Climate Science, New York Times, 1956

December 10, 2015


Peter Gleick in Huffington Post:

Despite the apparent inability of many of our current policy makers to accept the scientific reality of climate change, the science is not new. Fifty-nine years ago, on October 28, 1956, the New York Times ran a story in their Science in Review section entitled “Warmer climate on the earth may be due to more carbon dioxide in the air.” The full text of that article is reprinted below and is available from the New York Times archive, here.

Waldemar Kaempffert in the New York Times, 10/28/1956:

The general warming of the climate that has occurred in the last 60 years has been variously explained. Among the explanations are fluctuations in the amount of energy received from the sun, changes in the amount of volcanic dust in the atmosphere and variations in the average elevation of the continents.

According to a theory which was held half a century ago, variations in the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide can account for climatic change. The theory was generally dismissed as inadequate. Dr. Gilbert Plass re-examines it in a paper which he publishes in the American Scientist and in which he summarizes conclusions that he reached after a study made with the support of the Office of Naval Research. To him the carbon dioxide theory stands up, though it may take another century of observation and measurement of temperature to confirm it.

Abundant gases

In considering the theory, Dr. Plass reminds us that the most abundant gases in the atmosphere are nitrogen and oxygen. There is also a little argon. These cannot absorb much of the heat radiated by the earth after it has been warmed by the sun. If they could, the climate would be far colder than it is today, because the passage of heat to outer space would not be stopped.

Regular watchers of my videos know that I have pulled out a recorded science presentation from that same year, 1956, that discusses the same Dr. Plass and his work, in detail.

Three other gases could check the radiation of heat. These are carbon dioxide (the gas that fizzes in ginger ale), water vapor and ozone. All these are relatively rare.

To explain what happens, Dr. Plass resorts to the familiar greenhouse analogy. The rays of the sun pass through the transparent glass, but the outgoing energy (heat) from the plants in the greenhouse cannot pass through. Heat is trapped in the greenhouse, with the result that is warmer inside than outside.

The atmosphere acts like the glass of a greenhouse. Solar radiation passes through to the earth readily enough, but the heat radiated by the earth is at least partly held back. That is why the earth’s surface is relatively warm. Carbon dioxide, water vapor and ozone all check radiation of heat.

Of the three gases that check radiation, carbon dioxide is especially important even though the atmosphere contains only 0.03% of it by volume. As the amount of carbon dioxide increases, the earth’s heat is more effectively trapped, so that the temperature rises.

All this was first brought to the attention of scientists by Tyndall in 1861. In his day the facilities for studying the atmosphere and measuring its temperature were crude. Today they are highly refined. According to Dr. Plass, the latest calculations indicate that if the carbon dioxide content of the earth were doubled the surface temperature would rise 3.6° C and that if the amount were reduced by half the surface temperature would fall 3.8° C.

Striking changes

Such a comparatively small fluctuation seems of no importance. Nevertheless it can bring about striking changes in climate. If the average temperature should fall only a few degrees centigrade, glaciers would cover a large part of the earth’s surface. Similarly a rise in the average temperature of only 4° C would convert the polar regions into tropical deserts and jungles, with tigers roaming about and gaudy parrots squawking in the trees.

Dr. Plass examines the various factors that enter into what is called the “carbon dioxide balance,” including the exchange of carbon dioxide between the oceans and the atmosphere. That balance must be preserved. Photosynthesis (the process whereby plants with the aid of sunlight assimilate carbon dioxide to produce sugars and starches) causes a large loss of carbon dioxide, but the balance is restored by processes of respiration and decay of plants and animals.

Despite nature’s way of maintaining the balance of gases the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is being artificially increased as we burn coal, oil and wood for industrial purposes. This was first pointed out by Dr. G. S. Callendar about seven years ago. Dr. Plass develops the implications.

Of course, many people have seen the famous Bell Telephone Science hour clip from 1958, a program directed by Frank Capra, famous for “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

Generated by man

Today more carbon dioxide is being generated by man’s technological processes than by volcanoes, geysers and hot springs. Every century man is increasing the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere by 30% – that is, at the rate of 1.1° C in a century. It may be chance coincidence that the average temperature of the world since 1900 has risen by about this rate. But the possibility that man had a hand in the rise cannot be ignored.

