Dr. Martin Bauch, Deutsches historisches Institut in Rom.
I am in the third circle, filled with cold,
unending, heavy, and accursed rain;
its measure and its kind are never changed.
Gross hailstones, water gray with filth, and snow come
streaking down across the shadowed air;
the earth, as it receives that shower, stinks.
- Dante, Inferno, Canto VI
In the last years of his life, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was an unsuspecting witness to a rapid shift in climatic conditions that led to cooler and wetter weather all over the continent. Perhaps it was not by chance that in his Inferno, finished in 1314, the sinners guilty of gluttony and sent to the third circle of hell were punished by incessant cold rain, hail and snow, while squirming through foul-smelling mud that reminded contemporaries of the crops rotting on their fields. Across Europe, meteorological events in the 1310s caused harvest failures, floods, famines, and mass deaths. In particular, Dante’s description of the wet third ring of hell is very similar to weather conditions that caused famine in Italy between 1310-12, and offers a prominent clue the onset of the Little Ice Age left in Europe’s cultural heritage.
Other traces of the cold, wet years appear in variety of sources: inscriptions from Central Europe which recall the thousands of starved individuals buried outside the city walls, and countless chronicles reporting death, famine, corpses on the streets, and riots linked to rising food prices. The hostile weather and massive soil erosion can also be reconstructed using scientific methods: ice cores from Alpine glaciers, sediment cores from lakes, and tree rings all reveal the rainy years that oaks all over Europe enjoyed, as these trees thrive on chilly and humid weather. Using these tools, scientists and climate historians have come to agree that climatic conditions changed seriously at the beginning of the 14th century, ending the presumed milder conditions of the so-called Medieval Climatic Anomaly and initiating the so-called Little Ice Age. When referring to the extreme wet and cool conditions in Northwestern Europe that were responsible for the Great Famine (1315-21), written sources and dendrochronological data agree that the 1310s were a decade of climatic stress. The damage of this decade, called the Dantean Anomaly by, was long thought to be restricted to the British Isles, Northern France, the Benelux countries and Northern Germany. But as not only the Inferno’s vision of hell indicates, the cool period was probably a trans-continental event.
Reanalyses are educated estimates of how the atmosphere behaved in the recent past. They are built by combining computer models of the atmosphere and ocean with weather observations to build an approximation of what the entire atmosphere was doing every six hours or so.
Climatologists and meteorologists all over the world use reanalyses to research our climate and weather. Most of the reanalysis products that exist cover the entire planet, but if you want to study storms over Paris for example, or wind changes in the Spanish Pyrenees, then it’s better to use a regional reanalysis, which has a higher spatial resolution.
Recovering historical weather observations for long-term climate analysis is a well-established practice in many places in Europe, where written documents cover several centuries. In Australia, written records only begin with British settlement in the late 18th century, as the indigenous Aboriginal people maintain their history through largely oral traditions.
However, this does not mean that there is no historical climate information for the Great Southern Land. Recent efforts are uncovering a treasure trove of historical weather and climate data that are shedding light on both the regional and global climate. Here are just a few examples:
Daniel Barber, Climatic Effects: Architecture, Media, and the Globalization of the International Style
Architects have long had an interest in the relationship of their design interventions to surrounding climatic conditions. Concerns over site, orientation to the sun, and the relationship of materials to heat and humidity are all embedded in vernacular design traditions, and have been essential to the provision of human shelter for centuries. With the emergence of modern architectural techniques beginning in the 19th century, the relationship of a building to its climate, and the figuration of this relationship, underwent significant transformation.
Climatic Effects documents and analyzes the robust and dynamic discourse around climate that developed as part of architecture’s modernization, and became the focus of many practices and pedagogies in the 1950s. The post-war years saw extensive experimentation in how architectural practices could project buildings with a more precise relationship to their surrounding ecological conditions – in the efficiency of production, in the use of solar power, and, the primary subject of this project, in the alignment of the form, orientation, and materials of a building to its climate. As part of these new methods, forms of representation were developed that sought to clarify the possible social, material, and economic relationships that could result. It was through these images, as much as through the buildings that were constructed, that design methods encouraged new ideas about how to live. The drawings, diagrams, and photographs produced in this methodological discourse, quasi-technical in nature, led to novel parameters for how architecture could operate in the social milieu, and also encouraged design professionals to consider new criteria for their designs.
Introduced by Professor Dagomar Degroot.
