| June 2007 [
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Climatology as a Profession
Through the first half of the 20th century, climatology was
a nearly stagnant field. The prevailing view saw climate as a static average
condition, pinned down by tedious statistics. The study of climate change
(what to many climatologists seemed a contradiction in terms) was only
an occasional interest of individuals who worked in divergent ways and
scarcely knew of one another's existence. The Second World War and Cold
War promoted a rapid growth of meteorology and other fields of geophysics.
But the dozens of scientific specialties that might have something to
say about climate remained mostly isolated from one another. In the 1960s,
the rise of interdisciplinary institutions, combined with concerns about
global warming, began to bring the diverse fields into contact. People
concerned with climate change kept their identification with their individual
disciplines rather than forming a distinct community of their own, while
communicating through various means that cut across disciplinary boundaries.
Note the separate essay with reflections on
the scientific process as seen in climate studies.
"We cannot hope to understand the causes
of climatic stability or change by restricting ourselves to any one field
of earth science. Nature is ignorant of how our universities are organized..."
| At the middle of the 20th century the study
of climate was a scientific backwater. People who called themselves
"climatologists" were mostly drudges who compiled statistics about
weather conditions in regions of interest the average temperatures,
extremes of rainfall, and so forth. That could have offered a broad
global perspective, but most climatologists set the planet as a whole
aside and attended to regional problems. The people who needed climate
information were farmers planning their crops and engineers designing
dams or bridges.(2) This did not mean climatologists overlooked unusual weather,
for it was precisely the decade-long drought or unprecedented flood
that most worried the farmer or civil engineer. But people saw such
catastrophes as just part of the normal situation, transient excursions
within an overall state that looked permanent on the timescale of
human society. The job of the climatologist was to remove uncertainties
with statistics, fixing the probable size of a "hundred-year flood"
and so forth.
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| Typical was the situation
at the U.S. Weather Bureau, where an advisory group reported in 1953
that climatology was "exclusively a data collection and tabulation
business."(3) Not much money
or administrative attention was committed to such work, nor were the
intellectual prospects enticing. To the extent workers had research
plans, their aim was just to find better ways to synthesize piles
of data. A climatologist was somebody who described climatemainly
at ground level, where the crops and structures were found. These
climatologists' products were highly appreciated by their customers
(such studies continue to this day). And their tedious, painstaking
style of scientific work would turn out to be indispensable for studies
of climate change. Still, scientists regarded the field (as one practitioner
complained) as "the dullest branch of meteorology."(4) Another expert remarked that in the study of climates, "the
scientific principles involved are barely mentioned... Whether they
are right or wrong does not seem to be of any moment, because they
are never used to calculate anything."(5)
When climatologists did try to go
beyond statistics to explanations, they would explain the temperature and precipitation of a
region in geographical terms the sunlight at that particular latitude, the prevailing winds
as modified by mountain ranges or ocean currents, and the like. The explanations were chiefly
qualitative, with more hand-waving than equations. This was close to the field
called physical geography, a matter of classifying climate zones, with less interest in their causes
than their consequences. If in the first half of the 20th century you looked in a university for a
"climatologist," you would probably find one in the geography department, not in a department
of atmospheric sciences or geophysics (hardly any of the latter departments existed anyway). The
geographical way of explaining regional climates was an essentially static exercise loosely based
on elementary physics. The physics itself was useless for telling farmers what they needed to
know. Attempts to make physical models of the simplest regular features of the planet's
atmosphere (for example, the trade winds) failed to produce any plausible explanation for how
the winds circulated, let alone for variations in the circulation.
This failure was hardly surprising,
since meteorologists did not have an accurate picture of what they were trying to explain. Few
measurements existed of the winds and moisture and temperature above ground level, and even
ground-level data were scanty for vast portions of the globe. Most textbooks of climatology
accordingly stuck to listing descriptions of the "normal" climate in each geographical zone,
compiled by authors who, as one scientist complained, "know little, and care less, about
mathematics and physical science."(6)
| Climatology could hardly be scientific when meteorology itself
was more art than science. If the general circulation of the atmosphere
was a mystery, still less could anyone calculate the course of storm
systems. People had a variety of techniques for making crude weather
forecasts. For example, while climatologists tried to predict a season
by looking at the record of previous years, meteorologists similarly
tried to predict the next day’s weather by comparing the current
weather map with an atlas of similar weather maps from the past. More
often a forecaster just looked at the current situation and drew on
his experience with a combination of simple calculations, rules of
thumb, and personal intuition.
| This craft had little to do with scientific advances. As one expert
remarked ruefully in 1957, the accuracy of 24-hour weather forecasts
had scarcely improved over the preceding 30 or 40 years. A canny amateur
with no academic credentials could predict rain at least as successfully
as a Pd.D. meteorologist, and indeed most of the "professionals" in
the U.S. Weather Bureau lacked a college degree. Aside from a handful
of professors in a few pioneering universities, meteorology was scarcely
seen as a field of science at all, let along a science firmly based
on physics. Meteorology, one academic practitioner complained to another
in 1950, "is still suffering from the trade-school blues."(7)
| Some hoped that climate, averaging over the
daily vagaries of weather, might be more amenable to scientific investigation.
