Framed as an interdisciplinary endeavour, it is probably no surprise that authors come from various disciplinary backgrounds, including physical and cultural geography, art history and media studies, history of science and environmental history. Thus, the subjects, periods and…
Things have been a bit quiet on here over the last few weeks, and that’s partly because as of 1st August I’ve moved to the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia to take up a position as Lecturer in Human Geography. Fortunately, my official title will be ‘British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer in Human Geography’, which denotes that I’ve been able to bring my fellowship award with me, in order to continue the project up to its end point in November 2018.
UEA is where I did my PhD so I know a lot of the folks here really well, and it should be easy to slot back into the rhythm of things. UEA has recently started offering a BA in Geography, so I’ve been hired to help with some of the teaching on that. It’s also a really great place to develop some of my longer-term projects, including returning to some work on the knowledge politics of climate change. But for now it’s largely business as usual with the Imperial Weather project, on which there will be more updates soon…
s I returned from my trip to Malaysia last week, complete with a suitcase full of print-outs from the archives and a head full of ideas about how the development of meteorology in British Malaya fits into the wider story I want to tell with this project.
Most of my time in Malaysia was spent in the Arkib Negara (national archives), which holds a surprising amount of documentation relating to the establishment and operation of meteorological services in the Malaysian Peninsular. My expectations of what I might find in the archives had been lowered by people who’ve worked on other topics there, and who have often had quite a frustrating time. But with the help of Fiona Williamson, who’s also working on the history of meteorology in the region (see this paper for example), I was able to find my way to a few really useful collections.
As Fiona’s argued, there really wasn’t a whole lot of meteorology done in the region in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1929, when the UK Meteorological Office and the Air Ministry were trying to accelerate the roll-out of a meteorological infrastructure to support imperial aviation, Malaya was described by the head of the Indian service as a “non-meteorological country”. It was considered the one ‘weak link’ in the meteorological chain which was to render the skies above the England-Australia air route safe for navigation. C.D. Stewart was therefore dispatched from the Met Office to coordinate a new service which would greatly expand existing observational efforts, while also hastening the circulation of data so that synoptic charts could be developed daily, and forecasts issued to aviators.
Who was meteorology for?
This moment in the late 1920s, with the rise of transcontinental aviation, saw new debates about what – and crucially who – meteorology was for. If expensive meteorological infrastructure was merely required to make the skies above Britain’s territories safe for planes flying overhead, was it really the business of those territorial governments to foot the bill? In East Africa, the roll-out of a regional British met service to facilitate flight on the Cape-Cairo routes was joined by promises of more local benefits, including new knowledge to apply to agriculture in climatically diverse colonies. In Malaya, there was very little talk of agricultural meteorology as a salve to colonial support for what was essentially and imperial project of inter-dominion aviation. That may have been to do with the combination of what was seen as an essentially ‘monotonous’ climate, and the firm establishment by then of agricultural monocultures. Things like rubber were being grown on large estates quite successfully by then, and there wasn’t much sense that meteorology had anything to offer the growers. Others who saw greater variation in the Malayan climate nonetheless saw the weather as essentially unpredictable, and held out little hope for reliable weather forecasts.
So meteorology developed in British Malaya as essentially a form of ‘infrastructural science‘ – a combination of applied theoretical knowledge and environmental observation, essentially operating invisibly, not for the purpose of producing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but to support the establishment of a much wider socio-technical infrastructure (international aviation). How to pay for such a science was a frequent sore point, with the states disagreeing over whether contributions to the overall budget should be allotted based on how many observation stations each state had, or according to how many flights landed in each territory. Singapore, for example, had few met stations but lots of landings, whereas the large rural states further north had a growing number of met stations, but weren’t exactly key stops on the emerging trunk air routes. This uncertainty about whether the air above Britain’s territories was a colonial or an imperial matter points to wider debates about the constitutional operation of Britain’s patchwork empire, about the relationship between colonial autonomy and joint imperial effort, and to different assumptions about the place of science in making such spaces governable. In the correspondence at this time, one can read lots of interesting efforts to convince others, including the rulers of the Unfederated Malay States, of how the expectation of ‘modern’, ‘civilised’ states was the production of reliable meteorological information, and the free provision of such information to anyone who might like to use it.
