Part I: History of climate change science (1836-1969) according to Pulitzer-Prize winning author [General Commentary]
A note by Michael Quirke: I have always found that one of the best ways to learn about the present is to look to the past, so for this post we’ll be looking back in time to explore the history of climate change science. For instance, when was man-made climate change first hypothesized? When did it become an established theory? What were the uncertainties and predictions then compared to now? What breakthroughs in knowledge occurred? What have we recently learned? Recognizing the value of a central narrative (developed through the scientists’ commentary) for our readers to hang their hats on as the dialogue deepens and expands, I’ve been on a hunt for a fair and readable accounting. And I think I’ve found as good of one as any in the following excerpts of the 2011 book ‘The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World‘ by Daniel Yergin. Dr. Yergin is a masterly storyteller and most well known for his Pulizter-Prize winning 1990 epic, ‘The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power.’ This first set of excerpts from ‘The Quest’ covers the period of 1836-1969. A second set covering the period of 1969-1990 will be posting soon. Made sure to keep some of Dr. Yergin’s colorful anecdotes to tie the post together. All excerpts are in block quotes and are being republished under fair use for public commentary by scientists and readers.
Summary of initial comments
Dr. Mauri Pelto: “We have a big gap after Tyndall in time. Fridtjof Nansen, Harald Sverdrup, and Vilhelm Bjerknes deserve some focus. Harald Sverdrup headed the Scripps Institution of Oceanography before Roger Revelle and then Charles Keeling, which would have made a nice story line. Milutin Milankovitch also has to be mentioned.
Regarding the International Geophysical Year in the 1950s, that spawned much research in Antarctica, the Arctic etc., and this should be put in context. Such broad endeavors provided much key baseline data and advanced our methodologies via international cooperation.”
Dr. Bart Verheggen:“Unlike Part II [(coming up next)], I have no real issues here. It reads nicely, with interesting tidbits of information about people’s lives to lighten up the story. I didn’t spot any errors.
These excerpts are basically a timeline, and as such they don’t say very much about the process of science or how we got to know what we know. An interesting exception is the part about Tyndall: How he deduced that the atmosphere must contain elements that are opaque to (infrared) light in order for the world to have gotten out of the last ice age and, rather accidentally, found which gases are the main absorbers.”
Selected excerpts on the history of climate change science (1836-1969) from Daniel Yergin’s “The Quest” with commentary by CCNF scientists
1836: Louis Agassiz proves the climate changes, previous ice age
In 1836, more than a decade before John Tyndall first caught sight of a glacier, [Louis] Agassiz propounded a revolutionary, even shocking idea. There had once been something before the present age. That “before” was an ice age, when much of Europe must have been covered by massive glaciers. […] The ice, Agassiz maintained, came about due to a sudden, mysterious drop in temperature that was part of a cyclical pattern stretching back to the beginning of earth’s history. As the glaciers retreated to the north, they had left behind in their wake the valleys and mountains and gorges and lakes and fjords and boulders and gravel that documented their movement.
1859: John Tyndall provides the “first public, experimentally based account” of the greenhouse gas effect
Tyndall’s fascination with glaciers was rooted in the conviction held by a handful of nineteenth-century scientists that Swiss glaciers were the key to determining whether there had once been an Ice Age. And, if so, why it had ended? And, more frightening, might it come back? That in tern led Tyndall to ask questions about temperature and about that narrow belt of gases that girds the world–the atmosphere. His quest for answers would lead him to a fundamental breakthrough that would explain how the atmosphere works.
