Today’s Arctic Compares with 150 years ago

Imagery date refers to Google Earth capture of land forms. Ice extent is for August 31, 2016 from MASIE. Serenity is docked at Devon Island. Click to zoom in.

Imagery date refers to Google Earth capture of land forms. Ice extent is for August 31, 2016 from MASIE. Serenity is docked at Devon Island. Click to zoom in.

Researchers found that ice conditions in the 19th century were remarkably similar to today’s, observations falling within normal variability. The study is Accounts from 19th-century Canadian Arctic Explorers’ Logs Reflect Present Climate Conditions (here) by James E. Overland, Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory/NOAA, Seattle,Wash., and Kevin Wood, Arctic Research Office/NOAA, Silver Spring, Md.   H/t GWPF


This article demonstrates the use of historical instrument and descriptive records to assess the hypothesis that environmental conditions observed by 19th-century explorers in the Canadian archipelago were consistent with a Little Ice Age as evident in proxy records.  We find little evidence for extreme cold conditions.

It is clear that the first-hand observations of 19th-century explorers are not consistent with the hypothesized severe conditions of a multi-decadal Little Ice Age. Explorers encountered both warm and cool seasons, and generally typical ice conditions, in comparison to 20th-century norms.


There were more than seventy expeditions or scientific enterprises of various types dispatched to the Canadian Arctic in the period between 1818 and 1910. From this number, we analyzed 44 original scientific reports and related narratives; many from expeditions spanning several years. The majority of the data come from large naval expeditions that wintered over in the Arctic and had the capacity to support an intensive scientific effort. A table listing the expeditions and data types is located at The data cover about one-third of the possible number of years depending on data type, and every decade is represented.

Our analysis focuses on four indicators of climatic change: summer sea ice extent, annual sea ice thickness, monthly mean temperature, and the onset of melt and freeze as estimated from daily mean temperature. Historical observations in these four categories were compared with modern reference data; the reference period varied, depending on data availability.  Both sea ice extent and the onset of melt and freeze were compared to the 30- year reference period 1971–2000; monthly means are compared to the 50-year period 1951–2000. Modern sea ice thickness records are less continuous, and some terminate in the 1980s; the reference period is therefore based on 19 to 26 years of homogeneous record.



(a) Proxy record of standardized summer air temperature variation derived from ice cores taken on Devon Island. This proxy record suggests that a significantly colder climate prevailed in the 19th century. Shading indicates temperatures one standard deviation warmer or colder than average for the reference period 1901–1960 [Overpeck,1998].

(b) Historical monthly mean temperature observations compared to the 20th-century reference period 1951–2000. Sixty-three percent of 343 monthly mean temperatures recorded on 19th-century expeditions between 1819 and 1854 fall within one standard deviation of the reference mean at nearby stations (reference data from Meteorological Service of Canada,2002; and National Climatic Data Center,2002).

(c) Onset of melt observed by expeditions between 1820 and 1906 expressed as departures from the mean for the reference period 1971–2000. The period of melt transition observed by 19th century explorers is not inconsistent with modern values.

(d) Onset of freeze observed between 1819 and 1905 compared to the reference period 1971–2000. The onset of freeze transition is frequently consistent with modern values,but in some cases occurred earlier than usual. The incidence of an early onset of freeze represents the largest departure from present conditions evident in the historical records examined in this study. Melt and freeze transition dates for the reference period 1971–2000 were calculated from temperature data extracted from the Global Daily Climatology Network data base (National Climate Data Center, 2002).


Fig.2. The ship tracks and winter-over locations of Arctic discovery expeditions from 1818 to 1859 are surprisingly consistent with present sea ice climatology (contours represented by shades of blue). The climatology shown reflects percent frequency of sea ice presence on 10 September which is the usual date of annual ice minimum for the reference period 1971–2000 (Canadian Ice Service,2002). On a number of occasions,expeditions came within 150 km of completing the Northwest Passage, but even in years with unfavorable ice conditions, most ships were still able to reach comparatively advanced positions within the Canadian archipelago. By 1859, all possible routes comprising the Northwest Passage had been discovered.


