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Ruth Mostern, "Levees and Levies: Approaching Yellow River History With Spatial and Historical Datasets”

Monday, March 20, 2017 - 5:00pm

Stiteler Hall, B21

This presentation describes an in-progress digital atlas of the Yellow River, a project in Chinese and environmental history at the scale of the entire Holocene era.  The spatial and historical data that I am developing reveals when and where periodic cycles of colonization and military fortification on the loess plateau caused the erosion that destabilized and transformed the lower course and the river and the floodplain.  It also details the times and places named in texts associated with lower course history: disastrous floods and droughts, commentary about the slow decline of the riparian ecosystem, increasingly intensive attention to levee and canal management, and arguments about funding and strategy.  In short, the aims of this ambitious project are to model the well-known history of the Yellow River with analytical precision, to tell the story of the upper and lower course of the river together, and to do so by combining documentary and ecological data to describe a series of long-term hydrosocial cycles that entrain the entire Yellow River watershed and the society that depends upon it.

Ruth Mostern is Associate Professor of World History at the University of Pittsburgh. Mostern is a specialist in spatial and environmental history focusing on imperial China and the world. An interdisciplinary scholar with research interests bridging the humanities, social sciences, information science and environmental science, she has authored one book and edited another and has completed two major digital publications and eighteen articles. 

Mostern's current research reconstructs the environmental history of the Yellow River as a human and natural system. She is studying the entire river basin (which stretches from the Tibetan plateau to the Pacific Ocean) during a timeframe of approximately 5,000 years in order to assess when, and to what degree, human activity in the upper and middle reaches of the river increased the risk of flooding on the densely populated lower course of the river. She is creating a digital atlas that includes a GIS (a digital mapping system) and database of the dates and locations of disasters and civil engineering works in the river basin. This data-rich atlas will support interdisciplinary advances in the understanding of large-scale human-environmental impact.

Meanwhile, Mostern is also a leading collaborative initiative to create a world-historical “gazetteer” that can facilitate the geocoding of linked open data for large-scale and long-term historical analysis.