New paper: meteorology as an imperial science

BJ 5-19 193 croppedI have a new paper out in the Journal of Historical Geography entitled ‘For an empire of ‘all types of climate’: meteorology as an imperial science’. It can be found on the publisher’s website here, and a pre-publication version of the article can be downloaded here.

The paper is the main output of the RGS-IBG funded project which I conducted at King’s College London, and essentially lays the groundwork for the research I’ll be doing at Nottingham. It focuses on a series of conferences held periodically from 1919 onwards, generally titled the Conferences of Empire Meteorologists. These events, and the document trails they left behind, offer a useful synoptic view of how the sciences of meteorology and climatology were evolving alongside the shifting priorities and practices of British imperialism. They also offer the opportunity to develop a richer understanding of the role of conferences themselves in convening, coordinating, and contesting imperial scientific practices – something which resonates with the work my colleagues Steve Legg, Jake Hodder and Mike Heffernan are doing here at Nottingham on conferences and interwar internationalism.

In the paper I follow the story of these conferences chronologically, beginning in 1919 with efforts on the part of British meteorologists to integrate the science into processes of post-war national and imperial reconstruction. Meteorologists from the Dominions – rather than the wider colonial empire – gathered at the Royal Society to discuss what the increasing militarization of the atmosphere meant for their science, and to figure out ways of better coordinating the activities of what were, in most cases, very young meteorological services.

In 1929 the empire meteorologists gathered again – this time with the colonies represented too – and it’s clear that by this time the ‘imperial significance’ of the science had been recognised not just by the meteorologists themselves, but by their patrons and paymasters in government. Ministerial receptions and official dinners were laid on by the Air Ministry, visits were organised to inspect Britain’s ‘elaborate’ meteorological infrastructure, and regular press releases were fed to the print media as the public and political significance of the atmospheric sciences became ever clearer.

room plan - countries
Seating the Empire. National Archives BJ5/19

The rise of civilian and military aviation was the key factor, and much of the 1929 conference was dedicated to working out what sort of meteorological knowledges and techniques were required to facilitate the safe traversal of Britain’s colonial empire by new fleets of trans-continental aeroplanes and, it was hoped, airships.

airship routes 1929
A cartography of imperial expectation. From Conference of Empire Meteorologists, 1929, HMSO

All was not always rosy in the empire meteorological club, and the conferences provide an opportunity to understand the tensions which existed between metropolitan and colonial weather men. Figures like British East Africa’s Albert Walter stridently insisted that meteorological techniques could not be transplanted wholesale from London to the colonies, but needed adaptation both to local climates and to local scientific capacities. In the 1929 and 1935 conferences, we can see how collectively the imperial meteorologists began to position themselves as spokespeople for a global climatic diversity which they saw as being largely overlooked by the International Meteorological Organisation – a body which at the time was dominated by European and North American weather services. I therefore argue that the evolution of meteorological internationalism in this period cannot be understood without reference to the infrastructures and practices of imperial meteorology, and that empire is an important way in which the science became ‘global’, both in its subject matter and in its practices.

This idea of the British Empire’s unique climatic diversity also fed into desires to find much more instrumental applications of meteorology, with the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) for example sponsoring a section of the 1929 conference dedicated to agricultural meteorology. For the EMB, the Empire’s climatic diversity was not just an epistemic resource but an economic one too, and plans were hatched for meteorological knowledge to be better integrated with agricultural research in order to stimulate a more vibrant imperial agricultural economy.

Highways of Empire - Max Gill

However, the meteorologists were not wholly convinced of the value or practicality of such applied work, and much bickering ensued about, for example, the meaning and significance of concepts like ‘micro-climate’ to the work of professional meteorologists. Understanding agricultural meteorology as a contested ‘trading zone‘ between different disciplines is something I want to pursue further, with Albert Walter’s rather tortured involvement in the ill-fated postwar ‘groundnut scheme’ offering a good case study of the trouble that could ensue when different forms of expertise clashed amid desperate attempts to stimulate flagging colonial economies.

In the postwar and Cold War periods imperial forms of scientific cooperation increasingly gave way to new forms of scientific globalism, most notably in this context in the rise of the World Meteorological Organisation [pdf]. In the interwar period the Empire conferences had always been held before major international meteorology meetings, as if to coordinate the ‘imperial position’. Now though they started to be held after WMO meetings and they took on an increasingly informal tone. However, one interesting strand that I want to follow up on is the role of the Commonwealth in the circulation of ideas about anthropogenic climate change in the 1970s and 1980s. Climate change became a key topic for the Conferences of Commonwealth Meteorologists, as they became known, and there’s an interesting question about the role of the Commonwealth -with its high number of small island states – in the development of particular notions of collective vulnerability and of collective political identities.

So, lots to follow up on, and I hope that my new project will be able to go beyond the documentary traces of metropolitan coordination to explore more fully the histories and geographies of colonial meteorology, and its imbrications with different forms of colonial government and culture.

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