Tyndall built a new machine in his basement laboratory in the Royal Institution on Albemarle Street in London. This was his sepcrophotometer, a device that enabled him to measure whether gases could trap heat and light.[Should be ‘spectrophotometer’ – Dr. Pelto] If the gases were transparent, they would not trap heat, and he would have to find some other explanation. He first experimented with the most plentiful atmospheric gases, nitrogen and oxygen. To his disappointment, they were transparent, and the light passed through them. What else could he test? The answer was right there in his laboratory–coal gas–otherwise known as town gas. This was a carbon-bearing gas, primarily methane made by heating coal, that was pumped into his laboratory by the local London lighting company […]. When Tyndall put the coal gas into the spectrophotometer, he found that the gas, though invisible to the eye, was opaque to light; it darkened. Here was his proof. It was trapping infrared light. He then tried water and carbon dioxide. They too were opaque. That meant that they too trapped heat. […]
There on Albermarle Street, just off Piccadilly, was “the first public, experimentally based account” of the greenhouse gas effect. [CH 21, Footnote 7] For this Tyndall ranks as one of the key links in the chain of scientists stretching from the late eighteenth century until today who are responsible for providing the modern understanding of climate.” [Footnote 1: Eve and Casey, Life and Work of John Tyndall, p. 86 (“gases not natural”); Fleming, Historical Perspectives on Climate Change, pp. 68-69 (“in my hands”); Mike Hulme, “On the Origin of the ‘Greenhouse Effect': John Tyndall’s 1859 Interrogation of Nature,” Weather 64, no. 5 (2009), pp. 121-23 (“experimentally based account”).]
Tyndall died in 1893, at age of 1793 […]. His wife had accidentally administered an overdose of sleep nostrum to relieve his intolerable insomnia. As he slipped away, he murmured, “My poor darling, you have killed your John.”
[Dr. Verheggen: “Interesting how he deduced that the atmosphere must contain elements that are opaque to (infrared) light in order for the world to have gotten out of the last ice age and then, rather accidentally, found which gases are the main absorbers.”]
[Dr. Pelto: “We have a big gap after Tyndall in time. Fridtjof Nansen [Late 19th Century/Early 20th Century Norwegian explorer, scientist, humanitarian, and Nobel laureate] deserves a mention.”]
1894: Svante Arrhenius: Predicts global warming and welcomes it, calculates by hand climate sensitivity results within the range of contemporary models (5 to 6 degrees per doubling of CO2); sad that it would take 3,000 years to double CO2
The year after Tyndall’s death, a Swedish chemist named Svante Arrhenius picked up the story. Arrhenius’s was curious as to what effects increasing or decreasing levels of carbon dioxide–or carbonic acid as it was called at the time– would have on climate. He too wanted to weigh in on the mechanisms of the ice ages, the advance and retreat of glaciers, and what he called “some points in geological climatology.” […] Melancholic over his divorce and loss of custody of his son, and with much time on his hands, Arrhenius threw himself into month after month of tedius calculations, sometimes working 14 hours a day, proceeding latitude by latitude, trying by hand to calculate the effects of changes in carbon. […].
His calculations showed that cutting atmospheric carbon in half would lower the world’s temperature by about four to five degrees centigrade [F??]. Additional work indicated that a doubling of carbon dioxide by five to six degrees centigrade. Arrhenius did not have the benefit of supercomputers and advanced computation; he arrived at the above prediction after a tediously huge number of calculations by hand. Nonetheless, his results are in the range of contemporary models. [Footnote 2: Svante Arrhenius, “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air Upon Temperature of the Ground,” The London, Edinburgh and Dublic Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, April 1896, pp. 237-76 (“absorption of the atmosphere”); Julia Uppenbrink, “Arrhenius and Global Warming,” Science 272, no. 5265 (1996), p. 1122.]
Even if he was the first to predict, at least to some degree, global warming, Arrhenius was certainly not worried about the possibility. He thought it would take 3,000 years for CO2 to double in the atmosphere, and in any event, that would be a good thing. He later mused that the increased CO2 concentrations would not only prevent a new ice age but would actively allow mankind to “enjoy ages with more equable and better climates.” […] “My grandfather rang a bell, indeed, and people became extremely interested in it at the time,” said his grandson Gustaf Arrhenius, himself a distinguished chemist. “There was a great flurry of interest in it, but not because of the menace, but because it would be so great. He felt that it would be marvelous to have an improved climate in the ‘northern climes.’ And, in addition, the carbon dioxide would stimulate growth of crops–they would grow better. So he and the people at the time were only sad that in his calculations it would take [so long] to have the marked effect. [Footnote 3: Gustaf Arrhenius Oral History, Scripps Institution of Oceanography Library, April 11, 2006.]
