New podcast episode: The UK National Grid: history of an energy landscape and its impacts

We take electricity for granted and do not think of where it comes from when we switch on a light or use an electrical appliance. But behind the electricity coming out of a wall socket lays an entire energy landscape of poles, wires, electrical substations and power stations. It is imposed on the landscape like a gigantic web, a grid that has become almost part of the natural scenery. Just over a century ago this electricity grid did not exist.

Episode 66 of the Exploring Environmental History podcast discusses the explores the history of the UK National Grid with Cambridge based PhD candidate Kayt Button. She discusses how the coming of the electricity grid changed people’s lives, its environmental impacts and how the past informs the future development of the grid.

Listen to the podcast.

— EH Resources

An (Ice) Bridge to the Past: Niagara Falls has Frozen

by Daniel Macfarlane [Originally published on the Otter]

Niagara Falls has frozen. Well, not really. The entire water flow of the famous Horseshoe Falls doesn’t actually freeze, despite ‘polar vortexes’ (more commonly known to most Canadians as ‘winter’). Water keeps flowing underneath the ice. The American Falls does occasionally dry up due to ice jams upstream (and this has happened once in recorded history to the Horseshoe Falls: see note [1]). Tourists are nonetheless flocking to see the gelid cataract – and some people are even climbing it!

Elevated view of Horseshoe Falls in Winter 2013. Daniel Macfarlane

Elevated view of Horseshoe Falls in Winter 2013. Daniel Macfarlane

Wind can send large chunks of ice from Lake Erie down the Niagara River. Ice jams at the base of the waterfalls form what are known as “ice bridges.”  In the 19th century these congealed water spans became an occasion for festivities, as the two Niagara Falls communities on either side of the international border would use them for transnational ice parties. Talk about having a drink on the rocks!

LAC MIKAN no 3318088

Niagara Falls Ice Bridge around the turn of the century. Wikimedia Commons


People congregating on the Niagara Ice Bridge. Wikimedia Commons

That is, they had ice parties until one fateful day. On February 4, 1912, the ice bridge broke away and raced downstream. 3 people perished. From that point on, such festivities on the ice were prohibited.

But that wasn’t the end of disasters related to ice build up. In 1938, another ice bridge broke free and took out the famed Honeymoon Bridge (see a video of the collapse here).


Ice-induced collapse of the Honeymoon Bridge in 1938. Wikimedia Commons

Obviously there was an ice problem, at least from an anthropocentric perspective.

But ice wasn’t the only aspect of the Niagara system that Canadian and American officials wanted to change. Bilateral efforts had already led to the diversion of massive volumes of water around the falls for hydro and industrial production. These efforts reached their apogee with the 1950 Niagara Treaty. This accord authorized the remaking of the actual waterfalls themselves, with up to ¾ of the water diverted around the waterfall to power stations downstream.  I won’t get into all that, however, since I’ve previously done so on the NiCHE website and other places. [2]

Ice jams don’t jive too well with a highly regulated hydraulic engineering system, which is what Niagara now was. Seeing as how Canadian and American engineers had just given this great – and powerful – natural icon a facelift, regulating ice formation might have seemed like small potatoes by comparison. Yet controlling ice formation in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin had long been marked by scientific uncertainty –   a few years earlier, many of the same officials and engineers spent a great deal of time and effort trying to figure out how to control ice formation on the newly-created St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project. [3] Indeed, I’ve seen the ice problem come up frequently enough in my research on water and hydro developments in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin that I had flagged a few sources and made a mental note to come back to it at some point in the future.

To deal with the Niagara ice issue, in the 1960s the International Joint Commission (IJC), the binational body responsible for border waters, approved the construction of an ice boom to be located where Lake Erie debouches into the Niagara River.

Niagara ice boom map

Map showing Niagara River Ice Boom. IJC

First installed in 1964, the purpose of the Niagara River Ice Boom is to reduce large-scale ice blockages, such as those that result in ice bridges at the foot of the falls. Other benefits of reduced ice formation included the prevention of shoreline flooding and scouring, and ice buildup at the water intakes for the hydro power plants.

Niagara ice boom

Niagara River Ice Boom in action. IJC

The IJC’s International Niagara Board of Control oversees the ice boom’s installation and removal. The boom was initially made of wooden timbers; now it is several hundred 30-foot pontoons. Ice cutters are also employed immediately above the falls. The boom is usually installed around mid-December, depending on temperatures. The Board of Control also operates video cameras mounted on top of tall buildings, and the feed is available to the public: Kind of the opposite of watching a pot boil (though time lapse videos can be quite interesting).

