|Like many Victorian natural philosophers,
John Tyndall was fascinated by a great variety of questions. While
he was preparing an important treatise on "Heat as a Mode of Motion"
he took time to consider geology. Tyndall had hands-on knowledge of
the subject, for he was an ardent Alpinist (in 1861 he made the first
ascent of the Weisshorn). Familiar with glaciers, he had been convinced
by the evidence — hotly debated among scientists of his day
— that tens of thousands of years ago, colossal layers of ice
had covered all of northern Europe. How could climate possibly change
For full discussion
|One possible answer
was a change in the composition of the Earth's atmosphere. Beginning
with work by Joseph Fourier in the 1820s, scientists had understood
that gases in the atmosphere might trap the heat received from the
Sun. As Fourier put it, energy in the form of visible light from
the Sun easily penetrates the atmosphere to reach the surface and
heat it up, but heat cannot so easily escape back into space. For
the air absorbs invisible heat rays (“infrared radiation”) rising
from the surface. The warmed air radiates some of the energy back
down to the surface, helping it stay warm. This was the effect that
would later be called, by an inaccurate analogy, the "greenhouse
effect." The equations and data available to 19th-century scientists
were far too poor to allow an accurate calculation. Yet the physics
was straightforward enough to show that a bare, airless rock at
the Earth's distance from the Sun should be far colder than the
Earth actually is.
|Tyndall set out to find whether there was in fact any gas in the
atmosphere that could trap heat rays. In 1859, his careful laboratory
work identified several gases that did just that. The most important
was simple water vapor (H2O). Also effective
were carbon dioxide (CO2), although in the atmosphere the gas is only a few parts in ten
thousand, and the even rarer methane (CH4). Just as a sheet of paper will block more light than an
entire pool of clear water, so a trace of CO2 or CH4 could strongly affect the transmission of heat radiation through the atmospheree.
(For a more complete explanation of how the so-called "greenhouse
effect" works, follow the link at right to the essay on Simple
Models of Climate.)(1)
| Greenhouse Speculations: Arrhenius
|The next major scientist to consider the
Earth's temperature was another man with broad interests, Svante Arrhenius in
Stockholm. He too was attracted by the great riddle of the prehistoric
ice ages, and he saw CO2 as the key. Why focus on that rare gas rather than water vapor, which was far more abundant? Because the level of water vapor in the atmosphere fluctuated daily, whereas the level of CO2 was set over a geological timescale by emissions from volcanoes. If the emissions changed, the alteration in the CO2 greenhouse effect would only slightly change the global temperature—but that would almost instantly change the average amount of water vapor in the air, which would bring further change through its own greenhouse effect. Thus the level of CO2 acted as a regulator of water vapor, and ultimately determined the planet’s long-term equilibrium temperature. (Again, for fuller discussion follow the link at right.)
In 1896 Arrhenius completed a laborious numerical computation
which suggested that cutting the amount of CO2
in the atmosphere by half could lower the temperature in Europe some
4-5°C (roughly 7-9°F) — that is, to an ice age level.
But this idea could only answer the riddle of the ice ages if such
large changes in atmospheric composition really were possible. For
that question Arrhenius turned to a colleague, Arvid Högbom.
It happened that Högbom had compiled estimates for how carbon
dioxide cycles through natural geochemical processes, including emission
from volcanoes, uptake by the oceans, and so forth. Along the way
he had come up with a strange, almost incredible new idea.
| It had occurred to Högbom to calculate
the amounts of CO2 emitted by factories and
other industrial sources. Surprisingly, he found that human activities
were adding CO2 to the atmosphere at a rate
roughly comparable to the natural geochemical processes that emitted
or absorbed the gas. As another scientist would put it a decade later,
we were "evaporating" our coal mines into the air. The added
gas was not much compared with the volume of CO2
already in the atmosphere — the CO2 released
from the burning of coal in the year 1896 would raise the level by
scarcely a thousandth part. But the additions might matter if they
continued long enough.(2) (By
recent calculations, the total amount of carbon laid up in coal and
other fossil deposits that humanity can readily get at and burn is
some ten times greater than the total amount in the atmosphere.) So
the next CO2 change might not be a cooling decrease, but an increase. Arrhenius
made a calculation for doubling the CO2 in
the atmosphere, and estimated it would raise the Earth's temperature
some 5-6°C (averaged over all zones of latitude).(3)
| Arrhenius did not see that as a problem. He figured that if industry
continued to burn fuel at the current (1896) rate, it would take perhaps
three thousand years for the CO2 level to rise
so high. Högbom doubted it would ever rise that much. One thing
holding back the rise was the oceans. According to a simple calculation,
sea water would absorb 5/6ths of any additional gas. (That is roughly
true over a long run of many thousand years, but Högbom and Arrhenius
did not realize that if the gas were emitted more rapidly than they
expected, the ocean absorption could lag behind.) Anyway temperatures
a few degrees higher hardly sounded like a bad idea in chilly Sweden.
Another highly respected scientist, Walter Nernst, even fantasized
about setting fire to useless coal seams in order to release enough
CO2 to deliberately warm the Earth's climate.(4*)
| Arrhenius brought up the possibility of future warming in an impressive
scientific article and a widely read book. By the time the book was
published, 1908, the rate of coal burning was already significantly higher
than in 1896, and Arrhenius suggested warming might appear wihin a
few centuries rather than millenia. Yet here as in his first article,
the possibility of warming in some distant future was far from his
main point. He mentioned it only in passing, during a detailed discussion
of what really interested scientists of his time — the cause
of the ice ages. Arrhenius had not quite discovered global warming,
but only a curious theoretical concept.(5)
| An American geologist, T. C. Chamberlin,
and a few others took an interest in CO2. How,
they wondered, is the gas stored and released as it cycles through
the Earth's reservoirs of sea water and minerals, and also through
living matter like forests? Chamberlin was emphatic that the level
of CO2 in the atmosphere did not necessarily
stay the same over the long term. But these scientists too were pursuing
the ice ages and other, yet more ancient climate changes — gradual
shifts over millions of years. Very different climates, like the balmy
age of dinosaurs a hundred million years ago, puzzled geologists but
seemed to have nothing to do with changes on a human time scale. Nobody
took much interest in the hypothetical future warming caused by human
|Skepticism (1900-1940s) TOP
| Experts could dismiss the hypothesis because they found Arrhenius's
calculation implausible on many grounds. In the first place, he had
grossly oversimplified the climate system. Among other things, he
had failed to consider how cloudiness might change if the Earth got
a little warmer and more humid. A still weightier objection came from a simple laboratory measurement.
A few years after Arrhenius published his hypothesis, another scientist
in Sweden, Knut Ångström, asked an assistant to measure
the passage of infrared radiation through a tube filled with carbon
dioxide. The assistant ("Herr J. Koch," otherwise unrecorded
in history) put in rather less of the gas in total than would be found
in a column of air reaching to the top of the atmosphere. The assistant
reported that the amount of radiation that got through the tube scarcely
changed when he cut the quantity of gas back by a third. Apparently
it took only a trace of the gas to "saturate" the absorption
— that is, in the bands of the spectrum where CO2
blocked radiation, it did it so thoroughly that more gas could make
|Still more persuasive
was the fact that water vapor, which is far more abundant in the air
than carbon dioxide, also intercepts infrared radiation. In the crude
spectrographs of the time, the smeared-out bands of the two gases
entirely overlapped one another. More CO2 could
not affect radiation in bands of the spectrum that water vapor, as
well as CO2 itself, were already blocking entirely.(8)
|These measurements and arguments had fatal flaws. Herr Koch had
reported to Ångström that the absorption had not been reduced
by more than 0.4% when he lowered the pressure, but a modern calculation
shows that the absorption would have decreased about 1% — like
many a researcher, the assistant was over confident about his degree
of precision.(9*) But even if he had seen the1%
shift, Ångström would have thought this an insignificant
perturbation. He failed to understand that the logic of the experiment
was altogether false.
|The greenhouse effect will in fact operate even if the absorption
of radiation were totally saturated in the lower atmosphere. The planet's
temperature is regulated by the thin upper layers where radiation
does escape easily into space. Adding more greenhouse gas there will
change the balance. Moreover, even a 1% change in that delicate balance
would make a serious difference in the planet’s surface temperature.
