Working Groups

Under Tropical Skies: Science, Technology, and Society

This group seeks to address a gap in scholarship that has largely omitted tropical regions from the history of atmospheric sciences and technologies. Topics that it will consider include agricultural meteorology for tropical regions, climate technologies, and the involvement of women in tropical meteorology.
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    James Fleming

    Jim Fleming is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Colby College. He earned a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University. His books include Meteorology in America (Johns Hopkins, 1990), Historical Perspectives on Climate Change (Oxford, 1998), The Callendar Effect (AMS Books, 2007), Fixing the Sky (Columbia, 2010), and Inventing Atmospheric Science (MIT, 2016). Awards include the Eduard Brückner Prize for interdisciplinary climate research and the Sally Hacker and Louis Battan book prizes. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Meteorological Society, and series editor of Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology.


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    Ruth Morgan

    Ruth Morgan is Senior Research Fellow in the History Program at Monash University, Australia. As an environmental historian and historian of science, her work focuses on histories of climate and water in Australia, as well as the wider environmental exchanges that have shaped the continent’s settler environmental history. She is the author of the award-winning Running Out? Water in Western Australia (UWA Publishing, 2015), as well as articles in Osiris, Environment and History, Radical History Review, and WIREs Climate Change. The Australian Research Council supports her current research projects, ‘Australindia: Australia, India and the Ecologies of Empire’ (DE160101125, 2016-19), and ‘Water and the Making of Urban Australia’ (DP180100807, 2018-20). She is also a Lead Author of the water chapter for the Sixth Assessment Report, Working Group II, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.


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    Fiona Williamson

    Fiona Williamson is Assistant Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Singapore Management University. She is an environmental historian working on intersections between climate & urban society in Singapore and Hong Kong and history of meteorological science for Southeast Asia and the China Seas region. She has published studies on the burgeoning meteorological services of British Malaya and Hong Kong during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She is currently engaged in a variety of funded multi-disciplinary projects, including the history of urban heat and the Urban Heat Island effect (UHI) science in Singapore and Hong Kong, nature-induced disasters, and climate change with scientists and geographers across Asia.


Upcoming Meetings (all times Eastern)

There are no currently scheduled upcoming events.

Past Meetings

  • July 29, 2020

    Rumors, Panic, and Disasters:
    The Experience of Candelaria Town in Quezon Province, Philippines, 1934 and 2014
    Kerby Alvarez
    Assistant Professor
    University of the Philippines Diliman
    The history of disasters has been an exponentially growing research field in the social sciences in the Philippines. In particular, the field of Philippine environmental history is regarded as an overarching framework in local, regional, and national history writing.
    In times of disasters, rumors are one of the prime instigators of fear and panic to people. Whether in everyday life situations or cases of emergencies, rumors cause massive disruptions in the normative state, and orderly thinking and response of the people. And in many cases, panic experiences are unnoticeably repeated or unconsciously become part of a cycle of events where people are rendered helpless. The panic and stress instigated by these rumors hamper the proactive way of responding to the dangers of situations caused by natural hazards. A study of these rumors provides an avenue where the complex interplay of local culture, scientific knowledge, and people’s vulnerability can be viewed, mainly through how rumors dictate people’s actions and views towards natural hazards. The mass hysteria of Filipinos concerning typhoons, for example, has a surmountable influence on the way they view and respond to such environmental threats. This “cultural trait” of spreading and absorbing rumors, though maybe labeled as a product of collective panic, was once described in the 1930s by Jesuit scientist Miguel Selga as tifonitis or the “mass state of fear of people in the archipelago due to the frequency or extraordinary intensity of typhoons.”[1]
    This paper is a case study of how Filipinos perceive natural hazards in a local-traditional and scientific manner. It will examine the case of the Candelaria town in the province of Tayabas (presently Quezon Province), wherein incidents of massive panic happened twice, eighty years apart, in 1934 and 2014. These events have similarities and portray a continuity of people’s cultural consciousness towards disasters. A comparative diachronic analysis of the two events sheds light to the complicated conjectures of local knowledge and scientific norms and illustrates an image of Filipino vulnerability in times of disasters.

    [1] Greg Bankoff, “Storms in History: Water, hazard and society in the Philippines, 1565-1930”, Peter Boomgaard (ed.), A World of Water: Rain, rivers, and seas in Southeast Asian histories, Singapore, National University of Singapore Press, 2007, p. 179.