Who did the meteorology?
Unlike some of the other meteorological services I’ve been studying, it was possible in Malaysia to get a bit of insight into the staff who made it all happen, beyond the conventional European at the top. Within the Arkib Negara you can find service records of some of the staff who were recruited locally – their progression up salary scales, their performance in technical exams, and the fines and sanctions they were subject too when their observations weren’t deemed up to scratch. Often these were men who would spend some time at HQ in Singapore helping to compile, tabulate and compute the numbers, but for most of the time they were out in the countryside, running isolated meteorological stations in far flung corners of the territories. Tensions frequently arose around their working conditions – their accommodation, the long hours, access to schools for their children, their subjection to a disciplinary regime which was often seen as unsympathetic to the difficult conditions in which meteorological work was done. Being able to unearth some of this stuff has been really enlightening, as it enables me to say something about the everyday lived realities of meteorology in colonial settings – to go beyond the writings of the directors and the managers and the ideals of smoothly running systems of weather observation and computation, to get to the voices of the people putting in the hard, repetitive, often maddeningly dull work of making colonial skies legible and predictable.
Meteorology at war
One of the threads I’m keen to follow through the Malayan story is the relationship between meteorology and the military. Of course the rise of civil aviation coincided with the further development of military flying, and the Malayan meteorological service always had a close relationship with the Royal Air Force. During the occupation of British Malaya by Japan in World War II, it seems that the observational infrastructure was kept ticking, even if most of the records from this period were apparently destroyed. Many of the observation staff worked 7-day weeks throughout the occupation, leading to some serious health problems and a backlog of leave allowances after the war which drastically undermined the ability of the service to meet all its obligations. The ambition to run a 24-hour forecast service had to be abandoned, as worn-out staff took long stretches of leave – often in India – to recuperate.
Forecasting activities at Kuala Lumpur aerodrome were particularly hard hit by the staff shortages, but the office there was seemingly still able to prepare a daily stream-line analysis for the RAF to inform its bombing campaigns against the communist insurgents as the Emergency took hold. Confident claims were made about how meteorology would facilitate efficient air strikes against the rebels in forested hills, although it seems I may have to do some more digging in UK-based archives to get at the details.
So there are lots of things to process and ideas to develop over the coming weeks and months, and a few follow-up visits to more local archives to be made in order to finesse a few points.
I should say thanks to all the staff at the Arkib Negara, who dealt incredibly patiently with my requests, and tolerated my dodgy Malay with great generosity!
Last week I was delighted to join a workshop at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum on the history of weather science and weather extremes in the region. The workshop brought together historians of science with atmospheric scientists interested in using historical observations to reconstruct past weather and climate. It was a great day of cross-disciplinary exchange and learning, and I was able to make some really useful connections with people working on similar times and places as me.
Discussions ranged from the way 19th century sailors dealt with typhoons, through the imperial networks of weather observation that sprung up around the China coast, to the use of historical weather data from the region in challenging climate models to ‘hindcast’ known weather events. Interestingly, the skill of models to spontaneously generate known weather events – like typhoons for example – is such that they can now venture to be used to predict events which might not be known in the historical record, allowing historians to then go and search for what might be forgotten extreme events.
Following the workshop, I’d been generously invited to give a public keynote on my ‘imperial weather’ project, so I took the opportunity to give another airing to some of my airship material, which connected with a lot of the recurring themes of the workshop: empire, extreme weather, the history of prediction, and, of course, disasters.
The following day I ambled over to the Hong Kong Public Record Office, which holds archival records from Hong Kong Observatory and various other institutions, stretching back into the early days of the colonial era. The Hong Kong Observatory is probably the most well-documented of all the British colonial observatories, and it was keep overwhelming to encounter the wealth of material available. That means, of course, that there is a uniquely large secondary literature on the history of meteorology in Hong Kong, which is also motivated of course by the significance of typhoons for life and fortunes in the region. For some examples, see here and here.