The logic is rather simple once it is grasped, but it takes a new
way of looking at the atmosphere — not as a single slab, like
the gas in Koch's tube (or the glass over a greenhouse), but as a
set of interacting layers. (The full explanation is in the essay
on Simple Models, use link at right.)
|The subtle difference was scarcely noticed for many decades,
if only because hardly anyone thought the greenhouse effect was worth
their attention. After Ångström published his conclusions
in 1900, the small group of scientists who had taken an interest in the matter
concluded that Arrhenius's hypothesis had been proven wrong and turned to other problems. Arrhenius responded with a long paper, criticizing Koch's measurement in scathing terms. He also developed complicated arguments to explain that absorption of radiation in the upper layers was important, water vapor was not important in those very dry layers, and anyway the bands of the spectrum where water vapor was absorbed did not entirely overlap the CO2 absorption bands. Other scientists seem not to have noticed or understood the paper. Theoretical
work on the question stagnated for decades, and so did measurement
of the level of CO2 in the atmosphere.(10*)
| A few scientists dissented from the view
that changes of CO2 could have no effect. An American physicist, E.O. Hulburt,
pointed out in 1931 that investigators had been mainly interested
in pinning down the intricate structure of the absorption bands (which
offered fascinating insights into the new theory of quantum mechanics)
"and not in getting accurate absorption coefficients." Hulburt's own
calculations supported Arrhenius's estimate that doubling or halving
CO2 would bring something like a 4°C rise
or fall of surface temperature, and thus "the carbon dioxide theory
of the ice ages... is a possible theory."(11) Hardly anyone noticed this
paper. Hulburt was an obscure worker at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory,
and he published in a journal, the Physical Review, that
few meteorologists read. Their consensus was stated
in such authoritative works as the American Meteorological Society's
1951 Compendium of Meteorology: the idea that adding CO2 would change the climate "was never widely accepted and was
abandoned when it was found that all the long-wave radiation [that
would be] absorbed by CO2 is [already] absorbed
by water vapor."(11a)
|Even if people had recognized
this was untrue, there were other well-known reasons to deny any greenhouse
effect in the foreseeable future. These reasons reflected a nearly
universal conviction that the Earth automatically regulated itself
in a "balance of nature." Getting to specifics, scientists repeated
the plausible argument that the oceans would absorb any excess gases
that came into the atmosphere. Fifty times more carbon is dissolved
in sea water than in the wispy atmosphere. Thus the oceans would determine
the equilibrium concentration of CO2, and it
would not easily stray from the present numbers.
|If somehow the oceans
failed to stabilize the system, organic matter was another good candidate
for providing what one scientist called "homeostatic regulation."(12)
The amount of carbon in the atmosphere is only a small fraction of
what is bound up not only in the oceans but also in trees, peat bogs,
and so forth. Just as sea water would absorb more gas if the concentration
increased, so would plants grow more lushly in air that was "fertilized"
with extra carbon dioxide. Rough calculations seemed to confirm the
comfortable belief that biological systems would stabilize the atmosphere
by absorbing any surplus. One way or another, then, whatever gases
humanity added to the atmosphere would be absorbed — if not
at once, then within a century or so — and the equilibrium would
automatically restore itself. As one respected expert put it baldly
in 1948, "The self-regulating mechanisms of the carbon cycle can cope
with the present influx of carbon of fossil origin."(13)
| Yet the theory that atmospheric CO2 variations
could change the climate was never altogether forgotten. An idea so
simple on the face of it, an idea advanced (however briefly) by outstanding
figures like Arrhenius and Chamberlin, had to be mentioned in textbooks
and review articles if only to refute it. Arrhenius's outmoded hypothesis
persisted in a ghostly afterlife.
| The greenhouse warming theory found a lone advocate. In 1938 an English engineer, Guy Stewart Callendar,
tried to revive the old idea. An expert on steam technology, Callendar
apparently took up meteorology as a hobby to fill his spare time.(14) Many people, looking at weather stories from the past,
had been saying that a warming trend was underway. When Callendar
compiled measurements of temperatures from the 19th century on, he
found they were right. He went on to dig up and evaluate old measurements
of atmospheric CO2 concentrations. He concluded
that over the past hundred years the concentration of the gas had
increased by about 10%. This rise, Callendar asserted,
could explain the observed warming. For he understood (perhaps from
Hulburt's calculation) that even if the CO2
in the atmosphere did already absorb all the heat radiation passing
through, adding more of the gas would raise the height in the atmosphere
where the crucial absorption took place. That, he calculated, would make for
| As for the future, Callendar estimated, on flimsy
grounds, that a doubling of CO2 could gradually
bring a 2°C rise in some distant future. Although he understood that industrial emissions were already far greater than in Arrhenius's day, Callendar never imagined the exponential climb that would make a doubling possible as soon as the late 21st century. He did hint that over the centuries the rise might trigger a shift to a self-sustaining warmer climate (which did
not strike him as a bad prospect).But future warming was a side issue for Callendar. Like all his predecessors,
he was mainly interested in solving the mystery of the ice ages.(15)
| Callendar's publications attracted some
attention, and climatology textbooks of the 1940s and 1950s routinely
included a brief reference to his studies. But most meteorologists
gave Callendar's idea scant credence. In the first place, they doubted
that CO2 had increased at all in the atmosphere.
The old data he had sorted though were untrustworthy, for measurements could vary with
every change of wind that brought emissions from some factory or forest.
Already in the nineteenth century scientists had observed that the
level of the gas rose, for example, near a flock of sheep busy exhaling
the gas, and dropped in London during the inactivity of a bank holiday.(16)
As late as 1956 nobody seems to have noticed that a published graph of CO2 measurements since 1800 showed an obvious upward trend. If in fact the level was rising, scientists felt that could only be detected by a meticulous program stretching decades into the future.(17*)
The objections that had been raised against Arrhenius also had to
be faced. Wouldn't the immense volume of the oceans absorb all the
extra CO2? Callendar countered that the thin
layer of ocean surface waters would quickly saturate, and it would
take thousands of years for the rest of the oceans to turn over and
be fully exposed to the air.(18)
But nobody knew the actual turnover rate, and it seemed that the oceans
would have time to handle any extra gases. According to a well-known
estimate published in 1924, even without ocean absorption it would
take 500 years for fuel combustion to double the amount of CO2
in the atmosphere.(19)
| There was also the old objection, which most scientists continued
to find decisive, that the overlapping absorption bands of CO2
and water vapor already blocked all the radiation that those molecules
were capable of blocking. Callendar tried to explain that the laboratory
spectral measurements were woefully incomplete.(20) Gathering scattered observational data, he argued that
there were parts of the spectrum where the CO2
bands did not overlap with water vapor absorption. Some scientists found this convincing,
or at least kept an open mind on the question. But it remained the
standard view that, as an official U.S. Weather Bureau publication
put it, the masking of CO2 absorption by water
vapor was a "fatal blow" to the CO2 theory. Therefore,
said this authority, "no probable increase in atmospheric CO2
could materially affect" the balance of radiation.(21)
| Most damaging of all, Callendar's calculations of the greenhouse
effect temperature rise, like Arrhenius's, ignored much of the real world's physics.
For example, as one critic pointed out immediately, he only calculated
how heat would be shuttled through the atmosphere by radiation, ignoring
the crucial energy transport by convection as heated air rose from
the surface (this deficiency would haunt greenhouse calculations through
the next quarter-century). Worse, any rise in temperature would allow
the air to hold more moisture, which would probably mean more clouds that would reflect sunlight and thus preserve the natural balance.
Callendar admitted that the actual climate change would depend on
interactions involving changes of cloud cover and other processes
that no scientist of the time could reliably calculate.
| Few thought
it worthwhile to speculate about such dubious questions, where data
were rudimentary and theory was no more than hand-waving. Better to
rest with the widespread conviction that the atmosphere was a stable,
automatically self-regulated system. The notion that humanity could
permanently change global climate was implausible on the face of it,
hardly worth a scientist's attention.(22)
| The scientists who brushed aside Callendar's claims were reasoning
well enough. (Subsequent work has shown that the temperature rise
up to 1940 was, as his critics thought, mainly caused by some kind
of natural cyclical effect, not by the still relatively low CO2 emissions. And the physics of radiation and climate was indeed
too poorly known at that time to show whether adding more gas could
make much difference.) Yet if Callendar was mistaken when he insisted
he could prove global warming had arrived, it was a fortunate mistake.
| Research by definition is done at the frontier
of ignorance. Like nearly everyone described in these essays, Callendar
had to use intuition as well as logic to draw any conclusions at all
from the murky data and theories at his disposal. Like nearly everyone,
he argued for conclusions that mingled the true with the false, leaving
it to later workers to peel away the bad parts. While he could not
prove that greenhouse effect warming was underway, he had given sound reasons to reconsider
the question. We owe much to Callendar's courage. His claims rescued
the idea of global warming from obscurity and thrust it into the marketplace
of scientific ideas. Not everyone dismissed his claims. Their very
uncertainty attracted scientific curiosity.
| The Theory Restored (1950-1958)
| The complacent view that CO2
from human activity could never become a problem was overturned during
the 1950s by a series of costly observations. This was a consequence
of the Second World War and the Cold War, which brought a new urgency
to many fields of research. American scientists enjoyed massively
increased government funding, notably from military agencies. The
officials were not aiming to answer academic questions about future
climates, but to provide for pressing military needs. Almost anything
that happened in the atmosphere and oceans could be important for
national security. Among the first products of these research efforts were new data for the
absorption of infrared radiation, a topic of more interest to weapons
engineers than meteorologists.(23)
|The early experiments that sent radiation through
gases in a tube, measuring bands of the spectrum at sea-level pressure
and temperature, had been misleading. The bands seen at sea level
were actually made up of overlapping spectral lines, which in the
primitive early instruments had been smeared out into broad bands.
