“Flood, Fire, and Ice: Environmental History and Environmental Extremes”

February 26, 2015 4:30pm

A panel discussion featuring Dr. Ruth Alexander and Dr. Adrian Howkins, faculty in History, and Dane Vanhoozer, History graduate student and USFS firefighter

The panelists will offer brief presentations that demonstrate how historians are drawing on (and contributing to) the work of resource managers and ecologists while researching the history of extreme environments and events. We look forward to a lively discussion with the audience after our presentations. The abstracts of our three panelists are below:


The Great Colorado Flood of 2013

Ruth M. Alexander


The floods that swept across Northern Colorado in September 2013 were extraordinary in their severity and scope, destroying property and resources across seventeen counties. Eight people lost their lives. This was a hydro-geologic event, possibly related to climate change, in which heavy rainfall over many days produced both devastating floods and perilous landslides. Recognizing the significance of the flood to the state of Colorado, the 2013 Northern Colorado Oral History Flood Project interviewed thirty individuals who held direct professional or official responsibility for flood mitigation, preparation, relief, and recovery in 2013. The collected interviews (thirty in number, some involving multiple informants) highlight the substantial present-day commitment of water and emergency managers to flood management plans that acknowledge the inseparability of societal sustainability from ecosystem function. The interviews also point to an array of obstacles, some rooted in earlier understandings of the human-nature dynamic, which impede flood management based on principles of human-ecosystem sustainability.



Pyric Contentions:

America’s Wildfire Narrative

Dane Vanhoozer

America’s wildfire problems resulted from fire suppression and the exclusion of anthropogenic fire.  Resource managers struggle to define the acceptable range of human and ecological values for wildfire to burn.  The government has pushed fire suppression technology to its limit.  Increasing budgets brings more air-tankers, helicopters, and hand-crews to bear on wildfires, but there are no technological innovations that will fundamentally change firefighting.  Firefighting assumes that wildfire is an elemental force within the realm of human control.  Historians must communicate America’s new wildfire narrative so the public appreciates the nonmarket values and long-term ecological services provided by wildfire.


Antarctica: History in an Extreme Environment

Adrian Howkins


Antarctica is the coldest, driest, and windiest continent on the planet.  In much the same way that floods and fires offer fascinating insights into human relations with the natural world, Antarctica’s extreme environment presents an ideal location for thinking about the theory and practice of environmental history.  In particular, the relative simplicity of the continent’s history makes possible a detailed analysis of the interactions of human activity, environmental perceptions, and the material environment over time.  This presentation will draw upon the author’s experiences of working with a team of ecologists in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica in order to ask questions about what the southern continent might contribute to the field of environmental history.  


LSC Room 324