Categories
Notes & Letters

The weather enterprise – a concept in need of historical analysis

By Robert Naylor, Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester

In the summer of 2019, when the idea of doing a PhD during a global pandemic was furthest from my mind, I had the pleasure of attending the Meteorological Technology World Expo in Geneva, Switzerland. It was a dynamic, somewhat chaotic event that reflected a rapidly growing market for weather products. There were companies that manufactured weather balloons, rain gauges, anemometers, aluminium masts, instrument shelters, radars, lidars, and all other kinds of gadgets. Other companies sold services, offering solutions in, for example, instrument installation, environmental measuring, data management, and calibration. Some simply sold information, often drawing from their existing monitoring networks; ‘only well-informed decision makers can face these challenges [climate change, environmental protection, conscious management of natural resources] and form adequate strategies to overcome them’ claimed one advertisement.[i] With around 150 companies attending in its eighth year, the expo was a showcase of a relatively young industry that was on the up.

However, there were growing pains, reflected by frustrations that were expressed to an inconsequential PhD student wearing an ill-fitting suit. Sales representatives from a well-established brand complained bitterly about sharing a venue with, in their words, a ‘nutcase’ entrepreneur who had somehow lucked out on a UN contract. An engineer from another company took me aside and launched a tirade against a Chinese competitor whom he claimed had stolen his technology – it must be said, the two featureless boxes did look very similar from the outside. Elsewhere, the contrasts were stark. Vaisala, a company with a market capitalization of over a billion dollars, took up the same page space in the showguide as family firms run from sheds. I had expected to feel completely out of my depth at the conference – I was astonished to find that half the stallholders felt the same, feeling the wrath of more established players for cramping their style.

At around lunchtime on the first day, the chaos on the expo floor began to find direction, as company representatives began moving towards a hall at the side of the venue. Swept along, I followed, somehow finding a seat. In the hall, the chaos had been replaced by a scene of perfect order. We looked upon a square of seated delegates with little country tags, speaking with rehearsed, grandiose voices in the way that only United Nations delegates can. This was a side-event of the 18th Session of the World Meteorological Organization Congress on the topic ‘public-private-academic sectors engagement’.[ii] The content of the meeting was unimportant (one delegate spent his time highlighting his close personal relationship with his country’s somewhat despotic head of state). What was significant was the fact that the meeting was happening at all – the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) had never before so publicly embraced the private sector.

It was no accident that the expo had taken place at the same time of the WMO congressional session. Graham Johnson, the managing director of the expo, highlighted how ‘the co-timing took a great deal of communication and a willingness to compromise on both sides, but I think it’s an excellent example of how the public and private sectors are very much starting to join forces.’[iii] This was reflected by conversations I had with high level members of the WMO and industry. The future of the ‘weather enterprise’, so they said, was a closer integration of its three main components – the public, private, and academic sectors. Only by doing this could the weather enterprise face the challenges of the future such as climate change. This reflects the published views of Alan Thorpe, the former Director-General of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, and David Rogers of the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery of the World Bank, who claim that the reduction in public funds for meteorology must be partly compensated for and remedied through closer integration with the private sector.[iv] For the dominant group within the World Meteorological Organization in 2019, private markets were an important part of the solution to challenges such as climate change.

However, when I sat down with the stallholders and asked them who their clients were, this façade quickly came crashing down. One bored-looking young man was absolutely delighted to have someone to talk to. He excitedly showed me an online tool for monitoring the UK’s electricity generation, emphasising the large contribution of offshore wind. This excitement was echoed in his company’s advertising material that highlighted the instruments that they supplied to offshore windfarms – making them very much part of the weather enterprise future. Upon further interrogation, however, the man admitted that ninety percent of the business’s revenue came from the oil and gas industry. Perhaps the weather enterprise is not as clean as its promoters hope.

I felt like I should challenge some of the views being put to me, much to the annoyance of some. I asked a senior WMO figure why climate change formed such a large part of the expo’s message, when so much of the damage done by adverse atmospheric events resulted from unplanned development in countries that could not afford the services on display.[v] ‘You’re asking the right questions!’ he laughed, clapping me on the shoulder before walking away. I suddenly got a strange feeling that I may have outstayed my welcome.

There is no doubt that good-quality weather forecasts save lives, giving people precious time to prepare for disasters. However, there is a lack of critical analyses on the deeply skewed nature of private weather information that can only be accessed by those with the deepest pockets. Does the ‘weather enterprise’ mean higher-quality weather information for all, or does it simply mean publicly funded meteorological research being bent towards corporate interests? There is an opportunity for historians of meteorology to make important contributions to this debate.