Improved physics theory and precise laboratory measurements in the
1940s and after encouraged a new way of looking at the absorption.
Scientists were especially struck to find that at low pressure and
temperature, each band resolved into a cluster of sharply defined
lines, like a picket fence, with gaps between the lines where radiation
would get through.(24) As Hulburt and Callendar had claimed, the most important CO2 absorption
lines did not lie exactly on top of water vapor lines. Instead of
two overlapping bands, there were two sets of narrow lines with spaces
for radiation to slip through. So even if water vapor in the lower
layers of the atmosphere did entirely block any radiation that could
have been absorbed by CO2, that would not keep
the gas from making a difference in the rarified and frigid upper
layers. Those layers held very little water vapor anyway. And scientists
were coming to see that you couldn't just calculate absorption for
radiation passing through the atmosphere as a whole, you had to understand
what happened in each layer — which was far harder to calculate.
|Digital computers were now at hand for such
calculations. The theoretical physicist Lewis D. Kaplan decided it
was worth taking some time away from what seemed like more important
matters to grind through extensive numerical computations. In 1952,
he showed that in the upper atmosphere, adding more CO2
must change the balance of radiation.(25)
| But would adding carbon dioxide in the upper layers of the air significantly
change the surface temperature? Only detailed computations, point
by point across the infrared spectrum and layer by layer down through
the atmosphere, could answer that question. By 1956, such computations
could be carried out thanks to the increasing power of digital computers.
The physicist Gilbert N. Plass took up the challenge of calculating
the transmission of radiation through the atmosphere (he too did it
out of sheer curiosity, as a diversion from his regular work making
calculations for weapon engineers). He nailed down the likelihood
that adding more CO2 would increase the interference
with infrared radiation. Going beyond this qualitative result, Plass
calculated that doubling the level would bring a 3-4°C rise. Assuming
that emissions would continue at the current (1950s) rate, he expected that
human activity would raise the average global temperature "at the
rate of 1.1 degree C per century."(26)
|The computation, like Callendar's, paid no attention to possible
changes in water vapor and clouds, and overall was too crude to convince
scientists. "It is almost certain," one authority scolded, "that these
figures will be subject to many strong revisions."(27)
Yet Plass had proved one central point: it was a mistake to dismiss
the greenhouse effect with spectroscopic arguments. He warned that
climate change could be "a serious problem to future generations"
— although not for several centuries. Following the usual pattern,
Plass was mainly interested in the way variations in CO2
might solve the mystery of the ice ages. "If at the end of this century
the average temperature has continued to rise," he wrote, then it
would be "firmly established" that CO2 could
cause climate change. People who read science notes in the back pages of the New York Tiimes would find a leading physicist confirming that "it may take thirty or forty years to find out" how CO2 would affect planet’s energy balance. Over the next decades quite a few other scientists would predict — correctly — that global warming would become obvious around the start of the 21st century.(28)
| None of this work met
the argument that the oceans would promptly absorb nearly all the
CO2 humanity might emit. Plass had estimated
that gas added to the atmosphere would stay there for a thousand years.
Equally plausible estimates suggested that the surface waters of the
oceans would absorb it in a matter of days.(29)
Fortunately, scientists could now track the movements of carbon with
a new tool: the radioactive isotope carbon-14.
|This radioactive isotope was produced abundantly in the fallout from nuclear weapon tests during the 1950s. Sensitive instruments could detect even a tiny amount carried thousands of miles on the world’s winds, and the data provided the first comprehensive mapping of the global circulation of air. The results confirmed what had only been guessed: within a few years any addition of CO2 was well mixed throughout the atmosphere, from pole to pole and from the surface into the highest stratosphere.(29a)
Carbon-14 is also created by cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere and then decays over millennia.
The carbon in ancient coal and oil is so old that
it entirely lacks the radioactive isotope. Therefore emissions from burning fossil fuels would add only plain carbon to the atmosphere. In 1955, the chemist Hans
Suess reported an analysis of wood from trees grown over the past century, finding that the newer the wood, the higher its ratio of plain carbon to carbon-14. He had detected an increase of fossil carbon in the atmosphere.
| The amount of fossil carbon that Suess saw added to the atmosphere
was barely one percent, a fraction so low that he concluded that the
oceans were indeed taking up most of the carbon that came from burning
fossil fuels. A decade would pass before he reported more accurate
studies, which showed a far higher fraction of fossil carbon. Yet
already in 1955 it was evident that Suess's data were preliminary
and insecure. The important thing he had demonstrated was that fossil
carbon really was showing up in the atmosphere. More work on carbon-14
should tell just how carbon was circulating in the planetary system.(30)
|Suess took up the problem
in collaboration with Roger Revelle at the Scripps Institution of
Oceanography in La Jolla, California. (Some other carbon-14 experts attacked the topic independently,
all reaching much the same conclusions.) From measurements of how
much of the isotope was found in the air and how much in sea water,
they calculated the movements of CO2 . It turned out that
the ocean surface waters took up a typical molecule of CO2
from the atmosphere within a decade or so. Measurements of the travels of radioactive carbon from bomb tests meanwhile showed that the oceans turned over completely in several hundred years (an
estimate soon confirmed by evidence from other studies).(31) At first sight that seemed fast enough to sweep any extra
CO2 into the depths.
link from below
|But Revelle had been studying the chemistry of the oceans through his entire
career, and he knew that the seas are not just salt water but a complex
stew of chemicals. These chemicals create a peculiar buffering mechanism
that stabilizes the acidity of sea water. The mechanism had been known
for decades, but Revelle now realized that it would prevent the water
from retaining all the extra CO2 it took up.
A careful look showed that the surface layer could not really absorb
much additional gas — barely one-tenth the amount a naïve
calculation would have predicted.
|A supplementary essay on Revelle's Discovery
tells this crucial story in full, as a detailed example of the complex
interactions often found in geophysical research.
|Revelle did not at first
recognize the full significance of his work. He made a calculation
in which he assumed that industry would emit CO2
at a constant rate (like most people at the time, he scarcely grasped
how explosively population and industry were rising). This gave a
prediction that the concentration in the air would level off after
a few centuries, with an increase of no more than 40%. Revelle did
note that greenhouse effect warming "may become significant during
future decades if industrial fuel combustion continues to rise exponentially."
He also wrote that "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."(32)
|As sometimes happens with landmark scientific papers, written in
haste while understanding just begins to dawn, Revelle's explanation
was hard to grasp. Other scientists failed to see the point that was
obscurely buried in the calculations, and continued to deny there
was a greenhouse effect problem. In 1958, when Callendar published
a paper to insist once again that CO2 observations showed a steady rise from the 19th century, he
noted Revelle's paper but still confessed that he did not understand
why "the oceans have not been accepting additional CO2
on anything like the accepted scale."(33) Finally in 1959 two meteorologists
in Sweden, Bert Bolin and Erik Eriksson, caught on. They explained
the sea water buffering clearly — so clearly that during the
next few years, some scientists cited Bolin and Eriksson's paper for
this decisive insight rather than Revelle and Suess's (only in later
years was Revelle always cited for the discovery).(34)
The central insight was that although sea water did rapidly absorb
CO2, most of the added gas would promptly evaporate
back into the air before the slow oceanic circulation swept it into
the abyss. To be sure, the chemistry of air and sea water would eventually
reach an equilibrium — but that could take thousands of years.
