The Noah Project

Rebuilding a sustainable world.

Brief History of Climate Science

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The future of the globe used to look a lot brighter.

Ed Hawkins is a climate scientist in NCAS-Climate at the Department of Meteorology, University of Reading. His research interests are in decadal variability and predictability of climate, especially in the Atlantic region, and in quantifying the different sources of uncertainty in climate predictions and impacts. Ed is a Contributing Author to IPCC AR5 and a member of the CLIVAR Scientific Steering Group. 

In the following article Hawkins provides a brief history of climate science:

Climate change is often seen as a recent phenomenon, but its roots are actually far older – the effects of human activity on the global climate have been discussed for more than 150 years.
In the 1820s, the French mathematician Joseph Fourier was trying to understand the various factors that affect Earth’s temperature. But he found a problem – according to his calculations, the Earth should have been a ball of ice.
The most obvious factor, the Sun, did not seem to provide enough energy to raise the temperature of Earth above freezing. Fourier’s initial ideas, that there must be additional energy coming from the Earth’s core or from the temperature of outer space, were soon dismissed. Fourier then realised that the atmosphere, which at first seemed transparent, could be playing a crucial role.
Then, in 1861, the Irish physicist John Tyndall performed an experiment which changed our view of the atmosphere. Tyndall demonstrated that gases such as methane and carbon dioxide absorbed infrared radiation, and could trap heat within the atmosphere. He immediately realised the implications and remarked that these gases “would produce great effects on the terrestrial rays and produce corresponding changes of climate.”
Tyndall’s experiment to measure the properties of various gases.
Although this discovery would have profound consequences for understanding future climate, Tyndall, like most of his colleagues, was primarily interested in understanding the causes of ice ages, which had been discovered in 1837 by Louis Agassiz.
What was missing however was an estimate of how much these gases could warm or cool the planet.Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist, provided the first numerical estimates of “climate sensitivity” – defined as the temperature change corresponding to a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. He suggested a value around 4°C in 1896.
While the scientists continued to debate the causes of the ice ages, the Earth was warming. From the 1920s onwards meteorologists began to realise that the climate of various regions had changed. Joseph Kincer suggested in 1933 that temperatures in individual cities had been rising. At the same time, others had started measuring carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But, it took an amateur meteorologist to put the puzzle together.
Guy Stewart Callendar was a steam engineer who was fascinated by the weather. He meticulously collected temperature records from around the world, examined the carbon dioxide measurements and studied the work of Arrhenius and others. In his spare time, and without the aid of a computer, he performed the tedious calculations required to measure the temperature of the planet. These efforts produced the first evidence that Earth’s surface was warming.
Exactly 75 years ago, in 1938, Callendar delivered his analysis to the Fellows of the Royal Meteorological Society. He revealed evidence for a 0.3°C rise in global temperatures over the previous 50 years and suggested that this was largely due to the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning. His findings were found to be interesting, but were not viewed as conclusive by the esteemed Fellows.
Undeterred, Callendar continued his research, gathering additional evidence. In later years he published the first estimates of the change in carbon dioxide over time, prompting Charles Keeling to set up the first dedicated observatory for measuring gases in the atmosphere.
In 1961, Callendar updated his estimates for global temperatures with more observations, and these agree remarkably well with our current understanding. Callendar also felt that a warmer climate would be beneficial as it would “delay the return of the deadly glaciers” and allow crops to be grown at higher latitudes.
In the 75 years since Callendar’s discovery that carbon dioxide was warming the planet, much more has been learnt about the climate. But the basic picture has not changed. We are now more confident than ever of the role of human activity on global temperatures. We also have a more complete understanding of the consequences of a warmer planet.
With all the attention on the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report in 2013, the considerable efforts of Callendar and his contemporaries in advancing our understanding of the climate should not be forgotten.

Ed Hawkins receives funding from the UK Natural Environment Research Council. He is affiliated with the UK National Centre for Atmospheric Science.

Author: Daniela

I was born in Croatia, at that time Yugoslavia. My family moved to the US when I was very young, but I still treasure the memories of my grandfather teaching me how to protect myself against the "evil eye," my grandmother shopping early every morning, at the open air market, to buy the freshest vegetables for the day's meals, and the traditions that were the underpinnings of our society. Someone once noted that "For all of us that want to move forward, there are a very few that want to keep the old methods of production, traditions and crafts alive." I am a fellow traveler with those who value the old traditions and folk wisdom. I believe the knowledge they possess can contribute significantly to our efforts to build a more sustainable world; one that values the individual over the corporation, conservation over growth and happiness over wealth.

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