A Historian Goes to the UNFCCC...

In November last year, I had the opportunity to go to the UNFCCC in Bonn. Just before Christmas, I reflected on these experiences from the perspective of an environmental historian for HistoricalClimatology.com. ('A' historian or 'An' historian?)

A protest on the eve of the UNFCCC in Bonn .  Photograph courtesy of  Spielvogel  .

A protest on the eve of the UNFCCC in Bonn. Photograph courtesy of Spielvogel.

I joined the most recent UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn with a delegation from Monash University, which also included legal scholars, renewable energy specialists, and science communicators. The opportunity to observe and participate in the activities that accompany the negotiations was too good to pass up. Both personally and professionally, I have closely followed the machinations of international climate politics over the past decade, with particular attention to the work of Australian scientists and policymakers in the past and present. Attending and participating in the conference offered the chance to see firsthand how delegates and other actors negotiate and deliberate to shape the future of our planet. Here, I reflect on the different ways that the past inflected these discussions, and how they resonate with the fields of climate and environmental history.
With Fiji presiding, the COP23 had the specific goal of preparing the implementation phase of the Paris Agreement. Having celebrated the achievements of Paris in 2015, now was the time to get down to work to ensure that the rise of global temperatures is limited to 2 Celsius or below. The organisation of COP23 was such that intergovernmental negotiations took place in the ‘Bula Zone’, while about two kilometres away in the Rheinaue Leisure Park was the ‘Bonn Zone’, where governments and all manner of non-governmental organisations showcased their work in events, exhibits, and demonstrations. I was granted access only to the latter; I gathered from colleagues and other participants that the distance between the two spaces was a shortcoming because it isolated negotiators from the energetic atmosphere in this area, while diminishing the transparency and openness of the negotiations. 
In observing how national interests shape global climate policies, I was especially interested in representations of economic development, adaptation, and climate justice, and how these informed the discussions at the COP23. These issues are inherently historical in nature, processes spurred by global configurations of imperialism, capitalism, and (de-)colonisation since at least the eighteenth century. With the small island nation of Fiji as co-host of the meeting, these concerns were front and centre for the duration of the event. The strong cultural presence of Fiji in both the Bula (meaning ‘welcome’) and Bonn Zones ensured that there was both a sense of place and a sense of urgency to the negotiations. As the Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama reminded attendees on the eve of the conference, we are ‘all in the same canoe’.

COP23 hoardings outside the building that once hosted the Deutsches Bundestag. Photo by author.

COP23 hoardings outside the building that once hosted the Deutsches Bundestag. Photo by author.

Here, the inequities of anthropogenic climate change were palpable. Among the worst-affected by the increased frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events of a warmer planet will be those former colonies, such as the low-lying islands of the Pacific, that comprise the Global South. There is a dark irony, as Dipesh Chakrabarty and others have argued, that these peoples and places are bearing the brunt of a planetary phenomenon to which they have contributed little. They have received little of the benefits from economic growth associated with increased carbon dioxide emissions, but face the most immediate costs with the fewest resources to adapt. Having recently relocated the village of Vunidogoloa in the face of flooding and coastal erosion, and with plans to relocate many more, Fiji symbolized just what was at stake in Bonn.

The  Adi Yeta  on display in the Bula Zone. This  drua  is an 8-metre long traditional double-hulled, open ocean sailing canoe. Made from tropical hardwood and coconut fibre, the  Adi Yeta  was built in Suva, Fiji several years ago and was shipped to Bonn from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, UK. This  drua  will be permanently displayed in their new Pacific Encounters gallery in late 2018. Photograph courtesy of  UNFCCC COP23 .

The Adi Yeta on display in the Bula Zone. This drua is an 8-metre long traditional double-hulled, open ocean sailing canoe. Made from tropical hardwood and coconut fibre, the Adi Yeta was built in Suva, Fiji several years ago and was shipped to Bonn from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, UK. This drua will be permanently displayed in their new Pacific Encounters gallery in late 2018. Photograph courtesy of UNFCCC COP23.