Arrhenius had not concerned himself with timescales shorter than that,
but geoscientists in the 1950s did.
| Keeling's Curve
| In the
late 1950s a few American scientists, starting with Plass, tentatively
began to inform the public that greenhouse gases might become a problem
within the foreseeable future. Revelle in particular warned journalists
and government officials that greenhouse warming deserved serious
attention. The stakes were revealed when Bolin and Eriksson pursued
the consequences of their calculation to the end. They assumed industrial
production would climb exponentially, and figured that atmospheric
CO2 would rise some 25% by the year 2000. That
was a far swifter rise than anyone before had suggested. As the New
York Times reported in a brief note, Bolin suggested that the
effect on climate "might be radical."(34a)
In 1962, a still stronger (although also little heeded) warning was
sounded by the Russian climate expert Mikhail Budyko. His calculations
of the exponential growth of industrial civilization suggested a drastic
global warming within the next century or so.
| Once meteorologists understood that ocean uptake was slow, they
found it possible that CO2 levels had been rising,
just as Callendar insisted.(35) Yet it was only a possibility,
for the measurements were all dubious. By the mid 1950s, researchers
were saying that it was important to measure, much more accurately,
the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.(36) A Scandinavian group accordingly set up a network of 15
measuring stations in their countries. Their only finding, however,
was a high noise level. Their measurements apparently fluctuated from
day to day as different air masses passed through, with differences
between stations as high as a factor of two. Only much later was it
recognized that their methods of analyzing the air had been inadequate,
and responsible for much of the noise.(37) A leading authority summarized the
scientific opinion of the late 1950s: "it seems almost hopeless to
arrive at reliable estimates [of CO2]... by such
measurements in limited areas." To find if the gas level was changing,
measurements would have to "be made concurrently and during a great
number of years" at many locations.(38)
|Charles David (Dave)
Keeling held a different view. As he pursued local measurements of
the gas in California, he saw that it might be possible to hunt down
and remove the sources of noise. Technical advances in infrared instrumentation
allowed an order of magnitude improvement over previous techniques
for measuring gases like CO2. Taking advantage
of that, however, would require many costly and exceedingly meticulous
measurements, carried out someplace far from disturbances. Most scientists,
looking at the large and apparently unavoidable fluctuations in the
raw data, thought such precision irrelevant and the instrumentation
too expensive. But Revelle and Suess happened to have enough funds to hire Keeling to measure CO2
| A supplementary essay tells the precarious story of Keeling's
funding and monitoring of CO2 levels as a
detailed example of how essential research and measurements might
be fed — or starved.
| Revelle's simple aim
was to establish a baseline "snapshot" of CO2
values around the world, averaging over the large variations he expected
to see from place to place and from time to time. After a couple of
decades, somebody could come back, take another snapshot, and see
if the average CO2 concentration had risen.
Keeling did much better than that with his new instruments. With painstaking
series of measurements in the pristine air of Antarctica and high
atop the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii, he nailed down precisely a stable
baseline level of CO2 in the atmosphere. In
1960, with only two full years of Antarctic data in hand, Keeling
reported that this baseline level had risen. The rate of the rise
was approximately what would be expected if the oceans were not swallowing
up most industrial emissions.(39*)
funds soon closed down the Antarctic station, but Keeling managed
to keep the Mauna Loa measurements going with only a short hiatus.
As the CO2 record extended it became increasingly
impressive, each year noticeably higher. Soon Keeling's curve, jagged
but inexorably rising, was widely cited by scientific review panels
and science journalists.(40)
For both scientists and the public it became the primary icon of the
(Keeling understood immediately that the curve is jagged because plants in the Northern Hemisphere take up CO2
as they grow in Spring and Summer, and release it as they decay in Autumn and Winter.)
Carbon Dioxide: Key to Climate
|New carbon-14 measurements were giving scientists
solid data to chew on. Researchers began to work out just how carbon moves
through its many forms in the air, ocean, minerals, soils, and living
creatures. They plugged their data into simple models, with boxes
representing each reservoir of carbon (ocean surface waters, plants,
etc.), and arrows showing the exchanges of CO2
among the reservoirs. The final goal of most researchers was to figure
out how much of the CO2 produced from fossil
fuels was sinking into the oceans, or perhaps was being absorbed by
vegetation (see above).
But along the way there were many curious puzzles, which forced researchers
to make inquiries among experts in far distant fields.
| During the 1960s, these
tentative contacts among almost entirely separate research communities
developed into ongoing interchanges. Scientists who studied biological
cycles of elements such as nitrogen and carbon (typically supported
by forestry and agriculture interests) got in touch with, among others,
geochemists (typically in academic retreats like the Scripps Institution
of Oceanography in La Jolla, California). This emerging carbon-cycle
community began to talk with atmospheric scientists who pursued interests
in weather prediction (typically at government-funded laboratories
like the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado,
or the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey).
One valuable example of this crossover of interests was a calculation
published by Princeton computer specialists in 1967. They had managed
to produce a model that simulated something roughly like the actual
climate of the planet, with deserts and sea ice and trade winds in
all the right places. Out of curiosity they doubled the amount of
CO2 in their simulated atmosphere. The simulated global
temperature rose a couple of degrees.(41)
|Even before that, in 1965,
a prestigious group of scientists had suggested with noteworthy foresight
that "By the year 2000 the increase in atmospheric CO2
... may be sufficient to produce measurable and perhaps marked changes
in climate." But most scientists at this time were scarcely concerned
about CO2 as an agent of future global warming.
They addressed the gas as simply one component in their study of biological,
oceanographic or meteorological systems.(42) Most stuck with the old assumption
that the Earth's geochemistry was dominated by stable mineral processes,
operating on a planetary scale over millions of years. People did
not easily grasp how sensitive the Earth's atmosphere was to biological
forces — the totality of the planet's living activity —
to say nothing of the fraction of that activity affected by
| Leading scientists continued to doubt that
anyone needed to worry at all about the greenhouse effect. The veteran
climate expert Helmut Landsberg stressed in a 1970 review that little
was known about how humans might change the climate. At worst, he
thought, the rise of CO2 at the current rate
might bring a 2°C temperature rise over the next 400 years, which
"can hardly be called cataclysmic."(43) Meanwhile Hubert H. Lamb, the outstanding compiler of old
climate data, wrote that the effects of CO2
were "doubtful... there are many uncertainties." The CO2
theory, he pointed out, failed to account for the numerous large shifts
that he had uncovered in records of climate from medieval times to
the present. Many agreed with Lamb that a "rather sharp decline" of
Northern Hemisphere temperature that had been observed since the 1940s put the whole matter
in question. They argued that other rapidly increasing types of human pollution, particles like sulfates and factory smoke, were reflecting sunlight and would bring cooling rather than warming. Others continued to concentrate on greenhouse warming. For example, in1972 J.S. Sawyer correctly predicted, in the leading journal Nature, an 0.6°C rise by 2000. He saw "no immediate cause for alarm" but "certainly need for further study."(44)
|At this time research on changes in the atmosphere's CO2 had been, almost by definition, identical to research on the
greenhouse effect. But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, calculations
found that methane and other gases emitted by human activities could
have a greenhouse effect that was sometimes molecule for molecule
tens or hundreds of times greater than CO2.
Nevertheless most of the scientific interest continued to revolve
|Up to this point, I have described a central core of research
on the effects of CO2 on climate — research
that before the 1970s scarcely interacted with other subjects. During
the 1970s, the greenhouse effect became a major topic in many overlapping
fields. Scientists eventually determined that a bit over half of the
effect of humans on climate change is due to emissions of
CO2 (mainly from fossil fuels but also from
deforestation and cement manufacture). The rest of the effect is due
to methane and other gases emitted by human activities; atmospheric pollution by smoke and dust; and changes
in land use such as replacing dark forest with sunlight-reflecting
crops or desert. These factors are discussed in other topical essays
(especially those on Other Greenhouse Gases,
Aerosols and The Biosphere.)
The remainder of this essay covers only the developments most directly
related to the gas CO2 itself.
|Carbon cycle studies proliferated. A major
stimulus was a controversy that erupted in the early 1970s and stubbornly
resisted resolution. National economic statistics yielded reliable
figures for how much CO2 humanity put into
the air each year from burning fossil fuels. The measurements of the
annual increase by Keeling and others showed that less than half of
the new carbon could be found in the atmosphere. Where was the rest?
Oceanographers calculated how much of the gas the oceans took up,
while other scientists calculated how much the biosphere took up or
emitted. The numbers didn't add up — some of the carbon was
"missing." Plainly, scientists did not understand important parts
of the carbon cycle. Looking at large-scale climate changes, such
as between ice ages and warm periods, they turned up a variety of
possible interactions with climate involving plant life and ocean chemistry.
The papers addressing these topics became increasingly complex.
| Some scientists took up the old argument that fertilization of plant life by
additional CO2, together with uptake by the
oceans, would keep the level of gas from rising too sharply. Keeling,
however, warned that by the middle of the next century, plants could
well reach their limit in taking up carbon (as every gardener knows,
beyond some point more fertilizer is useless or even harmful). Further,
there would eventually be so much CO2 in the
ocean surface waters that the oceans would not be able to absorb additional
gas as rapidly as at present.(45) Keeling kept refining and improving his measurements of the
CO2 level in the atmosphere to extract more
information. The curve did not climb smoothly, but stuttered through
a seasonal cycle, plus mysterious spells of faster and slower
growth. But over a long term, say a decade, the rise was clearly as inexorable as the tides.(46)
Meanwhile, computer models were coming into better agreement on the
future warming to be expected from increased CO2.
