Icebergs in Florida: History anecdotes, or data?

Bergs and British Climate: That Old Yarn of the Effect of Greenland’s Floating Mountains,” reads a headline from the New York Times, April 26, 1908.

The story wanders about reports of icebergs floating far south of where people might expect them in 1908, what their drift tells us about various currents, and conjectures about hypotheses of climatic effects of the ice and the currents. Some of the icebergs would indeed be monsters, poking more than 400 feet above the waterline; some of the bergs might provoke discussion drifting as far south as Florida.

I mention this article because the archives of the New York Times is open and free for searchers, and many of the articles prior to 1922 are available in .pdf form for free. It took me five or six minutes to get a search that produced fewer than 10,000 stories to pick this one from.

And if I may, it tends to show the difficulties of climate change skeptics who yank a few old articles out of journals of 100 years ago to suggest that, since scientists and navigators wondered about the weather then, climate change is not occurring now. I can imagine there are a lot of stories available in various newspaper archives; if we make a methodological search of them, we may find data that can be turned into real information about climate.

I mention this because Anthony Watts at Watts Up With That? features a couple of articles relying on old weather reports to suggest that concern about warming in the 1920s and 1930s demonstrates that warming isn’t happening now. See this one, too, from a 1922 article, on ice retreating.

In the concluding remarks, the is the recognition of climate change to a warmer regime:

All of these confirm the general statement that we are in the midst of a period of abnormal warmth, which has come on more less gradually for many years.

Of course we all know what happened next, 1934 became the hottest year on record, the dust bowl and great depression occurred, followed by World War II. The climate changes again, a return to a colder phase lasting all the way until about 1978 when the “new ice age” was being discussed. Then the great PDO shift occurred and warming has been the norm since then.

Watts is a former television weatherman now making the big bucks with his own forecasting company. His blog continues among the most popular on WordPress with a regular feature showing photos of U.S. weather service weather stations that are positioned in less-than-optimum places to record cool weather, such as in asphalt parking lots, or near heat exhaust vents from the HVAC systems of nearby buildings. Watts engages in occasionally heated disputes on his blog, and he often highlights the work of some of the more suspect cynics of science like Tim Blair.

Watts has a cadre of faithful followers and defenders; poking at his posts generally produces a swift onslaught of invective from them.

Watts’s blog provides a good resource for counter examples to those offered by policy makers who urge more serious action to control pollution. I’m skeptical of Watts’s skepticism.

For one thing, the charts he shows with these historic articles show a long-term warming trend, which he dismisses. As evidence against global warming, though, these articles’ highlights fall more into the anecdote side than on the data side.

Anecdotal evidence abounds in that article from the New York Times that I note above, too. It’s anecdotal in opposition to Watts’ claims, but it’s still just anecdote.

This is a potentially rich area for local and amateur historians. Meteorologists and other climate scientists are hampered in their analysis by a lack of data, and often by a lack of context of the data they do have. Newspapers now buried in libraries and other archives may offer rich sources of data, and especially context. Mining these sources will be amateur operations, mostly. There is too much ground to cover, too many places to visit, for a major project coordinated out of one institution.

In 1908, stories of massive iceberg mountains were no older than a generation. They are anecdotes, sure — but they may be data points, too. When was the last time anyone sighted an iceberg 400 feet above the water? (The article claims one berg was 700 feet from waterline to peak; when was the last one of those sighted?) When was the last time a significant chunk of ice wandered as far south as Florida? Can you find some of these stories to calculate whether such things still occur, or if not, when they stopped?

My fear is that Watts is mining a rich lode of stories written by newsmen with no institutional memory of ice or other weather phenomena. The institutional memory becomes apparent only in retrospect, only in the archives of the stories, and only compared longitudinally, that is, over time. 20-year periods would probably provide two generations of reporters at a long-established news outlet; reporters in those generations would not be aware of the changes.

The New York Times archives are open. What others?

Historians? High school teachers with students who need projects? What do you have in your town that may shed light? Teachers, pay special attention to the comments on Watts’ blog; many readers write about their historical experiences, such as with the heat waves of the 1930s, and they provide links to news stories and history writings. Even if your town is landlocked, there is weather history to find.

2 Responses to Icebergs in Florida: History anecdotes, or data?

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Thanks for the note on the broken link, Onkel Bob. I’ve tried two new links, and I hope one of them works!


  2. Onkel Bob says:

    The link at the top is dead, not sure where you wanted it to point. The comment that an iceberg reached Florida is incorrect, the discussion was about the Labrador current, not icebergs. The anecdotal evidence of use was the most eastern and southern sightings of ice. The article points out that the most easterly iceberg was at 54N 22W. It claims two lumps of ice (not an iceberg) were sighted at 31N 38W, which is far from Florida and almost understandable.

    If you are interested in weather and climate the NOAA has weather maps on line here:

    You need to download their viewer, but it’s pretty small and works in Firefox and IE.

    I’m using these maps to chart the history of freezes that affected the citrus crops and subsequent production. I’m comparing the loss of land use for agriculture to other uses against these meteorological events. The maps are useful in that they provide enough detail to chart the statistics in mean, mode, and average to develop a better context of the areas under inspection.

    As for Watts and his ilk, very little can be done. We are a nation of idiots who will look to any fool for guidance.


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