As a mariner, I’m always looking for ways to make sure my voyages go smoothly. One of the most useful tools I’ve found is the pilot chart – a bundle of pages that show the historical trends of wind and storms for each ocean. It’s a sailor’s atlas for passage planning, built with years of data taken from ships’ logs.
The father of the pilot chart was an American named Matthew Fontaine Maury, who ran the US Navy’s Depot of Charts and Instruments in 1842. He was injured in a stagecoach accident and unable to sail, so he threw his formidable energy into building a record of winds and currents for the world’s oceans. His work was so successful that the average time for a sailing voyage from New York to San Francisco was reduced from 187 to 136 days.
My old friend and shipmate Dr. Kevin Wood was a researcher for many years at the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle. He spent long hours preparing old ships’ logs for reanalysis – a process where modern images of past weather events are made by feeding antique data into the latest computer forecast models. It’s like a climate time machine!
Kevin also dug deeply into logbooks left by the slow parade of vessels that had wandered into the trackless maze of Canada’s Arctic waterways during the Victorian era. He wanted to know if the travails of these doomed souls could be connected to Europe’s “Little Ice Age”. His research showed that Franklin’s Arctic was quite similar to that of later times, up to about the year 2000. While nineteenth-century Europe might have been bitterly cold, the ice conditions in Canada were just average.
The pilot chart is an invaluable tool for mariners, and I’m grateful for the work of Matthew Fontaine Maury and Dr. Kevin Wood for helping us plan our voyages more safely. With their help, we can step away from the daily exigencies of weather and into the world of climate.