And global temperatures began to rise again. It was getting increasingly
difficult for scientists to believe that the greenhouse effect was
no cause for worry.
|Meanwhile global temperatures resumed their rise. The cooling from smoke particles had a limit, for the particles dropped from the atmosphere in weeks whereas the accumulating CO2 would linger for centuries. It was getting increasingly difficult for scientists to claim that the greenhouse effect was no cause for worry. By 1979 the ever more powerful computers had confirmed that it was impossible to construct a model that could mimick the current climate and that did not warm up a few degrees if the level of the gas was doubled.
|How would we know if we should take action to avert dangerous climate
change? In 1981 a couple of experienced climate scientists reviewed
the predictions of the best computer models, and compared them with
the natural fluctuations of climate observed in the past.(46a)
| Evidence from the Ice TOP
| Concerns were sharpened by new evidence from
holes arduously drilled into the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps.
The long cylinders of ice extracted by the drills contained tiny bubbles
with samples of ancient air — by good fortune there was this
one thing on the planet that preserved CO2
intact. Group after group cut samples from cores of ice in hopes of
measuring the level. For two decades, every attempt failed to give
consistent and plausible results. Finally reliable methods were developed.
The trick was to clean an ice sample scrupulously, crush it in a vacuum,
and quickly measure what came out. In 1980, a team published findings
that were definite, unexpected, and momentous.
| In the depths of the last ice age, the level
of CO2 in the atmosphere had been as much as
50% lower than in our own warmer times. (These Greenland measurements
were later called into question, but the dramatically lower ice-age
level was quickly confirmed by other studies.)(47) Pushing forward, by 1985 a French-Soviet
drilling team at Vostok Station in central Antarctica had produced
an ice core two kilometers long that carried a 150,000-year record,
a complete ice age cycle of warmth, cold and warmth. They found that
the level of atmospheric CO2 had gone up and
down in remarkably close step with temperature.(48)
|The Vostok core, an ice driller declared, "turned
the tide in the greenhouse gas controversy."(49)
At the least it nailed down what one expert called an "emerging consensus
that CO2 is an important component in the system of climatic feedbacks."
More generally, he added, it showed that further progress would "require
treating climate and the carbon cycle as parts of the same global
system rather than as separate entities."(50) The rise and fall of temperature was
tied up in a complex way with interlocking global cycles involving
not just the mineral geochemistry of CO2 in
air and sea water, but also methane emissions, the growth and decay
of forests and bogs, changes of the plankton population in the oceans,
and still more features of the planet's biosphere.
| All through these decades, a few geologists had continued to pursue
the original puzzle raised by Tyndall and Chamberlin — had changes
of CO2 been responsible for the greatest of climate
changes? These were the vast slow swings, lasting tens of millions
of years, between eras like the age of dinosaurs with summer-like
climates almost from pole to pole, and eras like our own when continental
ice caps waxed and waned. There was no consensus about the causes
of these grand shifts, and nobody had found a way to reliably measure
the atmosphere many millions of years back. Nevertheless, by the 1980s,
scientists turned up evidence suggesting that CO2 levels
had been elevated during the great warm eras of the past.
| Lines of thinking converged to emphasize the importance of the
greenhouse effect. For decades geologists had been puzzled by a calculation
that astrophysicists insisted was undeniable: the Sun had been dimmer
when the Earth was young. Billions of years ago the oceans would have
been permanently frozen, if not for high CO2
levels. Astrophysical theory showed that as the Sun had consumed its
nuclear fuel it had gradually grown brighter, yet somehow the Earth's
temperature had remained neither too cold nor too hot to sustain life.
The best guess was that CO2 acted as a thermostat for the planet. Volcanoes presumably put
the gas into the atmosphere at a fairly constant rate. But chemical
processes run faster at higher temperatures, so on a warmer Earth
the weathering of rocks would take up CO2 faster. As the rocks erode, rivers carry the soil into the seas,
where the carbon eventually winds up in compounds deposited on the
seabed. Thus a rough self-sustaining balance is maintained among the
forces of volcanic emissions, greenhouse warming, weathering, and
ocean uptake.(51) To be sure, the system might take thousands if not millions
of years to stabilize after some great disturbance.
|Such great disturbances —
even a totally glaciated "snowball Earth" — were not a fantasy
of oversimplified models. Geologists turned up evidence that more
than half a billion years ago the oceans had actually frozen over,
if not entirely then mostly. That seemed impossible, for how could
the Earth have escaped the trap and warmed up again? There was at
least one obvious way (but it was only obvious once someone thought
of it, which took some years). Over many thousands of years, volcanoes
would have continued to inject CO2 into the
atmosphere. There the gas would have accumulated, since it could not
get into the frozen seas. Eventually a colossal greenhouse effect
might have melted the ice.(52*)
|The planet Venus, on the other hand, seemed to have suffered a runaway
greenhouse catastrophe: a surface that might once have been only a
little warmer than the Earth's had heated up enough to evaporate the
carbon in the rocks into the atmosphere while ever more CO2 was created, making the planet a hellish furnace. All this was speculative,
and proved little about our future climate. But it added to the gathering
conviction that CO2 was the very keystone of
the planet's climate system — a system by no means as cozily
stable as it appeared.
<=Venus & Mars
|Another unusual disturbance had begun. The proof was in the Vostok
team’s 1987 report of their analysis of ice cores reaching back
through the entire previous glacial period and
into the warm time before. (And the drill was still only partway down;
by the time they stopped drilling a dozen years later, the team had
recovered ice going back 400,000 years, through four complete glacial
cycles.) The CO2 levels in their record got
as low as 180 parts per million in the cold periods and reached 280
in the warm periods, never higher. But in the air above the ice, the
level of the gas had reached 350 — far above anything seen in
this geological era and still climbing.(53)
Level of CO2 in the atmosphere, 1958-2013
The curve has been climbing exponentially, much faster now than in the 1960s; despite some attempts to slow down emissions, the quantity of gas added to the atmosphere is doubling
every 30-35 years. See
latest results from Scripps
| Feedbacks (1990s) TOP
|During the 1990s, further ice core
measurements indicated that at the end of the last glacial period, the initial rise of temperature in Antarctica had preceded CO2 changes by several centuries. Scientists debated whether the dates could be measured so precisely, but certainly around Antarctica the temperature rise had not come much after the rise of CO2.(53a*) This surprised
and confused many people. If changes in CO2 began after changes in temperature, didn’t that contradict
the greenhouse theory of global warming? But in fact the discrepancy was not
|It seemed that rises or falls in carbon dioxide levels had not initiated
the glacial cycles. In fact most scientists had long since abandoned
that hypothesis. In the 1960s, painstaking studies had shown that
subtle shifts in our planet's orbit around the Sun (called "Milankovitch
cycles") matched the timing of ice ages with startling precision.
The amount of sunlight that fell in a given latitude and season varied
predictably over millenia. As some had pointed out ever since the
19th century, in times when sunlight fell more strongly on northern
latitudes in the spring, snow and sea ice would not linger so long;
the dark earth and seawater would absorb more sunlight, and get warmer.
However, calculations showed that this subtle effect should cause
no more than a small regional warming. How could almost imperceptible
changes in the angle of sunlight cause entire continental ice sheets
to build up and melt away?
The full history
is in the essay on
| The new ice cores suggested that
a powerful feedback amplified the changes in sunlight. The crucial
fact was that a slight warming would cause the level of greenhouse
gases to rise slightly. For one thing, warmer oceans would evaporate
out more gas. For another, as the vast Arctic tundras warmed up, the
bogs would emit more CO2 (and another greenhouse gas, methane, also measured in the ice with a lag behind temperature). The greenhouse
effect of these gases would raise the temperature a little more, which
would cause more emission of gases, which would... and so forth, hauling
the planet step by step into a warm period. Many thousands of years
later, the process would reverse when the sunlight falling in key
latitudes weakened. Bogs and oceans would absorb greenhouse gases,
ice would build up, and the planet would slide back into an ice age.
This finally explained how tiny shifts in the Earth's orbit could
set the timing of the enormous swings of glacial cycles.
|Or, more ominously, how a change in the gas level initiated by humanity
might be amplified through a temperature feedback loop. The ancient
ice ages were the reverse of our current situation, where humanity
was initiating the change by adding greenhouse gases. As the gas level
rose, temperature would rise with a time lag — although only
a few decades, not centuries, for the rates of change were now enormously
faster than the orbital shifts that brought ice ages.
many ways temperature or other climate features could influence the
carbon dioxide level one way or another. Perhaps variations of temperature
and of weather patterns caused land vegetation to release extra CO2,
or take it up... perhaps the oceans were involved through massive
changes in their circulation or ice cover... or through changes in
their CO2-absorbing plankton, which would bloom
or decline insofar as they were fertilized by minerals, which reached
them from dusty winds, rivers, and ocean upwelling, all of which could
change with the climate... or perhaps there were still more complicated
and obscure effects. Into the 21st century, scientists kept finding
new ways that warming would push more of the gas into the atmosphere.