In the decades that followed, the world became much more industrialized. Coal was king, both for electric generation and factories, which meant more “carbonic acid”–CO2–going into the air. But there was little attention given to climate.
[Dr. Pelto: “Vilhelm Bjerknes, the early 20th Century Norwegian physicist and meteorologist, deserves some focus.”]
1938: Guy Callendar, an “iconoclastic” steam engineer, argues that CO2 will lead to global warming
In 1938 an amateur meteorologist stood up to deliver a paper to the Royal Meteorological Society in London. Guy Stewart Callendar was not a professional scientist, but rather an iconoclastic steam engineer. […] [His paper] would restate Arrhenius’s argument with new documentation. […] Amatuer though he was, [Callendar] had more systematically and fully collected the data than anyone else. His work bore out Arrhenius. The results seemed to show that CO2 was indeed increasing in the atmosphere and that would lead to a change in the climate–more specifically, global warming. [Footnote 4: G.S. Callendar, “Can Carbon Dioxide Influence Climate?,” Weather 4 (1949), pp. 310-14 (“checkered history”).]
But Callendar was an amateur, and [his audience] at the Royal Meteorological Society did not take him seriously. After all, he was a steam engineer. Yet what Callendar described–the role of CO2 in climate change–eventually became known as the Callendar Effect. “His claims rescued the idea of global warming from obscurity and thrust it into the marketplace of ideas.” wrote a historian. But it was only a temporary recovery, for over a number of years thereafter, the idea was roundly dismissed. In 1951 a prominent climatologist observed that the CO2 theory of climate change “was never widely accepted and was abandoned.” No one seemed to take it seriously.” [Footnote 5: Weart, “The Discovery of Global Warming” and “The Carbon Dioxide Greenhouse Effect,” (“marketplace of ideas”); Fleming, Historical Perspectives on Climate Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998 p. 113 (“abandoned”).]
While Callendar found this obsessively interesting, he, like Arrhenius, was hardly worried. He too thought this would make for a better, more pleasant world–“beneficial to mankind”–providing, among other things, a boon for agriculture. And there was a great bonus. “The return of the deadly glaciers should be delayed indefinitely.” [Footnote 6: Fleming, Historical Perspectives on Climate Change, p. 115.]
1957: Roger Revelle – “Human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future.”
[Rober Revelle] was one of the people that transformed oceanography from a game of wealthy amateurs into a major science. During World War II, he was the U.S. Navy’s chief oceanographer. After the war he was one of the leaders in creating the Office of Naval Research, which supported much of the basic postwar scientific research in American universities–funding almost anything “that could, by the most extreme stretch of the imagination, serve national defense interests.” The Office of Naval Research, with Revelle’s prodding, was also the progenitor for what became the National Science Foundation. Revelle transformed the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, north of San Diego, from a small research outpost, with one boat, into a formidable research institution, armed with a flotilla of ships that continually pushed out the frontiers of oceanic knowledge. He also made it into a “top-carbon cycle research center in the U.S.” [Footnote: 7: Morgan and Morgan, Roger, p. 19; Gustaf Arrhenius Oral History Project, Scripps Institution of Oceanography Library, April 11, 2006 (“extreme stretch”); David M. Hart and David G. Victor, “Scientific Elites and the Making of US Policy for Climate Change Research, 1957-74,” Social Studies of Science 23 (1993), p. 648 (“carbon-cycle”)]
[When Revelle was] awarded the National Science Medal, the country’s highest highest scientific honor by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, [President Bush] singled out his “work in carbon dioxide and climate modification” as the first of his accomplishments, ahead of his other achievements in “oceanographic exploration presaging plate tectonics, the biological effects of radiation in the marine environment, and studies of human population growth and food supply.”