I tried to follow a few significant threads into the archives, including the move of T.F. Claxton from Mauritius to Hong Kong, and the spatial politics of the observatory itself – the defence of the site against various encroachments, and its functioning as a mini scientific world set apart from the growing city; a space not just for meteorology and astronomy, but for natural history and botany too. I also took the chance to take a look at some of the observations which were made by meteorologists interred in Japanese prison camps during the WWII occupation. Many of these were made on whatever scraps of paper were available – cigarette packets, match boxes, animal cracker cards, some of them with remarkable levels of precision, even extending to the plotting of monthly averages on tiny graphs. One example of the observations can be seen here.
So, thanks JHG! It’s a real honour to be in such great company. This is probably an appropriate time to re-state the article’s acknowledgements as well:
Thanks to the staff at the National Meteorological Library and Archive in Exeter and to the librarians at the University of Oxford for all their invaluable assistance. Thanks also to Mike Hulme, Helen Pallett and seminar participants at King’s College London and the University of Nottingham for helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper, and to Joan Kenworthy for her insight into the East African archives. The support of an RGS-IBG Small Research Grant and of the Department of Geography, King’s College London is gratefully acknowledged. The article has greatly benefitted from the comments of Miles Ogborn, the editor, and of the three anonymous reviewers.
In a few weeks’ time I’ll be heading over to Malaysia to spend some time in the archives there, as well as to visit the University of Nottingham’s campus (UNMC) just outside Kuala Lumpur.
I’ve got a few speaking engagements lined up during my trip, which will give me the opportunity to present some of my work on airships and imperial meteorology, as well as to offer some reflections on recent debates around the concept of the Anthropocene:
Recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the airship as a speculative technology, particularly its history as an imagined agent of imperial connectivity in interwar Britain. More broadly I’m interested in how meteorology was used in this period to make the atmosphere legible and traversable, and a lot of the motivation for the development of wider meteorological infrastructures was the promised expansion of aviation following the technological advances of World War I.
The airship, however, makes different meteorological demands than the heavier-than-air aeroplane. Airships work through the dynamic relationships between the gases enveloped within the ship and the atmosphere outside the envelope, and its characteristics of temperature, humidity, pressure, wind and so on. While aeroplanes use speed and aerodynamic design to produce lift, airships create lift through a set of more subtle relationships, which must be constantly monitored and tinkered with to ensure smooth flight. Changes in one relationship – relative temperature for example – imply and require compensatory changes in others – such as relative pressure. Although airshipping is predicated on sealing gases within, it also requires the constant venting and valving of gas, to maintain a dynamic equilibrium between enveloped and enveloping atmosphere.
Airships are examples of what Derek McCormack calls ‘aerostatic things’ – things which generate lift through these relational dynamics, the most obvious example being the humble balloon. McCormack’s done a lot of important work on the affective aspects of balloon flight, and on the relationships between affective and meteorological ‘atmospheres’. The reliance of balloons of these relational dynamics, and their capacity to be affected by changing conditions of their atmospheric surroundings, mean they have become a central tool in making atmospheric dynamics visible, as McCormack has pointed out (see his recent piece in Society & Space). But if balloons have made the atmosphere visible for meteorologists, what I’m interested in is how meteorologists likewise made the atmosphere visible for balloons or, more specifically, for airships, and their captains and navigators.
In the early 1920s the British Government resolved to develop an experimental imperial airship scheme, whereby two ships would be built to ply new routes between Britain, India and the Dominions. While the ships were being built, work was also carried out to develop a new meteorological infrastructure which would cross-cross the empire, making possible both the planning of routes, and the short-term prediction of weather conditions for a particular journey. In 1925, the meteorological division at the Royal Airship Works at Cardington in Bedfordshire produced the first synoptic chart showing the simultaneous weather conditions along the entire England-India route; a significant moment in British imperial meteorology:
Alongside these synoptic efforts sat a new set of practices of studying the atmosphere on a new, finer scale. The vertical structure of the atmosphere had been a growing object of meteorological concern since the late 19th century. But the particular characteristics of airships – their capacity to affected by the wind, to be destabilised by the subtlest changes in atmospheric conditions – meant that the atmosphere as a medium demanded new strategies of knowledge-making. The gustiness of wind was measured on new, finer timescales; the effects of relatively minor changes in topography on the structure of the overlying air were newly appraised.