My ongoing PhD concerns the use of atmospheric information in the UK utilities industries over the past century, and the story has made me ever more uneasy about my experience in 2019. Atmospheric information is often used by corporations to optimise supply systems – there is no point supplying copious amounts of ice cream to retailers if the temperature drops below freezing. What this means in practice is that atmospheric information contributes towards a wider corporate drive to reduce redundancy and storage in supply systems in the name of profit – think about how Amazon warehouses are increasingly dynamic spaces. In turn, this means that when an unexpected external event occurs (as many have argued will become more common under climate change), there is less redundancy in supply systems to take the strain.[vi] As a concrete example, climate information was carefully used in the 1960s, 70s and 80s to minimise the storage built into the UK gas National Transmission System.[vii] Such storage would have cushioned the price-rises that UK consumers are currently facing.[viii]

In conclusion, what matters is not just the quality or quantity of atmospheric information in tackling issues like climate change, but how the information is used. This is what is often missing from current high-level discussions that silo the meteorological from the sociological, and markets from people. Historians of meteorology have an important role to play in this debate.

Acknowledgements

My PhD is funded by an Economic and Social Research Council CASE fellowship partnered with the Royal Meteorological Society. NWSSDTP Grant Number ES/P000665/1.

Bibliography

Almeida, Isis. “U.K.’s Lack of Gas Plan Leaves Country at Mercy of Global Market.” Financial Post, September 21, 2021, sec. FP Energy.

Lyness, F. K. “Consistent Forecasting of Severe Winter Gas Demand.” The Journal of the Operational Research Society 32, no. 5 (1981): 347–59.

“Meteorological Technology World Expo 2019 Showguide.” UKi Media & Events, 2019.

Mohleji, Shalini, and Roger Pielke. “Reconciliation of Trends in Global and Regional Economic Losses from Weather Events: 1980–2008.” Natural Hazards Review 15, no. 4 (November 2014).

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Climate-Resilient Supply Chains: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Edited by John Ben Soileau, Steven Stichter, and Joe Alper. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2022.

Rogers, David P., Vladimir V. Tsirkunov, Haleh Kootval, Alice Soares, Daniel Kull, Anna-Maria Bogdanova, and Makoto Suwa. Weathering the Change. World Bank, Washington, DC, 2019.

Thorpe, Alan, and David Rogers. “The Future of the Global Weather Enterprise: Opportunities and Risks.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 99, no. 10 (October 1, 2018): 2003–8.


[i] “Meteorological Technology World Expo 2019 Showguide” (UKi Media & Events, 2019), 53.

[ii] “Meteorological Technology World Expo 2019 Showguide,” 14.

[iii] “Meteorological Technology World Expo 2019 Showguide,” 3.

[iv] Alan Thorpe and David Rogers, “The Future of the Global Weather Enterprise: Opportunities and Risks,” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 99, no. 10 (October 1, 2018): 2003–8; David P. Rogers et al., Weathering the Change (World Bank, Washington, DC, 2019).

[v] Shalini Mohleji and Roger Pielke, “Reconciliation of Trends in Global and Regional Economic Losses from Weather Events: 1980–2008,” Natural Hazards Review 15, no. 4 (November 2014).

[vi] For more discussion: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Climate-Resilient Supply Chains: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief, ed. John Ben Soileau, Steven Stichter, and Joe Alper (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2022).

[vii] F. K. Lyness, “Consistent Forecasting of Severe Winter Gas Demand,” The Journal of the Operational Research Society 32, no. 5 (1981): 347–59.

[viii] Isis Almeida, “U.K.’s Lack of Gas Plan Leaves Country at Mercy of Global Market,” Financial Post, September 21, 2021, sec. FP Energy.

Categories
Notes & Letters

Introducing ‘Notes & Letters’

One of the first things Fiona and I wanted do as new Co-Presidents was to develop a channel of communication between members that was less fleeting than an email announcement, but not as formal as a journal article.

Through conversations with past Presidents we learned that when History of Meteorology was first launched, there was an intention that it would carry not just fully-fledged research articles, but also shorter pieces from members documenting things like new archival finds, conference reports, and short responses to recently published articles.

With a swish new website, we thought that now would be a good time resurrect this plan for a ‘Notes and Letters’ format, but taking advantage of the fast turnaround and accessibility of a blog embedded with meteohistory.org, and sitting alongside our journal.