Whenever the cause of the warming of the earth may be there is no doubt in Dr. Plass’ mind that we must reckon with more and more industrially generated carbon dioxide. “In a few centuries,” he warns, “the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere will be so large that it will have a profound effect on our climate.”

Even if our coal and oil reserves will be used up in 1,000 years, seventeen times the present amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere must be reckoned with. The introduction of nuclear energy will not make much difference. Coal and oil are still plentiful and cheap in many parts of the world, and there’s every reason to believe that both will be consumed by industry as long as it pays to do so.

In 2012, I interviewed a climate science Grandmaster, Mike MacCracken, after stumbling over video of a speech he gave at Sandia Labs in 1982, where he summarizes climate science up to that point.

I did the best I could with blurry video of Mike’s carousel slides, despairing that I would ever be able to clearly reproduce them, until this fall, when I found in researching my latest video on “What Exxon Knew” – that Exxon scientific staff was showing the very same slides, with the very same message, to Exxon management, in the late 70s and early 80s.




12 Responses to “Climate Science, New York Times, 1956”

  1. MorinMoss Says:

    So Al Gore had been plotting his climate hoax since the ’50s?
    How Machiavellian.

  2. Glenn Martin Says:

    OK. In simple fairness, if a denier can’t point to a Newsweek article from the ’70s to make his case then you can’t do the same with a newspaper article from the ’50s. Scientific papers only please.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      the difference here is that the New York Times piece represents the main current of scientific thought, while the Newsweek piece was a journalistic distortion, not reflective of the largest body of contemporary research. If you watch the videos above, and here, you can see that the common thread that mainstream science has been following for more than 60 years.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      And doesn’t mentioning Plass’s work in the article, which appears to have been in the form of a “scientific paper”, more than meet that criterion?

    • Unless I am misinterpreting the following excerpt, the above-posted article appears to be a report on a 1956 study supported by the Office of Naval Research:

      …..According to a theory which was held half a century ago, variations in the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide can account for climatic change. The theory was generally dismissed as inadequate. Dr. Gilbert Plass re-examines it in a paper which he publishes in the American Scientist and in which he summarizes conclusions that he reached after a study made with the support of the Office of Naval Research….. END excerpt.

      Here is a link to the Abstract of that paper which was published in May 1956:

      The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change

      This work was sponsored by the U.S. Office of Naval Research. This article was completed while the author was on leave of absence at Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan. Present address: Systems Research
      Corporation, Van Nuys, California.

  3. dumboldguy Says:

    In northern NJ in the 50’s and early 60’s, I remember some years with rather large snowfall accumulations and low temperatures. Most of us were making snowballs with Strom Inhofe instead of talking about “global warming” back then.

    We subscribed to and read the NYT daily in my high school social studies classes as part of the course requirements, and I don’t recall seeing this article. Maybe it was in the weekend editions—we only got it during the week. (And I wonder how many HS kids are required to read a major paper today? The NYT special rate for kids was almost a giveaway, like a sine a week, and we were probably better informed from reading it than most Repugnant congressmen and senators are today).

  4. omnologos Says:

    If you look hard enough you’ll find all sorts of things in the New York Times, because science evolves.

    The long story made short is that by the early 1960s everyone expected ghg to increase temps but a decade later apparently falling temps threw doubts around for the experts. It was all confused until the early 1980s when co2 warming came back as mainstream expectation, paving the way for the first ipcc in 1990, where science crystallised. Not necessarily a good thing.

    Exxon might have known but it’d be just too easy to show there was no sustained consensus until 25 years ago. Read page 228 of this book and shut up

    • dumboldguy Says:

      The village idiot appears! With a totally moronic “read page 228 of this book and SHUT UP”. Page 228 is supposed to mean something because the word “cooling” appears a few times? Only to those with reading and logic deficits like the OmnoMoron.

      Too bad the OmnoMoron doesn’t know that Budyko was one of the “fathers” of the concept of AGW. He was one of those whose work built the “sustained consensus” that began long before “25 years ago” (that’s 1990). Budyko began writing in the mid-1950’s.

      Get a brain or shut up, Omno. If you hurry, you can catch Dorothy on the yellow brick road and go with her to see the Wizard.

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