We live in an age where the impacts of climate change are seen daily. Data on global and local conditions is vital to our further understanding of adaptability and resilience both as protection from storms as well as mitigating longer term impacts. While understanding where we’re at in modern times is essential, comparing that to historical reference conditions connects threads from past to present and enlivens this discussion. Thus in the spirit of hidden hydrology and linkage to climate and rainfall, I was fascinated to learn about the book Climatology of the United States, And of the Temperate Latitudes of the North American Continent, authored by Lorin Blodget in 1857. This is interesting as it coincides with much of the development of Pacific Northwest cities in the mid 1850s so is a good indication of some predevelopment metrics, but more importantly is towards the beginning of the global Industrial Revolution (centered in London and radiating outwards), which led to rapid increase in development of industrial infrastructure and processes that created significant amounts of atmospheric CO2, which is arguably one of the biggest contributors to climate change.

This volume is 569 pages, packed full of info (and a massive PDF also).  Most interesting to me and the original link i found was the amazing maps (abbreviated viewer here of the maps from the publication if you don’t want to download the whole thing) covering the world and specifically covering the temperate landscape of the Northern Hemisphere, with a focus on North America.  In the introduction, some rationale for the project from Blodget.

I’m assumed he was referring to Alexander von Humboldt, but had missed the reference and probably would if he wouldn’t have mentioned it above.  After some digging I noticed a deft reference in  ‘The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism’ (Aaron Sachs, 2007).  Sachs links the two, mentioning on page 25-26, “Almost all American scientists in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, no matter what subfields they waded into, considered themselves disciples of Humboldt. One such author, Lorin Blodget, inserted a quote from the master himself on the title page of his own magnum opus, Climatology of the United States, to make a kind of textual frontispiece.” 

The quote in small print on the front:

Like Humboldt’s work, the illustrations and summary visualizations of the phenomena he was describing, Climatology includes amazing illustrations (do yourself a favor and click the images in this post to enlarge them.  The banner image of global temperatures above in the banner, as well as the world spanning ‘Comparison of Precipitation for the Temperate Latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere’ is Humboldtian indeed:

The smaller diagrammatic maps also evoke Humboldt’s stratification by elevation, captured in Blodget’s ‘Profile of the Altitudes’ for both the Pacific Coast of North America and the West Coast of Europe are some simple info-graphics rich in information and easily accessible.

The main substance of the document is the maps, include temperature (isothermal) and precipitation (hyetal) maps.  There is a world view of both – as you’ve seen examples of above, but the focus is on North America, so each season is represented, along with an average annual.  Summer and Winter are shown below, the difference being hopefully obvious:

The legend describes the map info, including max. and min. ranges for temps.

And a close-up of the Pacific Northwest shows the level of detail – along with a glimpse at the base map, which is similar, mostly in how topography is represented, to the one well know in the region as the 1859 Map of the state of Oregon and Washington Territory.

We take a lot for granted the amount of data, A challenge of the process was to gather and assimilate diverse information from a variety of sources, due to the fact that there was no consensus on the measurement and documentation of either temperature and rainfall data.  Blodget spends a lot of time explaining the process, with a specific focus: “These references are deemed necessary to show that no part of the present work, whether supported by statistics and illustrators or not, was is the result of hasty or superficial discussion, and that all the steps of analytical investigation and detailed criticism required for such a purpose as that of constructing an approximate climatology, have been taken in advance.”

The rainfall maps are interesting as well showing in a variety of data, in shaded portions based on inches of rain.  The image for annual totals shows the wetness of the southeast United States and the Pacific Northwest.

Zooming into the Southeast US – we see the intensity of rain in the southern tip of Florida, along with the Mississippi Delta.  These are beautiful maps, considering they were done over 150 years ago, and the subtlety of shading and texture represented.

These are best represented in sequence (and i do love a good animation) so I did a quick overlay and made them step through seasons starting in Spring and sequencing through Summer, Autumn and Winter.  Note the Pacific Northwest wet winter / dry summer cycle, and the overall difference between the coasts/interior as well as West Coast / East Coast.  Somethings don’t change.  Click to enlarge to make it a bit more legible.

I’ve yet to dive fully into the text, but have some context in the maps, and a curiosity to see the data at this level of analysis overlaid with modern information on isothermals and hyetals to show changes, in average and seasonal temps, changes in rainfall, and related hydrology and changes in things like plant hardiness ranges.  Lots to unpack.  While looking at this, I did find an earlier reference by Blodget, a slim volume published in 1853 which also tackles climate in reference to it’s impact on Sanitary conditions in cities, delving into the connections between climate and public health – well, 164 years ago.

The visual nature of the 1857 publication is not to be dismissed. The publisher J.B. Lippencott & Co., acknowledges the rarity of a book of this era having the size of quality plates, and their goal to make this available to the public at a reasonable cost.  Such an interesting dilemma in our digital age, but one I’m glad for in terms of the production of this imagery as well as it’s preservation and archive.  Just think, all this could have been yours in 1857 for the price of five dollars.

The climate data today… priceless.

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