An anatomy of storm surge science at Liverpool Tidal Institute 1919-1959 : forecasting, practices of calculation and patronage
PublisherUniversity of Manchester
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When the effects of wind and air pressure combine with a high tide to give unusually high water levels this can lead to severe coastal flooding. This happened in England in early 1953 when 307 people died in the East Coast Flood. In Britain today such events, now called storm surges, are forecast daily using computer models from the National Oceanographic Centre in Liverpool, formerly the Liverpool Tidal Institute (TI). In 1919, when TI was established, such events were considered unpredictable. TI's researchers, Joseph Proudman (1888-1975), Arthur Doodson (1890-1968), Robert Henry Corkan (1906-1952) and Jack Rossiter (1919-1972), did much mathematical work to attempt to change this. In 1959 Rossiter published a set of statistical formulae to forecast storm surges on the East Coast and a national warning system was predicting such events using these formulae. At this point TI believed they had made surges at least as predictable as they could with their existing methods. This thesis provides a narrative of how this perceived rise in the predictability of surges happened, analysing how TI worked to achieve it between 1919 and 1959 by following two interwoven, contingent and contested threads: practices of calculation and patronage. A key aspect of this thesis is the attention I pay to material practices of calculation: the methods, technologies and management practices TI's researchers used in their mathematical work on storm surge forecasting. This is the first study by historians of oceanography or meteorology that pays this detailed level of attention to such practices in the construction of forecasting formulae. As well as using published accounts, I analyse statistical research in the making, through notes, calculations, graphs and tables produced by TI's researchers. They used particular practices of calculation to construct storm surges as calculable and predictable scientific objects of a specific kind. First they defined storm surges as the residuals derived from subtracting tidal predictions from observations. They then decided to use multiple regression, correlating their residuals with pressure gradients, to make surges predictable. By considering TI's practices of calculation the thesis adds to the literature on mathematical research as embodied and material, showing how particular practices were used to make a specific phenomenon predictable. I combine this attention to mathematical practice with analysis of why TI's researchers did this work. US historians have emphasised naval patronage of physical oceanography in this period but there is very little secondary literature for the British case. The thesis provides a British case study of patronage of physical oceanography, emphasising the influence on TI's work not only of naval patronage but also of local government, civil state and industrial patronage. Before TI's establishment Proudman argued that it should research storm surges to improve the Laplacian theory of tides. However, when the new Institute received patronage from the local shipping industry this changed and the work on forecasting surges was initially done as part of a project to improve the accuracy of tidal predictions, earning TI further patronage from the local shipping industry. After a flooding event in 1928 the reasons for the work and the patronage again shifted. Between then and 1959 TI did this work on commission from various patrons, including local government, civil state and military actors, which connected their patronage to national debates about state involvement in flood defence. To understand why TI's researchers worked on forecasting surges I analyse this complex mix of patrons and motivations. I argue that such complex patronage patterns could be fruitfully explored by other historians to further existing debates on the patronage of oceanography.