudes it might mean overall stronger Spring and Autumn storm systems, increased tornadic activity, and also an increase across the Pond (or even here if the conveyor should back up again) of a freakishly strong storm system similar to the Perfect Storm.
Anybody think I am headed the wrong way with this?

Mike Bryant
August 3, 2008 11:15 pm

I don’t know but the comment you made about “cold cloud-tops” made me think about spaceweather. com where they frequently talk about noctilucent clouds. They say that they are made of ice crystals and are very high in the atmosphere (I think maybe 60 miles, I might be wrong). These clouds are very beautiful and are usually seen in arctic regions. However recently they have been photographed further and further south. No one knows why they are now occurring further south, but spaceweather thinks it might be related to climate change. They have some great pictures of these clouds. I think there is a post in there somewhere.
Adapting to the Really Real Climate,

Gordon Walker
August 4, 2008 1:03 am

Rational arguments such as AGW leading to a smaller temperature gradient and therefore fewer storms will not be heeded. We all know that AGW will cause more Bad Things to happen and that a storm is a Bad Thing, therefore there will be more storms!

Nigel Calder
August 4, 2008 1:23 am

Hold on! A story from 34 years ago.
Extract about ships’ logs from the script of “The Weather Machine”, BBC-TV 1974, produced & directed by Alec Nisbett, written by Nigel Calder. This sequence was shot at Greenwich and its National Maritime Museum, where H.H. Lamb (founder of the Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia) was filmed examining some logs.
NARRATOR: The River Thames. It used to freeze from time to time, especially when the ancient London Bridge clogged the stream. Recent centuries were, for Europe, a good deal cooler than today. Historians of climate call them the Little Ice Age. Ships came home to Greenwich with weather records from distant oceans. Knowing the winds of the world was a matter of life and death aboard a sailing ship. Nowadays knowledge of the world’s winds in centuries gone by is crucial for understanding past and present changes in the climate. No one has argued that more strongly than Hubert Lamb.
LAMB: In 1536 King Henry VIII drove all the way down here to Greenwich on the frozen river. But in the region of Moscow the 1530s were unusually mild. That doesn’t make much sense till you work out how the winds were blowing. Then you find that the jet stream could guide warm air towards Moscow while it brought cold air towards London,
NARRATOR: Historical information about the climate is scattered in old documents, At Greenwich, the National Maritime Museum preserves some of the ships’ logbooks. Conditions that seamen faced long ago become telltale symptoms for Professor Lamb and his Climatic Research Unit at Norwich. HMS Blonde, bound for the Pacific 150 years ago. She took the temperature of the Atlantic as she went. Records of this sort show for instance that the great warm current, the Gulf Stream, didn’t follow its present track across the Atlantic. It flowed further to the south.
LAMB: During the Little Ice Age the Arctic zone expanded and pushed all the other zones of climate southwards. So places like London and Amsterdam for example had the sort of climate that nowadays belongs two or three hundred miles farther north – in the far north of England or southern Sweden for instance. At the time when these splendid buildings were put up, the Atlantic storms were coming in near Scotland rather than near Iceland. There were east-west changes too. In recent decades the jet stream has strongly guided warm air into Europe in winter. In the Little Ice Age the jet stream was weaker and farther south. And it made shorter and wider zigzags on its way round the world, often funnelling Arctic cold air into Western Europe. Now the winds are changing again, in our own time. Increasingly they resemble the wind patterns of the Little Ice Age. As it happens we’ve just had four mild winters in western Europe, but overall the signs are. not that way – especially as regards to the extent of the Arctic ice. We should be preparing ourselves for a long period of mainly colder seasons, and also more variable seasons. The Little Ice Age lasted more than 300 years.
REMARKS 34 years later
1. The fact that anyone is surprised and impressed by the use of ships’ logs just shows how little the present generation of climate scientists and commentators know about their subject. Lamb’s historical work with ships’ logs and other manuscripts was among whole libraries of stuff cast aside when the IPCC suddenly redefined climate science as the computer modelling of an enhanced greenouse effect.
2. Prof. Lamb’s warning about another Little Ice Age is one example from the expert consensus about global cooling in the 1970s. Other respected scientists in The Weather Machine were sounding a similar alarm. It wasn’t just a scare got up by stupid journalists, as the global warmers would have you believe.
3. Unless the Sun wakes up soon and gets itself some spots, I fear that Lamb can yet be proved right, albeit belatedly. For the 2008 updated edition of our book “The Chilling Stars” (about cosmic rays, clouds, and climate) Henrik Svensmark and I anticipated a lazy Sun when we wrote, “Your authors were advising their friends to enjoy the global warming while it lasted.”
Nigel Calder

August 4, 2008 1:29 am

Heh, I got to approve a post by Nigel Calder.

