Friday, 4 December 2015

New post at Nottingham and the 'Imperial Weather' project

By Martin 

It's been a long time coming but this week I finally took up my new fellowship position in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham. Officially, I'm a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow and Nottingham Research Fellow, which means three years of research funding to develop a project on climate, empire and the history of colonial meteorology called 'Imperial weather: meteorology and the making of 20th century colonialism' (check out my new project website at Essentially this project is building upon and deepening the work I did at King's College London with the help of some funding from the RGS-IBG (see here).

Nottingham will be a great place to develop this work, with a lot of expertise in the cultural and historical geography group on environmental history, empire, and the history of science. I'll be working closely with Georgina Endfield, who's done lots of important work on climate history and the history of meteorology.

For my RGS-IBG funded work I used UK-based archives to examine the history of imperial meteorology from the early to mid-20th century, focusing in particular on a series of conferences which brought together Britain's colonial weathermen to discuss how meteorology could best serve the Empire, and vice-versa. This work will be out soon in the Journal of Historical Geography. With this new project I'll be able to dig deeper into these archives, as well as exploring some colonial archives overseas, in a bid to understand more closely how meteorological knowledges, of various sorts. were woven into colonial societies and government.

There are a number of key themes which I'm aiming to explore. One concerns the relationship between metropolitan and colonial forms of scientific practice - how did practices of observing and predicting the weather circulate around the British Empire, and how did they change along the way? How did dominant ways of thinking about the links between climate and human societies shape the priorities of colonial meteorologists, as well as their social standing in colonial societies? In addition to the circulation of ideas, practices and tools, I'm interested in the mobility of people, and the role that travel played in the development of meteorological ideas. I'm currently working on a book chapter on this topic, which will examine British East Africa's Albert Walter and his narration of 'meteorological safaris' as he went about setting up a weather observation infrastructure in East Africa in the early 1930s.

'Uncharted country between Eil dur Elan and J Serut. 8,000ft' (1919-20) - National Archives, CO 1069/8

Much of the change which occurred in meteorology in the early 20th century was driven by the rise of aviation, and British hopes to establish a system of imperial air communications lent colonial meteorology a new urgency. One aspect of this I find particularly interesting is the question of atmospheric visibility. In the context of aerial warfare in particular, techniques of visual concealment became prominent, with pilots learning to fly at night or in clouds. In these situations the pilot's sense of sight was in many ways delegated to the meteorologist on the ground, who was responsible for offering predictions of approaching weather systems, and of levels of atmospheric visibility itself. These predictions would themselves be products of 'eyeballing' synoptic maps of weather conditions over large areas, which in turn were the products of often unstable networks of weather observers tasked with checking meteorological instruments at regular times. I'm interested in how new ways of inhabiting the atmosphere as a volumetric, turbulent space were built through new assemblages of technical practices, social relationships and different ways of seeing (or seeing through) the atmosphere.

A flight forecast chart, from DA Davies, 1952, East Africa's Weather Service, available at the National Meteorological Library and Archive, Exeter

I'm also planning to explore how meteorology and climatology intersected with the agricultural economies of empire. I've already done some work on Albert Walter's involvement with the ill-fated postwar 'Groundnut Scheme' in colonial Tanganyika, which consisted of him being hired and fired as an official meteorological advisor before the attempt to grow groundnuts on an industrial scale within what Walter called a 'marginal climate' failed rather miserably. I plan to write-up this story for an edited collection I'm putting together with Sam Randalls (UCL), which will feature a number of historians of science and historical geographers discussing how knowledges of weather and climate have informed the 'geographical imagination' (see also here), while exhibiting and producing distinctive geographies of their own. Meanwhile, I plan to make use of new archival sources to examine the emergence of 'agricultural meteorology' as a form of applied science, or perhaps a 'trading zone' between different disciplines and traditions, and to trace how these new forms of knowledge intersected with different models of colonial development and political economy. British East Africa will remain a focus, along with some new work on British Malaya and, potentially, South Africa and India.

'Women pulling flax on a Highland farm', National Archives CO 1069/137
Overall, I hope the project will enable me to say something new about how the atmosphere came to be understood as a global system not just through late 20th century 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 (see e.g. this paper by Ben Orlove and colleagues, in PDF here, and this work on the IGY). This will mean trying to strike up some 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, perspectives from environmental history on how ideas about climate have informed different projects of human 'development' and domination, and 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'.

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