So, to that end, we would like to introduce and welcome you to ICHM’s Notes and Letters! We invite contributions of up to around 1500 words on anything to do with the history of meteorology and neighbouring sciences, its archives and sources, conferences and gatherings, debates and disagreements.

We see this as a platform to maintain communication between members and interested audiences in between major gatherings and journal issue publications, and as a way to share insights into the scholarship process in which we are all engaged.

So, if you’ve just been to a new archive and would like to share something of the experience, to give a glimpse of new findings before a journal or book publication, to share a new idea or anecdote, or to contribute some commentary to a recent article or debate in the field, then please get in touch!

We are also keen to explore publishing Notes and Letters articles in languages other than English. If you would like to discuss this, please drop us a line.

We have a couple of contributions lined up to get the ball rolling over the next few weeks. But if you have an idea for a note or a letter, feel free to get in touch at m.mahony@uea.ac.uk.

Martin and Fiona, Co-Presidents

Categories
Conference Online Opportunities

Past, Present and Future of the History of Meteorology

Online Conference, September 15, 2021, 8:50-16:30 UTC

As part of the celebrations for the 20th anniversary of the International Commission for the History of Meteorology we hosted an online conference over two separate time zone sessions on Wednesday 15 September 2021.

Categories
Conference Opportunities

Launching the Atmospheric Humanities

Online Conference, 3-5 August 2021

The Launching the Atmospheric Humanities conference, originally scheduled to take place in July 2020 in Hermoupolis, Greece took place online from 3-5 August 2021.

Categories
Conference General Resources

ICHM turns 20!

The International Commission for the History of Meteorology was founded in 2001 at the 21st International Congress of History of Science in Mexico City. Since then, we have supported numerous workshops and events, and sponsored major meetings in Polling, Germany in 2004; Beijing, China in 2005; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2008 and 2017; Waterville, Maine, USA and Budapest, Hungary in 2009; Manchester, England in 2013; and Prague, Czech Republic (Online) in July 2021.

To commemorate our 20th anniversary, member Robert Naylor has been recording interviews with those involved in various roles with ICHM over the last two decades. Please click below to watch the wonderful video he has created to commemorate our anniversary!

Please do share the video with any friends, colleagues or other networks who may be interested in learning more about the work of ICHM. If you’re sharing on social media, you may prefer to use this shorter version.

You can find out more information about the commemorative online conference on the “Past, Present, and Future of the History of Meteorology” that we’re hosting on 15 Sept 2021, here. The call for papers closes on July 15, 2021.

As this is my final year as President of ICHM, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone for their support over the last 4 years. We’ll be announcing all of the new Officers soon, so keep any eye on your inboxes.

Here’s to another 20 years of ICHM!

Alexander Hall, June 2021

Categories
Conference Opportunities

Call for Papers: Past, Present, and Future of the History of Meteorology

September 15, 2021, 13:00-16:00 UTC Online (Zoom)

2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the International Commission for the History of Meteorology (ICHM) within the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. In celebration, ICHM will be holding an online conference reflecting on our discipline as a whole.

The ICHM was founded in 2001 at the 21st International Congress of History of Science in Mexico City. Since then, it has sponsored large specialty meetings in Polling, Germany in 2004; Beijing, China in 2005; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2008 and 2017; Waterville, Maine, USA and Budapest, Hungary in 2009; Manchester, England in 2013; and Prague, Czech Republic, scheduled for 2021.

In part thanks to the commission, the history of meteorology has expanded its remit considerably, incorporating the work of academics from a wide range of institutional and disciplinary backgrounds. Echoing this development, and as reflected in the pages of ICHM’s journal History of Meteorology, the topics of the history of meteorology have become ever more diverse, including new turns towards colonial and applied meteorology. This anniversary conference provides an occasion to take stock and turn our gaze inward.

We welcome papers exploring past and current trajectories of the history of meteorology, with an emphasis on how our discipline can develop in the future. These could include reflections on our institutional shaping, pedagogical development, research turns, new initiatives, and interactions with the history of science, technology, and medicine as a whole and with the atmospheric humanities, broadly defined. As well as being a critical academic conference, this event will also be a celebration of ICHM. It will bring our community together, in scholarship and friendship, at a time when a physical meeting is difficult, connecting early career scholars with more established researchers in the field and ensuring the history of meteorology’s bright future.


Deadline for abstracts (250 words): July 15, 2021

Format: 15-minute presentation followed by 15-minutes of discussion.

Registration information for non-presenting participants will be circulated at a later date.

We welcome pre-recorded contributions if you are unable to attend live due to different time zones, and we are also willing to work with you to accommodate for your sleep schedule (e.g. putting your paper towards the end of the conference if you are on the US west coast).

