Many articles on this site outline the indispensable role of documentary evidence for testing, refining, and expanding reconstructions of past climates developed using scientific “proxy” sources and computer simulations. Documents that record past weather were written in literate societies, and are only useful in bulk. Hence, reconstructions of ancient climates cannot benefit from documentary refinement, and the same holds true for reconstructions of regions settled by non-literate societies. Nor are all documents equal: written sources that describe processes that respond to weather are useful, but only those are directly refer to weather can be reliably used to reconstruct past climate change and its influence on human activity.
Unfortunately, the importance of documentary evidence for climate change research can politicize its preservation. This website has conveyed the warnings of government scientists in Canada, who, while muzzled by new government regulations, nevertheless communicated the destruction of essential weather records. Even documentary collections that appear secure are not always adequately categorized, or easily accessible, in government archives.
Recent developments have shown that institutions and scholars are not powerless in the face of these developments. Environmental historian Alan MacEachern of the University of Western Ontario has been instrumental in negotiating a long-term loan in which documentary sources from Library and Archives Canada will be housed at Western Archives. The loan includes some 1,000 boxes containing priceless weather observations, and a further 250 volumes of correspondence, journals, and observations, all written across Canada from 1840 to 1960.
In the 120 years covered by these sources, the world emerged from the Little Ice Age and experienced the first onset of anthropogenic warming. Meanwhile, the Canadian government established what is today known as the Meteorological Service of Canada. This essential social and environmental history will now be preserved, digitized, and widely shared from the security of Western University.
Western University will benefit significantly by housing this collection. The university’s history department is already the home of NiCHE, the influential Network in Canadian History and Environment, and these documents will further establish Western as a hub for environmental history in North America. In particular, they are contributing to the rise of Western as a leading centre for the cutting-edge study of interactions between past climates and peoples. Western recently supported a climate history workshop dedicated to the analysis of these documents, and this autumn it will offer one of the only climate history courses available in Canada. According to MacEachern, who also serves as director of NiCHE, “the arrival of this collection will not only be a great boon to climatologists and historians at Western but it will also make Western a destination for climate history researchers from across Canada and beyond.”
Can the Western loan serve as a template for the preservation by universities of government records relevant to past climate change? Admittedly, the circumstances surrounding this loan may be unique. However, the scholars and archivists who made it possible have demonstrated that researchers can do more than simply lament the plight of the sources that enable our work.