  • June 17, 2020

    Megan Raby: United Fruit's Experiment Station: Lancetilla as a Laboratory for Corporate Science
    From 1926 to 1974 the United Fruit Company operated the Lancetilla Experiment Station near Tela, Honduras. As a laboratory and botanical garden where one of the world’s largest living collections of tropical fruits could be found, it stood in apparent contrast to the vast banana monocultures of the surrounding area. While United Fruit’s infamous plantations depended on the application of pesticides and chemical knowledge to produce a single commodity crop, its Lancetilla Experiment Station pursued a broad research program oriented toward agricultural diversification. Drawing on the writings of United Fruit-sponsored scientists (a surprisingly under-used set of primary sources) this essay examines the history of Lancetilla to explore the shifting relationship between the company’s administration of scientific research and its control of land. Business, labor, cultural, and environmental historians have contributed to an enormous literature on United Fruit, notorious for its influence on Latin American political and economic life during the twentieth century. Historians of science, however, have paid little attention to United Fruit, despite its major sponsorship of scientific research and status as a prototypical transnational corporation. This essay approaches Lancetilla as both a site of agricultural experimentation and as a “laboratory” for corporate science. Its history demonstrates how United Fruit’s (fluctuating) sponsorship of science gave it new means to control and transform the land. At the same time, corporate science was at the center of land disputes and contested visions of economic development in the twentieth century, leaving surprising traces in local landscapes and the face of global agribusiness today. 
    Megan Raby is a historian of science and environment whose work emphasizes the transnational connections of science in the US and Latin America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her book American Tropics: The Caribbean Roots of Biodiversity Science (University of North Carolina Press, 2017) was awarded the 2019 Philip J. Pauly Prize by the History of Science Society. It explores the relationship between the history of field ecology, the expansion of U.S. hegemony in the circum-Caribbean, and the emergence of the modern concept of biodiversity. Megan Raby is also the author of articles appearing in journals including Environmental History and Isis.

  • May 6, 2020

     May Chi Chi Huang, University of Strathclyde
    Unified by typhoons: British discussions on extreme storms of Hong Kong

    This paper explores British popular accounts of typhoons affecting Hong Kong during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In understanding how these storms were conveyed to a disconnected public back home, I ask how were the experiences of typhoons re-created and why? Documenting typhoons in and around Hong Kong were, of course, important for merchants and mariners, but the British press and travel writers transformed these often violent disruptions to shipping and commerce into a cultural experience of the tropics and of Hong Kong as an idealized colony: one that fostered international co-operation and one of colonial cohesion. Through this exploration, I also trace how ‘typhoons’ transitioned from an object of local knowledge to a technical European term. This act of claiming knowledge over ‘typhoons’ reverberated in British cultural outputs, specifically re-framing the Chinese populations, and their relationship with the weather.

  • April 8, 2020

    Clark Alejandrino: The Science of Storms: Modern Meteorology in Guangdong's Typhoon Space from the 1850s to the 1950s
    In 2010, the Guangdong Provincial Meteorological Bureau published a history of the weather stations in China’s richest and most populous province that proudly traced the beginnings of its meteorological network only to the 1950s when the Communist took over China. In this paper, I demonstrate how the Communist, rather than progenitors, were heirs to and fulfillers of a plan that had its origins in the 1850s. Along the way, I show how the century-long quest to establish a viable meteorological network along coastal China was linked first to Western colonial interests, then Chinese nationalist concerns about defending what I call their “meteorological sovereignty,” and the developmentalist dreams of the Republican and Communist states.

