John F. Ross: How the West was lost
It is not incidental that the Habsburg Empire, a once-grand and wide-reaching imperial state that unraveled in 1918, employed these pioneering researchers. Coen proposes that in response to the empire’s notoriously convoluted legal structure, its climatologists began to develop a modern, multi-scalar way of thinking about climate—as well as a powerful storehouse of tools for communicating their research to a vast imperial public. This is an arresting story about how politics can shape even the loftiest of sciences.
Azaleas played a surprisingly large role in the new conception of climatology. In the late 1800s, Anton Kerner Ritter von Marilaun spent a not-insignificant amount of his time studying the plants. Specifically, Kerner, a botany professor at the University of Innsbruck, wished to understand their distribution: why the flowers he found growing along an Alpine riverbank could also be found farther afield and at lower elevations. The most immediate explanation was that their seeds had been washed away by springtime snowmelt or carried by mountain winds.
Yet Kerner gradually came to believe something more radical. Isolated pockets of azaleas, he argued, were indicators of a changing climate: As the valleys had warmed over thousands of years, certain populations of Alpine flora had, over generations, colonized the mountainside in search of cooler temperatures and greater moisture. The plants left behind at lower elevations, or foundlings, hinted at “the advance of a given species in one or another direction,” Kerner wrote, “the retreat and extinction of others in historical times.” In his hands, flowers were a tool for slipping along scales of space and time, stepping outside the human frame of things to imagine how climate had slowly changed in the past—and might again in the future.
Dynamic climatology flourished in the Habsburg lands partly due to the empire’s exceptionally diverse natural environment. The state’s topography ranged from Kerner’s Alpine pastures to the shores of the Adriatic, from Carpathian peaks to the Hungarian steppe. As the Habsburg climatologist Julius Hann commented, “Nature has made it easy for the inhabitant of Austria-Hungary to cultivate climatic research.” Beginning in the 1850s, that research included government-sponsored weather stations and field studies in which intrepid scholars logged measurements of temperature, rainfall, wind speed, and seasonal growth. That data slowly fed into a new picture of the global climate.
The new field of climate science was also particularly well suited to the empire’s labyrinthine political and legal arrangements. This was not a unified nation-state, such as France or the United States, so much as a tangled web of nations, ancient sovereignties, and local principalities, assembled over centuries via smart marriages and successful wars. In ways that would have been foreign to their colleagues in other states, Habsburg climatologists were compelled by the empire’s hybrid structure to navigate different scales of time and space on a daily basis. As imperial-royal scientists, for example, Kerner and Hann were both civil servants and independent scholars. They were tasked with gathering new knowledge about local communities and regional landscapes while also contributing to the universal project of modern science—and to the empire’s global reputation. As a daily exercise in scaling, Coen writes, the Habsburg lands “proved good to think with” for field scientists keen on relating local climatic conditions to emerging models of global atmospheric circulation.