Mining Weather and Climate Data from the Diary of a Forty- Niner

Authors: Jase Bernhardt*, Hofstra University
Topics: Climatology and Meteorology, Physical Geography, Historical Geography
Keywords: Historical Climatology, Climate Change, Environmental History
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/10/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 40
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Primary sources such as personal diaries can provide insight into weather and climate conditions in times and places where quantitative instrumental observations are unavailable. The diary of Gideon Nichols provides an especially compelling case study of how such sources can be used to determine spatiotemporal patterns in meteorological conditions. Nichols, a farmer in Long Island, New York, elected to venture across the United States in 1849 to partake in the California Gold Rush, remaining there for two years before returning home via both oceanic and overland routes. Using content analysis, an investigation of Nichols’s detailed records of weather and climate throughout his travels is undertaken. His daily recordings are supplemented by regular letters to relatives back home on Long Island, which contain ample details and emotional descriptions of his surroundings and how he experienced them. The result is a unique snapshot of the mid nineteenth century climate of numerous physical geographic regions across North America, along with a novel record of weather conditions during the early stages of the California Gold Rush. Moreover, Gideon’s meticulous attention to detail, especially geographic location, permits the spatial analysis of these patterns, using both a physical geographical approach (e.g., his comparisons of different climate regions) and chronological approach (e.g., tracking extreme weather events over the course of a year). Thus, this ongoing research complements past work by introducing a spatiotemporal component into the human interpretation of weather conditions, and can be replicated using the diaries of other pioneers who regularly observed environmental conditions.

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