Gillen D’Arcy Wood, an English professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign whose work involves the environmental humanities, has been awarded a 2021 Andrew Carnegie Fellowship to develop a database of baseline oceanographic information to enhance marine research, and also to examine the Victorian origins of marine science.
The Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program supports scholarly research in the humanities and social sciences that addresses important issues confronting society. Fellows receive a $200,000 stipend to devote up to two years to research and writing. Wood is one of 26 fellows in the 2021 class chosen from 311 nominees.
The fellows were selected based on the originality, promise and quality of their proposals; the potential impact on their fields; and the nominees’ qualifications and plans to communicate their findings to a broad audience.
Wood’s research interests include earth sciences and climate change. He is the associate director of the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and the Environment, and the director of its environmental writing program. His 2020 book “Land of Wondrous Cold: The Race to Discover Antarctica and the Secrets of its Ice” tells the environmental history of Antarctica through stories of the first explorations of the continent. He also is the author of the 2014 book “Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World,” about the rapid climate deterioration set in motion by the massive 1815 eruption of an Indonesian volcano.
Wood’s project “Oceans 1876” will examine the massive amount of Victorian-era scientific data on the oceans recorded by the British research vessel HMS Challenger. He will digitize the information and make it available in an accessible database. Between 1872-76, Challenger sailed nearly 70,000 miles and recorded data at more than 360 stations worldwide. The mission identified the world’s major ocean basins and currents, as well as 4,700 new species of marine creatures and plants.
The data will serve as a preindustrial historical baseline that can help answer questions about the deteriorating state of the world’s oceans, including changes since Victorian times in ocean temperatures and currents; the range, migration patterns and numbers of marine species; and how acidification and pollution have affected marine ecosystems. Wood also will consider the larger socio-historical narrative of human-marine relations, including the alignment between colonialism and Victorian marine science, and the legacy of the Challenger mission.
In his nomination letter on behalf of Wood, Chancellor Robert J. Jones wrote: “The potential impact of the ‘Oceans 1876’ database, for humanists, scientists and general public alike, is immense. The digitization of the Challenger data in accessible formats will provide a significant service to the general scientific and climate change research communities, enabling a wide range of comparative, historical marine research that is not currently possible. … It will promote greater popular understanding of ocean deterioration, with the potential to influence public opinion on marine protection and inform policy debates on ocean governance.”