As one of them remarked, "it is difficult to explain the demise
of the ice sheets without the added heating from CO2
... this gas has killed ice sheets in the past and
may do so again."(54)
|A key point
stood out. The cycling of carbon through living systems was not something
to trifle with. In the network of feedbacks that made up the climate
system, CO2 was a main driving force. This did not prove by itself that
the greenhouse effect was responsible for the warming seen in the
20th century. And it did not say how much warming the rise of CO2
might bring in the future. What was now beyond doubt was that the
greenhouse effect had to be taken very seriously
| The Computer Models Vindicated (1990s-2000s)
|By now there were a dozen teams around the
world using computers to integrate every advance in observation or
theory. As the 21st century arrived, the growing agreement among the
rival teams, and the consistency of their models' results with many
different kinds of observations, became overwhelmingly convincing.
No model that could simulate the Earth's climate — and some of the
simulations had become very good indeed — failed to show warming if
its greenhouse gas level was raised. Scarcely any expert with a record
of contributing to climate science now doubted that CO2
and other greenhouse gases were at least partly responsible for the
unprecedented warming all around the world since the 1970s.
|A final nail in the coffin of scientific skepticism came in 2005,
when a team compiled accurate long-term measurements of temperatures
in all the world's ocean basins. It was not in the air but the massive
oceans, after all, that most of any heat added would soon wind up.
Indeed natural fluctuations had kept air temperatures roughly the
same since the late 1990s; the significant question was whether the
oceans were continuing to warm. The team found that over many decades
the planet's content of heat-energy had been rising, and was rising
still (this continued steadily after 2005 as well). There was only one remotely
plausible source of the colossal addition of energy: the Earth must
be taking in more energy from sunlight than it was radiating back
into space. Simple physics calculated that to heat all that sea water
required nearly an extra watt per square meter, averaged over the
planet's entire surface, year after year. The number was just what
the elaborate greenhouse effect computations had been predicting for
decades. James Hansen, leader of one of
the studies, called the visible increase of the planet's heat content
a "smoking gun" proof of greenhouse effect warming (see
graph below). Moreover, in each separate
ocean basin there was a close match between the pattern of rising
temperatures measured at each location and depth and detailed model
calculations of where the greenhouse effect warming should appear.
Warming from other sources, for example a change in the Sun's output,
could not produce these patterns. Evidently the modelers were on the
For the history
of all measurements
see the essay on the modern temperature trend.
|Yet amid all the uncertainties about how carbon cycles operated,
how much could we trust the computer models to work under circumstances
different from the present? Scientists are more likely to believe
something if they can confirm it with entirely independent lines of
evidence, preferably from somewhere nobody had looked before. Just
such new evidence came up in the 1990s, thanks to an unexpected alliance
of paleontology and plant physiology. Studies of plant species that
had changed little since the rise of the dinosaurs (magnolia for one)
showed that if you exposed them to a higher level of CO2,
the structure of their leaves changed. Ancient fossil leaves showed
just such changes. Several kinds of chemical studies of ancient rocks and soils
helped pin down how the level of the gas had swung widely over geological
ages, and the temperature too.
|A sustained effort by many geochemists
and their allies managed to get numbers for the "climate sensitivity"
in past eras, that is, the response of temperature to a rise in the
CO2 level. Over hundreds of millions of years,
a doubled level of the gas had always gone along with a temperature
rise of three degrees, give or take a degree. That was in startling agreement with the range of numbers coming from many computer studies. So the computer modelers had not missed anything essential. When wholly different approaches arrive at the same numerical result, scientists gain confidence that they are somehow in touch with reality.
|It was reassuring that there seemed scant possibility of a Venus-style runaway greenhouse apocalypse.
It was less reassuring to see what the climate had looked like in
the ancient eras when CO2 had stood at
a high level — a level that humanity would eventually reach
if we went on burning all available oil and coal. The Earth had been
virtually a different planet, with tropical forests near the poles
and sea levels a hundred meters higher. To be sure, it would take many thousands of years to melt entire polar ice caps. But in the meantime even a modest sea-level rise would disrupt humanity's teeming coastal populations. And as many scientists pointed
out, if humanity's emissions continued they seemed bound to bring not only "a warming
unprecedented in the past million years," but changes "much
faster than previously experienced by natural ecosystems..."(57)
|By 2010, new studies had pinned down some truly disturbing numbers about eras in the distant past when CO2 levels had been high — although no higher than we would reach by the late 21st century if emissions continued to rise without restriction. In those eras global temperatures had been at least three degrees higher than at present, and perhaps as much as six degrees higher, that is, in the upper range of what computer models found plausible, if not higher still. For the real planet, a rise in temperature had evidently not been limited by increased cloud reflection or the like. The rise had instead apparently been amplified by positive feedbacks, as ice and oceans and vegetation responded over centuries to the changing conditions with darker surfaces and their own gas emissions. The computer models did not take these slow feedback loops into account. Hansen and others argued that humanity risked setting off a chain reaction that would eventually bring an altogether catastrophic planetary change.(57a)
|In the first decade of the 21st century international panels of experts reviewed the evidence, and announced conclusions that were checked and endorsed by virtually all the major national science academies, scientific societies,
government science agencies and other bodies representative of scientific
expertise. All of these bodies declared that the world faced a serious
problem, andrecommended that governments adopt strict policies to restrict greenhouse gas emissions. (All, that is, except a few self-appointed panels composed primarily of people with limited expertise in climate science, representing ideological and business interests that opposed all forms of government regulation.) Individual climate scientists, were almost unanimously in agreement with the consensus in its broad outlines — to be precise, at the start of the century 97% agreed with it, rising by 2020 to essentially every scientist publishing in the field. Of course they continued to argue vehemently over details, as always in frontier research.
Critics pounced on every apparent discrepancy. They published long
lists of scientists who denied there was any problem — although the
lists included hardly any scientist who had made significant contributions
to climate research.(58*)
Debate over policies to restrict emissions grew increasingly
of these matters is described in essays on international
cooperation and public attitudes.
|Prospects for the 21st Century TOP OF PAGE
|Through all these discoveries and controversies, Keeling and
his colleagues had kept on quietly monitoring and analyzing the ongoing changes in
atmospheric CO2 levels. Since the 1980s, a cooperative international program
had been measuring the gas at land stations around the world and along
shipping lanes. The baseline continued to rise ominously, but not
smoothly. There had been years when the world's atmosphere had gained
one billion metric tonnes of the gas, while in other years it gained
as much as six billion. How much did changes in the world's industries
and agricultural practices affect the rate of the rise? Economic statistics
allowed a good reckoning of how much gas humanity emitted in burning
fossil fuels — and also of some significance, in the manufacture
of cement — but the effects of deforestation and other land
use changes were not so easy to figure.
|How much did changes in the level of CO2
reflect changes in the growth or decay of plants, perhaps related
to climate fluctuations? What could one learn
from the way the curve reacted to temporary climate changes brought
on by volcanic eruptions, by the El Niño events that temporarily
pumped heat in or out of the Pacific Ocean, and so forth?(59)
Further clues came from world-wide measurements of other biologically
active gases, especially oxygen (the exacting techniques for measuring
the tiny variations were pioneered by Keeling's son, Ralph Keeling). Most of the "missing"
carbon was finally located, with gradually increasing precision, in
rapidly changing forests and forest soils, along with other biological reservoirs.(59a)
|Another marker of biological activity was the rare isotope carbon-13. Plants take less of it from the atmosphere than the lighter isotope carbon-12, so the latter is over-represented in coal and oil. The fraction of the lighter isotope in the air was increasing, proving (to a lingering band of skeptics) that the rise in CO2 came from humanity's use of fossil fuel, not from a mineral source such as volcanoes.(60)
level of CO2 in the air kept rising, indeed
faster than anyone had expected. Over the half-century up to 2010, humanity's output of CO2 had quadrupled. The proportion taken up by the oceans and land reservoirs had meanwhile stayed steady at about half (to be exact, 55%) of the emissions. Efforts to reduce use of fossil fuels did have an effect, and by 2016 global emissions reported by national authorities were rising more slowly. Of course even with a steady level of human emissions CO2 would continue to accumulate rapidly in the atmosphere. For decades the rise had in fact been accelerating, perhaps because natural systems were not absorbing carbon efficiently.(60a)
|In this essay we have seen how, ever since the late 1950s, an increasing
number of experts predicted that effects on climate would become
clearly visible around the year 2000. They were right. As the 21st
century began, the global temperature was soaring in a way
never seen before. (The rise in surface air temperature was irregular, but the oceans, where most of the heat energy was stored, warmed up steadily.) Worse, field evidence showed that the expected feedbacks
were kicking in. The world's plants were taking up more CO2,
but their capacity to absorb
was waning. Warmer oceans were absorbing less CO2,
and gas was seen bubbling from melting Arctic tundra. In sum, global warming was
leading to more greenhouse emissions, which would lead to more warming...
and so forth. Starting around 2008 some scientists began to warn that these
changes were coming on faster than the international panels had predicted. "I have yet to meet a climate scientist," one of them remarked in 2012, "who does not believe that global warming is a worse problem than they thought a few years ago."(61)
|Also as predicted only sooner, the world was beginning to suffer historically unprecedented heat waves, droughts, floods and storms. The sea level was rising while mountain glaciers, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and Arctic sea ice melted back, all at accelerating rates. Important ecosystems from alpine meadows to coral reefs were showing signs of stress. For the scientists,
as one of them remarked, "Seeing their own predictions come true
has been a frightening experience."(62) Some researchers turned from predicting future warming to identifying how far some of the extreme weather events of the 2000's could already be attributed to human-caused climate change.