The airship is therefore a propitious figure through which to think about the relationships between the gaseous materiality of the air and human action, and to examine how historical actors have sought to make these relationships visible, legible, predictable, and subject to what we might now call ‘risk management’. The relationship between airship and atmosphere became a site of epistemic controversy during the development of the imperial scheme, with a number of critics claiming the impossibility of stable flight, and challenging the widely propagandised claims of luxurious long-distance travel, and of ‘fox-trotting in the clouds’. When the flagship R101 crashed into a hillside in northern France on its maiden voyage to India, amid strong winds and driving rain, much of the subsequent inquests focused on the ship’s dynamic stability, on weather forecasts which underestimated the storm, and on the responsibility for the decision to fly in spite of forecasts which nonetheless suggested a difficult journey. The moral economy of the decision to dive into this violent atmospheric milieu that night in October 1930 was unpicked and debated in settings from the popular press, an official Court of Inquiry, and a series of extraordinary séances with deceased crew members. In the end, responsibility was not laid upon any individual but was, interestingly, given to what was described as an distinctive atmosphere of urgency, expectation and impatience which existed in-between the different groups of actors involved.
The airship, particularly the imperial airships of the 1920s and ‘30s, therefore provide an ideal figure through which to think through the intersections of material and affective atmospheres. But they also provide an opportunity to write the meteorologist into emerging literatures on the cultural and elemental geographies of air and atmosphere, and perhaps to re-consider the permeability of the boundary between matter and affect in the moral economy of weather knowledges and prediction.
I explored some of these ideas in a recent paper at the RGS-IBG annual conference and a subsequent seminar with the London Group of Historical Geographers. I plan to write it up into a full paper at some point next year, after a few more archival forays, particularly regarding the séances which, I suspect, may hold the key to understanding much of the story of this intersection of technology, atmosphere and risk. I’ll be penning a few more blog posts along the way, as my thinking develops.
The paper is the outcome of a long-standing side project on how artists and designers have sought to represent the possible effects of global environmental change in very local settings, often through strategies of visual composition such as montage, collage and graphical manipulation. I’m interested in how such images play on ideas of place, and how the representation of spatial otherness functions as an analogue for futurity.
There are some interesting parallels with the main themes of my current project – i.e. how colonial actors sought to come to terms with climate – scientifically, but also politically and normatively. Imperial ideologies were shot-through with ideas of climatic determinism, of racial superiority shaped by climatic superiority, and many of the practices of colonialism were informed and directed by ‘imaginative geographies’ of climatic excess, danger and inhospitability. Regional climatologies, describing the stable characteristics of the climates of distant places, were also moral climatologies, to borrow David Livingstone’s term, speaking of stable orderings of people, place and environment.
The montaged climate futures which I examine in the paper work by disrupting some of these deep-seated notions of climatic otherness, and of related fears of the destabilisation of our moral climatologies. But this destabilisation narrative also has a long history, which can be read from the genealogy of the ruin in western European art. Fantasizing about the future ruins of one’s civilisation was rarely subversive; rather it played upon notions of the grand endurance of civilisation’s artefacts beyond the timescales of shifting human fortunes. To imagine ruination was to promise immortality.
However, I argue in the paper that the historical radicalism of montage as a mode of artistic production offers the seed of more progressive, reflexive kinds of future-visioning. ‘Reflexive’ in the sense that montage makes clear the choices and cuts made by the artist. The decision of what to add in, and what to leave out, becomes part of the representation itself. There are some radical lessons in there not just for the visualisation of climate-changed futures, but for much broader modes of constructing futures, where the black-boxing of such choices can have significant epistemic and political consequences (see, for example, the ongoing controversy over the under-acknowledged inclusion of certain ‘climate engineering’ technologies in recent climate change scenarios).
