We Can't Leave Climate out of HistoryRoundup
tags: environmental history, climate
Peter Frankopan is is professor of global history and director of the Centre for Byzantine Research at Oxford University. He is the author of The First Crusade: The Call from the East.
Historians often rely on new discoveries in order to make breakthroughs. Every now and again, a fresh document, a set of papers or a whole manuscript is found by chance. Maybe something unexpected and surprising will pop up from an archaeological dig or – in the case of inns and oasis towns along the Silk Roads – from the declassification of CIA satellite images taken during the cold war, which revealed sites that had long fallen out of use and been forgotten on the ground.
Researchers used to dream about such treasure troves. They do not have to any more. We are living not so much in a golden age of new evidence, but in one of hyper-abundance. Almost all of this comes from the physical and natural sciences. Politicians often talk crudely about “choices” between the humanities and Stem subjects, but in today’s world, cutting-edge history is all about understanding, assessing and integrating materials from sources that would have been completely alien to most historians writing just a generation ago. These materials are transforming ideas about the past – often in radical ways. And climate is central to that transformation.
That’s the case because so many of these new sources are linked to “climate archives” – data that can be collected from the analysis of tree rings, by measuring calcium carbonate deposits in caves or by assessing carbon dioxide bubbles and impurities in ice cores drilled in Greenland, the Antarctic and elsewhere. These not only reveal atmospheric composition, but also indicate levels of human activity: for example, lead particles recovered from polar regions tell us that more energy was used in ancient Rome than in any other era before the start of the Industrial Revolution.
The insights such materials provide are not only exciting but essential to how we think about the past. One of the key factors in the fall of Cleopatra, for example, appears to have been the massive eruption of the Okmok volcano in Alaska in 43BC, an event that can now be measured scientifically but which also corresponds with contemporary accounts of feeble sunlight and reports of crop shortfalls. This produced a local crisis that included famine, migration, inflation and land abandonment – all of which put the Egyptian ruler in a precarious position that she tried to solve by deciding to throw her lot in with Mark Antony, with fateful consequences.
Eruptions help explain other major changes, such as the emergence of a “super-elite” in Scandinavia. The collapse of exchange networks and depopulation that followed volcanic activity made land cheaper, and consequently formed the basis not only for large-scale land ownership, but for the age of the Vikings. Or there is the famous case of Mount Tambora, whose eruption in 1815 brought about a “year without a summer”. This not only created the atmospheric conditions that inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein while holidaying in an unusually cold and stormy Switzerland, but led to agrarian collapse in New England and prompted the first major economic depression in the history of the United States.
comments powered by Disqus
- The Debt Ceiling Law is now a Tool of Partisan Political Power; Abolish It
- Amitai Etzioni, Theorist of Communitarianism, Dies at 94
- Kagan, Sotomayor Join SCOTUS Cons in Sticking it to Unions
- New Evidence: Rehnquist Pretty Much OK with Plessy v. Ferguson
- Ohio Unions Link Academic Freedom and the Freedom to Strike
- First Round of Obama Administration Oral Histories Focus on Political Fault Lines and Policy Tradeoffs
- The Tulsa Race Massacre was an Attack on Black People; Rebuilding Policies were an Attack on Black Wealth
- British Universities are Researching Ties to Slavery. Conservative Alumni Say "Enough"
- Martha Hodes Reconstructs Her Memory of a 1970 Hijacking
- Jeremi Suri: Texas Higher Ed Conflict "Doesn't Have to Be This Way"
- New transcript of Ayn Rand at West Point in 1974 shows she claimed “savage" Indians had no right to live here just because they were born here
- The Mexican War Suggests Ukraine May End Up Conceding Crimea. World War I Suggests the Price May Be Tragic if it Doesn't
- The Vietnam War Crimes You Never Heard Of