Ice bridges at the falls are, as a result, a thing of the past. Interestingly, since the boom causes large ice fields to congeal, there have been public complaints that this affected the local climate, prolonging the cold and ice in the spring.

Whether or not much of Horseshoe Falls freezes is of course dependent upon climactic conditions. But the ice formation process is also highly regulated by humanity. Thus, like the actual waterfalls themselves, the ice regime at of the Niagara River is a sort of borderlands hybrid envirotechnical system.

So should we ruin the illusion of the tourists flocking to see the ‘frozen’ Niagara?  If they had shown up a little more than a century earlier, they could have been dancing and socializing at the base of the waterfall. But they might also have ended up floating downstream toward the whirlpool on a raft of jagged ice. Probably wise to settle for the view from Table Rock or Terrapin Point. And think about the ways we try to manipulate the natural world.


[1] Ice can stop the flow of water over the smaller American Falls. This has happened at least 5 times. And it happened once in recorded history at the Horseshoe Falls: for a little over 24 hours in late March 1848 Horseshoe Falls stopped because of an ice jam at the start of the Niagara River. (David Phillips. “The Day Niagara Falls Ran Dry,” Canadian Geographic 109, no. 2, April/May 1989, 11)

[2] For a short video see: For longer publications: Daniel Macfarlane, “Creating a cataract: The transnational manipulation of Niagara Falls to the 1950s,” in C. Coates, S. Bocking, K. Cruikshank, & A. Sandberg (Eds.), Urban explorations: Environmental histories of the Toronto region (Hamilton, ON: L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian Studies-McMaster University, 2013); Daniel Macfarlane, “A completely man-made and artificial cataract”: The transnational manipulation of Niagara Falls,” Environmental History, 18(4) (October 2013), 759–784; Daniel Macfarlane, “The International Joint Commission, Water Levels, and Transboundary Governance in the Great Lakes,” Review of Policy Research vol 32, number 1 (2015).

[3] See Chapter 6 of Daniel Macfarlane, Negotiating a River: Canada, the US, and the Creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014).


Prix de thèse SFHU 2015. Appel à candidature. Date limite: 30 avril 2015.

Prix de thèse 2015 –  Société Française d’Histoire Urbaine (SFHU)

La Société Française d’Histoire Urbaine (SFHU) ouvre, pour sa 5e session, au titre de l’année 2015, un concours de thèses qui s’adresse aux jeunes docteurs en histoire urbaine. Par cette initiative, la SFHU vise à encourager de jeunes chercheurs et à favoriser la plus large diffusion possible de leurs travaux (voir les archives du prix de thèse sur le site

Objet du concours

Le lauréat du concours sera récompensé par une somme de 2000 euros.

Conditions de participation

Le prix est ouvert aux docteurs ayant soutenu une thèse d’histoire urbaine, rédigée en français, durant l’année (civile) 2014. Les thèses d’habilitation à diri­ger des recherches et les thèses de l’École nationale des chartes ne seront pas retenues.

Sont recevables toutes les thèses qui abordent le fait urbain dans son historicité, quels que soient la période, l’espace et la discipline académique (histoire, droit, urbanisme, architecture, histoire de l’art…) concernés.

Constitution du dossier de candidature

Pour s’inscrire, le docteur doit faire acte de candidature en envoyant à la SFHU (voir ici), un dossier dématérialisé qui comprendra les éléments suivants :

– le formulaire de candidature (ci-dessous, télécharger ou copier) dûment rempli (en version électronique non pdf) ;

– un résumé de la thèse entre 10 000 et 20 000 signes (en version électronique) ;

– un curriculum vitae (en version électronique) ;

– une version électronique de la thèse au format pdf (volume maximum souhaité par fichier 10 Mo ; voir détails ci-dessous).

 Procédure d’attribution du prix

Le jury sera composé des membres du bureau de la SFHU. Il examinera l’ensemble des thèses recevables et pourra s’adjoindre des experts extérieurs, français et étrangers.


Les candidatures seront enregistrées jusqu’au 30 avril 2015 minuit, délai de rigueur (par voie électronique, à l’adresse

Les résultats seront proclamés en novembre 2015 au plus tard et le prix remis lors de l’AG annuelle et de la journée d’étude de la SFHU en janvier 2016.


