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Darwin is helping scientists yet again; Crew's logs shed light on climate change.

Byline: Nicola Juncar

CHARLES Darwin revolutionised the way we view the natural world more than 150 years ago.

And now his voyages on HMS Beagle are influencing modern research on the evolution of our climate.

A ground-breaking project being led by a team of experts at Sunderland University will see historical naval logbooks being used in research into climate change.

The logbooks include famous voyages such as the Beagle, Captain Cook's HMS Discovery and Parry's polar expedition in HMS Hecla.

The UK Colonial Registers and Royal Navy Logbooks (CORRAL) project has digitised nearly 300 ships' logbooks dating back to the 1760s.

The accurate weather information they contain is being used to reconstruct past climate change in a bid to understand what could happen in the future.

Research team leader Dr Dennis Wheeler said: "The observations from the logbooks on wind force and weather are astonishingly good and often better than modern logbooks.

"Of course the sailors had to be conscientious - the thought that you could hit a reef was a great incentive to get your observations absolutely right.

"What happens in the oceans controls what happens in the atmosphere - so we absolutely need to comprehend the oceans to understand future weather patterns."

Ships' logbooks were the main resource used to monitor the weather in the oceans.

Officers on these ships kept careful records of the daily, and sometimes hourly, climate conditions.

That allows modern researchers to find out what the weather was like anywhere in the world on a particular day, right through the Little Ice Age and back to 1750. The project is being run by the university in collaboration with the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), the Met Office Hadley Centre and the British Atmospheric Data Centre.

Ben Showers, JISC digitisation programme manager, said: "There is a lack of high-quality digital material for those studying historic weather data.

"By making these logbooks and lighthouse records available online, from the National Archives and the Met Office respectively, JISC aims to help researchers address the challenges of climate change and open up this historic resource to everyone via the website." Oliver Morley, from The National Archives, said: "The logbooks have long been of interest to historians and naval enthusiasts and the fact that they are now being used for scientific research is a great example of how archival information created for one purpose can be reused for something entirely different."

The logbooks include great explorers such as Bligh, Cook and Flinders, and give accounts of life on board a ship with plenty of footnotes and personal observations about the places and people they encountered on their voyages.

A fully searchable version of the logbooks will be available on The National Archives' website in 2010.

The researchers are now transcribing the officers' observations so they can begin work with the Met Office on analysing the data to feed into research on climate change.

To find out more log on to


HISTORY A captain's log extract from HMS Beagle. USING PAST TO SEE THE FUTURE Dennis Wheeler visits HMS Trincomalee at Hartlepool Historic Quay.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Oct 7, 2009
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