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 In the hall, the chaos had been replaced by a scene of perfect order.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
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.


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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)


Categories
Conference

Painting the clouds, from the dawn of the Enlightenment to the twilight of romanticism

On January 16, 2018, a diverse group of scholars including art historians, literature experts and historians of science met at the Musée Delacroix in Paris for a workshop entitled: “Peindre les nuages, de l’aube des Lumières au crépuscule du romantisme” (or Painting the clouds, from the dawn of the Enlightenment to the twilight of romanticism).

Sponsored by ICHM, below the workshop organiser Anouchka Vasak summarises and reflects on the meeting. For a full schedule of the event, please scroll down.

Categories
Fellowships Opportunities

PhD Studentship: Industrial Meteorology in Britain, 1950-present

University of Manchester and the Royal Meteorological Society

WORKING ATMOSPHERES: INDUSTRIAL METEOROLOGY IN BRITAIN, 1950 – PRESENT

We are inviting applications for a fully funded ESRC-NWDTC PhD fellowship on the modern history of applied and industrial meteorology and climate sciences in Britain since the 1950s. The award, which is made by the ESRC funded North West Doctoral Training Centre, will be managed in collaboration between the University of Manchester (Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine and Centre for Atmospheric Science) and the Royal Meteorological Society. The studentship, which is funded for four years, will start in September 2018 and will be supervised by Dr Vladimir Jankovic (CHSTM), Professor David Schultz (CAS) and Professor Liz Bentley (RMetS). The eligible candidate will be required to complete the Masters course in the History of Science, Technology and Medicne before proceeding to the 3-year PhD research.

The Studentship: During the last sixty years, the application of meteorological knowledge to industrial activities (‘industrial meteorology’) has become global in reach, diverse in outputs, and the subject of substantial research and development. Sectors such as construction, transport, utilities, agriculture, retail and insurance routinely rely on weather information to protect people, manage operations, optimise schedules and secure assets. The historical research will have a policy implication in focusing on the following key questions:

  1. What social, economic and institutional drivers have shaped the growth of industrial meteorology during the last half a century?
  2. Has the applied meteorological information contributed to the reduction of UK industry’s weather sensitivity?
  3. What factors have facilitated or impeded knowledge flows between providers, intermediaries and users of weather information?
  4. Which practices in industrial ‘weather optimization’ have been proven to reduce risk in ways that can be streamlined into UK’s climate adaptation policies?

How to Apply: Applicants should have a good undergraduate degree in history (economic, environmental or social), history of science, geography, environmental studies, sociology or other appropriate subject. The candidate will have some experience of relevant research methods and writing skills, although additional research training will be part of the MSc and the PhD progression. For details on eligibility criteria, including UK residency, applicants should check the ESRC website.

Applicants should submit a summary curriculum vitae (2 pages), an example of recent academic writing (e.g UG Dissertation or other Project) and a short statement (1 page) outlining your interests and qualification for the studentship, and the names and contact details of two academic referees to: Dr Vladimir Jankovic, Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, Simon Building 2nd Floor, University of Manchester, Manchester M13 9PL. The deadline is Friday 16 February 2018. Interviews will be held on Tuesday 27 February 2018.

For further information, contact Dr Vladimir Jankovic (vladimir.jankovic@manchester.ac.uk), Professor Liz Bentley (liz.bentley@mets.org), and Professor David Schultz (david.schultz@manchester.ac.uk).

Categories
Conference

Call for Papers: Royal Anthropological Institute conference 2016

Call for Papers: Royal Anthropological Institute conference 2016 – Anthropology, Weather and Climate Change (27 – 29 May 2016, British Museum)

Scientific Cultures, Public Identity, and Post-WWII Climate Research

Convener: Gabriel Henderson (Aarhus University)

Short Abstract

This panel focuses on the maturation and transformation of climate research as a public and professional scientific effort after World War II.

Long Abstract

By “scientific cultures,” this panel explores — historically and sociologically – the implications of researchers from different scientific fields converging on the study the climate after World War II. Expanding on the claims of Spencer Weart, understanding how this convergence altered the landscape of climate research may help understand how scientists from different scientific backgrounds negotiated methodological disputes, disciplinary boundaries, and their own identities as professional scientists.

By “public identity,” this panel examines the manner in which climate researchers both imagined and engaged the general public about the future risks of climate change. The underlying assumption – an assumption that requires further social and historical scrutiny – is that one’s identity as a climate researcher is shaped by their perceived role in society. As scholars have recently suggested, for instance, different views on public reticence in light of the future risks of climate change led to questions over whether the field of “climatology” itself was an enterprise amenable for public discussion – especially given serious scientific and political uncertainties about the nature and extent of climate-related risks to society.

Propose a paper

Categories
General

Eduard Brückner Prize 2015

Professor Jim Fleming (Colby, STS) has been awarded the Eduard Brückner Prize 2015 for outstanding achievement in interdisciplinary climate research.

 

The award, administered by the Helmholtz Zentrum Geesthacht für Material- und Küstenforschung, will be presented on September 21 at the German Climate Conference in Hamburg organized by the Deutsche Meteorologishe Gesellschaft, http://www.dkt-10.de/

 

Geographer, meteorologist, glaciologist and climate scientist Eduard Brückner (1862-1927) was an early advocate for the importance of climate change and its effects on the economy and social structure of society.

 

Climate research has evolved into an independent field of knowledge that is directly relevant to the social environment of discourse, for the life of individuals and global policy advice. In addition to traditional scientific disciplines such as meteorology, oceanography, earth science, geography, botany, geophysics, and glaciology, the domain of climate research has expanded to include the social and cultural sciences seeking to implement scientific findings in the public realm and articulate the cultural foundations of natural scientific research. Scientific climate research can only be public really significant if it enters into a dialogue with the social and cultural sciences. In order to promote this development, the Eduard Brückner Prize has been established for outstanding interdisciplinary achievements in climate research.