Christopher Hanley
August 4, 2008 2:10 am

I’m an interested layman and have been reading an edited version Lamb’s Climate, History and the Modern World online (Google Book Search: 1995 edition).
I find it of particular interest because it was written, for the most part, before the present CO2 hysteria took hold.
It is also interesting how the current generation of ‘climate scientists’ (e.g. W. M. Connolley) have tried to erase this pioneer’s important work.

August 4, 2008 3:59 am

When we talk about the climate during colder climate, we look at storminess and shorter growing seasons in temperate regions.
I have found, after research, that during periods of colder climate “solar minima, such as during Dalton and Maunder” that the monsoon over India tended to fail more often.
Similar reduction in monsoon activity during those periods should also have happened in other areas in the tropics which were dependent in monsoon rainfall for their harvest. I’m sure that in British archives a lot of information on this can be found.
This being the case it doesn’t look good for future food production if or when we now enter a solar minimum with reduced food production in temperate as well as in tropical regions.
Input anyone?

August 4, 2008 5:17 am

The noted anthropologist Brian Fagan highlighted the skills of forensic or paleometeorologists who reconstructed the basic synoptic patterns of the North Atlantic and North Sea during the LIA. Scientists at Cambridge, using ships logs of the British Royal Navy, as well as the surviviing ships of the Spanish Armada, were able plot out the track and intensisty of 3 intense Mid-Latitude Cyclones that changed the course of History (these cyclones did much more damage to the Spanish Fleet than did Sir Francis Drake). They also were able to deduce the genesis and track of an autumn hurricane near the Azores, which tracked northeastward into the British Isles in 1681. This storm went extra-tropical and then slammed into Great Britain. London recorded its lowest surface pressure ever in Oct of 1681. The intense northeasterlies which preceeded this storm center buried a few large Scottish Estates under 90 foot of sand.
What is ironic if thier analysis is correct, is the fact that many North Atlantic Baisn tropical storms during the coldest decades of the LIA tracked well off shore of North America, evolved into strong mid-latitude cyclones, and then slammed into Northwest Europe. Dutch cities and coasal English cities like those in East Anglia were threatened yearly with massive storm surges from these cyclones.
We can deduce from all of this detective work, that the tropical Atlantic remained active during the LIA. If anything, the SSTs appeared to hold thier own. While, none of this work has the kind of precision that scientists today demand, it does provide an accurate outline of the large scale synoptic patterns of past centuries.

August 4, 2008 5:22 am

“a surge in the frequency of summer storms over Britain in the 1680s and 1690s”: those years were known in Scotland as “King William’s ill years”. People starved.

Mike Bryant
August 4, 2008 5:26 am
Arthur Glass
August 4, 2008 5:31 am

How about vintage records from western Europe dating back to the Middle Ages? The great French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie depended heavily on them in his classic work__Times of Feast, Times of Famine__.

August 4, 2008 7:05 am

Nice painting of the Cutty Sark in full rig at the top of the post Anthony.
“Note: What I find most interesting is the ‘Surge in the frequency’ of storms in cold periods. – Anthony”
In the lower latitudes… below 40 degs…. there are numerous storms each year that are brutal. Its not refered to as the roaring 40s for nothing.
I suspect as the planet cools the southern storms move up in latitudes.
Just over a week ago a huge storm hit the north island of New Zealand. Its central pressure on landfall was 962 millibars…. somewhat low that far north I suspect.