The display and performance of the nation’s culture and history in both zones reinforced this symbolism. Each day, members of the Fijian delegation danced, sang and practiced traditional crafts and ceremonies, enlivening the conference with these colourful and moving expressions of ‘bula’ (also meaning ‘life’). The adoption of the Fijian and Pacific word ‘Talanoa’ to describe forthcoming facilitative discussions (the ‘Talanoa dialogue’) will hopefully ensure that this presidency leaves a lasting local impression on the UNFCCC process. 
The attention to material culture continued on the conference fringe, with public art in the Rheinaue Park providing a meaningful connection between the Bula and Bonn Zones that underscored the urgent need for climate action. One striking piece created a ‘sign forest’ of rallying cries from past and current social and environmental campaigns. Suggesting the connection between these movements and the current climate crisis highlighted a sentiment I heard expressed throughout conference that ‘people power’ (and non-state actors) can give ‘confidence’ to governments to act on climate change. Another moving sculpture was ‘Unbearable’, by Danish artist Jens Galschiøt, which depicted a polar bear impaled on an oil pipeline curved upwards to represent increasing carbon emissions. These works, together with the fascinating Wetterbericht (‘Weather Report’) exhibition at the nearby Bundeskunsthalle, reinforce the important role of the arts and cultural institutions in ‘supporting conversation about and action on’ climate change, as the editors of Curating the Future argue. 

What When  by British artist collective  Stan’s Café . Photo by the author

What When by British artist collective Stan’s Café. Photo by the author

These exhibits combined with reports of a spike in carbon emissions this year, to remind us of just how far we had come and how far we had to go. At the Bonn headquarters of the UNFCCC, an exhibition celebrated over two decades of international climate change diplomacy, with Paris the crowning achievement to date. But others argued we had not come far enough: Uppsala University’s Zennström Professor Kevin Anderson despaired at the failure of “his” generation to curb emissions and to convince governments of the urgent need for action. Speakers turned to the past to reinforce their message. For Anderson, only an international effort on the scale of the Marshall Plan (1948-51) would come even close to meeting the aims of the Paris agreement. Others pointed to the Montreal Protocol (1989) and its impacts as an example of what could be achieved through international cooperation. These examples left me uncertain as to how instructive they might be for our current condition. On the one hand, they buoy our hopes that change can happen, while on the other, their circumstances suggest the key to action is an agreed threat – whether communism or CFCs.  Amid the diffusion of expertise and authority that currently typifies Western liberal democracies, just how we can reach that common ground remains to be seen.
At the very least, these references to historic examples provided temporal markers to accompany the conference’s emphasis on the materiality of climate change. Fiji’s presidency and the displays of material culture that accompanied many delegations reminded participants that climate change, while a planetary crisis, manifests at the local level. The ‘sea of islands’ of the Pacific, the littoral, coastlines, were all sites where climate change was manifesting. Together, their evocation also suggested the importance of the physical properties of the ocean in our understandings of the climate crisis. 
Although there was certainly plenty of techno-optimism in the air, many speakers and observers emphasised the importance of engaging with other forms of knowledge. One project involved sharing the fire cultures of Aboriginal Australians with local peoples in Botswana. This initiative was one of many that reflected the meeting’s more inclusive approach regarding First Peoples, whose care for country was finally acknowledged as vital for climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts. FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva, meanwhile, lamented the impact of the Green Revolution on the ‘old ways’ of agricultural production. Both moments spoke to the urgency of redressing the troubling legacies of ‘improvement’ and Western hubris, and for the empowerment of local peoples at home and abroad.
For many participants, such empowerment lay in their faith. Church leaders from the Pacific, Californian Governor Jerry Brown, and former Irish President Mary Brown, for instance, all reflected on the importance of their faith to themselves and to their communities. Worship offered a culture of coping that connected them to each other and to a higher power, while providing an existential framework to make sense of environmental challenges. They and others invoked Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the environment as a source of inspiration and hope that emphasised climate justice for all.   
COP23 was not without its contradictions. Just fifty kilometres away from the host city, for instance, is the site of one of Europe’s biggest sources of CO2 emissions: the large open-cast lignite coal mine near Cologne. Thousands of demonstrators converged there to urge the German government to phase out the mining activity and to deliver on its progressive climate rhetoric. Meanwhile, the Australian government proudly announced further contributions to climate change adaptation measures in Oceania, but were less inclined to discuss the future of the Adani coal mine or the health of the Great Barrier Reef. These examples alone speak to the complex knot of labour, energy and conservation that continue to stymie climate action.
Perhaps the greatest contradiction of them all was the sheer size of the meeting, and its accompanying carbon footprint. So great were the demands of hosting such a conference that Fiji was unable to hold the event at home. To the enormous infrastructure required for the meeting itself, add the toll of international travel of some twenty thousand delegates and observes – it all makes for an eye-watering sum. Many scholars in the sciences and humanities have long questioned the environmental ethics of conference travel (particularly by air), and are exploring alternative ways for meaningful and productive scholarly exchange.  Geography certainly presents something of a challenge for Australian academics, but taking a more strategic and judicious approach to the frequency of my own travels will be an important start. Attending COP23 made it clear to me that learning how to live and work more lightly is a challenge I can no longer afford to ignore.  