As stated here before, Arctic ice is part of a self-oscillating system with extents expanding and retreating according to processes internal to the ocean-ice-atmosphere components. We don’t know exactly why 19th century ice extent was less than previously or less than the 1970s, but we can be sure it wasn’t due to fossil fuel emissions.


Explorers encountered both favorable and unfavorable ice conditions. This drawing from the vicinity of Beechey Island illustrates the situation of the H.M.S.Resolute and the steam-tender Pioneer on 5 September 1850 [from Facsimile of the Illustrated Arctic News,courtesy of Elmer E.Rasmuson Library,Univ.of AlaskaFairbanks].


  1. Pethefin · November 28, 2016

    This reminds me of Torgny Vinje and his analysis of historical ship log books from the Nordic seas, referred to by Ole Humlum: ice extension in a longer time perspective
    towards the end of that page, there is a map with the sea ice extent from 1769 which was not that different from today.
    Only fools, tools and the greedy disregard history

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Clutz · November 28, 2016

      Yes, Vinje’s analysis pertains to the European side, and this one covers the Canadian side of the Arctic. The results of both show ice extents wax and wane over quasi-60 years cycles.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. craigm350 · November 28, 2016

    Reblogged this on WeatherAction News and commented:
    Something to temper the hysteria


  3. Pingback: Today’s Arctic Compares with 150 years ago | ajmarciniak
  4. Pingback: Today’s Arctic Compares with 150 years ago | NOT A LOT OF PEOPLE KNOW THAT
  5. Hifast · November 29, 2016

    Reblogged this on Climate Collections.


  6. Pingback: Arctic Sea Ice Similar to 1800s Conditions | sunshine hours
  7. dwormell · November 30, 2016

    Reblogged this on Finding Confluence and commented:
    Thank you for your look into historic Arctic climate conditions.


  8. Pingback: Ladybird Book on Climate Change | ManicBeancounter
  9. Caleb · April 11, 2018

    I love this sort of stuff, Ron. Partly because it debunks a lot of the Alarmist talk about how sea-ice is at all-time lows, but also because the sailors back then were so gutsy and endured stuff that really is amazing.

    If you ever want to read about a government funded operation that really went bad, read about the attempt of the Polaris to get to the North Pole in 1871.

    Apparently they got into the alcohol which was suppose to be used to preserve scientific specimens and discipline went downhill. The captain was murdered and the ship eventually sank. Before it sank around half the crew and the Eskimo guides got marooned on an ice floe and the ship didn’t bother pick them up.

    The guys on the ice floe then drifted over 1800 miles, from Nares Strait up at the very top of Baffin Bay down to where they were rescued off the coast of Newfoundland.

    Besides demonstrating the amazing ability humans have to defy death, it also demonstrates the sea-ice was just as mobile then as it is now. (They drifted from November 1872 until April 1973, so we are not talking about summer ice.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Caleb · April 11, 2018

      I mean April 1873, of course.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Clutz · April 11, 2018

      Thanks Caleb for that lore. By correcting for 1873, you are ruling out a superhuman feat of survival.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Clutz · April 11, 2018

      Caleb, just in case you don’t have this already, you may be interested in the official list of Northwest Passage Transits maintained by Scott Polar Institute, Cambridge UK. (Through 2017)

      Click to access northwestpassage.pdf

      Liked by 1 person

      • Caleb · April 11, 2018

        I didn’t realize there were so many in the past decade. Satellite imagery helps a lot, but some get stranded for a winter, or helped by icebreakers.

        Getting stuck up there for a winter was really rough back in the old days. Of course the men on the Franklin all were lost, perhaps due to lead in their tinned food making them crazy, but other ships did far better. It all seemed to depend on the captain keeping control. On one ship they passed the time by publishing a newspaper for awhile.


    • Ron Clutz · April 11, 2018

      Caleb, while recovering that link to SPRI, I ran across a yarn recently published regarding Alexander MacKenzie’s Arctic exploring
      Revisiting an Explorer’s Northwest Passage ‘Disappointment’ After Nearly 230 Years
      There’s the nod to climate change, but only one sentence at the end. Mostly a recounting of the journey 230 years ago in canoes.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s