More of the images on which I based my discussion can be found collected together here.
This Thursday (14th July) we will be hosting Vladimir Jankovic, an historian of science at the University of Manchester, for a public lecture on the question of ‘What do we talk about when we talk about climate?’ The talk will form the first Hayman Rooke Lecture in Environmental Humanities, a new lecture series with which we aim to promote some of the great work happening in Nottingham and beyond at the intersections of environmental change and the humanities.
Vlad’s work will be known to anyone interested in the history of meteorology and the intellectual history of climate. He’s long been a friend to geographers, arguing in Reading the Skies for a spatial turn in the history of meteorology, and pioneering work on the significance of space, place and scale in understanding the production and circulation of ideas about climate and its changes. His talk will coincide with a workshop at Nottingham which will aim to finalise the contents of an edited book featuring some new conversations between historical geographers and historians of science on these topics – more about that soon.
Vlad will trace some of the history of architectural dealings with climate, to examine how the idea of climate itself is about much more than a physical atmosphere, but about the ways we inhabit our worlds spatially, culturally and ethically. His abstract appears below, a registration for the talk can be completed here.
Drawing on select examples of the ‘environmentalization’ of modernist projects, this public talk reflects on how the language of ‘climate’ (and weather) informs the spatial rendering of everyday life and, conversely, how such a rendering informs the meaning, scale and relevance of ‘climate’ in ideas and their spatial manifestation. How do architectural and urban planning concerns shape different understandings of climate? What kind of socio-cultural concern underlies a climatological approach and, equally, what kind of approach underlies a climatological solution to the production of architectural and urban space? More generally, how does ‘climate’ emerge in locution, space and practice?
I’ve got a new paper out in Minerva, co-authored with Mike Hulme (KCL), on the establishment of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research at the UK Met Office. It’s available open-access by following the link below:
Abstract. How climate models came to gain and exercise epistemic authority has been a key concern of recent climate change historiography. Using newly released archival materials and recently conducted interviews with key actors, we reconstruct negotiations between UK climate scientists and policymakers which led to the opening of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research in 1990. We historicize earlier arguments about the unique institutional culture of the Hadley Centre, and link this culture to broader characteristics of UK regulatory practice and environmental politics. A product of a particular time and place, the Hadley Centre was shaped not just by scientific ambition, but by a Conservative governmental preference for ‘sound science’ and high evidential standards in environmental policymaking. Civil servants sought a prediction programme which would appeal to such sensibilities, with transient and regional climate simulation techniques seemingly offering both scientific prestige and persuasive power. Beyond the national level, we also offer new insights into the early role of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and an evolving international political context in the shaping of scientific practices and institutions.
Although not strictly related to my Imperial Weather project, it was the research for this paper – specifically poking about in the Met Office archives – which led to my accidental discovery of the interwar Conferences of Empire Meteorologists, and thus my new interest in the history of colonial atmospheric science. It’s amazing how much our research directions are shaped by serendipity and chance encounters!
But the story we tell in this paper, about the institutionalisation of climate prediction and the re-shaping of UK environmental politics around a new concern with global climate change, could be considered something of a book-end to the story I want to tell about earlier British engagements with the ‘global’ atmosphere, as given shape and form by the colonial enterprise.
The paper is based on some governmental archive materials, released in 2013, which document the negotiations between climate scientists at the Met Office, officials at the Department of Environment, and Conservative politicians about the shape a new climate prediction centre should take, and what its priorities should be. We were also able to interview some of the key movers and shakers from the time about their experiences.
Others have skilfully documented how the Hadley Centre is uniquely close to policymakers, at least in contrast to comparable modelling centres around the world (see e.g. Simon Shackley in Changing the Atmosphere, or this earlier paper in Minerva). The task we set ourselves was simple – to explain how those close relationships came about, and what that can tell us about the broader nature of environmental politics and cultures of expert advice in the UK.
I should take this opportunity to thank those we interviewed for the project, whose insights greatly enriched our analysis, and to acknowledge the generous support of King’s College London for the conduct of the work.