The Columns

Carey Receives NSF Grant to Study Natural Disasters and Climate Change

— by on September 19th, 2008

Between 1941 and 1970, retreating glaciers in the Peruvian Andes caused three floods and two avalanches that resulted in the deaths of about 30,000 people.

For Mark Carey, an environmental historian at Washington and Lee University, those natural disasters and the ways in which scientists, engineers, environmentalists, and the local population have reacted to them not only provide a window into the past but also offer opportunities to learn what we will face in the future.

Carey has received a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for his research project, which is titled “Glacier Science and Technology in the Central Andes: The Quest to Control Natural Disasters and Climate Change.”

The 2007 winner of the Leopold-Hidy Prize for the best article in the journal Environmental History, Carey is currently working on a book manuscript on the social history of climate change and glacier retreat in the Peruvian Andes and how glaciers have affected all levels of Peruvian society.

Carey will use the NSF grant to study historical relationships among science, technology, and society in the context of global climate change and persistent environmental hazards.

Among the issues he intends to examine is the often complex interaction between local populations and the scientists and engineers who bring technical solutions.

“The goal is to use history to identify the types of societal, political, economic and cultural problems that emerge from climate change rather focusing more on the scientific understandings of climate history or climate change, which is what our society generally emphasizes,” Carey said.

For example, enhanced technology in the form of, say, satellite images can now be used to determine more precisely the kinds of hazards the receding glaciers present to particular areas in the Andes. But this new technology may not necessarily help the local population comprehend those hazards or respond to them in ways that the scientists or engineers might want.

Carey hopes to show that, historically, the way people have responded to natural disasters caused by the receding glaciers in the Andes has had less do with the science and technology and more to do with the social relations and the power dynamics of the groups involved.

“When you look at these different groups who are interacting, you will see energy companies, water users, local farmers, residents living in areas vulnerable to avalanches or outburst floods, state policy makers, environmental scientists,” Carey said. “How all these groups interact and the different views that they bring will color their own responses to the problem and how they define the problem. By looking at the way these groups have interacted in the past, we can get a better understanding of why people make the decisions they make.”

As Carey explains, the history of these disasters shows that many Andean residents chose to accept or reject disaster prevention plans based on who was making the proposals more than on what the proposals contained.

The three areas that Carey intends to explore through the NSF grant are the capacity for increasingly technical scientific disciplines such as glaciology and hydrology to convey natural hazards to local people, the ways in which the science and disaster mitigation strategies employed by the indigenous people coexist with the Western science and technologies that are now being used, and a comparison between the experience in the Peruvian Andes and the Swiss Alps.

Carey will make site visits to Peru as part of his work and is also collaborating on parts of the project with Swiss anthropologist Ellen Wiegandt at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. He and Weigandt will be analyzing the responses of Swiss residents and engineers to nineteenth-century glacial lake outburst floods in comparison with the Peruvian response to similar floods.

Carey joined the W&L faculty in 2006 following a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley.