In the early 1800’s, scientists began a search for the cause of the ice ages. That search has led to a discovery of the factors that affect the Earth’s temperature, an understanding of the current global warming, and the solution to the mystery of the ice ages. *
The Data: Science is a way of understanding nature by using observation and reason. Man has always been keenly interested in the weather, but temperature records before 1850 were mostly historical accounts of storms, heat waves, or when bodies of water froze. Thermometers came into use in about 1850, allowing more accurate temperature records. One of the most useful records is NASA’s graph of the Earth’s annual mean temperature, which was compiled from ships logs, weather stations, and satellite measurements. It serves as a scorecard for telling whether the Earth is getting warmer or cooler. NASA’s data has small random variations from year to year because of factors such as sunspots, weather events, ocean currents, and particulates from volcanic eruptions. However, NASA’s graph shows that the Earth’s temperature has clearly trended upward since 1880 – with the exception of a curious plateau from 1945 to 1975 followed by a steeper rise in temperature. The Earth’s mean temperature is now 1.3 F higher than in 1880, and the last decade has been the hottest on record. Any theories or causes put forward to explain the global warming trend must be consistent with the temperature observations.
Possible Causes: Nineteenth century scientists realized from geological evidence that the Earth had gone through many ice ages that alternated with ages of warmer climate. Much of the early research on global warming was a search for the cause of the ice ages. Scientists found that many small variables cause the Earth to warm and cool, but the main three causes are the Sun, particulates, and greenhouse gases.
The Sun’s output seems to have been reasonably stable over the last several million years. Satellite measurements over the last 30 years have shown that while solar radiation has declined ever so slightly during that time, the Earth continued to warm – so clearly changes in the Sun’s output is not the cause of the recent warming. The amount of sunlight the Earth receives does, however, depend on the Milankovitch Cycles. These cycles are small variations in the eccentricity, axial tilt, and precession of the Earth’s orbit that cause the solar insolation, the amount of sunlight the Earth receives, to vary slightly in predictable cycles. Ice core data shows that ice ages tend to occur in roughly 100,000-year cycles that match the timing of the Milankovitch cycles. The temperature between the ice ages and the warm periods, however, are much greater than would be caused by the changes in solar radiation alone. Though a clue to the cause of the ice ages, the Milankovitch Cycles are not the cause of the current warming. They predict a minor cooling trend, which began some 6,000 years ago, will continue for the next 23,000 years. The current warming trend is too rapid and in the wrong direction for the Milankovitch Cycles to be the cause.
Particulates cause the Earth to cool by reflecting incoming sunlight back into space. The role of particulates in cooling the Earth became apparent in 1816 when ash from the explosive eruption of Mt.Tambora caused that year to be called “the year without a summer”, worldwide. The curious plateau in NASA’s temperature record from 1945 to 1975 was primarily caused by particulates from sources such as WW II, atmospheric nuclear testing, and increased industrialization. Research during the early 1970’s showed a huge increase in aerosol particulates from power production, factories, and vehicles – and some alarmists even speculated that we might cause another ice age. Particulates are visible and cause immediate health problems, so by 1980 most industrialized countries had restrictions on particulate emissions. Particulates cannot be the cause of global warming, but reducing their sources can cause the temperature to rise as can be seen in the temperature record after 1980.
The Greenhouse Effect was discovered in the early1800’s when scientists realized that the Earth was kept warm at night because the atmosphere trapped invisible heat rays rising from the surface. Around 1860, John Tyndall identified the invisible rays as infrared radiation and found the main gases that trapped the heat rays to be water vapor and CO2. The amount of water in the air remains relatively constant because of the water cycle. When the humidity is low, water evaporates, and when the humidity gets too high, it rains. However, CO2 has no such restrictions. Since CO2 makes up only a few hundredths of a percent of the air, it was at first dismissed as a possible cause of warming, especially since it was thought that plants and the oceans would absorb any excess.
In 1896, Svante Arrhenius, while still pursuing the idea that variations in CO2 might be the cause of the ice ages, laboriously calculated the effect of cutting the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere by half. He found that doing so would lower the temperature of Europe by 4-5 C, perhaps enough to bring on an ice age. He also found that doubling the amount of CO2 might raise the temperature of the atmosphere by 6-7 C. No one was concerned as Arrhenius’ model of the atmosphere was very crude and it was inconceivable that the amount of CO2 in the air could ever double. Some scientists speculated that man should intentionally add more CO2 to the air to ward off another ice age.
As models of the atmosphere improved, a number of scientists tried to get a better estimate of the effect of doubling the amount of CO2 on the Earth’s temperature, but the increasing complexity of the models made the calculations daunting. A breakthrough came with the development of computers. In 1956, G.N. Plass calculated that doubling the concentration of CO2 in the air would cause a 3 to 4 C increase in the Earth’s temperature. ** Many dismissed his work, as it seemed impossible that CO2, which made up only 0.03% of the air, could have such a large effect on temperature. However, in 1997, J.T. Kiehl found that, under clear sky conditions, CO2 accounted for 26% of the greenhouse effect – with water vapor accounting for most of the rest. More recent research has confirmed their work . Clearly, CO2 could have a significant effect on the Earth’s temperature if it was increasing. But was it?
CO2: In 1900, Arvid Hgbom calculated the amount of CO2 emitted by industrial sources and, surprisingly, found that man was adding CO2 to the atmosphere at roughly the same rate as volcanoes. No one thought much of it as, at that rate, it would take centuries for the amount of CO2 to increase significantly. However, after a protracted heat wave during the 1930’s, Guy Callendar re-examined previous temperature and CO2 measurements and found not only that the Earth was getting warmer, but also that atmospheric CO2 concentrations were increasing rapidly. Callendar’s work was mostly ignored, but a few scientists began monitoring the concentration of CO2 more closely. Their results were sporadic but, by 1958, Charles Keeling had established accurate procedures for measuring atmospheric CO2. His lab was eventually moved to the Mauna Loa observatory, far away from most CO2 sources. His graph showing how CO2 varies with time, now called the Keeling curve, proved to be an important piece of evidence. It showed that the oceans and plants were not taking up CO2 nearly as fast as man was producing it. Over the last century, the atmospheric CO2 concentration has risen from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 385 ppm, a 38% increase, and the Earth’s temperature has risen by 0.8 0C, well in line with Plass’ prediction. The role of CO2 as the major cause of global warming had been convincingly established. There is yet one more piece of evidence that confirms that conclusion.
Ice Ages: It was now possible to solve the mystery of the ice ages. The Milankovitch cycles alone cannot explain the changes in the Earth’s temperature during the cycles, but the process becomes clear if CO2 is included. The ice core data shows that the concentration of CO2 falls to about 180 ppm during an ice age and rises to about 280 ppm during the warm part of the cycle. The changing CO2 concentration happens because the solubility of CO2 in water varies with temperature. In the part of the cycle where the Earth is warmed by the increasing solar radiation, the oceans release CO2, which further amplifies the warming by the greenhouse effect. In the part of the cycle where the solar energy decreases, the oceans cool, the CO2 dissolves again, and another ice age begins. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is the “control knob” for the Earth’s temperature – and we have now turned the knob up to 380 ppm and are moving it even higher. The Earth will surely get warmer.
* Much of the historical data came from this excellent AIP article.
** Recent research in the Journal of Climate, covering the last five ice ages, has experimentally confirmed Plass’ estimate of the climate sensitivity.
(C) 2010 J.C. Moore