Captain Cook's Ice Info Helps Track Climate Change Today

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November 30, 2016

Captain Cook's findings live on in the tracking of climate change, according to a study recently released.

James Cook and his crew made an expedition to the Arctic in August 1778 and compiled meticulous charts, maps, and notes of the area, in particular of the location and thickness of the ice barring further exploration. Cook and crew, aboard the Resolution, were searching for the Northwest Passage, which most European explorers believed existed as a way to go around North America at the very northern end.

Cook and crew scoured the towering ice wall for a total of 11 days without finding a way through. Cook vowed to return but died in Hawaii just six months later.

The ship and its crew did not find the fabled Northwest Passage. (That honor went to Norway's Roald Amundsen, in the early 20th Century.) But scientists today have found the Resolution crew's records very helpful in charting sea loss in the icy far north. In particular, Cook's observations were the earliest recorded evidence of ice cover Chukchi Sea. Then, the ice was extensive; now, it's not so much. The edge of the ice is now hundreds of miles farther north than Cook and crew found it to be, another indicator of how much ice has melted in the recent past. In fact, the sea ice in the Arctic was so low in 2007 that large cargo ships could traverse the Northwest Passage, an accomplishment that Captain Cook and many other explorers could only dream of achieving.

The results of the study, from the University of Washington's Polar Science Center, appear in the journal Polar Geography.

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