The topic is a familiar one to Americans today. We all know something about global warming (or “climate change” — the more politically ambiguous term), but few of us know enough. The world’s scientists predict environmental catastrophe that seem incredible. They are countered by experts supported by the energy industry. The debates get hotter all the time (which might be yet another explanation for the warming trend.)
The issue is clouded by political and economic implications. It doesn’t help that global warming has only been seriously considered by the media in the recent past. Not long ago, the topic was dismissed as yet another crisis invented by tree-hugging ecologists.
The media avoided the issue partly because they’re better at handling gossip, scandals, and trivia and partly because the issue is incredibly complicated. The terms and concepts of climatology are based on principles and measures that are unique to this science. Yet, as the 1950 article below indicates, climatology — and the concern for global warming — is not so very new.
In “Is the World Getting Warmer?” [PDF download] Albert Abarbanel and Thorp McClusky noted that many persons suspected, and a few scientists knew, that “mysterious changes are happening to the world’s climate.”
Cumulative studies now indicate that the climate of vast areas is warming rapidly.
This is the first fluctuation in the endless series of past and future climatic variations in the history of the earth which we can measure, investigate and possibly also explain.
For the past three winters a colony of Penobscot Indians who live on an island in the Penobscot River, near Old Town, Maine, have been plagued by unseasonable thaws. Since time immemorial, the tribe has used the ice as a bridge to the mainland from November until April, walking back and forth and even driving trucks and automobiles on sawdust laid across the slippery surface. Until recently the ice had never gone out in January, as the memories of older tribesmen and the results of annual betting pools on the day and hour of the spring breakup attested.
But since 1948 there has been a January thaw every year — to the astonishment of Indians and Old Towners alike. In 1949 the ice went out so suddenly that 610 Indians were marooned on their island for three days. Now the state of Maine has decided to build a bridge across the river to the island. “God has really been good to us,” says Mr. Bruce Poolaw, wife of the chief. ” If He hadn’t changed the weather we’d never have had the new bridge.”
Such observations caused scientists to speculate, five decades ago, whether glaciers could be melting:
It’s impossible to say. Recent coastline surveys off the coasts of New Guinea and South Australia indicate that, at the peak of the last great glaciations, the ocean surface was 300 feet below its present level. Estimates of the amount of water still immobilized in the frozen, rigid state vary greatly, due to the fact that we know almost nothing of the underlying land contours of both Greenland and Antarctica. In a given spot, the ice may be three miles deep or it may be only a thin sheath atop a mountain peak or plateau. Some scientists calculate that melting of all the planet’s ice would raise the oceans no more than ninety feet; others assert the rise would be in the neighborhood of 500 feet. In either event, all present seaports would be seriously affected while the majority would be completely inundated. Millions of square miles of land surface, including most of England, for example, would disappear beneath the waves.
Is the sun throwing out more heat, perhaps getting ready to explode and snuff out all life on earth in a matter of seconds? Is the solar system, in its twelve-mile-a-second spiral through the Milky Way, or Sol’s home galaxy, emerging from the last filmy fringes of a cloud of cosmic dust which, for centuries, has prevented a small but critical portion of our luminary’s radiation from reaching the earth? Has atomic experimentation upset delicate thermal balances, perhaps by increasing molecular activity in the atmosphere? Is the warming-up process worldwide or merely regional?
The scientific community of 1950 offered two explanations for the warming trend. The first was a rise in energy from the sun:
Many meteorologists agree that an increase in solar-energy output is responsible for the changing climate. According to Prof. Carl-Gustaf Rossby, Swedish meteorologist, ‘…the most plausible cause is some change in the activity of the sun. It may be that more ultraviolet light is being produced. Such an increased production of ultraviolet light might affect the upper atmosphere and so make the climate warmer. Should we succeed in finding the cause, we may well be able to estimate how long the warming process will go on.’
The other explanation suggested a swing in temperatures across several milleniae.
The earth is emerging from the last lingering chill of one of a succession of little ice ages that followed the last great ice age some 15,000 years ago.
Note that the theories say nothing about the human activity affecting global temperature. The world in 1950 was still enormous. The sky was infinitely capable of absorbing the coal smoke of steel mills and the leaded exhaust of automobiles. The rivers and seas could easily absorb runoffs of nitrate fertilizers and heavy metals.
Environmental disasters were not uncommon back then, but they weren’t taken seriously. It was only after industrial waste in Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969 and caused millions of dollars in damage that the government established the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency. The river had caught fire before — at least nine times since 1868 — but pubic tolerance finally snapped in ’69.
Unfortunately, the signs of global warming aren’t as clear. It will probably require another disaster to prompt Washington to take action. (It can hardly be expected to come from business.)
At one time, politicians and business owners could deny “climate change.” Today, they’ll concede something is happening to our climate, but they ask for more time to study the problem.
Why is it that we have so few facts 60 years after knowing about this issue?