<=sea rise, ice, floods
| Still more sobering, people were scarcely coming to grips with the implications of a fact that scientists had known for decades —
the climate system has built-in time lags. The passionate policy controversies and even much of the scientific research had been preoccupied with the warming of a degree or two (if not more) expected by the end of the 21st century. But already in the 1970s, climate scientists had understood that even if emissions could magically be brought immediately to zero, the oceans' uptake of CO2 was so slow that the gas already in the air would linger for centuries, trapping more heat. For example, in a milestone 1977 US National Academy of Sciences report, Keeling and a colleague had reported that the decline of the level of CO2 in the atmosphere would take centuries. But scientists had rarely emphasized this to the public, and many people thought that if emissions could be reined in the problem would be solved. (Actually, despite some efforts there was no sign of a slowdown in global emissions.)
|The situation turned out to be even worse than scientists had supposed. A definitive report published in 2005 by the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated only that, "While more than half of the CO2 emitted is currently removed from the atmosphere within a century, some fraction (about 20%) of emitted CO2 remains in the atmosphere for many millennia." That implied that a large part of global warming would dwindle away within a century after emissions ceased. Wrong. It turned out that the 21st-century level of emissions was so massive that it was transforming the entire global carbon system into a new state. Global temperatures would continue to creep upward until the ocean depths and their chemistry reached equilibrium with the heated air, until biological systems finished adapting to the new conditions, and until Arctic icecaps melted back to their own equilibrium. Journal articles pointing out this situation first appeared in 2007-2008. The new understanding was incorporated in the IPCC's 2014 report, which warned, "Surface temperatures will remain approximately constant at elevated levels for many centuries after a complete cessation of anthropogenic CO2 emissions." Whatever we did now, humanity
was already committed to centuries of violently changing weather and rising seas, followed by millennia in the new, heated state.(63*) The public was scarcely aware of this.
|The basic physics and chemistry of the problems raised by Tyndall
were now well in hand. There were reliable calculations of the direct
effects of CO2 on radiation, of how the gas
was dissolved in sea water, and other physical phenomena. Further
progress would center on understanding the complex interactions of
the entire planetary system, and especially interactions with living
creatures. The creatures who would count the most were humans. The
climate a century hence would depend chiefly on what they chose to
do about their emissions.
|If the planet warmed up by several degrees during the 21st century,
as paleontologists and computer modelers agreed was likely, what would
be the consequences? This became the new center for much of the research.
Extensive studies showed that the consequences of a two degree rise
would be severe in many parts of the world — and such a rise was more
likely than not by the late 21st century, even if the world took immediate and radical action to restrict greenhouse gas emissions. And if we did not? It was highly probable that by the end of the century we would face a grievous degradation of the ecosystems on which civilization depends. Worse still: past some tipping point a cascade of irreversible self-reinforcing processes might gradually push the global system into an ancient ice-free "Hothouse Earth" mode, with sea levels and temperatures climbing far above anything in human experience.
|See the summary of expected Impacts
of Climate Change
The heat content of the upper layers of the world's oceans is the most
comprehensive measure of changes in the temperature of the planet. For as new heat is added, far more goes into the
oceans than into the thin atmosphere.
Several independent analyses of hundreds of thousands of measurements of various kinds show that the oceans' store of heat energy, after a period of stability, began to rise in the 1950s. That was when computer models find that greenhouse
gas levels reached a level high enough to be important. The hiatus some claimed to see in the rise of surface air temperature ca. 2000-2013 is not found here. (For latest updates see NOAA's ocean heat content site.)
See Levitus et al., Geophysical Research Letters 39 (2012): L10603 [doi: 10.1029/2012GL051106].
Back to earlier text.
A graph of surface air temperatures since 1880.
A long-term record of Earth's temperature has been constructed from many different data sources. Tthe blue line relies mainly on cores from seabeds around the world. After the end of the last Ice Age came a warm spell, which ended a few thousand years ago as the global temperature dropped fairly steadily --- until the 20th century. Then it rose abruptly. (The seabed reconstruction confirms the famous 1999 hockey stick reconstruction of temperatures since the year 1000, which mostly used tree rings). The orange line is measurements since 1880 by thermometers and more recently by satellites, showing that the present overall global temperature exceeds anything known for many millennia. Temperatures later in this century, even if greenhouse gas emissions are promptly curtailed, will soar off the chart.
Graph by Klaus Bitterman, for more see RealClimate.org. Ancient temperatures, with range of uncertainty in light blue: Marcott et al. (2013). Modern: HadCRU - the Hadley Climate Research Unit.
The Modern Temperature Trend
Simple Models of Climate
Other Greenhouse Gases
1. Tyndall (1861). Tyndall measured what he called "carbonic acid" gas, what is now called carbon dioxide. Three years before Tyndall, an American painter and amateur scientist, Eunice Newton Foote, had already demonstrated that CO2 absorbs heat. She simply measured the temperatures of glass tubes exposed to sunlight, one filled with air and one with CO2. Foote went on to speculate that if there had been a period when the atmosphere held more of the gas, the planet would have been warmer. The scientific community ignored the brief note from an unknown female in a scientific backwater (i.e., America), and Foote has seldom been given credit for her discovery. Foote (1856), see Sorenson (2011) and this essay in publicdomainreview.org.
2. Högbom (1894) ; the
essentials are quoted by Arrhenius (1896), pp.
269-73; see also Berner (1995); for further
background, see Arrhenius (1997). The word "evaporating" was
first used by Lotka in 1908, see Pilson (2006).
3. He also did computations for 1.5-, 2.5- and 3-fold increases.
Arrhenius (1896), 266; see Crawford
(1996), chap. 10; Crawford (1997); reprinted with further
articles in Rodhe and Charlson (1998).
4. Nernst also noted that the additional CO2 would fertilize crops. James Franck, interview by Thomas Kuhn,
p. 6, Archive for History of Quantum Physics, copies at AIP and other repositories.
5. Arrhenius (1896); revised
calculations, finding a somewhat lower effect, were given in Arrhenius (1901a) ; popularization: Arrhenius (1908), chap. 2.
7. Ångström (1900).
8. Ångström (1900),
pp. 731-32; Abbot and Fowle (1908), pp. 172-73;
for spectrographs, e.g., Weber and Randall (1932).
9. Koch had only a thermocouple to measure
heat across the entire infrared spectrum. He accurately reported that
about 10% of the radiation from a 100°C black body was absorbed in
his tube, and that at lower pressure at most 9.6% was absorbed, whereas
in fact it must have been about 9%. For the modern calculation I thank
Raymond T. Pierrehumbert. BACK
10. Fleming (2000),
p. 301; for early measurements and additional background and references,
see Mudge (1997). Ångström’s argument was
immediately accepted in for example, Monthly Weather
Review (1901). Response: Arrhenius (1901b). One leading expert dismissing CO2
because of saturation was Humphreys (1913),
pp. 134-35, although while denying that doubling the amount in the atmosphere
would "appreciably affect the total amount of radiation actually absorbed,"
he did note that it would "affect the vertical distribution or location
of the absorption," Humphreys (1920), p. 58; on CO2
saturation, Schaefer (1905), p. 104. For a
more complete technical account of the saturation fallacy, see the discussion
by Ray Pierrehumbert on realclimate.org.
11. Hulburt (1931),
quote p. 1876; note also Simpson (1928b), who
finds CO2 adds a correction — but only a small one — to water
vapor absorption. BACK
11a. Brooks (1951),
p. 1016. BACK
12. Redfield (1958), 221. The
atmospheric elements he addressed were oxygen and other elementary gases, not carbon.