Offre de post-doctorat. Labex “Dynamite”. Date-limite: 26 avril 2015

Au titre de l’année 2015, le LabEx DynamiTe met au concours 2 contrats doctoraux (3 ans) et 3 contrats post-doctoraux (1 an). Une partie d’entre eux concernent l’histoire de l’environnement et l’histoire des réseaux techniques.

Les profils détaillés des postes peuvent être consultés ici.


Northern Science and Indigenous Knowledge: Lecture from my Environmental Science and Politics course

Last week in my Environmental Science and Politics class it was time to talk about northern science and Indigenous knowledge.  Here are my slides from the lecture:

— Stephen Bocking - Environment, History, Science

Alumni Publish Book on the Organization of Transport

Book edited by alumnus Massimo Moraglio includes chapters by past and present RCC scholars

— Rachel Carson Centre LMU - News and Events

Offre de post-doctorat. “L’environnement en Limousin”.

Dans le cadre d’un appel à projet thématique consacré à l’histoire de l’environnement en Limousin, il s’agit de tester l’hypothèse d’une apparition précoce et d’un renouvellement permanent depuis les XVIIIe et XIXe siècles et jusqu’au XXIe siècle des préoccupations environnementales en Limousin. Ce projet s’attachera à dégager les éléments de continuité, éventuellement de transmission, susceptibles de caractériser différentes phases ou cycles d’émergence, d’expression et de traductions (sociales, territoriales, politiques) de cette sensibilité aux questions environnementales.

Consulter la fiche de poste dans son intégralité

Durée du post-doctorat

1 an, de septembre 2015 à septembre 2016.

Profil des candidats

Docteurs en histoire ayant, par leurs travaux, montré une sensibilité à l’histoire de l’environnement, du paysage, de la protection de la nature, de l’écologie, de l’hygiénisme, des risques industriels… ou à l’histoire rurale régionale.

Conditions de recevabilité des candidats :

– N’avoir pas été doctorant financé à l’Université de Limoges

– Pouvoir faire valoir un excellent niveau scientifique

Les dossiers de candidature sont à adresser, jusqu’au 4 juin 2015, sous forme numérique exclusivement (fichier PDF) à :


McLean lectures now available

Would you like to see Tina Loo’s 2015 McLean lectures in Canadian Studies, “Moved by the State: Forced Relocation and a ‘Good Life’ in Postwar Canada”?   Links for the videos and podcasts can be accessed on the UBC Canadian Studies website:   Enjoy!

— Matthew Evenden - Canadian Water History

In the news: Past and Future California Droughts

<From Origins> The West without Water: What Can Past Droughts Tell Us About Tomorrow? by B. Lynn Ingram “Almost as soon as European settlers arrived in California they began advertising the place as the American Garden of Eden. And just as quickly people realized it was a garden with a very precarious water supply. Currently, […]

— Climate History Network

Northern Caribou: Changing Ideas about Humans and Environmental Change

Caribou — now you see them, now you don’t (Credit: Oil on Ice)Last month the Government of Nunavut (which covers about half of Arctic Canada) imposed a ban on caribou hunting on Baffin Island.  The action was in response to a sharp decline in their abundance.  One of the reasons this is interesting (besides the fact that this is the first time a ban has ever been imposed here) is that it provides a nice signpost of how scientific and local understandings of caribou populations have changed in recent years.
Back in the 1950s biologists warned of a “caribou crisis,” with their extinction possibly imminent.  John Sandlos and Tina Loo, among others, have examined this episode in considerable detail.  At the time, officials attributed the decline to human actions, mainly uncontrolled hunting.  Natural factors (that is, factors not traceable back to humans) were explicitly excluded from consideration, mainly, it appears, because such factors weren’t subject to management.  They weren’t, to use a well-worn word, legible.
Now, though, natural cycles seem to have become a widely accepted feature of northern caribou populations, with their abundance changing dramatically independent of anything humans might do.  One of the consequences is a more adaptive approach to caribou: although they have not necessarily declined because of human actions, the low population suggests the need to stop hunting so that they will not be pushed over the edge.
Overall, this appears to be a story of how historical views of environmental change – in this case, changes in caribou populations – can show both continuity and sharp change.  While it’s still acknowledged that yes, caribou populations sometimes decline sharply, explanations for this have changed quite radically.  One of the key factors responsible seems to be a changing view of the relative importance of human and natural agency in the north.

— Stephen Bocking - Environment, History, Science