Gender and Environmental History

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to respond to a 'provocation' by Austrian environmental historian Verena Winiwarter about the place of gender in environmental history for the White Horse Press Blog. This was my response: 

The New York branch of the national group Women Strike for Peace mobilised around the issue of chemical contamination of milk from nuclear testing, raising awareness and staging consumer boycotts. Image Info: Women Strike for Peace, 1962; New York SANE, 1964, Courtesy Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Women Strike for Peace Records and SANE, Inc. Records. Available:  Activist New York, 2017 .

The New York branch of the national group Women Strike for Peace mobilised around the issue of chemical contamination of milk from nuclear testing, raising awareness and staging consumer boycotts. Image Info: Women Strike for Peace, 1962; New York SANE, 1964, Courtesy Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Women Strike for Peace Records and SANE, Inc. Records. Available: Activist New York, 2017.

‘Where is gender in environmental history?’ That’s the question that my Australian colleague Katie Holmes and I pondered last year. Three decades after Carolyn Merchant’s provocative 1990 article on gender and environment in the Journal of American History, it remains an under-developed area of inquiry. There is even less in work on gender and technology in environmental history. Keen to contribute something on this theme, and to find out who else was interested in the role of gender in environmental history, we circulated a call for panellists to join us at the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) conference in Zagreb. We tentatively titled the panel, ‘Gender, Technology and Environmental History’, and hoped to stimulate a discussion about gender in environmental history by focusing on the intersections of gender and technology, and their environmental consequences.

We waited. And we waited. We were surprised (and even a little bit embarrassed) that only one person responded to our call. Perhaps this lack of interest was because colleagues working on these themes might have already found other avenues for their research, or were not intending to travel to Zagreb, or preferred to present with people they already knew. But still!

By the time the conference began, we were back to where we started – just the two of us. Thankfully our panel chair, the indefatigable Dolly Jørgensen, kindly agreed to act as a discussant of our papers. In our papers, we both studied the role of masculinity in agriculture and irrigation engineering in Australia at the turn of the twentieth century. We aimed to illuminate the tangled web of relationships between technological knowledge, ideas about environmental control and nation building, and the impact of mechanized labour on the bodies of men and the environments in which they worked. But would anyone come to listen?

I am happy to report that, yes, they did. We were pleasantly surprised to find that our fellow environmental historians from Europe and North America were interested in our panel after all. And they wanted to know more – not just about the Australian context in general, but also how histories of masculinity were related to histories of women, femininity, motherhood, nationhood, and domesticity. They asked about the place of whiteness and race in our work, and identified similarities with their own work on household energy use, migration, and the Anthropocene.

Certainly, we were comforted by our colleagues’ enthusiasm and engagement. But the question remained, where was gender? No other panels at the ESEH were explicitly focused on ‘gender’. No other papers referred to terms such as gender, women, femininity or masculinity in their titles. The only reference to gender across the entire conference program was the Women’s Environmental History Network reception, sponsored by the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH).

But it’s not just women who need to think about gender in their professional lives and in their research. Gender analysis is a project for all of us studying environmental history.

Everyday Empire's Tools

In May I had the opportunity to participate in the Everyday Empires: Trans-Imperial Circulations in Multidisciplinary Perspectives conference, hosted by Past & Present, the Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures, and the Centre for Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Birmingham. The convenors Simon Jackson and Nathan Cardon encouraged us to synthesise the themes of our panels in posts for the Past & Present blog. This is my two cents from what was a stimulating meeting with a great group of researchers. 