Please send your submissions and any queries to Robert Naylor (conference organiser): ICHM.Conference.2021@gmail.com

Separate to the conference, we are also interested in compiling and perhaps circulating personal stories from ICHM’s history, whether it involved beer gardens in Polling, samba dancing in Rio, or lobster in Maine.


Logo of the Division of History of Science & Technology
Categories
Conference

4th Conference on the History of Meteorological Science and Technology in Beijing

Report written by Zhenghong Chen, China Representative for ICHM

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The Fourth National Conference on the History of Meteorological Science and Technology was held in Beijing on 8-9 November 2019. The event was hosted by the Committee on the History of Meteorological Science and Technology of the Chinese Society for the History of Science and Technology and Department of Science and Technology, and by the Climate Change Section of China Meteorological Administration. The conference was organized by the China Meteorological Administration Training Center (CMATC), and co-hosted by the Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences at Nanjing University, by the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences of Peking University, and by the Institute of Science and Technology History of Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology. The main theme of the conference was “the enlightenment and history of meteorological developments for the 70th anniversary of the people’s Republic of China”.

Categories
Conference

Launching the Atmospheric Humanities

The Fifth International Workshop on Science, Philosophy and Literature

Hermoupolis, Syros Island, Greece
14-16 July 2020

THIS WORKSHOP HAS BEEN POSTPONED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE

The Atmospheric Humanities is a fast-emerging field of scholarship seeking to understand socio-cultural dimensions of atmospheric experience, knowledge and practice. Examining atmospheric agency in its historical and contemporary manifestations, atmospheric humanities explore the atmosphere as a site of diverse cultural appropriations of air’s modalities and their reproduction in practices of aerial and climatological citizenship. This foundational workshop aims to initiate and foster discussions on how atmospheric themes, memes, and objects emerge, spread and travel across artistic and academic communities. We especially welcome contributions from scholars whose work spans disciplines, including, but not limited to, literary and media studies, history of science, environmental history, aesthetics, visual arts, architecture, phenomenology, and social sciences.

Key themes:

  • The changing representation(s) of the atmosphere in art and popular media, both contemporary and historical.
  • Interfaces and interactions between scientific understanding(s) of the atmosphere and other ways of knowing or experiencing the atmosphere (e.g. political, indigenous, religious, philosophical, aesthetic).
  • Explorations of space and scale in relation to human understanding of the atmosphere and related concepts such as weather and climate.
  • The material culture of the atmosphere, including technologies used to measure, assess, represent and manipulate the atmosphere.

The workshop is organized by the International Commission of Science and Literature and the International Commission on History of Meteorology. The Commissions will provide a limited travel support to early career scholars, who should send their application letter, presentation abstract and CV to Dr Alexander Hall at a.f.hall@bham.ac.uk and George N. Vlahakis at gvlahakis@yahoo.com

Organizing committee: Vladimir Jankovic (University of Manchester), George N. Vlahakis (Hellenic Open University), Madalina Diaconu (University of Vienna), Alexander Hall (University of Birmingham), James R. Fleming (Colby College), John Holmes (University of Birmingham), and Kostas Tampakis (National Hellenic Research Foundation).

Please send your abstract before 20 FEBRUARY 2020 to Vladimir Jankovic at vladimir.jankovic@manchester.ac.uk and George Vlahakis at gvlahakis@yahoo.com

The workshop is supported by DHST/IUHPST, National Hellenic Research Foundation and the Hellenic Open University.

Categories
Online Working group

Under Tropical Skies: Science, Technology, and Society

Fiona Williamson, Jim Fleming, and Ruth Morgan are organising a new online working group titled: Under Tropical Skies: Science, Technology, and Society. The working group is hosted by the Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM).

The aim is to have 6-8 meetings per year across 2020. Each group will feature a speaker, presenting their current and latest research, with discussion. It is fully online so anyone can participate from anywhere in the world. The time slots will be Wednesday 8am (Philadelphia time), on various dates to be arranged.

Please feel free to sign up as a member and to participate in this group, or contact Fiona Williamson fwilliamson@smu.edu.sg if you would like to chair a seminar and present a paper.

https://www.chstm.org/content/under-tropical-skies-science-technology-and-society-0

Categories
Conference Seminar

Atmospheres: a series of art-science interactions

NEXT EVENT – April 30, 2019

Our next Atmospheres presentation will be by Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde on Tuesday 30 April @ 1 PM, at the University of Manchester (Building: Coupland 3, Lecture Theatre B)