Measuring environmental impact

Chair: Matthew Bristow (VCH)


Disappearing worlds: An archival study of environmental change in the glaciers of the Mer de Glace using historical cartography and photographic surveys

John Hessler (Library of Congress)

When one looks at many of the regions of the Alps today, instead of snow-capped and glacier-topped mountains, one sees bare, dark rock, where white snow and ice once stood. This image is a stark reminder of the current effects of global warming on these fragile mountain environments. A glance through the many scientific journals in the field of glaciology shows how many studies have recently been produced that are concerned with attempts to quantify the extent of this melting. There are few studies however, that have looked at this melting using archival and historic sources. This paper looks at the change in the glaciers of the Mer de Glace, a large glacier system around Mount Blanc in France, through the use of historic cartography, photographs, and drawings made from 1768–1940.

The geographic region around this glacier system was well traveled, photographed and mapped throughout the 19th century, with some studies surviving from earlier times. The first quantifiable map of the region was made by the Scottish scientist James Forbes in 1842, and the triangulations found in his field notebooks provide a baseline to compare later cartography of the region and to map the extent of glacial retreat. This paper uses these archival sources, along with modern GIS (geographic information systems) to show how historical materials can be used to document environmental change. The study can be seen as a case study of how these types of quantifiable historical records can be used in the study of environmental history.


Climate, fascism and ibex: a case study in historical animal population trends

Wilko Graf von Hardenberg (Trento)

In the about 40 years following 1955, the time series of ibex population census data in the Gran Paradiso National Park (Italy) has been correlated with both the population density and the harshness of winter climate. The statistical model developed to explain the time series in the postwar years does however not smoothly fit for the period after the mid 1990s.

Similarly, census data for the interwar years show a trend that seemingly does not reflect either density or climate. In fact the population steadily progressed from 2,370 to 3,865 ibex between 1922 and 1933, and then plummeted to just 419 ibex in 1945.

This paper presents thus the results of an attempt to apply the cited model to the data available for the period from the park’s institution in 1922 until the end of World War II. The aim is to understand how far the model may actually fit pre-World War II trends and whether further  anthropic variables (worsening of surveillance quality, poaching, sabotage, etc.) should be introduced to explain the overall time series.

What will also be discussed is the soundness and usability of historical animal censuses: may the data gathered during the fascist regime be considered to be a reliable mirror of the actual size of animal population or are there hints that they may be somehow biased?



Dead polecats: a Yorkshire perspective

Chris Webb (York)

Man’s relationship to, and influence on, the natural environment is a key historical question with clear implications for contemporary public policy, particularly in the context of the current debate about hunting with dogs, the role of keepers on shooting estates, and the nature of the contract between taxpayer and farmer. It is, however, an area in which the research of historians is not at all integrated with the research of scientists, who have almost all struggled to appreciate the historical context of the records they have used. There is a great range of material (from payments under the vermin acts to contemporary bag records) that can tell us much more than we currently know about the ecology, management and exploitation of the English countryside since the 16th century. Some of it has been used previously but the material has never been assembled in one place to create a coherent analysis, nor has it been analysed with anything like a proper historical perspective. To yield meaningful results this evidence needs to be gathered, processed and interpreted in a wider and richer local and historical context. This paper will show by means of case studies how the two approaches may be married to open up new research questions and suggest the creation of new interdisciplinary research teams.