The combined forces of engineering and imperialism still often conjure images of heroic enterprise on a vast scale and across long time periods, resulting in the enormous transformation of places and peoples for empire’s ends. Collectively, the papers of “Engineering Imperialism, Building Empire”, sought to redress this grand narrative through the exploration of engineering and engineering works as sites for everyday encounter.[1] Drawing on David Edgerton’s case for “technology-in-use” and David Arnold’s concept of “everyday technology”, we each focused on a tool or infrastructure that advanced and sustained colonial mobilities within and across European and North American empires in Africa, Asia, and Australia.[2] Typically understood as machines of modernity that revolutionised time and space, in our panel, ships, rickshaws, canals, and railroads became spaces for excavating colonial power relations of labour, race and gender.

Late nineteenth century Australian settlers’ admiration for the feats of British engineers in “irrigated India” was the focus of my paper. Seeking measures to overcome the agrarian limits of aridity, pastoralists and politicians from the colonies of South Australia and Victoria undertook their own “observatory tours” of British India.[3] Although they marvelled at the scale of the waterworks they encountered, the hydrological and labour conditions of their own settler colonies meant that there was little likelihood of replicating these engineering schemes. Across the Pacific, they saw the irrigated agriculture of California as a more favourable model for their ambitions of closer settlement and the formation of a white settler Commonwealth. Their conclusions in this respect reflected Australia’s general turn towards the United States in terms of natural resource management at the turn of the twentieth century.[4]

J.W. Lindt, “Irrigation at Mornington plantation”, Mildura, 1890.  H96.160/1915, State Library Victoria, Australia .

J.W. Lindt, “Irrigation at Mornington plantation”, Mildura, 1890. H96.160/1915, State Library Victoria, Australia.

What their travel accounts of colonial South Asia also revealed was their observations of the colonial hydrology of India and the nature of the colonial hydrology they sought to forge in the Australian colonies. South Asian environmental historian Rohan d’Souza has proposed the concept of ‘colonial hydrology’ to describe the social worlds of water and to reveal ‘the broader dynamics of colonial rule’.[5] D’Souza’s concept can be used to read the writings of Alfred Deakin, one of the Australian observers, who wrote expansively on the labour processes required to engineer India’s great rivers. The regulation of a river, Deakin believed, was the reward for an ever-vigilant Anglo-engineer, while failures in the system were solely attributable to the poorly skilled Indian workers. The task of the Anglo-engineer was an especially challenging one, so Deakin explained, for the engineer, an avatar of modernity, had to manage both an unruly river and a backward people, who lived “in practically another age”.[6] Framing Indian subjects in this way justified the need for paternalist government in India, while suggesting that white Australians might best follow the example of the United States and its “restlessly inventive and progressive Americans”.[7] Deakin’s account of “irrigated India”, therefore, emasculated subaltern labour in order to celebrate the labour of white men – British and North American engineers and the Australian yeoman farmer: a white brotherhood based on technical mastery. It was these men, their wives and children, who would be the foundation of the “white man’s country” that Deakin would help to forge through the federation of the Australian colonies less than a decade later in 1901.

The colonial allure of American expertise was a theme explored in Steve Tuffnell’s paper, which examined networks of “trans-imperial” engineering in Britain’s African outposts at the turn of the twentieth century. The investment of US capital and engineering expertise in colonial rail projects, Tuffnell argued, encouraged the co-production of colonial rule through coercive and extractive forms of labour discipline developed in the plantation south and the western frontier. Charles Fawell, meanwhile, took us below deck on a steamship voyaging from Marseille to Yokohama in the early twentieth century, where he teased out the volatile labour relations of trans-imperial transit. The focus here was not the glamour of steam travel, but the politics of cohabitation that were produced in a place that was effectively both a hotel and a coal plant. Finally, Chao Ren navigated the “rickshaw zone”, a network that linked China and Japan to the British outposts of southeast and south Asia through the proliferation of this form of passenger transport. The rickshaw fostered intimate imperial encounters between elites and the subjects upon whose physical labour their mobility relied.

