Hong Kong workshop: Weather Science, Extreme Weather and Disaster Histories

DSC08590Last 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.Mahony HKMM (2)

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.

 

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Forthcoming speaking engagements in SE Asia

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Hong Kong Maritime Museum. Source: uninuna.wordpress.com

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:

1 March: Public talk at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, An Empire of the Skies: Airship Science and the Imperial Discovery of the AtmosphereThis will follow a workshop with a group of historians of science working on meteorology in the region in the 19th and 20th centuries.

10 March: Seminar at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, “The World, the Air and the Future”: Airship Science and the Imperial Discovery of the Atmosphere

15 March: Public talk as part of the UNMC ‘Mindset’ series, Is this the ‘Age of Humans’? Science, politics and culture in the Anthropocene – details to follow

 

What do we talk about when we talk about climate?

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 Jankovic image croppedenvironmental 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?

Le Corbusier 1887-1965
Le Corbusier, 1887-1965

Conferencing: AAG 2016

I’m heading off to the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers next week, where I’ll be presenting some preliminary work on the history of agricultural
meteorology in a session I’ve put together with Angelo Matteo Caglioti (Berkeley). The session, ‘Historical geographies of environmental knowledge: science, space and power‘, will bring together historical geographers and historians of science to consider the relationships between environmental know-how and political action across a range of contexts, from Italian colonial Africa to the US Midwest.

The title I put forward was ‘Weather, climate and the colonial imagination: Albert Walter’s agricultural meteorologies’, although I’m thinking now that I should change the post-colon part to ‘spatial histories of agricultural meteorology’, as I was to use the paper to try and develop some conceptual arguments about how to deal with the geographies of meteorological practice and its applications in contexts of colonial development schemes and the like. I’m going to play around with the notion of experimentation, which has been a concept and object of growing interest to geographers recently, using the empirical case of the British government’s notorious groundnut scheme to think about how the different ends of experimentation – authoritative knowledge, material transformation, commercial gain – interact and shape each other, and what this has meant historically for the relationships between scientific expertise and decision-making.

The paper will be informed by some recent archival work in Oxford, where I w

From Wood 1950 (1)
Dead sunflowers, following their introduction as a rotation crop. From Wood, 1950, The Groundnut Affair

as able to closely study the work of Albert Walter, a government meteorologist in Mauritius (1897-1926) and then in British East Africa (1926-1948). He pioneered the study of the relationships between crops and weather, developing sophisticated statistical techniques to transform sparse data into seemingly robust arguments about causative relationships between means, extremes and agricultural yields. In the immediate post-war period he was appointed meteorological advisor to the groundnut scheme, and urged the scheme’s managers to reconsider some of their locational choices based on his analysis of climatic conditions. First he was ignored, and then dismissed, before the scheme failed rather unceremoniously following low rainfall, equipment failures  and struggles with the local soils.

In a last ditch attempt to save the scheme, Walter’s successor at the East African Meteorological Department David Davies collaborated with the Overseas Food Corporation on a series of rainmaking experiments, with silver-iodide laden balloon bombs and flare guns launched at any passing cloud. While some apparent success was reported, the challenge of reliably attributing subsequent rain to human or natural causes proved insurmountable, and the efforts to finally make it rain on the groundnuts were quietly abandoned.

For me, this case is a great opportunity to play around with some ideas about the role of scientific advice in colonial decision-making, and about the historical geographies of experimentation in the borderlands of science, government and commerce. There’ll also be opportunities to think about how this relates to more recent debates, not least through a session I’ve co-organised with James Palmer (Oxford) – ‘Boundary spaces in environmental politics: contested geographies of knowledge and power‘.

 

Maps from Wood 1950
From Wood, 1950, The Groundnut Affair