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Report by Sarah Davies

Gregynog Hall

Gregynog Hall

A workshop on historical climatology from Welsh sources, (supported by the Climate Change Consortium of Wales and organised in conjunction with Llên Natur), was held at Gregynog Hall in April.

The aim was to bring together groups and individuals with interests in the application of archival records in climate change research in a forum to discuss current developments and potential future collaboration. The workshop was a truly interdisciplinary event, with participants drawn from diverse backgrounds in palaeoclimate reconstruction, hydrology, medieval and early modern literature, environmental history and cultural geography. In addition to the academic research community, members of the Llên Natur and the Northwest Wales Dendrochronology projects participated along with representatives from Natural Resources Wales and the UK Met Office. This wide variety of interests and perspectives created the perfect environment for lively and stimulating discussions about potential themes for research and future directions.

James Scourse (C3W Director; Bangor University) opened the workshop with an overview of historical climate research from the EU Millennium Project. James highlighted the importance of high-resolution numerical reconstructions of historical climate for calibration of proxy records and discussed priorities for future research, including the transition between the Medieval Climate Anomaly and the Little Ice Age. Presentations over the following two days were divided into five themes: climate reconstruction; climate variability and society; citizen science; regional case studies and sources for investigating historical climate and weather.

Keynote speaker Dennis Wheeler (University of Sunderland) opened the first session on climate reconstruction with a fascinating presentation on Royal Navy ships’ log books, highlighting the wealth of observational data from these sources extending back to the 17th century which can be used to reconstruct temperature, wind direction and storminess. Dennis also pointed out some issues, such as changes in calendar and terminology, essential to consider if accurate records are to be produced. Giles Young (Swansea University) presented a tree ring isotope-based record of summer temperatures from west Wales extending back to 1850. These exciting initial results indicate the potential for a much longer high-resolution reconstruction for Wales using this technique. Neil Macdonald (University of Liverpool) focused on the history of droughts in Wales using a combination of historical and instrumental data, demonstrating that an indices-based approach can produce a reliable record of drought severity, frequency and duration, using the Vyrnwy catchment as a case study. In the final presentation of the session, Hywel Griffiths (Aberystwyth University) integrated geomorphological data, historical maps and the medieval poetry of Guto’r Glyn to reconstruct the fluvial history of the Tywi valley, highlighting the strength of a cross-disciplinary approach to environmental history.

The focus of the second session turned to climate variability and society. In her keynote presentation, Georgina Endfield (University of Nottingham) used examples of her research in Mexico, Africa and the UK to explore the complex relationship between climate and culture. The social and cultural context is an important consideration in the interpretation of documentary evidence and there is potential in such sources to examine the different ways in which weather and climate are perceived and remembered. Cerys Jones (Aberystwyth University) presented her research on historical weather extremes and their social impacts in Wales. Of particular value in examining societal impacts have been official documents, such as public health records and school log books. Oral history approaches can also provide powerful accounts of the impact of more recent weather extremes, exemplified by Cerys’ work on the winter of 1947. Clive Walmsley (Natural Resources Wales) provided a contemporary perspective on societal impacts of climate variability, discussing the Climate Change Risk Assessment for Wales, which provides a framework for managing environmental change. Hydrological extremes are the key concerns for the future in the Welsh context. Analysis of media archives supports this, with 50% of reported weather extremes related to excessive rainfall or flooding.

Twm Elias and Duncan Brown, (Llên Natur Project, Cymdeithas Edward Llwyd) opened the afternoon session on citizen science and opportunities for collaboration with a keynote presentation on the Llên Natur Tywyddiadur project. This valuable resource of more than 82,000 phenological and weather records has been developed by a dedicated group of volunteers and the online database is available to search at www.llennatur.com. Twm reviewed the development of the Welsh language diary tradition, highlighting the potential of such sources for future research, whilst Duncan outlined the key features of the database and gave examples of significant extreme weather events which are recorded. Philip Brohan (UK Met Office) gave a presentation about the web-based citizen science historical climatology project, www.oldweather.org. Approximately 16,000 volunteers from all over the world participate in this research by transcribing entries from digitised ship log books. Philip gave the group plenty of food for thought about encouraging volunteer contributors in any future research on Welsh records.