Our shared concern with the everyday operation — as opposed to the macro-historical mythologies — of colonial engineering and infrastructure led us to question “whose everyday” featured in these case studies. The written and pictorial sources that informed our studies were intended mostly for elite audiences, both in the colonies and the metropole. Reading these sources against the grain revealed that empire’s civilising mission and the hierarchies that it structured were embedded in these everyday technologies of imperial mobility, and should be grasped accordingly by historians.


1. The other panellists were: Chao Ren (University of Michigan), “Everyday Mobilities: A Trans-Imperial History of the Hand-Pulled Rickshaw, 1870-1930”; Stephen Tuffnell (Oxford), “Transimperialism, Inc.: US Expansion and the Making of British Africa”; Charles Fawell (University of Chicago), “The Colonial Steamship ‘East of Suez’: Conflict and Collaboration in the In-Between Spaces of Empire, 1880-1918”.
2. David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900, London: Profile Books, 2011; David Arnold, Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.
3. Alfred Deakin, Irrigated India: An Australian View of India and Ceylon, Their Irrigation and Agriculture, Melbourne: E.A. Petherick, 1893, p. 5.
4. See for example, Ian Tyrrell, True Gardens of the Gods: Californian-Australian Environmental Reform, 1860-1930, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.
5. Rohan d’Souza, “Water in British India: The Making of a ‘Colonial Hydrology’,” History Compass 4, no. 4 (2006): 621.
6. Deakin, p. 25.
7. Deakin, p. 147.

Iceberg Utilization: A Panacea for a Thirsty World?

Last month I contributed a post to HistoricalClimatology.com, where I explored some of the issues emerging from my ongoing research on water scarcity and attempts to engineer abundance. Thanks to Dagomar Degroot for the opportunity to share my research.

Non-tabular iceberg off Elephant Island in the Southern Ocean. Source: Andrew Shiva, Wikipedia.

Non-tabular iceberg off Elephant Island in the Southern Ocean. Source: Andrew Shiva, Wikipedia.

Ice, or a lack of it, is an “icon” of anthropogenic climate change. Earlier this year, researchers reported that a rift in Antarctica’s fourth-largest ice shelf has accelerated and could soon cause a vast iceberg to fall into the sea. After the collapse of the ice shelf, the glaciers that once sustained it will run into the sea. Glaciers like these, Mark Carey has observed, have become an “endangered species” of the Anthropocene. Yet only a few decades ago, Antarctic ice was the hero in a visionary episode of the planet’s recent “cryo-history”.
In October 1977, scientists met at Iowa State University to discuss the latest findings in the emerging field of “iceberg utilization”. Eager to promote the cause was conference co-sponsor Prince Mohammed al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia, who flew an iceberg weighing over two tonnes from the Portage Glacier Field near Anchorage, Alaska to Ames, Iowa for the occasion – producing at least 7 tonnes of carbon dioxide over the 5,000km journey. One local couple, who brought with them plastic bags, a bucket, and an ice-pick to the iceberg’s unveiling, told the New York Times, “I don’t know what we’ll do with it – serve it in drinks, I guess. We’ll have a cocktail party”.


A series of US television news features documenting the Iceberg Utilization Conference, October 1977. Source: YouTube / Special Collections and University Archives, Iowa State University.

hese stunts amused onlookers, but they were no laughing matter for the researchers studying the possibility of towing Antarctic icebergs to arid and semi-arid climes. Iceberg utilization was a tantalizing prospect for solving one of the world’s pressing problems: global water shortages. In their controversial study The Limits to Growth, the interdisciplinary research group the Club of Rome had earlier warned that the availability of fresh water was a limit to growth that “will be reached long before the land limit becomes apparent”. Bolstering this neo-Malthusian prediction were the widely reported droughts in the Sahel, the Ukraine, and the failure of the Indian Monsoon during the early 1970s. 

