Imperial Weather: Meteorology and the Making of 20th Century Colonialism

cropped-africa-map-dark.pngThis project, which ran from November 2015 to November 2018, investigated the intersections of science, empire and climate in order to understand how practices of predicting and observing the weather were shaped by the context of British colonialism.

Relationships between science and empire have been well documented in a burgeoning field concerned with the histories and geographies of colonial science. We know a great deal, for example, about how imperial mobility stimulated and shaped the emergence of disciplines like botany, anthropology, geography and cartography, and about how such fields functioned as ‘handmaidens’ of empire, facilitating the navigation and comprehension of new oceanic and terrestrial worlds .

But empires were not just about the horizontal projection of power. They also had a vertical dimension – an atmospheric politics – articulated through a concern for the effects of tropical climates on human health, race and productivity, or through engagement with the atmosphere as a realm of imperial connectivity and military power. This project asks how atmospheric knowledge was pursued, standardized, circulated and put to work across the British Empire as the science of meteorology underwent a transition from the ad hoc compilation of ‘amateur’ observations to an institutionalized and professionalized science of colonial government.

‘Uncharted country between Eil dur Elan and J Serut’, c. 1919-20. National Archives, CO 1069/8/5

Focusing on the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the project explores the progressive institutionalisation of meteorology as a science of government both in the metropole and the colony. This era saw a marked transition in European and North American meteorology towards programmatic weather prediction, but the science more broadly, with its uncertainties, complexities and overlaps with popular ‘weather wisdom’, still occupied an ambiguous place in public and political life. For prominent European meteorologists, a global expansion and standardisation of meteorological vision was the only way to establish the field as a respectable scientific discipline and public service. Throughout the late nineteenth century the UK Meteorological Office gratefully received and to some extent supported the weather observations of missionaries, ‘gentleman scientists’, army officers and doctors in far-flung corners of the Empire. At the dawn of the twentieth century however, calls were made from various quarters for London to become the coordinating hub of a new imperial meteorology, able to process worldwide data, to oversee colonial meteorological services, and to marshal meteorological knowledge in the service of colonial development, the imperial ‘civilizing mission’, and in the pursuit of a truly global science of the atmosphere. Such a pursuit required new relationships between the Empire’s diverse climates and its disparate governmental bureaucracies.

Launching a weather balloon in Yemen, c. 1959. National Archives, CO 1069/691/33

Colonial governments were not all immediately sold on the idea of a dedicated weather service, but by the mid-twentieth century most of Britain’s colonies – and all the dominions – had a government meteorological service of some description. We currently know very little about what these services were like, how they were established, whose interests they served, and what they achieved.

Using these services as a starting point, this project  investigates the practices of meteorology in colonial spaces, and the effects of these practices on wider forms of colonial life and government. Using colonial and imperial archives in the UK and abroad, the project aims to show how the atmosphere came to be understood as a global system not just through the late twentieth century rise of global computer models, but through earlier forms of imperial mobility and colonial knowledge-making, the geographies of which still shape our knowledge and understanding of global processes like climate change in consequential ways. This means striking up new conversations between the parts of history of science which deal with questions about observation, prediction and the place of science in wider cultures and politics, with perspectives from environmental history on how ideas about climate have informed different projects of human ‘development’ and domination, and with debates in cultural geography – informed by Luce Irigaray, Peter Sloterdijk and others – about how the question of ‘being-in-the-world’ is necessarily also a question of ‘being-in-the-air’.