Climate Researchers Must Learn Each Other’s Languages

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The Canadian Climate History Workshop, held at the University of Western Ontario on October 23-24, 2008, introduced participants to a wide range of sources and techniques for undertaking climate history research in Canada. Geographers, historians and physical scientists explained the uses and limits of their respective sources. Everything from tree rings to ship log books were introduced, critiqued and compared.

Archivists provided a survey of their repository’s relevant holdings and researchers explained their methodologies for learning about Canada’s past climate. Not only did participants get a crash course in the types of evidence of climate change that are out there, but they took home an important message: we must learn to talk to each other.

Scott St. George, a paleoclimatologist with the Geological Survey of Canada noted that “historical data can give us a level of detail that wouldn’t be possible by looking only at a physical record.” However, in his discipline numbers and measurements are the data of choice. He urged social scientists to quantify their data so that “they can be at least visible to people in the physical sciences.”

Each discipline looks at different types of evidence and the nature of that evidence means it can only give us information about specific types of data at specific periods in time. A tree core is excellent at giving us annual data about rainfall during the summer months, but tells us very little about what vegetation lived in the area a thousand years ago. Lake cores can give us this information, but exact dates in a lake core are difficult to discern. A diary can tell us what happened at 2 pm on Saturday, March 15, 1873, but not necessarily anything of the previous day.

Different types of data compliment each other and provide a more comprehensive picture of Canada’s past climate. As long as we are aware of what each other are working on and how it all fits together, all disciplines will benefit.

Visual and audio files as well as further summary of the various speakers at the conference will be available shortly.

Featured image: Mount Edith Cavell, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Nikhil Prasad on Unsplash.

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