An excerpt from the public affairs program, Dimension 5, which aired on WOI-TV in central Iowa, USA, October 1977. Panellists include Prince Mohamed Al Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Henri Bader, Daniel J. Zaffarano, Richard L. Cameron, and Ed Cronick. Source: Youtube / Special Collections and University Archives, Iowa State University.)

hese anxieties were the focus of the 1977 United Nations Conference on Water in Mar del Plata, Argentina, where fresh water was declared a “scarce asset” that demanded coordinated resource development and management. Among the options discussed to increase water supplies were so-called “complex technologies” and “non-conventional methods”, such as seawater desalination. By the late 1970s desalination was already well established in Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia was eager to replicate its neighbour’s success. Leading this mission (at least until Antarctic icebergs beckoned) was the head of the Saudi Saline Water Conversion Corporation: Prince Mohamed al-Faisal. He shared his vision with the Christian Science Monitor, “Over a period, we would hope to change the vegetation and climate in some coastal areas”.
The Prince’s idea was several decades in the making. The prospect of using icebergs to modify local climates and to provide endless water supplies to the world’s thirstiest regions had emerged in the decade after the Second World War. In a 1949 class at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, oceanographer John Isaacs had speculated on the subject, and later expanded on his thinking in the February 1956 issue of Science Digest. He proposed floating an Antarctic iceberg along the Humboldt Current to the coast of southern California from where it could supply water to Los Angeles.
The feasibility of such a scheme had been confirmed in 1969, when glaciologist Willy Weeks and geophysicist Bill Campbell surprised even themselves when they concluded that towing icebergs to arid lands was “within the reach of existing technology”. They based their calculations on a large tabular iceberg that was twice the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza, which was less likely to roll in transit and more likely to be found near the Antarctic than the Arctic. The optimum routes for towing such an iceberg, they suggested, were from the Amery Ice Shelf to southwestern Australia and from the Ross Ice Shelf to the Atacama Desert.


“Optimum towing paths between the Amery Ice Shelf and Australia and the Ross Ice Shelf and the Atacama Desert.” Fig. 8, Weeks and Campbell, 1973, p. 220.

“Optimum towing paths between the Amery Ice Shelf and Australia and the Ross Ice Shelf and the Atacama Desert.” Fig. 8, Weeks and Campbell, 1973, p. 220.

n 1973, the National Science Foundation and the Rand Corporation sponsored a subsequent report on the feasibility of southern California for such a scheme. Antarctic icebergs could supply water for urban, industrial and agricultural demands, while helping to abate the growing thermal pollution of the industrialized region. According to their estimates, towing an iceberg from the Ross Sea to the Pacific southwest would be significantly cheaper than inter-basin water transfers and desalination. Furthermore, nuclear energy could be used, which would alleviate the need to use fossil fuels during a decade of uncertain oil supplies.
The possibility of endless water supplies was too good to ignore and the Saudi prince assembled experts from around the world to advance the field of “iceberg utilization”. His 1977 conference in Iowa attracted scientists from arid and semi-arid countries such as Egypt, Greece and Libya, as well as nations with polar territories, such as Australia, Chile and Canada. Nearly three quarters of the attendees were from the United States, most of whom were associated with the military-industrial-academic complex. They included researchers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Tetra Tech International, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, the US Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, and the Naval Weapon Centre.
The lone woman speaking at the conference was the pioneering meteorologist, Joanne Simpson from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Simpson had been director of the experimental meteorology laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and member of the Weather Modification Advisory Board. Two decades of studying the intersections of cloud physics with hurricane research informed her comparison of Antarctic icebergs to cloudseeding, as well as her study of the atmospheric impacts of iceberg utilization. Although towing an iceberg would cost more than cloudseeding, she estimated that its meltwater would more than make up for the expense. In icebergs, Simpson also saw a means to mitigate the toll of tropical hurricanes. Using an iceberg to lower the surface temperature of the ocean ahead of an advancing hurricane would help to reduce the destructive winds of the hurricane.

“Illustration of possible new approach to the hurricane mitigation aspect of weather modification. Hurricanes are known to diminish in strength when they move over cooler water, here shown hypothetically to be supplied by a melting iceberg.” Source: Fig. 5, in Simpson, 1978, p. 865. Artist: Tom Henderson.

“Illustration of possible new approach to the hurricane mitigation aspect of weather modification. Hurricanes are known to diminish in strength when they move over cooler water, here shown hypothetically to be supplied by a melting iceberg.” Source: Fig. 5, in Simpson, 1978, p. 865. Artist: Tom Henderson.


