Science, Climatology, and Environmental Stability in the 20th-c. U.S.


A review of Climates on the Move: Climatology and the Problem of Economic and Environmental Stability in the Career of C.W. Thornthwaite, 1933-1963, by James Henry Bergman.

Lots of people talk about climate change like it is brand new. Climate change is an “unprecedented” danger, bringing new challenges and demanding solutions people have never considered before. Some environmental historians and historians of science have pushed back against this rhetoric, pointing to historical episodes that can inform our discussions of how best to respond to today’s human-caused global warming. James Bergman reveals fascinating new territory in this genre, analyzing the career of a geographer whose now forgotten research program offers useful lessons for dealing with climate destabilization.

James Bergman’s primary subject is Charles Warren Thornthwaite (1899-1963), an American geographer trained at the University of California-Berkeley. Throughout his career, which began during the Great Depression and ended with his death in 1963, Thornthwaite thought widely about the ways that humans related to climate, with an abiding interest in the connections between soil moisture and plant growth. Thornthwaite has been a peripheral figure in previous histories of atmospheric science. With this study, Bergman highlights a new aspect of twentieth-century climate science, revealing significant new entanglements between atmospheric science, industrial agriculture and soil conservation. His recovery of Thornthwaite’s applied climatology also exposes a more complicated picture of how industrial societies have adapted to climatic variation.

The dissertation does not aim to be a biography of Thornthwaite. Instead, the dissertation seeks to use Thornthwaite’s career to trace the protean “role of science in ensuring environmental stability” (p. 3) from the 1930s to the 1960s. It explores the changing notion of stability in Thornthwaite’s scientific work as he moved through a series of scientific institutions. Bergman argues that Thornthwaite went from promoting a “holistic” conception of socio-environmental stability towards a “mechanistic” conception. As Thornthwaite’s conceptions of stability changed, the spatial scales he studied decreased. In the 1930s, Thornthwaite and his mentors sought to create government programs that would manage population across ecologically cohesive regions, in order to transform the relationships between humans and the entire Great Plains. This met with very little success. By the 1950s, Thornthwaite was measuring the respiration and soil moisture available to individual pea plants. These studies had considerably more material impact, influencing the growing practices at Seabrook Farms in New Jersey, the world’s largest producer of frozen vegetables.

This dissertation fits comfortably among scholarship on scientific practice, especially as manifested in the work of historians like Robert Kohler and Peder Anker (Kohler, Landscapes and Labscapes: Exploring the Lab-Field Border in Biology, University of Chicago Press, 2002; Anker, Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire, 1895-1945, Harvard University Press, 2002). There is a twist though, since Thornthwaite and his mentors were initially more library researchers than field or laboratory researchers. This is noticeable mainly in Chapters 1 and 2, where most of the action takes place within government bureaus, as scientists exchange memos negotiating access to data sets and human resources in order to produce reports aimed at policy makers. These kinds of scientific tools are less sexy than particle colliders (as James Bergman’s dissertation advisor Peter Galison, a clear influence here, has written about) but they matter more for the kinds of lower-tech, lower-prestige science that actually touch the lives of ordinary people. Indeed, bureaucratic data-gathering is an understudied aspect of knowledge production that guides modern governance and sociotechnical control. It deserves further interrogation of the kind that Bergman is developing. Parts of later chapters take a more familiar form for scholars of scientific practice, such as Bergman’s engaging analysis of the difficulties (and rewards) of establishing a high-resolution weather observation network in rural Oklahoma in 1935-1937.

James Bergman brings a useful new analytic category to the history of scientific practice. Where Robert Kohler has used the terms “landscapes and labscapes” to consider the scientific practices used for knowledge-making in different kinds of places, Bergman uses “workscape” as his major analytical tool. Here he follows the environmental and labor historian Thomas Andrews (Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War, Harvard University Press, 2010). In Thomas Andrews’s formulation, a “workscape” is a place shaped by the interplay of human labor and natural processes, understood by examining both how people organize and perform work, and by considering the environmental conditions and natural resources that characterize that place. Workscapes harbor a range of possibilities at particular moments, determined simultaneously by natural potentials and limits, as well as by human capabilities, including imagination, technologies and social structures. Bergman transplants this analytical category into the history of science. Quite provocatively, he shows how Thornthwaite inhabited very different kinds of workscapes across his career, and argues that these workscapes dramatically shaped the kind of knowledge that Thornthwaite could (and sought to) produce.