13. Hutchinson (1948), quote
p. 228; see also Hutchinson (1954), 389-90; another example:
Eriksson and Welander (1956), 155.
14. (Obituary) (1965);
Fleming (2007b). BACK
15. Callendar (1938); see also
Callendar (1940); Callendar
(1939); Callendar (1949).
16. For bibliography on CO2
measurements and ideas to 1951, see Stepanova (1952); sheep: Woodman
(1904); criticism: Slocum (1955); Fonselius
et al. (1956) with graph; however, some evidence for a gradual increase was summarized
by Junge (1958); measurements are reviewed by
Bolin (1972); From and Keeling (1986). BACK
17. E.g., it "may require a period of [data] collection of many
decades to detect the real trends" according to Eriksson and Welander
18. Callendar (1940).
19. Lotka (1924).
20. Callendar (1941).
21. Russell (1941), 94.
22. Critic: G.C. Simpson. For additional discussion and
references, see Fleming (2007b); Weart (1997). BACK
23. This section is condensed from a more detailed published
study, Weart (1997).
24. Martin and Baker (1932);
for review, see Smith et al. (1968), pp. 476-483.
25. Kaplan (1952); for other
workers see, e.g., Möller (1951), pp. 46-47.
26. Plass (1956); see also Plass (1956).
27. Rossby (1959), p. 14; the
chief critic was Kaplan (1960).
28. Plass (1956), quotes on
306, 311, 315, 316; see also Plass (1959); Plass (1956); Plass (1956). Joseph Kaplan (head of US National Committee for the IGY) quoted in "Science Notes. Carbon Dioxide Due To Change Climate," New York Times, June 3, 1956.
29. Plass (1956); Dingle (1954).
29a. Edwards (2010) has discussion and references. BACK
30. Suess (1955); see also Suess (1953); a confirmation: Münnich (1957); Revision: Houtermans et al. (1967), see p. 68.
31. Revelle and Suess (1957);
Craig (1957a); Arnold and Anderson
32. Revelle and Suess (1957),
pp. 18-20, 26.
33. Callendar (1958),
p. 246. Here Callendar was one of those who quickly picked up Revelle's
"geophysical experiment" phrase. A typical denial of any future greenhouse
effect problem was Bray (1959), see p. 228. BACK
34. Bolin and Eriksson (1959);
example of paper citing Bolin and Eriksson but not Revelle: Mitchell (1961), p. 243; review citing them: Skirrow (1965), pp. 282-84, 308. BACK
34a. Meeting of National Academy of
Sciences described in "Experts Discuss Monsters of the Sea,"
New York Times, April 28, 1959; my thanks to Richard Somerville
for pointing this out. BACK
35. e.g., Mitchell (1961).
36. Eriksson (1954).
37. Fonselius et al. (1955); Fonselius et al. (1956); for critique, see From and Keeling (1986), p. 88, and passim for history of
CO2 measurements generally; also Keeling
(1998), p. 43.
38. Rossby (1959), p. 15; this
is a translation of Rossby (1956).
39. The paper also described the seasonal cycle of CO2 emissions. Keeling (1960); in the
1970s, it was found that the 1959-1960 rise had been exaggerated by an unusual natural release
of the gas related to an El Niño event. Keeling (1998);
for the history, see also Keeling (1978).
40. For example in the landmark "SMIC" report,
Wilson and Matthews (1971), p. 234.
41. Manabe and Wetherald
42. President's Science Advisory
Committee (1965); Hart and Victor (1993),
43. Landsberg (1970).
44. Lamb (1969), p. 245; Sawyer (1972). BACK
45. The partial pressure of CO2 in
sea water would grow and the chemical buffering would
change. Keeling (1973), p. 291.
46. E.g., Keeling et al. (1976).
46a. Wigley and
Jones (1981), p. 208. BACK
47. Berner et al. (1980); Delmas et al. (1980); Neftel et al.
(1982); Shackleton et al. (1983).
48. Lorius et al. (1985); see
also Barnola et al. (1987); Genthon
et al. (1987).
49. Mayewski and White
(2002), pp. 39, 77.
50. Sundquist (1987).
51. Walker et al. (1981). On the "faint early Sun paradox" see note 17a in essay "Venus & Mars".
52. Also, the discovery in the late 1970s that life
is sustained at hot springs in the deep ocean showed that the continuous
fossil record of sea life did not rule out the possibility that the oceans
had frozen. Studies include Berner et al. (1983);
Kasting and Ackerman (1986); for review, Crowley and North (1991); more recently, Hoffmann et al. (1998); the term "snowball Earth" was coined
by Joseph Kirschvink Kirschvink (1992); earlier
Manabe called it "White Earth" according to Gleick
(1987), p. 332; for references and popular-level discussion, see Ward
and Brownlee (2000). BACK
53. Genthon et al. (1987);
Petit et al. (1999). BACK
53a. Shackleton (2000). N.b. after the initial rise in Antarctica, globally the rise of temperature did lag behind the rise of CO2: Shakun et al. (2012). BACK
(2009), with a good discussion of some amplification effects. BACK
55. Petit et al. (1999);
IPCC (2001a), p. 202; Lorius et
al. (1990); Pälike et al. (2006) (detecting
the carbon cycle feedback over millions of years). BACK
56. Barnett et al. (2005);
Hansen et al. (2005). BACK
57. Among many references: Berner
(1991) (geochemical); Cerling (1991) (carbon
in soils); McElwain and Chaloner (1995) (leaves);
Royer et al. (2001); review by Royer
et al. (2007); more recently, Martínez-Botí et al. (2015), Anagnostou et al. (2016), Friedrich et al. (2016). Quote: Hoffert
and Covey (1992), p. 576. BACK
57a. On positive feedbacks see Matthews and Keith (2007) and Tripati et al. (2009) (for mid Miocene); Hansen et al. (2008), popular version: Hansen (2009), ch. 8; on mid Pliocene conditions, Pagani et al. (2010) and Lunt et al. (2010). Breecker et al. (2010) offer new evidence on fossil soil chemistry showing that “past greenhouse climates were accompanied by concentrations [of CO2] similar to those projected for A.D. 2100". Another view: Kiehl (2011). BACK
58. The pioneering study by Oreskes (2004) reviewing abstracts of papers published 1993-2003 found that "none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position." In a poll of scientists in different
fields by Doran and Kendall Zimmerman (2009),
97% of those who published at least half of their peer-reviewed research
in the climate field agreed that human activity was significant in changing
global temperature; at the other extreme, only 47% of economic geologists
(typically employed by oil companies and the like) concurred. Anderegg et al. (2010) similarly found that 97% of actively publishing climate scientists went along with the international panels' consensus. Surveying papers published 1991-2011, Cook et al. (2013) found only 3% rejected the consensus. Surveys after 2010 found well over 99% agreement, Powell (2015b), Powell (2016), reaching 100% of 11,602 peer-reviewed articles on "climate change" or "global warming" in 2019, Powell (2019).
59. Keeling (1998).
59a. R. Keeling et
al. (1993); R. Keeling et al. (1996). Forests: Pan et al. (2011). BACK
60. C. Keeling et al. (1995); Ghosh and Brand (2003); R. Keeling et al. (2010). BACK
60a. Ballantyne et al. (2012). Growth rates to the present are reported here. BACK
61. Tundra: Canadell et
al.(2007). Grantham (2011). BACK
62. Michael Oppenheimer at Fordham University
conference on climate change, New York, Jan. 25, 2008.
63.Keeling and Bacastrow (1977), pp. 80-82. IPCC (2007b), FAQ 10.3, pp. 824-25, online here. See also David Archer, "How long will global warming last?" RealClimate.org March 15, 2005, online here; he points out the climate community's poor grasp of the situation but does not emphasize that the temperature won't drop significantly for centuries. IPCC (2014a), p. 28, see p. 1004. Tyrrell et al. (2007): "It is frequently assumed that these impacts will fade away soon thereafter. Recent model results, by contrast, suggest that significant impacts will persist for hundreds of thousands of years after emissions cease;" Matthews and
Caldeira (2008): "We show first that a single pulse of carbon released into the atmosphere increases globally averaged surface temperature by an amount that remains approximately constant for several centuries, even in the absence of additional emissions." See Inman (2008); Schmittner et al. (2008);
James Hansen, privately circulated draft article on "Charney Effect"
(2007). "I was struck by the fact that the warming continues much
longer even after emissions have declined," said Schmittner, quoted
by Juliet Eilperin, "Carbon Output Must Near Zero To Avert Danger,
New Studies Say," Washington Post, March 10, 2008.
© 2003-2020 Spencer Weart & American Institute of Physics