A Historian in Antarctica

As the first of a series of blog posts from our new lecturers in 2017/18, Dr Adrian Howkins (Reader in Environmental History) reflects on a Christmas in Antarctica and introduces some of his research interests:

One of the best ways to guarantee a white Christmas is to travel to Antarctica.  Over the past few years, while family and friends back home open presents and tuck into roast dinners, I’ve found myself at the bottom of the world conducting fieldwork in a place called the McMurdo Dry Valleys, the largest ice-free region on the Antarctic continent.  Winter in the northern hemisphere is summer in the southern hemisphere, and this is the only time of year when it’s really possible to travel to Antarctica.  Getting there involves a long flight to Christchurch, New Zealand, and then eight hours on a LC-130 military aeroplane which lands on the sea ice close to McMurdo Station, the largest scientific research station in Antarctica.  After several days of safety briefings and orientations, fieldwork begins by flying forty miles in a helicopter out to the McMurdo Dry Valleys, where a handful of small field camps provide accommodation and laboratory space for the scientists studying this unique landscape.

What is a historian doing conducting fieldwork in Antarctica?  That is a question I’ve asked myself on more than one occasion, especially when the skies cloud over, the wind picks up, and it starts to feel really cold.  The short answer to the question is that since 2011 I’ve been one of a number of principal investigators on the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research site, which has been studying the cold-adapted ecosystems of this region for the past twenty-five years.  I became involved when the project was looking for someone to integrate some sort of “human dimensions” research into the scientific work of the site.  I suggested that in much the same way as the relatively simple ecosystems of the McMurdo Dry Valleys offer interesting opportunities for studying ecological processes, the relatively simple human history of the region offers environmental historians an ideal case study for examining the interactions of human activity, ideas, and the material environment over time, and for integrating this research into the ecological work.

A longer answer to the question of what a historian is doing conducting fieldwork in Antarctica takes me back to my graduate work at the University of Texas where I wrote a doctoral dissertation on the history of a dispute among Britain, Argentina, and Chile over the sovereignty of the Antarctic Peninsula region (on the opposite side of the continent to the McMurdo Dry Valleys).  Following an undergraduate degree in modern history at the University of St Andrews in Scotland I’d gone to Texas to study the history of British relations with Latin America, and I came across the dispute in Antarctica as an extension of the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas conflict between Britain and Argentina.  While conducting my research, I came to realise how important science and the environment were to the political history of the Antarctica Peninsula region, and I embraced environmental history as an approach that could integrate these different elements.  In my first teaching position at Colorado State University I published my dissertation work as Frozen Empires: An Environmental History of the Antarctica Peninsula (Oxford University Press, 2017) and I broadened my research to include the Arctic in a book titled The Polar Regions: An Environmental History (Polity Press, 2016).

This past Antarctic season in the McMurdo Dry Valleys I have been working with soil ecologists on a project to understand the environmental legacy of former field camps.  Field camps began to be established in the late 1950s by US and New Zealand teams working in the valleys, and then some have been removed as scientific priorities have changed and environmental awareness has grown.  This project began with historical research to collect images and reports that document the location and activities of these camps. We then used historical images to help locate the sites, and then took a series of soil samples in a triangular grid around the most impacted areas.  This work involved scooping samples of soil into a plastic whirlpak bag and then taking them bag to the laboratory at McMurdo Station to prepare for biological and chemical analysis.  Through a combination of historical and scientific research we hope to learn more about the impact of human activities in the region, which may be useful for managing the environment more effectively into the future.

Alongside my work in Antarctica, I have also developed an interest in the history of parks and protected areas more generally.  I have co-edited a collection titled National Parks Beyond the Nation: Global Perspectives on “America’s Best Idea (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016), which examined how US national park ideas both influenced and were influenced by the experiences of other parts of the world.  I’ve worked on a number of projects involving US National Parks, including Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and Scotts Bluff National Monument in Nebraska.  At Rocky Mountain National Park we developed a program called “Parks as Portals to Learning,” which involved taking environmental history students up to the park for a week of intensive study based on the question of how insights from academic history can be incorporated into the practical management challenges of running a park.  I’m hoping to be able to develop something similar for students at the University of Bristol over the next few years.

A common theme in much of my recent work has been to ask how environmental history research can help to address some of the social and environmental challenges facing the world in the twenty first century.  In Antarctica, for example, it’s difficult to develop effective environmental management strategies without looking at the legacy of past human activities.  This concept of “applied environmental history” connects well with the University of Bristol’s strengths in public history, and offers opportunities for reaching out to partners beyond the University, at a variety of different scales.  It is an exciting time to be doing environmental history, and I’m very pleased to be at the University of Bristol.

Dr Adrian Howkins.

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