The dissertation has an introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion. Each chapter focuses on a different “workscape” significant for Thornthwaite’s work. The first two chapters emphasize the context of Washington DC and science developed to aid policy-makers. The first chapter focuses on Thornthwaite’s mentors, Carl Sauer and Isaiah Bowman, while describing the creation of two New Deal institutions that would be central to Thornthwaite’s career during the 1930s, namely the Science Advisory Board (a board of university presidents and distinguished scientists to provide science advice to President Franklin D. Roosevelt) and especially the Climate and Physiographic Section of the US Federal Government’s Soil Conservation Service. The second chapter introduces Thornthwaite as a major actor in his own right, exploring Thornthwaite’s work as a geographer for the Study of Population Redistribution in 1934-35. This independent study, funded by Rockefeller Foundation and carried out by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, sought to track internal migration resulting from the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Thornthwaite came to the conclusion that humans needed to adapt themselves to climate—by moving away from places too climatically unstable for permanent settlement, for instance—rather than trying to engineer the climate to fit human needs, as a project to plant a massive shelterbelt across the Great Plains was then proposed to do.

Chapters 3 and 4 examine Thornthwaite’s career in public service as head of the Climate and Physiographic Section of the Soil Conservation Service. Bergman describes how Thornthwaite reimagined climate as a dynamic range of conditions emerging from the exchange of moisture between the atmosphere, soil and plants. This contrasted with the prevailing definitions of climate developed by the US Weather Bureau, namely the rolling 30-year numerical averages of temperature extremes, precipitation, and sunlight. Central to Thornthwaite’s redefinition was the integration of air mass analysis, storm tracking, and much higher resolution observations of rainfall. This developed through an observation project in rural Oklahoma, which was disbanded as Federal Works Progress Administration funds ran out, and then was moved to the Muskingum Watershed, covering one-fifth of Ohio. These chapters highlight the instability of institutions and funding that characterized much of Thornthwaite’s career.

Chapters 5 and 6 address Thornthwaite’s work as a private consultant after World War II, when he developed climate analyses to guide the US military, industrial agriculture producers, and nuclear power plant builders. Most notably Thornthwaite worked for Seabrook Farms in New Jersey, the largest producer of frozen vegetables in the United States. As an in-house climatologist, Thornthwaite developed a strategy to reduce the frantic demand for harvest labor by adapting the planting schedule of peas to climatic variations. During this period he also served as a leader and US representative to international agencies like UNESCO and the World Meteorological Organization.

By opening up research into the history of applied climatology, this project will have a substantial impact when it is published. Global warming has made applied climatology a subject of rapidly growing interest and importance. Government meteorological bureaus around the world are establishing offices to provide data and forecasting products that help users better adapt to climatic variation. While these offices today claim to be developing novel “climate services,” their goals would seem quite familiar to men like Thornthwaite. Because very few scholars have examined applied climatology as a historical subject, today’s climate service providers often feel themselves in uncharted territory. James Bergman’s study reminds us that climate catastrophes are not new to our generation, nor is the desire and the ability to adapt social organization to better harmonize with climatic variability.

Roger Turner
History Department
Dickinson College

Primary Sources
C.W. Thornthwaite Papers, American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.
United States National Archives at College Park, Maryland: RG 16, Office of the Secretary of Agriculture; RG 27: United States Weather Bureau; RG 69, Works Progress Administration; RG 83.3 Bureau of Agricultural Economics; RG 114, Natural Resources Conservation Service
Johns Hopkins University Archives: Isaiah Bowman Papers; Records of the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering
National Academies Archives, Washington DC: Executive Board, Papers of the Committee on Land Use
Henry A. Wallace Papers, University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections.

Dissertation Information
Harvard University. 2014. 274pp. Primary Advisor: Peter L. Galison.

Image: Dr. Thornthwaite interviewed by KYW radio against backdrop of aerial view of Seabrook, from Rutgers Community Repository.

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