When the steamship Belvedere left San Francisco in the spring of 1897, its crew members couldn’t have known what a treacherous voyage awaited them.
Their life-and-death experiences would all be captured in the ship’s log, which started out with this unassuming entry:
“Steamer Belvedere departed San Francisco March 9, 1897. At 3 PM took anchor, steamed to sea with a crew of 44 men, all told, bound to the Arctic Ocean.”
The Belvedere and a dozen or so other ships reached the frozen waters of the Beaufort Sea in the late spring and proceeded to hunt bowhead whales, as whalers had done for decades before them. The whales were valued for their oil-rich blubber and for their baleen, which was used for buggy whips and women’s corsets.
“They’re the words I used every day when I was an officer. The language hasn’t changed that much, really. It’s very familiar to me,” Wood said from his office at NOAA in Seattle.
Does he get sucked down historical rabbit holes in his quest for data? Of course. And he enjoys every minute of it.
Wood spent a recent weekend combing through the log books from the harrowing voyage of the Belvedere in 1897 (prompted, in part, by a request from a pesky reporter). The Belvedere and six other whaling ships were trapped in the ice in the Beaufort Sea near Point Barrow, Alaska. It had a been a successful summer whaling season, until the weather turned suddenly in late September and a massive sheet of sea ice came down out of the Arctic Ocean and pinned the ships against the coast. The whalers tried to break through the ice sheet to access open water, according to the ship’s log.
They were trapped by 10 ship-lengths of ice. That was all that stood between 200 men and a safe journey home.
As horrible as it was for the whalers, for Kevin Wood, that winter of log books is a climate data gold mine. This was long before the days of satellite weather analysis and remote data collection. Today, scientists want to better understand historical climate patterns, and while ice cores reveal some of the broader patterns, ship’s logs provide essentially a daily weather update from a particularly remote corner of the planet.
“It’s filling in a part of the map that’s completely blank. The neat thing is they’re winter observations and early season observations,” Wood said. “So that’s just amazing.”
The researchers involved in the Old Weather project have not published any of their findings yet. But as Wood gathers more data and recreates ancient weather patterns with it one thing is becoming alarmingly clear for him.
“What’s happening to the whalers is very unlikely to happen now because there’s no ice,” he said. Amidst the musty log books are tales of dozens of ships crushed or sunk throughout the 1800s. NOAA is still uncovering the remnants of those shipwrecks in the Arctic today. But the days of ship-eating sea ice may be over.
“When you compare ships being crushed in September, you compare that to the satellite data that we have, there’s no ice there, and there’s hardly ever any ice there, and certainly not enough to crush a ship. That’s the difference,” Wood said.
Back in 1897, though, the climate was working against the whalers of the Belvedere and the other ships that were trapped in the ice that year. Sixteen whalers died.