Towards a Forensics of Climate Knowledge: On Meteorological Infrastructures, Historical Sensibilities, and Invisible Weather Balloons

Robert-Jan Wille

8 min readNov 23, 2023
German soldiers launching a weather balloon in the First World War

​​From January 19 to 22, FIBER hosted Part 4 of its Reassemble Lab: The Weathercapes Lab. The Lab broadly explored how the weather works; from the relationship between weather and climate as well as the relationships between weather measurements and the development of contemporary forecasting models and computer technology, and more.

For Robert-Jan Wille, the Weatherscapes lab was about collectively thinking and working on what it means to study the weather. It also taught him how important it is that artists contribute to climate literacy. Robert-Jan’s contribution is to stress the importance of historical literacy. Archives can teach us a lot about how climatological and meteorological knowledge systems came to be, how what was visible became invisible, and how some invisible technologies became visible when they broke down.

According to the sociologist of science and technology Susan Leigh Star, infrastructures only become visible to a larger public when they break down. [1] For example, the Russian war against Ukraine made many Europeans realize how dependent they had grown on the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines. Simultaneously, African countries now had to identify the extent of their reliance on the supply of Ukrainian and Russian grain through numerous ships leaving the currently blocked Black Sea harbors.

So because of the war, we see pipelines and container ships everywhere.

Not only wars reveal all kinds of infrastructures in detail. The COVID-19 pandemic provided a powerful demonstration of global reliance on planes and airports. The breakdown of air transport did not only point out a general economic dependency on aerial logistics of food and energy, it also showed other dependencies on the aviation industry, especially that of the global knowledge system. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) now had to look for alternative ways of measuring the higher atmosphere, since airplanes carrying weather instruments had to stay on the ground for a while.

Behind wars and pandemics looms another potentially even bigger infrastructural crisis. In many ways, the covid crisis has been a test case for the climate crisis. What dependencies will ‘global weirding’ of the climate (much warmer in many places, a bit colder in a few places, longer and more extreme hot and cold spells, changing hurricane paths, changing patterns of drought and monsoon, changing ocean currents, etcetera) and the destruction of many human habitats demonstrate?

For sure, the climate crisis will also disrupt the knowledge system, in the Global South probably more so than in the North. How will human-induced extreme weather, drought, rising sea levels, pollution, and other climate emergencies uncover vital knowledge infrastructures?

And it is not just the climate crisis, it is everything mentioned above brought together, and more. It is tempting to see the climate crisis as the main horseman of a more general capitalist Apocalypse in which, next to war and pandemics, pollution also functions as a horseman.

How, for example, does pollution make infrastructures visible? Take a look at outer space beyond the Kármán line (100 km above us), where many satellites are. Thanks to competing and even warring states and because of new space companies such as SpaceX, we find out that this is not a place of unlimited growth despite the numerous slogans. Instead of being a free frontier, the ‘satellite sphere’ has become a hazardous zone full of debris moving at high speeds. There will be a moment when this space becomes saturated with ‘broken’ infrastructures. How to safely collect weather data in the Anthropocene’s outer space now becomes an important geo-political question. Suddenly other layers need to be harvested more for data collection: the upper atmosphere, for example, expanding the ‘pollution game’.

Photographs of the German expedition and overwintering in Greenland in 1930/31

War, climate change, and pollution are all part of the bigger problem: the global addiction to economic growth and austerity policies at the same time, causing more and more exploitation of the Earth. But at the same time, one could counter: did not growth and prosperity make all these new technologies possible?

The paradox is that vital knowledge infrastructures have historically depended on the same hunger for growth and progress. We were able to observe climate change because of the global investment in big science and big data, the consequence of international cooperation, competition, conflict, and colonization. This made weather satellites possible.

Now here it gets interesting: disruptions caused by climate change create both new visibilities and new invisibilities. Disruptions in the atmospheric observation system caused by atmospheric disturbances painfully demonstrate the importance of scientific infrastructures, but subsequently, failures to address these disruptions in the long term make it harder to keep monitoring the weather and climate change.

It makes climate change invisible again. To amend the ‘infrastructural law of Susan Leigh Star’, one is tempted to say that when infrastructures fail, infrastructures become visible. However, when visibly broken infrastructures are not repaired, the things that these infrastructures are meant to ‘support’ become invisible again.

Towards infrastructural literacy

Two corporals of an RAF mobile meteorological unit prepare to send up a balloon to measure the wind speed and cloud height, 2 January 1940.

I think I have made it clear by now that we do not only need ‘weather and climate literacy’, but we also need ‘infrastructural literacy’. It is important that we cannot separate understanding weather from comprehending the knowledge systems and infrastructures that make it possible to understand the weather.