This semester, I taught a course about the environmental history of climate change. My students were a diverse and passionate group. None were history or science majors, and two were foreign exchange students. I challenged them with a difficult essay assignment that encouraged them to think like a professor of environmental history. This is a condensed version of the assignment instructions:
"Choose a topic relevant to the history of climate change. Be as creative as possible! Next, hunt for primary and secondary sources that will let you write an essay about your topic. You can also search through Georgetown’s libraries, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and other resources in Washington, DC. Your secondary sources should include at least six books, where one book is equivalent to two articles. A scholar who is not a historian must have written at least two of your books (or four of your articles).
Matthias Heymann, Janet Martin-Nielsen, Gabriel Henderson, and Dania Achermann, Shaping Cultures of Prediction: Knowledge, Authority, and the Construction of Climate Change
Sponsored by the Danish Research Council (2013-2016), this project examines the emergence of climate modelling as a culture of prediction (ca. 1960 to 1985). Climate modelling has played a major role in forging a scientific consensus about climatic change. Scientific consensus, however, tends to hide the social relations, complex negotiations and tangible interests behind the consensus itself. It straightens the diversity of scientific perceptions and the complexities of historical processes that have shaped it.
This project aims at analyzing the scientific conflicts, social processes and underlying presumptions that contributed to (1) the emergence of climate modelling as a predominant research strategy, and (2) the controversial application of these models as predictive tools in science and policy. It will show how climate modelling and its uses emerged from a competition between different knowledge claims and epistemic standards and attained what some argue to be a hegemonic status within a diversity of knowledge cultures.
Andrea E. Williams, Planting Politics: French Forestry, Pastoralism, and Empire in the Nineteenth-Century Mediterranean World
My book manuscript investigates the relationship between Mediterranean mobile pastoralism and nineteenth-century French forestry through case studies in Provence, French colonial Algeria, and Ottoman Anatolia. It is both comparative and connective, exposing themes of climate and environmental change as well as the evolution of discourse about such changes. In these three Mediterranean contexts, the application of French forest science reflected environmental concerns as well as French imperial ambitions. Aimed largely at regulating and marginalizing Mediterranean mobile pastoral traditions, forest administration in these regions ultimately became a process of negotiation in which local pastoralists played an active role. The encounters of French foresters and pastoralists in Provence, Algeria, and Anatolia affected inhabitants and the environment in significant and often unforeseen ways. At the same time, they transformed forest science and forest practices within France and around the world.
Clark Alejandrino, Storm Clouds Over China: Storms, Typhoons, and Society on Coastal Late Imperial and Modern China
My dissertation seeks to reconstruct typhoon events, their societal impacts, and responses in coastal Guangdong, China's richest and most populous province, from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. It shows when, where, how often, with what intensity, and in what patterns typhoons struck Guangdong. It argues that their seasonal regularity made them play a constructive and not just destructive role in the governance, economy, society, and culture of this rich coastal province. Continuities and changes occurred between the Qing empire, Nationalist regime, and People's Republic of China as centuries-old ways of understanding typhoons interacted with new modes of meteorology, disaster relief, and social and political organization.
Teresa Devor, "Living Weather" and Survival: Learning Local Weather Ecology in the Maritimes and Newfoundland, 1780-1920
For all but a sliver of our existence, people everywhere have been “living weather”: dependent upon local ecologies for the fuel, nutrition, and other materials to sustain them through their exposure to the elements in the course of the seasons. I study evidence of this in the diaries of British emigrants and American Loyalists dwelling in the British North American colonies of Nova Scotia, St. John’s Island, or Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland. Diarists learned to ‘live weather’ – learned local weather ecology - through a praxis of observation.
This praxis involved continuously integrating traditional ecological knowledge from emigrant’s former home places, with experiential knowledge developed through observation of the effects of weather on the land and waterscapes of their new homes. Settlers engaged in a praxis of observation through interaction with local human and ecological communities. Thus far, I have focused on risk and vulnerability, and experimentation and adaptation, as key themes within this praxis. I am interested in the multiple ways that settlers learned local weather ecology, and in the course of adapting to it, were keenly attuned to extremes, and changes over time. This work is part of a larger project of reconstructing climate and climate-society relationships in the region between 1780 and 1920.
Teresa Devor is a PhD candidate in environmental history at the University of New Brunswick. Click here to read some of Teresa's online articles.
I discovered a farm's diary when I began my master's thesis in historical climatology. After a tip about a historic source - a farm diary that existed in Hamar, Hedmark County in eastern Norway - I could start my thesis. These diaries contained weather and climate information far back in time (around 1750 AD). This was unique for Norway, since we were a peasant country, and few in Norway could write at that time.