Review of Slonosky, Climate in the Age of Empire

Observatory (far left), at McGill University in the early 1860s. McGill Archives, PR013449

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Victoria C. Slonosky, Climate in the Age of Empire: Weather Observers in Colonial Canada. Boston: American Meteorological Society, 2018. 325 pgs, ISBN 9781944970208

Review by Alexander Hall.

In Climate in the Age of Empire, climatologist Victoria Slonosky provides an account of the early amateur natural philosophers, natural historians, and enthusiasts who kept instrumental daily weather observations in colonial Canada. Beginning in 1742 with the records of François Gaultier, the first royal physician to Quebec City, and covering the period up to the establishment of the Meteorological Service of Canada in the 1870s, the book examines an assorted cast of weather observers and the emergent networks they relied upon. Like the rest of the wide-ranging collection of history-focused books published by the American Meteorological Society, it is written in engaging and accessible language and will appeal to meteorologists and interested members of the public, as well as professional historians.

The book is divided into two parts, which follow largely chronologically. After a brief chapter situating readers in the landscape of meteorology in mid-18th century New France and British North America, part one, “The Landscape: Scientists, Practices, and Theories,” introduces the most important weather observers from the period and outlines the debates around climate improvement and amelioration that abounded in early colonial networks. In part two, “Meteorology Takes Shape,” Slonosky picks up the narrative in the early decades of the nineteenth century, as the state, initially via the British military, became more involved with systematic weather observations, and as many of the institutions contemporary climatologists will recognise were founded. The two sections are separated by an insert, which features 10 colour and 16 half-tone plates. While the images selected help bring the text to life, their lack of integration within the relevant chapters, and the absence of figure numbers or page references, reduces their effectiveness.  

Across the book the account presented is rich in archival detail, with ample page space dedicated to directly quoting weather observers. The author, through meticulous and detailed historical climatological research—in particular as Project Lead on the McGill citizen science project Data Rescue: Archives and Weather—has built up a vast and deep understanding of the early weather observers in colonial Canada. This allows her to not only interrogate the climate records compiled by early observers, but to also explore their motivations and understanding of their climate, in what for most was a new and challenging environment.

Where necessary, Slonosky provides the reader with relevant context on the development of meteorological understanding and instrumentation beyond colonial Canada. Such segues work best when we get to glimpse how they influenced the observers in the Canadian context, as when we learn about how the weather observer and judge John Samuel McCord came by John Herschel’s instructions for observations for amateur meteorologists (129). 

It is when the author steps back from the biographical chronologies and the archival coal-face that the book is at its strongest: in chapter three on eighteenth-century climate improvement theory, chapter six where early observers’ views on climate amelioration are compared, and in the closing two chapters, which reflect on the three centuries of observations left by the protagonists of the book. Here the reader is situated in the wider history of climatological understanding, and Slonosky expertly integrates current scientific understanding of climatological dynamics.[1] However, on occasion I felt that a focus on the utility of data, or on the reliability and continuity (or lack thereof) of records, came at the expense of more expansive critical historical reflection and analysis.[2] For example, environmental historians may be disappointed to learn that the book contains no in-depth reflection on the changing environmental conditions faced by settler-colonialist weather observers, as subsequent generations across the three centuries adapted to the Canadian climate.  

In the preface, Slonosky says that the book sets out to demonstrate that Canada has a rich scientific history, and that the discipline of climatology is older than many contemporary commentators give it credit for (ix). In the first of these aims, the book is a definite success. And while in its ambitious scope Climate in the Age of Empire is much more than a straightforward history of colonial scientific practice, in taking the second of these aims at face value the book falls slightly short. For while it demonstrates that the study of climate and concerns over its variability pre-date the modern discipline of climatology, it fails to critically engage with the category of climate itself, and with the ways that early colonial weather observers’ practice interacted with the very conditions they were trying to measure.

McGill University in early 1860s, looking north from what today is McTavish Street and showing observatory building at centre left. Courtesy of McGill University Archives, PR013449.

My itch for more reflective and comparative contextual content was somewhat sated by the closing chapters “What Do Three Centuries of Observations Tell Us?” and “Extraordinary Seasons,” which provide a great amount of historical data in an easily accessible format. Along with the biographical sketches in the back matter, this closing section provides a useful resource to interested readers who might not normally have the confidence to dip their toes into academic journal articles on historical climatology. However, here, as elsewhere, the focus is on comparing climatological data, and I can’t help feeling a more philosophically or humanities informed approach may have added further depth to the book.

While ultimately the book lacks the kind of unifying thesis and sweeping narrative arc that helped to make Susan Zeller’s similarly situated Inventing Canada an instant classic, in its meticulously researched depths it does achieve something perhaps equally rare: it connects perspectives from across different fields.[3] We are too often siloed in our small academic niches; Climate in the Age of Empire will allow climatologists to learn more about the contingent messiness behind historical measurements, reiterate to historians of science the importance of locales previously dismissed as provincial, and remind environmental historians that every historical landscape or environment that we study was mediated and constructed through the words and actions of our historical actors.

[1] Suzanne Zeller, Inventing Canada: Early Victorian Science and the Idea of a Transcontinental Nation (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1987 and 2009).
[2] See for example the section “Does Clearing and Cultivation Lead to Warming? An Evaluation of the Climate Improvement Theory,” 44-45.
[3] For example, on p.79 Slonosky states: “If the original records were ever recovered, they would provide a fifty-year long, continuous daily weather register for Montreal: a gold mine of information.”
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Alexander Hall

Alexander Hall is an environmental historian and historian of popular science. At home exploring the intersections of the environment, the media and science, he has diverse range of research interests including subjects such as community memory of extreme weather, media coverage of climate change, and the history of science on television. He is a senior member of the Science, Knowledge and Belief in Society Research Group at the University of Birmingham, a research fellow on the large multidisciplinary project ‘Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum’, and is the current President of the International Commission for the History of Meteorology.

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