August 4, 2008 8:10 am

Mike Bryant (05:26:35) :
This might explain all the frozen mammoth carcasses found in Siberia

August 4, 2008 12:00 pm

“The River Thames. It used to freeze from time to time, especially when the ancient London Bridge clogged the stream”
A bit off-topic, perhaps, but the alarmists love to attribute the freezing of the Thames to the clogging of the stream by the bridge. A few problems with this, though:
1) If you effectively ‘dam up’ a river, you create a lake upstream. There’s no record, of which I’m aware, of this having happened.
2) Static bodies of water (lakes) around London haven’t frozen over since the end of the LIA.
3) Regardless of how slowly the water’s flowing, you still need a long period of well-below freezing temperatures to freeze a body of water the size of the Thames.

Douglas Hoyt
August 4, 2008 12:11 pm

Also when the Thames froze over, there are often other historical accounts of other rivers in England or France or Germany freezing over at the same time. How a bridge in England can cause rivers in France to freeze is a mystery.

Bill P
August 4, 2008 12:27 pm

A few researchers and writers have attempted to weave together the scientific with anecdotal material to create more balanced and believable accounts than either source would yield by itself.
One such study is “Volcanoes and the Climate Forcing of Carolingian Europe, A.D. 750-950, by McCormick, Dutton, and Meyewski, dealing with what must have been a rather nippy period in Europe before the Medieval Warm period.
The work plots the extreme weather (historic cold) events in the histories of Western Europe on a graph also showing the sea-ice advance in the North Atlantic, and SO4 deposition from volcanoes taken from Greenland Ice cores (GISP2).
They can therefor date winter events “absolutely and unambiguously”, while the volcanic events are “exact to 2.5 years”.
An example: Two historical cold spells fell between 821-22 and 823-24, coinciding with sea ice advance and a prolonged spike in volcanic ash deposition, and written records from the time that describe “low-lying lands inundated by flooding,” crop failures, and of 821, “a winter so long and harsh that it froze even the Rhine, Danube, Elbe, and Seine.”
One of the best chroniclers of day-to-day life in the thirteenth century (onset of the Wolf minimum) came from an independent-minded monk named Matthew Paris. Typical of his detailed observations about weather is the one on page 51 of this entry:
Violent storms of wind and destructive inundations.
“On the day after the feast of St. Martin, and within the
octaves of that feast, great inundations of the sea suddenly
broke forth by night, and a fierce storm of wind arose, which
caused inundations of the rivers as well as of the sea, and
in places, especially on the coast, drove the ships from their
ports, tearing them from their anchors, drowned great
numbers of people, destroyed flocks of sheep, and herds of
cattle, tore up trees by the roots, overthrew houses, and
ravaged the coast. The sea rose for two days and…”

Evan Jones
August 4, 2008 8:39 pm


August 5, 2008 10:36 am

People like to have something to worry about. First it was the Bomb, then it was the Ice age, then it was the Comet, now it is Global Warming. Once Iran gets the Bomb it will come full circle.

August 5, 2008 2:46 pm

It typically makes Americans mad, but Europeans do have a lot more of history. I recall several examples from Portuguese history where AGW gets clearly questioned, including major warming and higher sea levels in the Medieval Warm Period and significant cooling in the Little Ice Age. Most problems of AGW people and Gore followers are that they don’t have a clue about history.

Bill P
August 5, 2008 2:58 pm

Perhaps I should preface my Matthew Paris link, above:
This link is “Arrrgh! – rated” 500 pages of PDF, for anyone with slow browsers. And not about ship’s logs. Delete it if you think it’s OT.

Evan Jones
August 5, 2008 11:46 pm

It typically makes Americans mad, but Europeans do have a lot more of history.
But the Mideasterners beat out the Europeans. (I don’t suppose it’s fair to count the Shang Dynasty?)

December 19, 2008 11:41 am

How can this historical data not translate to modern climate change? Did you know that in 1600 a huge volcanic eruption in Peru occurred? In 1815 another large eruption [Tambora]. All of these large volcanic eruptions lead to devastating climate changes that caused famines.
Volcanic eruptions are timeless, and understanding the socioeconomic consequences that occur after a major eruption is essential. Eruptions like these would be WAY MORE ABRUPT than climate change due to our greedy need to exploit foreign countries for oil.

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