Colonialism and Imperialism Workshop - "Imperial Weather Prophecies: The Elusive Seasonal Forecast for South Asia"

Colonial & Imperial Workshop
Event date: 
March 29, 2018 -
12:00pm to 1:20pm
Sarah Carson
Princeton University
Seminar Series: 
Colonialism and Imperialism Workshop

"Imperial Weather Prophecies: The Elusive Seasonal Forecast for South Asia"

Sarah Carson, Princeton University

There is a pre-circulated paper for this workshop. To RSVP and to receive a copy of the paper, please email Caitlin Harvey at A light lunch will be provided.

This paper will look at the meanings and methods of long-term (also called seasonal) forecasting, an endeavor new to the science of meteorology in the late 19th-century. In this art of "foreshadowing"— as the Director-General of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) Gilbert Walker began calling it in admission of its limited success—meteorologists issued predictions months in advance and focused on merely one variable: rainfall. I will first look at debates over definitions of the monsoon and meteorological seasons in India, then discuss the various bodies within the imperial administration interested in rainfall statistics and predictions. The bulk of this chapter will focus on strategies of prediction and the genre of the printed forecast between 1886 and 1945. Methods of prognostication changed over time, as directors changed hands, various new geographies of data became available, and physical explanations and statistical strategies changed. Hopes of improved predictive capabilities were repeatedly dashed. To scientists, it was not clear whether these forecasts had utility: were they critical information for administrative and economic decision-making, or merely speculation, more appropriate for narrow dissemination in specialist scientific journals? I will show that although the seasonal forecast was the most compelling justification for the IMD's existence, its scientists felt ambivalent about this work, as it opened them to criticism and mockery from both lay persons and higher-ups in the colonial administration.

Caitlin Harvey
Area of Interest: 
Environmental History