Rethinking Seasons: Changing Climate, Changing Time

Rethinking Seasons: Changing Climate, Changing Time

Fri, 30/11/2012 - 09:30

About the Presenter

Dr Chris O'Brien

 Dr Chris O'Brien is a Post-Doctoral Researcher with the Northern Research Futures Collaborative Research Network (CRN), a Federal Government research initiative linking CDU, Australian National University (ANU) and James Cook University (JCU). Chris is based at CDU's Research Institute for the Environment and Livelihoods (RIEL) and also affiliated with ANU's Centre for Environmental History.

On July 13 Chris was awarded with a PhD in History from ANU for his thesis A Clockwork Climate: An Atmospheric History of Northern Australia. An historian with research interests in weather, climate, oceans, modern scientific and environmental knowledge, northern Australia, southern Asia and time, Chris also holds a first-class honours degree in History from Sydney University.

His current project is a weather and climate history of the Indonesian Maritime Continent and the Arafura Timor Region (including the Top End) post 1600CE.


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In Western thinking weather, climate and time are bound in a seldom-explored conceptual nexus. Hesiod, Hellenistic Greeks, the Romans, British Almanacs, and, since the Seventeenth Century, official scientific studies of weather have understood climate in terms of regular and typical kinds of weather at particular times of year. Nature was like a clock, working to time. Weather happens in time, but also often marks time. With British colonialism these ideas were exported to this continent. So, culture shaped climate.

Examining both the weather history and the history of weather observation in Australia’s far north this paper will show that colonisers imposed a temporal regularity on the region’s weather and climate discordant with its recorded weather history. It also demonstrates that this notion of climate linked to regularly timed weather events was blind to a salient feature of the region’s atmospheric dynamics: its temporal variability from one year to the next.

With climate change we now have the complexity of additional variation to an already variable climate. Generally discussed in terms of quantities - rising average temperatures, increasing or decreasing mean rainfalls – climate change also has crucial and often overlooked temporal dimensions. This paper will highlight the need to understand historical patterns in the timing of weather in understanding climate and climate change, as well as the implications of these patterns for current Western ideas about seasons. It will also argue that a more sophisticated understanding of the weather-climate- time nexus will not only help us better grasp the implications of climate change, but also will yield many signals as to its progress. Finally, I will speculate on how climate change might manifest in northern Australia on a variety of time scales.

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