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Reflection: Howkins and the Environmental History of Antarctica

February 23rd, 2012
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    Adrian Howkins

    by Peter Rumbles*

    One of the most fascinating aspects of studying Antarctica – at least from a historical perspective – is that humans have only been present on the continent for the last one hundred years. While other historians have argued that to study the history of a place, a human presence is needed, Adrian Howkins of Colorado State University believes that the relative absence of human interaction with Antarctica offers a unique historical challenge. In his talk, titled Taylor’s Valley: Researching the Early History of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Howkins examines the environmental history of Antarctica, using evidence provided by the expeditions of Captain Scott and Griffith Taylor from the first decade of the twentieth century. Howkins focuses specifically on the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, for in doing so, he is able to use Taylor’s sledging diaries and on-site geological reports to compare the environment of the region in 1910 to its present day self.

    Because of the lack of cartographic and scientific knowledge of Antarctica prior to human contact, Howkins is afforded a blank space with which to work. What is most interesting about Howkins’ research is that the relatively short period of human history on Antarctica means that in addition to understanding the environmental history of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Howkins may also be able to develop a broader theory of environmental history that can be used to better understand other similar locations.

    While the central theme of Howkins talk resided in environmental history, he was able to incorporate a variety of other historical patterns. In deciding to explore Antarctica, Howkins raises interesting points regarding issues of race, class, and masculinity that emanated both between exploration teams, and within them. Additionally, Howkins used the landscape perceptions of Taylor to compare to those from the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958), and to his own, from present. In doing this, Howkins was able to set a baseline for the history of science on Antarctica, and build up from there. Finally, using Taylor’s data and observations of the dry valleys allowed Howkins to track the environmental changes of the land, providing an ecological understanding to support his historical research.

    *Peter Rumbles is pursuing a Master’s degree in History of Science at Oregon State University

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      2 Responses to “Reflection: Howkins and the Environmental History of Antarctica”

      1. Sean Kheraj says:

        Adrian’s research is really quite fascinating. It raises all kinds of new questions in environmental history about extreme environments and nonhuman places. Readers might want to check out the 2010 Environmental History forum on the topic of extreme environments, which features Howkins’s work:


      2. Miranda Paton says:

        Great stuff!

        Along these same methodological lines, see Richard Bulliet’s book Cotton, Climate and Camels. See:


        I reviewed it for Technology and Culture in 2011 as well. Bulliet writes about about time and place in the history of Iran that is only accessible by only a few bits of archeological evidence. He creates a masterful story, albeit built on a wide range of circumstantial evidence. It’s a brilliant study in the way one can construct a history full of non-human participants from kinds of data not previously considered in concert.

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