Simpson was well aware of the credibility gap that such endeavours faced. In 1978 she wrote, “For meteorology as a whole, public overheated controversy on weather modification gives the entire profession an image of ridiculous bumblers or even charlatans”. But the opportunity to “serve humanity” outweighed these concerns and she welcomed alternative modification methods.
Despite the promise of iceberg utilization, its potential impact on local climates became one of the many reasons why the vision did not become a reality. In Australia, for instance, enthusiastic plans for the continent’s southwest were rejected in the mid-1980s on the grounds that an iceberg “parked offshore for several years” might affect the regional climate in unexpected and unwanted ways. Peter Schwerdtfeger, the scheme’s Australian proponent, lamented that its feasibility lay not in science and technology, but in “politically and economically based decisions”. He remained confident, however, that iceberg utilisation would occur when “individual nations recognise their obligations to the more thirsty segment of mankind” and choose to exploit the Antarctic icebergs that otherwise “melt pointlessly in the Southern Ocean”. According to this logic, the failure to take advantage of the icebergs was tantamount to wasting precious water resources.
The possibility of iceberg utilization was one of many post-war technological visions. The futurism and science fiction of the atomic age urged the exploration and exploitation of new planetary frontiers such as the deep ocean and outer space. In the Cold War context, measuring, monitoring and manipulating the physical environment on a global scale had the potential to fulfil both military and peaceful ambitions. The iceberg “visioneers” were bit players in a wider debate about the Earth’s future, one that pitted the constraints of ecological limits against the possibilities of technological innovation. Just as the atom offered an inexhaustible source of cheap energy, Antarctica was a cornucopia of renewable fresh water simply awaiting the application of human ingenuity. Four decades later, we are searching for ways to keep that water well and truly locked up.
Further Reading:
Al-Nakib, Farah, Kuwait Transformed: A History of Oil and Urban Life (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016).
Behrman, Daniel with John D. Isaacs, John Isaacs and His Oceans (Washington, DC.: ICSU Press, 1992).
Carey, Mark, “The History of Ice: How Glaciers Became an Endangered Species,” Environmental History 12 (2007): 497-527.
Carey, Mark, M. Jackson, Alessandro Antonello and Jaclyn Rushing, “Glaciers, Gender, and Science: A Feminist Glaciology Framework for Global Environmental Change Research,” Progress in Human Geography 40, no. 6 (2016): 770-93.
Fleming, James R., Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).
Gosnell, Mariana, Ice: The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
Hamblin, Jacob Darwin, Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
Harper, Kristine C., Make it Rain: State Control of the Atmosphere in Twentieth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).
Hult, J.L. and N.C. Ostrander, Antarctic Icebergs as a Global Fresh Water Resource (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 1973).
Husseiny, A.A. (ed.), Iceberg Utilization: Proceedings of the First International Conference and Workshops on Iceberg Utilization for Fresh Water Production, Weather Modification, and Other Applications, held at Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, USA, October 2-6, 1977 (New York: Pergamon Press, 1978).
Jones, Toby Craig, Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).
Leslie, Stuart W., The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford(New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).
McCray, W. Patrick, The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies and a Limitless Future (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).
Rozwadowski, Helen M., “Arthur C. Clarke and the Limitations of the Ocean as a Frontier,” Environmental History (2012): 1-25.
Sabin, Paul, The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013).
Schmidt, Jeremy J., Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity (New York: NYU Press, 2017).
Schwerdtfeger, Peter, “The Development of Iceberg Research and Potential Applications,” Polar Geography and Geology9, no. 3 (1985): 202-209.
Simpson, Joanne, “What Weather Modification Needs – A Scientist’s View,” Journal of Applied Meteorology 17 (1978): 858-66.
Sörlin, Sverker, “Cryo-History,” in The New Arctic, (eds.) Birgitta Evengård, Joan Nymand Larsen and Øyvind Paasche (New York: Springer, 2015), pp. 327-39.
Weeks, Wilford J. and William J. Campbell, “Icebergs as a Freshwater Source: An Appraisal,” Journal of Glaciology 12, no. 65 (1973): 207-33.