The daily diaries of William Bulkeley (1691-1760)

The daily diaries of William Bulkeley (1691-1760) provide a vivid portrait of Anglesey life in the eighteenth century. They include accounts of farm life, wages, prices etc., and not a day passed without William Bulkeley noting very carefully the prevailing weather conditions.
Image copyright Bangor University Archives and Welsh Library

Sue Walton (www.sueproof.co.uk) gave a summary of her work transcribing the 18th century diaries of William Bulkeley (Brynddu, Anglesey) for the Llên Natur project, funded by Anglesey County Council. The diaries cover the period 1734-1743 and 1747-1760 and contain detailed daily weather observations and represent a key resource for historical climate research in Wales. Wyn Bowen Harries then spoke about his plans to adapt the Bulkeley diaries for a performance during summer 2014 at Brynddu  and possibly also in Pontio, Bangor. A script is currently under development and the aim is to promote the diaries to a wider audience as a source for understanding Welsh farming traditions and the weather.

The second day of the workshop started with regional case studies on historical climate in Wales. Paul Butler (Bangor University) presented his research on high-resolution records from shells of the long-lived clam species Arctica Islandica. These shells preserve annual growth bands, similar to tree rings, and their isotopic composition and trace element geochemistry can be used to investigate a range of climatic and environmental variables, such as water mass changes. There is potential for new records from Welsh waters to tie in with chronologies developed further north in the Irish Sea. Margaret Dunn (Northwest Wales Dendrochronology Project) provided a summary of work by her group on dating medieval houses across North Wales. Since beginning in 2004, the group now has over 200 volunteers working on site visits, surveys and archival research. Ninety-four houses have been sampled for dendrochronology and several houses have been dated prior to 1500. An analysis of rainfall trends on Anglesey from 1960-2011 was presented by Roger Cratchley (Bangor University), who suggested that observed patterns could be explained by changes in the position of the jet stream. Gareth Griffith (Aberystwyth University) also focused on Anglesey, using a range of documentary sources to investigate the environmental history of the island and the impact of the Industrial Revolution.

The final session focused on the range of documentary sources that are available for investigating historical climate in Wales. Dafydd Johnston (Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies) began by outlining the potential of Welsh language medieval poetry to provide information on past weather extremes, giving examples from the work of Dafydd Ap Gwilym and Iolo Goch. Eurig Salisbury (Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies) followed on a similar theme, highlighting the work of Guto’r Glyn (1435-1493), the focus of a recent AHRC funded project. The poems of Guto’r Glyn are available on a website developed during the project (www.gutorglyn.net), alongside English translations and explanatory notes, with a search option for key terms. Cathryn Charnell-White (Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies) discussed early modern (1500-1800) Welsh literature sources, including diaries and correspondence of notable figures such as Edward Lhuyd, Thomas Pennant, Edward Williams (Iolo Morgannwg) and Walter Davies (Gwallter Mechain). She also highlighted some more diverse literary sources, such as the englynion (stanzas of remembrance) of Thomas Evans, Carolau Haf (summer carols) and almanacs. A key theme when considering literature is memory and how the weather is remembered in the social and cultural context in which it is being recorded. The final presentation was from Sarah Davies (Aberystwyth University), who focused on estate records. Although there are challenges (e.g. volume of material, degree of cataloguing), examples from 19th century collections highlight their potential for extending instrumental records and also for providing deeper narratives about the impacts of and responses to extreme weather. Sarah noted the numerous estate records in Wales which extend back to the medieval period which may have potential for producing longer time series.

Discussion sessions were held at the end of each day, providing an opportunity to reflect on issues raised during the presentations and consider priorities for the future. These sessions involved constructive and open debate amongst the group, with the wide range of disciplines represented meaning that all participants gained new insights. The key points arising from these are summarised below:

Collaboration and Future Research

  • A project focusing on historical records of flooding / excessive rainfall and public health impacts would be valuable from a policy / management perspective.
  • There is potential for collaboration between the tree ring isotope research group at Swansea University and the Northwest Wales Dendrochronology Project.
  • There is potential to integrate the activities of Llên Natur and academic research through collaboration on common interests (e.g. Bulkeley diaries). It would be beneficial to seek support for expanding volunteer activity and website / database development.
  • Medieval documentary sources (e.g. monastic / manorial records) have potential to provide long records which cover the MCA/LIA transition, but this requires collaboration with specialists. Some contacts were suggested which are being followed up by SJD.
  • An integrated project involving marine and terrestrial proxy records, along with historical data could explore local responses to global / regional climate variability over the last 1-2ka.

Funding Opportunities

  • JISC may be a potential source for further development of the Tywyddiadur database created by Llên Natur.
  • An immediate priority is to apply for an AHRC network grant in autumn 2013 to focus on interdisciplinary approaches to investigating historical storms.
  • An application to the Leverhulme Trust could be made for an interdisciplinary project.
  • The flooding / public health proposal could be submitted to NERC and potentially medical research funding bodies (e.g. Wellcome Trust).
  • The Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol might be a possible source of funding for e.g. linked PhD studentships.