Participants: John Powers (Deakin University); Gillian Tan (Deakin University); Ruth Gamble (La Trobe University); Sara Beavis (The Australian National University); James Pittock (The Australian National University)
Abstract: Academic research has traditionally been conducted within sequestered silos, with each discipline following its own approaches and largely communicating within self-limiting communities. But many of today’s biggest problems demand solutions based on data from a range of disciplines, which can be used to find new solutions. This project focuses on the world’s most pressing problem, climate change, and it brings together a diverse team of scientists, ethnographers, and historians to develop a picture of the environmental history of Tibet’s rivers. Tibet’s glaciers are often referred to as the “third pole,” along with the ice caps of the North and South Poles. They are the third largest repository of fresh water in the world, and they’re shrinking at four times the global rate. This has significant ramifications for billions of people because 85% of Asia’s populations depend on rivers that originate in Tibet. Hydrological patterns connected with the Southern Oscillation begin in glaciers in western Tibet, and these determine amounts of rainfall in South and Southeast Asia and Australia, and they also affect the El Niño/La Niña, which determines rainfall across large areas of the globe. Environmental history is uniquely suited to a multidisciplinary approach that uses data from science, history, and ethnography to form comprehensive pictures of the past that can be used as comparators for current situations. Our project is an example of this sort of new approach, one that can lead to results that are both more robust and more expansive than what would be possible for individual researchers working solely within the parameters of their respective disciplines.