Thursday, 28 November 2013

Workshop Report: Working Atmospheres

Toward the end of last week (21 & 22 of November 2013) a small, but diverse group of academics, practitioners, and others involved in meteorological and climatological services met at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM) at the University of Manchester for the Working Atmospheres workshop. Sponsored by the International Commission for the History of Meteorology and organised by Vladimir Janković (CHSTM) and Samuel Randalls (University College London) the meeting aimed, perhaps for the first time ever in such a setting, to discuss weather and climate services in both contemporary and historical perspectives.

After introductions over lunch the workshop began with the historical, as co-organiser Samuel Randalls gave us a comprehensive introduction to the existing literature on commercial and applied meteorology and its emergence. Focussing largely on the US context, Sam's paper was then wonderfully balanced by further historical papers on climate modification in the Soviet Union (Jonathan Oldfield, University of Glasgow), meteorological studies sponsored by NATO (Simone Turchetti, University of Manchester), and the emergence of commercial services at the UK Met Office (yours truly, University of Nottingham). In addition to providing a great, historically grounded introduction to commercial weather and climate services, this first panel neatly highlighted how the emergence of such services is inextricably connected with national ideologies and post-war and cold war geopolitics.

After a short break papers moved onto considering current commercial weather services, debates, and issues in light of their historical development. From the oft overlooked role of climate profiling, mapping and services in town planning (Michael Hebbert, University College London) to the ever changing framing of sunlight's health effects and the associated commercial products (Simon Carter, Open University). The afternoon session finished with a paper by John Thornes (University of Birmingham) on the development of meteorological services to aid road salting, providing a great insight into the interactions in the field between academia, national weather services, and commercial companies. The day's activities were rounded off with much cordial discussion and debate over dinner in nearby CHSTM regular haunt Kro.

Attendees at Working Atmospheres enjoy the workshop dinner
Day two of the workshop saw a shift toward the contemporary; co-organiser Vladimir Janković ensured the transition was a smooth one by introducing the key figures involved in the first US National Climate Program. Next, Richard Pettifer (meteorological consultant and PRIMET General Secretary) gave us a candid view of the emergence of commercial weather services in Europe, and the session finished with a shift from weather to climate as attention shifted to how climate services that benefit all sectors of society may emerge in the coming years (Suraje Dessai, University of Leeds).

After a slightly re-jigged re-caffeination break, due to the over-abundance of questions and interested discussion, the final session began with more on the emergence of new climate services both at a national (Jane Strachan, UK Met Office) and European scale (Marta Soares, University of Leeds). The complexity and scale of many of the projects discussed, again highlighted the close relationship governments, international bodies, universities, national weather services and the private sector have often had in the applied meteorological world. Rather fittingly the final paper of the workshop directly acknowledged many antagonistic facets of these relationships, asking, Is the Market Good or Bad for Climate Adaptation Knowledge? (James Porter, University of Leeds).  

All in all, Working Atmospheres was an excellently balanced workshop that explored and interrogated from all angles, commercial climatological and weather services. I learnt a huge amount, finding the insight into commercial operations, so often beyond the access of an early career academic, especially interesting. The interdisciplinary nature of the event sparked much debate, and many conversations begun here, will I am sure, result in future collaborations. Keep your eyes peeled for a potential edited volume or journal special edition resulting from proceedings.

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