Climatic Change

, Volume 113, Issue 1, pp 5–21 | Cite as

‘Telling a different tale’: literary, historical and meteorological readings of a Norfolk heatwave

  • Mike HulmeEmail author


Articulated initially by physical scientists, the idea of anthropogenic global climate change has been subject to increasingly diverse examinations in recent years. The idea has been appropriated by economists, worked with by engineers and, more recently, scrutinised by social scientists and humanities scholars. Underlying these examinations are different, yet rarely exposed, presumptions about what kind of ‘thing’ climate is: a physical abstraction, a statistical construct, an imaginative idea. If the ontological status of climate is rarely made explicit it becomes difficult to know whether the different epistemologies used to reveal climates — and their changing properties — are appropriate. This study offers one way in which the different worlds inhabited by the idea of climate may be revealed. It does so by examining a heatwave: a powerful meteorological phenomenon one would think and one which scientific accounts of climate change tell us will become more frequent in the future. The heatwave in question occurred in July 1900 in the county of Norfolk, England. This heatwave inhabits three very different worlds: the imaginative world of L P Hartley in his novel The Go Between; the historical world of late Victorian Norfolk; and the digital world of the climate sciences. The traces of the heatwave left in these different worlds are varied and access to them is uneven. Constructing an adequate interpretation of this singular climatic event and its meaning is challenging. The study suggests that grasping the idea of climate may be harder than we think. Climates may be ineffable. Yet the approach to the study of climate illustrated here opens up new ways of thinking about the meaning and significance of climate change.


Agricultural Labourer Summer Heat Accidental Death Meteorological Measurement Scientific Account 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I would like to thank the staff of Norwich library for helping access local newspapers for July 1900. Early versions of this paper were presented at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference, Manchester August 2009, in the session ‘Cultural Spaces of Climate’ and in the ‘Environment and Culture’ seminar series at the University of East Anglia in January 2010. The questions and comments of participants at these occasions are acknowledged, as are the helpful suggestions of two anonymous reviewers.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Science, Society and Sustainability (3S) Group, School of Environmental SciencesUniversity of East AngliaNorwichUK

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