From Ice Age to Global Warming – The SandPaper
During the early 1970s the public read many articles about the world’s changing climate. Most started like the one published on May 2, 1975 by the Associated Press.
“In the last decade, the Arctic ice and snow cap has expanded 12 percent, and for the first time in this century, ships making for Iceland ports have been impeded by drifting ice. … Reid Bryson of the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin is a leading climatologist, who believes dust of various kinds blocks some of the sun’s energy from reaching earth. A major cause is volcanic dust, but man also plays a role, he says.”
The fear of a changing climate was used by the environmental movement of the time to lobby for more-stringent regulations and a push for an improvement of the world’s air quality. While cherry-picking scientific facts is a good way to win votes, presenting both sides of the debate was the role of the journalists on May 21, 1975. Walter Sullivan, a reporter for The New York Times, entered the debate stating, “The world’s climate is changing. Of that scientists are firmly convinced. But in what direction and why are subjects of deepening debate.
“There are specialists who say that a new ice age is on the way – the inevitable consequence of a natural cyclic process, or as a result of man-made pollution of the atmosphere. And there are those who say that such pollution may actually head off an ice age.”
Sullivan warned of mixing the facts from the past with the predictions for the future.
“It had been forecast by some specialists that last winter would be exceptionally cold, but as all ice skaters know, it was unusually mild in the New York area. In Boston it was the warmest in 22 years and in Moscow it was the second warmest in 230 years. … A major problem in seeking to assess the trend is to distinguish year-to-year fluctuations from those spread over decades, centuries and thousands of years.”
Sullivan went on to discuss the long-term effects of sunspots and changes in Earth’s orbit before getting to the big question.
“There is general agreement that introducing large amounts of smoke particles or carbon dioxide into the atmosphere can alter climate. The same would be true of generating industrial heat comparable to a substantial fraction of solar energy falling on the earth. The debate centers on the precise roles of these effects and the levels of pollution that would cause serious changes.
“Carbon dioxide in the air acts like glass in a greenhouse. It permits solar energy to reach the earth as visible light, but it impedes the escape of that energy into space in the form of heat radiation.”
Fortunately, in nature there is a natural balance to man adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
“For example, the extent to which that gas, introduced into the atmosphere by smokestacks and exhaust pipes, is absorbed by the oceans depends on the temperature of surface waters. … This in turn, is affected by climate, leading to so-called feedback effects. Plants consume carbon dioxide at rates that depend on temperature and the abundance of that gas in the air, complicating predictions of their role.”
The article’s conclusion seemed clear.
“The Academy of Sciences report notes that any assessment of climate trends is crippled by a lack of knowledge: ‘Not only are the basic scientific questions largely unanswered, but in many cases, we do not yet know enough to pose the key questions.’”
But the call for calm and more research did not make newspaper headlines, and even Sullivan found it hard to resist. On Jan. 5, 1978 he again wrote for the Times.
“An international team of specialists from eight indexes of climate (claim) that there is no end in sight to the cooling trend of the last 30 years, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. … In some, but not all cases, the data extend through last winter. They include sea surface temperatures in the northcentral Pacific and north Atlantic, air temperatures at the surface and at various elevations as well as the extent of snow and ice cover at different seasons.”
What was the scientific basis for the conclusion?
“Snow and ice cover in the Northern Hemisphere have varied greatly but there has been a net increase according to a satellite photograph analysis by Dr. George J. Kukla of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory. This has been most marked in the spring when so highly reflective a cover returns much solar energy into space at a time of intense solar radiation.
“The observations come, at a time when a warming trend could have been expected from the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere due to extensive fuel burning. The gas inhibits the escape of solar heat from the earth. Dr. Kukla, in a telephone interview this week, said that the cause of the apparent cooling remained unknown and that no scientific attempt to predict whether the trend would continue was possible.”
As the 20th century drew to a close, talk of a coming ice age was replaced by global warming and a frantic race to save man from the rising oceans caused by melting Arctic ice. One thing is clear: While some scientists of the ’70s warned us against making predictions, it is the predictions that make the headlines and sway voters.
Today, the mantra is “believe the science”; however, there should be a cautionary addendum – “but don’t bet on it.”
Next Week: A Barnegat hero.