His 1936 Ph.D. argued that the ocean absorbed most of the CO2 that came from burning fuel. Accordingly, human activity that released carbon would have very little, if any effect at all, on climate because the ocean, as a giant sink, would capture most of it. That was the dominant view over the next several decades. [Footnote 8: Nancy Scott Anderson, An Improbable Venture: A History of the University of California, San Diego (La Jolla: University of California San Diego Press 1993), pp. 32-33 (“unexpected discoveries”); Morgan and Morgan, Roger, p. 86 (“best known”).] […] But by the mid-1950s Revelle was beginning to change his mind. The reason emerged from his research on nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific. [While tracking] radioactive diffusion through ocean currents […], Revelle’s team discovered “sharp, sudden” variations in water temperatures at different depths. This was a startling insight. […] In Revelle’s words, the ocean was “a deck of cards.” Revelle concluded that “the ocean is stratified with a lid of warm water on the cold, and mixing between them is limited.” That constrained the ability of the ocean to accept the CO2. [Footnote 9: Ronald Rainger, “Patronage and Science: Roger Revelle, the U.S. Navy, and Oceanography at the Scripps Institution,” Earth Sciences History 19:1 (2000), pp. 58-59, Arrhenius Oral History (“stratified”).] […] He [and his colleague, Hans Suess] wrote an article that captured this insight and would turn out to be a landmark in climate thinking.
If not the ocean, there was only one place for the carbon to go, and that was back into the atmosphere. That meant that atmospheric concentration of CO2, was destined, inevitably, to rise. The latter assertion was a late addition by Revelle, literally typed on a different kind of paper and then taped onto the original manuscript. Before sending off the article, Revelle appended a further last minute thought: The build up of CO2 “may become significant during future decades if industrial fuel combustion continues to rise exponentially,” he wrote. “Human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future.” [Footnote 10: R. Revelle and H. Suess, “Carbon Dioxide Exchange Between Atmosphere and Ocean and the Question of an Increase of Atmospheric CO2 During the Past Decades,” Tellus, 9, no. 1, 1957; Spencer Wert, “Roger Revelle’s Discovery,” The Discovery of Global Warming, http://www.aip.org/history/climate/Revelle.htm.]
[Dr. Pelto: “Harald Sverdrup, who headed the Scripps Institution of Oceanography before Roger Revelle and then Charles Keeling, would have been a nice addition to the story line.”]
1957: Dwight Eisenhower, having dealt with “practically unpredictable” weather during the D-Day invasion, gives the “let’s go” order for the IGY
A decade [after D-Day], knowing better than anyone else the strategic importance of improved weather knowledge, Eisenhower, now president, gave the “let’s go” order for the International Geophysical Year.
The IGY was designed to deepen knowledge not only about weather, but also climate. As Roger Revelle wrote, among the “main objectives […] was to gain a deeper understanding of climate change–what had triggered the coming and retreat of the Ice Age, that “dark age of snow and ice”–and the ability to predict future climate change.
Researchers did indeed discover and confirm some of the planet’s most important regulatory cycles that affected climate, including the impact of ocean and air currents in transmitting heat. But other elements also shaped the climactic system, including, some suspected, greenhouses. One of the organizers speculated that the earth might be “approaching a man-made warm period, simply because we are belching out carbon dioxide into the air from our factories at a present rate of several billions tons a year!” [Roger R. Revelle, “Sun, Sea and Air: IGY Studies of the Heat and Water Budget of the Earth,” Geophysics and the IGY, Geophysical Monograph, no. 2. American Geophysical Union, July 1958 pp. 147-53 (“dark age”); Ronald Fraser, Once Around the Sun: The Story of the International Geophysical Year (New York: Macmillan Company, 1958), p. 37 (“man-made”).]
Roger Revelle, who headed the oceanography panel for the IGY, wanted to make sure the impact of carbon dioxide was, in his words, “adequately documented in the course of the IGY.” With that in mind he sad down with three other scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Massacusetts. [One of the scientists at the meeting was Gustaf Arrhenius, grandson of Svante Arrhenius, who Mr. Yergin’s claims calculated climate sensitivity within the range of contemporary models]. They decided that one of the objectives […] should be to actually measure what Gustaf Arrhenius’s grandfather had tried to calculate more than a half a century earlier–the impact of CO2 on the atmosphere. [Hart and Victor, “Scientific Elites,” p. 651 (“adequately documented”); Arrhenius Oral History (“historic event”).]