  • March 4, 2020

    Sarah Carson: Negotiating Tropical Difference: The Domestication of Meteorology in India, 1880-1960
    What exactly is “tropical” about tropical meteorology? Until recently, accounts of atmospheric science have taken Euro-American temperate weather as the universal field for the history of rapid conceptual and scientific developments after 1850, leading to, among other achievements, tolerably-accurate short- and medium-range forecasting. But weather in the equatorial and sub-tropical regions is distinctive, involving powerful hurricanes, pronounced intra-annual oscillations, and monsoonal seasons. With reference to the particular case of South Asia, I argue that the wide semantic field between the literary and the geophysical “tropical” opened up space for creative reinvention and redefinition of atmospheric science in the lower latitudes, lending support to an emerging consensus that meteorology is best understood as a poly-centric science.
    Through the production of standardized data, leaders of the India Meteorological Department (IMD, f. 1875) sought to render the atmosphere above South Asia not only bureaucratically manageable, but also comparable across the globe, a project entailing the extension of communication and mapping technologies and the recruitment of Indians as—often reluctant—human instruments. However, architects of this data-generating apparatus repeatedly expressed concern that the tropical environment and its inhabitants made faithful transplantation of European systems impractical, even if the imperial exchequer agreed to devote adequate resources (it didn't). The first part of the talk considers instructional observer handbooks alongside the coercive figure of the traveling “inspector,” whose peculiar responsibility it was to discipline troublesome observers and calibrate their finicky, fragile instruments. 
    Next, I discuss the gradual replacement of expensive, often climatically-unsuitable European instruments with domestic alternatives or new inventions altogether, revealing that the trend toward substitution accelerated because of the requirements of upper-air balloon researchers and the promotion of highly-trained Indian scientists. Finally, I will investigate a short-lived IMD project to gather and statistically assess vernacular weather proverbs, an enterprise grounded in a 1950s nationalist critique of “foreign” methods for studying India’s tropical weather. These cases help us to understand how these figures’ experimentations with local materials and methods over several decades reciprocally influenced evolving theories of tropical “difference” advanced by imperialists and nationalists alike, if for quite different reasons.
    Sarah Carson (Ph.D. September 2019, Princeton University) is a historian of modern South Asia studying the intersections between weather reasonings, forecasting technologies, and state-society relations. Her dissertation, “Ungovernable Winds: The Weather Sciences in South Asia, 1864-1945” charts the particular history of the India Meteorological Department alongside economic, social, and atmospheric developments in the region to argue for the centrality of “nature” to the politics of imperialism and nationalism. Sarah’s related interests include astrological knowledges, global environmental science, histories of bureaucracy, and pluralistic narratives of environmental change. As a postdoctoral fellow in Northwestern University’s Science in Human Culture Program, Sarah will be expanding her dissertation into a book exploring the connections between weather knowledges and state power in India spanning the colonial period and extending into the 1950s, engaging questions surrounding the scientific invention of “the tropics,” the innovation of modern statecraft through authoritarian imperial experimentation, and the role played by weather in everyday public life. She will also begin work on her next book project, which will explore the cultures of the postcolonial earth and environmental sciences in India and Pakistan, using oral history to complement the fragmentary textual archives available.

  • January 22, 2020

    *Please note: due to the time of this meeting, the Consortium will not host a table at its Philadelphia office. All members of the working group are invited to participate online.*
    Jim Fleming: Into the Clouds: Joanne Simpson and the Tropical Atmosphere
    This discussion will be based on the life and work of Joanne (Gerould) Simpson (1923-2010), examines the history of women in meteorology and the history of tropical meteorology in the context of Simpson's long and productive career as pioneer scientist, project leader, and mentor.
    In 1943 women had no status in meteorology, tropical weather was largely aer incognita, and Joanne Gerould, a new graduate student at the University of Chicago, had just set her sights on understanding the behavior of clouds. Establishing her career in an era of overwhelming marginalization of women in science was no easy matter, and Joanne (who published under three married names and raised three children) had to fight every step of the way. Under the mentorship of Herbert Riehl, she received a Ph.D. from Chicago in 1949. Later, while working at Woods Hole, she collaborated with Riehl on their revolutionary and controversial "hot tower" hypothesis that cumulonimbus clouds were the driving force in the tropical atmosphere, providing energy to power the global circulation.

    The mechanism of hot towers alludes to the incessant battle between buoyancy and entrainment in tropical convection, valorizing those clouds that successfully break through the trade wind inversion to soar to the top of the troposphere. The metaphor of hot towers points to the incessant battles Joanne waged between her sky-high aspirations and the dark psychological and institutional forces dragging her down. Yet she prevailed, attaining personal and professional accomplishments, especially in her years at NASA where she directed the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission satellite program.
    Jim Fleming is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Colby College. He earned a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University. His books include Meteorology in America (Johns Hopkins, 1990), Historical Perspectives on Climate Change (Oxford, 1998), The Callendar Effect (AMS Books, 2007), Fixing the Sky (Columbia, 2010), and Inventing Atmospheric Science (MIT, 2016). Awards include the Eduard Brückner Prize for interdisciplinary climate research and the Sally Hacker and Louis Battan book prizes. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Meteorological Society, and series editor of Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology.

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