Ben Franklin, an Al Gore for his Time

January 22, 2013


Mark Boslough in Huffington Post:

Benjamin Franklin, the first American Ambassador to France, was both a statesman and a scientist. On September 3, 1783 he co-signed the Treaty of Paris at the Hotel d’York, in which the British acknowledged the American Colonies to be free and independent States, ending the American Revolution.

Franklin’s political eye was focused, but his scientific eye was attentive too. All was not well in the French countryside, where one of the worst environmental calamities of modern history was just beginning to unfold. That summer was the hottest on record, and a mysterious “dry fog” had settled across Europe. The combination of heat and air pollution was too much for the weak and elderly. Mortality spiked among farm workers and laborers across the continent.

According to British naturalist Gilbert White, “the sun, at noon, looked as blank as a clouded moon.” When rising and setting, it was “particularly lurid and blood-coloured.” The heat was so intense that meat went bad the day after it was butchered, and swarms of flies made life miserable.

The seeds of climate science in America were very possibly being planted as Franklin observed the changes 200+ years ago. Conditions went from bad to worse as Europe and North America were plunged into a deep freeze that winter. In its first peacetime year as an independent nation, the United States had to contend with more extreme weather than the colonies had ever experienced. New England suffered a record below-zero weather streak. The Mississippi River froze as far south as New Orleans. Ice appeared in the Gulf of Mexico.

Other parts of the world were also in trouble. Monsoons in Africa and India were extremely weak, and rain barely moistened the African Sahel. Agriculture collapsed in the Nile Valley leading to mass starvation. Volney, the French historian, wrote, “Soon after the end of November [1784], the famine carried off, at Cairo, nearly as many as the plague; the streets, which before were full of beggars, now afforded not a single one: all had perished or deserted the city.” Within a year, Egypt had lost a sixth of its population.

Franklin watched this extreme weather with great interest and concern. In December, 1784, he presented his ideas in a paper entitled “Meteorological Imaginations and Conjectures.” He described the dry fog, even though he was uncertain of its source, “During several of the summer months of the year 1783, when the effect of the sun’s rays to heat the earth in these northern regions should have been greatest, there existed a constant fog over all Europe, and great part of North America.” He observed the effect the fog had on the sun’s rays: “They were indeed rendered so faint in passing through it, that when collected in the focus of a burning glass, they would scarce kindle brown paper. Of course, their summer effect in heating the earth was exceedingly diminished.”

He drew some important conclusions: “Hence the surface was early frozen. Hence the first snows remained on it unmelted, and received continual additions. Hence the air was more chilled, and the winds more severely cold. Hence perhaps the winter of 1783-4 was more severe, than any that had happened for many years.” Franklin was arguably the first American scientist to recognize the sensitivity of climate to changes in radiative forcing, and to propose that the Earth can respond in a way that reinforces the change (now known as ice-albedo feedback).

As it turns out, one of Franklin’s guesses about the source of the fog was right. It wasn’t a meteor, but an Icelandic volcano. On June 8th, three months before he was to sign the Treaty of Paris, a series of explosions unknown to most of the world had opened a fissure along the Laki crater, beginning the largest terrestrial eruption of the last millennium, and spewing dust, ash, and sulfuric acid into the air for many months.

Recent computer models have shown that the Laki eruption cooled the northern hemisphere’s land masses by about 2° to 6° F. This led to the extreme harsh winter, diminished the land-sea temperature contrast, weakened the Asian and African monsoons, and reduced water and food supplies in the most vulnerable parts of the world.



9 Responses to “Ben Franklin, an Al Gore for his Time”

  1. Perhaps, a Richard Alley for his time.

  2. Actually Boslough sells short Franklin’s key political role. Among other things, he was the one who persuaded the French to cough up the resources that led to victory over the British.

    Scientifically, I don’t know for sure but I’m certainly unaware of *any* other scientist (not just American) with similar insights at or before that time.

    Quite an amazing person, really.

    • andrewfez Says:

      Somewhere around that same time (maybe a little afterward) the mathematician Fourier (famous for the Fourier Transform) was working out ideas about the atmosphere and light energy from the sun. I could be wrong about this, but I think he even ran equations that showed that the amount of sunlight hitting the earth was not enough to keep it as warm as it is, thus speculated the atmosphere somehow acted as an insulator. He may have even has a basic ‘model’ where light would come in and hit the earth, then ‘light’ would leave the earth and hit a plane that represented the atmosphere, and some light would go through the plane and some would not…

      It’s been a while but David Archer at Chicago University had a lecture series that started off with the most basic climate model one could imagine, in which he mentioned Fourier having in some way to do with it.

  3. That was an interesting post, thanks. I hate to go off topic (I don’t know how else to contact you), but I thought you might like this:

  4. Brian G Valentine Says:

    Ben Franklin would have considered Al Gore a douche bag.

    If that much!

    • greenman3610 Says:

      actually I disagree. It’s fashionable in some circles, on the left, and the right, to beat up on Al Gore. I think history will record him as a visionary.

  5. […] 2013/01/22: PSinclair: Ben Franklin, an Al Gore for his Time […]

  6. MorinMoss Says:

    The deniers at WUWT love to throw around very low numbers for climate sensitivity but I haven’t yet seen a good explanation from them as to why volcanic eruptions can have such quick and dramatic effects on global weather while, in their view, CO2 would be ineffectual.

    To clarify my point, deniers contend that the mere 0.039% by volume that CO2 makes up of the atmosphere is too small to matter (let’s overlook the fact that same tiny amount is more than enough to sustain lush greenery).

    That small amount is 0.059% of the total atmospheric weight so about 3 000 000 000 000 tonnes (3.16 x 10^15 kg, according to Wikipedia).

    The numbers given for the eruption are 10 000 000 000 tonnes magma / dust and 20 000 000 tons SO2, the latter being responsible for the aerosol haze that eventually enveloped the globe and caused a 1 deg F drop in global temps for a couple years, briefly erasing decades of warming.

    Either of those numbers is a very small fraction of just the CO2 in the atmosphere so why can’t the much higher amount of CO2 and its much longer persistence not have signficant impact?

    • MorinMoss Says:

      Dammit, can we get an edit mode for this blog, please !?
      Left out “Pinatubo” in paragraph 4.
      It should have been “The numbers given for the PINATUBO eruption …..”

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