But was it possible to get decent readings of CO2? Someone at that Woods Hole meeting had hear about a “promising young man,” a researcher at the California Institute of Technology who was working on measuring CO2.
[Dr. Pelto: “Not sure why Eisenhower is mentioned here, since he was not founder of IGY. Lloyd Berkner and National Academy of Sciences was more key, though not as name catching.”]
[MQ: “Dr. Yergin used Eisenhower’s hand-ringing and complaints of the “practically unpredictable” weather before the D-Day invasion as the beginning of a story line that climaxed with the IGY in the book. BTW, I was pleased to discover that the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution follows CCNF on Twitter!”]
1969: Charles David Keeling produces the Keeling Curve; “He want[ed], in his belly, to measure carbon dioxide, to measure it every possible way.”
Revelle reached out to Keeling and offered him a place at Scripps, along with research money. Revelle recognized that there was a certain risk but thought Keeling’s obsessiveness was a clear plus. “He wants, in his belly, to measure carbon dioxide, to measure it every possible way, and to understand everything there is to know about carbon dioxide,” Revelle was later to say. […] Keeling got to work, devoting all his scientific energies, as he put it, to “the pursuit of the carbon dioxide molecule in all its ramifications.” At that time it was all in the name of science. “There was no sense of peril then,” recalled Keeling. “Just a keen interest in gaining knowledge.”
The Weather Bureau provided Keeling with the “where”–its new meteorological observatory in Hawaii, 11,135 feet up, near the top of the volcanic peak Mauna Loa. Here was pure air, untroubled either by urban pollution or the daily cycles of forest vegetation, that would provide the stable atmospheric background Keeling needed. Another of his measuring devices was dispatched to the Little America station in Antarctica.
The cumulative results from the station atop Mauna Lao would prove something startling. In 1938 Guy Callendar may have been pooh-poohed by the professional meteorologists when he delivered his paper in London. But Keeling proved him right. There really was a Callendar Effect. For over the years, Keeling’s pioneering research established a clear trend: Atmospheric CO2 levels were increasing. In 1959 the average concentration was 316 parts per million. By 1970 it had risen to 325 parts per million, and by 1990 it would reach 354 parts. [It’s now at 400 ppm, as observed recently by Dr. Stephanie Thomas in the Forum]. Fitted on a graph, this rising line became known as the Keeling Curve. […] Revelle was to look back on Keeling’s work as “one of the most beautiful and important sets of geochemical measurements ever made, a beautiful record.” […] But what could increasing carbon mean for climate?
The IGY provided a kind of an answer, if at least by analogy. Until then the planet Venus had been the province of [science fiction]. But now scientists began to understand from the IGY study of Venus what the greenhouse gas effect could mean in its most extreme form. WIth higher concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the surface of Venus was hellishly hot, with temperatures as high as 870 degrees Fahrenheit. Venus would eventually become a metaphor for climate change run amok. […]
Keeling’s work marked a great transition in climate science. Estimating carbon in the atmosphere was no longer a backward-looking matter aimed at explaining the mystery of the ice ages […]. It was instead becoming a subject about the future. By 1969 Keeling was confident enough to warn of risks from rising carbon. In 30 years, he said, “if present trends are any sign, mankind’s world, I judge, will be in greater immediate danger than it is today.”
As a result of Charles Keeling’s work on atmospheric carbon, the little known Callendar Effect gave way to the highly influential Keeling Curve. Keeling’s work become the foundation for the modern debate over climate change and for the current drive to transform the energy system.
Stay tuned for Part II of the ‘history of climate change science according to Daniel Yergin for general commentary by the CCNF Scientist Community,’ which will cover the period of 1969-1990 and should be out later this week.
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