That is not only important for the sake of the durability of these infrastructures, but also for the sake of epistemic justice: knowledge infrastructures are neither good nor bad; nor are they neutral, to paraphrase the first ‘law of technology’ of historian Melvin Kranzberg. [2] Which infrastructures need to be repaired if they break down, and which infrastructures are okay to break down? What if the global atmospheric observation system breaks down? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? For whom? Perhaps ethicists, philosophers, and even theologians should have a say here as well.

However, I would like to propose a third form of literacy related to climate and weather: a historical literacy, or even better, a historical sensibility! Elsewhere I have proposed that historians should develop an ‘atmospheric’ sensibility, [3] but as an addendum, here I propose that atmospheric scientists and artists should be similarly aware of the historical context of the infrastructures they are working with.

Having a historical sensibility means doing a kind of forensic work: how did specific infrastructures come about? When did they emerge for the first time, and out of which older infrastructures did they grow? What are the histories of its elements? How many historical (‘old’) parts do current infrastructures still carry in them? And if newer infrastructures break down, do we need to fall back on historical infrastructures?

Concrete examples

Listening to some of the talks at the Weatherscapes workshop, I found the art of Sébastien Robert very inspiring, especially his Back-and-forth (2021–2022), [4] where he captured a ‘forgotten technology’ to draw weather maps on Vlieland beach sand: the weather fax or WEFAX. Since the 1940s, the German weather service has been sending them from Hamburg via radio waves and has not stopped doing it.

The Back-and-forth project also compares the weather maps that are sent through fax with eighteenth-century maps of the Dutch engineer Nicolaas Kruik -better known as Cruquius- (1678–1754), to show where weather map symbols come from. He concludes that to understand the weather system we need to know how we have historically learned to communicate the weather, which kind of technologies we used, and which kinds of symbols we developed.

Just like the open source ‘satellite séances’ of Sasha Engelmann, [5] Robert demonstrated how DIY practices can expose the infrastructures of making and knowing the weather, technologies both new and old. But where Engelmann focuses on satellites and making big technologies accessible to a larger audience, Robert opens up the magical world of forgotten technologies.

But are forgotten technologies automatically obsolete? The fax still forms a vital tool in German bureaucratic culture. But indeed, the artist beautifully shows what historian of technology David Edgerton called the ‘shock of the old’. [6] We are shocked because we forgot it existed, and we are shocked because we realize the technology is still important, for us or to others. The weather fax is a living fossil.

Did you know what WMO used as alternatives for the airplanes stuck during COVID-19? They replaced them with weather balloons. Did you know what China uses to study the weather and American military infrastructures, now that outer space is more and more filled with debris? They developed new kinds of meteorological and military balloons. In her Weatherscapes talk Daphne Dragona reminded us how important the relationship between meteorological and military infrastructures was and still is. Lots of these relationships are invisible, but they are there.

In 2023, I visited the Ottoman Archives in Istanbul myself and saw how the Ottomans asked German meteorologists to invest in a new weather service, with field stations all over the Eastern Mediterranean, Anatolia, and the Black Sea. The Germans launched a lot of weather balloons during the First World War. They even destroyed enemy (Russian) weather stations. If you know where to find the documents, archives are a big place for researching the relationship between war, economy, meteorology, and technological infrastructures.

Meteorological observatories still depend on the weekly launch of balloons. It is not a technology we can only find in Amazon Prime’s heroic Victorian movie The Aeronauts, it is a technology in which states and companies still invest a lot.

Let’s keep monitoring these weather balloons, also historically, and in the context of many other meteorological technologies. How did they become so invisible to us? For better climate literacy, more transparency is needed on how balloons were sometimes our friends, and sometimes our enemies.

Robert-Jan Wille is a historian of science at the Freudenthal Institute, Utrecht University. He specializes in the history of the institutionalization of field science in the 19th and 20th centuries, especially within the context of imperialism and European competition. He has written about the history of Dutch Indies laboratory biology (a public book: Mannen van de microscoop, 2019) and German atmospheric physics. Recently he published on weather vanes in an ecocritical guide to Venice, and a book on the history and philosophy of scientific speculation (De gordel van Kisjar, 2023).


[1] Susan Leigh Star, ‘The Ethnography of Infrastructure’, American Behavioral Scientist 43 (1999) 377–391.

[2] Melvin Kranzberg, ‘Technology and History: “Kranzberg’s Laws”’, Technology and Culture 27 (1986) 544.

[3] Robert-Jan Wille, ‘Keep Focusing on the Air: COVID-19 and the Historical Value of an Atmospheric Sensibility’, Journal for the History of Environment and Society 5 (2020) 181–193.

[4] See also:

[5] Sasha Engelmann, Sensing Art in the Atmosphere. Elemental Lures and Aerosolar Practices (London: Routledge 2020).

[6] David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old. Technology and Global History Since 1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2007).




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