They tried to understand changes on a timescale of decades or centuries,
and searched for regular climate cycles. While a few looked for possible
physical causes, it was more common for a climatologist to avoid such
speculation and carry out grinding numerical studies in hopes of pinning
down recurrences and perhaps predicting them. Analysis of large sets
of data turned up various plausible cycles, correlated perhaps with
variations in the number of sunspots. These correlations invariably
turned out to be spurious, further lowering the poor reputation of
climate change studies.
| The stagnant condition of climatology mirrored a deep belief that climate
itself was basically changeless. The careers of climatologists
their usefulness to society rested on the conviction that statistics
of the past could reliably describe future conditions. Their textbooks
defined "climate" as the long-term average of weather over
time, an intrinsically static concept. As one practitioner later complained,
"authoritative works on the climates of various regions were written
without allusion to the possibility of change, sometimes without mention
of the period to which the quoted observations referred."(8) In part this approach reflected a simple absence of data.
There were hardly any accurate records of daily temperatures, seasonal
rainfall, and the like that went back more than half a century or
so, even for the most civilized regions. The records were scantier
still for less-developed countries, and mere fragments for the three-quarters
of the world covered by water and ice. It seemed reasonable to assume
that the existing records did reflect the average weather over at
least the past few thousand years. After all, historical records back
to ancient times showed much the same mixtures of frosts and rains,
and the crops that went with them, in a given region. In fact, history
gave only the crudest indications. Climatologists scarcely recognized
their ignorance, relying explicitly or implicitly on old assumptions
about the stability of nature. In other sciences like geology, experts
found good reason to maintain that natural processes operated in a
gradual and uniform fashion. Ordinary people too mostly believed that
the natural world was self-regulating. If anything perturbed the atmosphere,
natural forces would automatically compensate and restore a self-sustaining
To be sure, at least one immense
climate change was known and cried out for investigation the ice ages. The stupendous
advances and retreats of continental ice sheets were worth study, not because scientists thought it
was relevant to modern civilization, but because they hoped to snatch the brass ring of prestige
by solving this notorious puzzle. Both professionals and amateurs advanced a variety of simple
explanations. Most of these amounted to no more than vague but plausible-sounding arguments
presented in a few paragraphs. Each expert defended a personal theory, different from anyone
else's. The few scientists who attempted to write down equations and calculate actual numbers
for the effects managed to prove little, except at best that their ideas were not wildly astray by
orders of magnitude.
| The most
acceptable explanations for the ice ages invoked geological upheavals
to block ocean currents or raise a mountain range against prevailing
winds. This was necessarily an interdisciplinary sort of theory. "It
is impossible to separate the geological from the meteorological,"
as one meteorologist remarked, "as the two are expressions of the
results of the same forces."(9) But the many pages that scientists wrote
amounted only to elaborate hand-waving, unsatisfactory within either
field. "I, for one," said the respected climatologist Hubert H. Lamb,
"must confess to having been bewildered and left quite pessimistic
by some discussions of climatic variation."(10) The very concept of "theory" became suspect in climate
| Theoretical models, whether of climate stability or ice-age changes,
were usually pursued as a minor sideline when they were not just ignored.
To study "the climate" of the planet as a whole was far less useful
and promising than to study "climates" region by region. There was
little point in attempting global calculations when all the premises
were uncertain and key data were lacking. Given the enormous obstacles
to reaching reliable results, and the prevailing view that the global
climate could not possibly change on a timescale that would matter
except to far future generations, what ambitious scientist could want
to devote years to the topic?
| Yet it is the nature of scientists never to cease trying to explain
things. A few people worked to lift meteorology and climatology above
the traditional statistical approach. Helmut Landsberg's 1941 textbook
Physical Climatology and a 1944 Climatology textbook
written by two other meteorologists demonstrated how familiar physical
principles underlay the general features of global climate, and provided
a rallying-point for those who wanted to make the field truly scientific.
Many saw such studies as an exercise in pure mathematics, deliberately
remote from the fluctuations of actual weather. As one scientist recalled,
in the 1940s, "academic meteorologists would sometimes go out of their
way to disclaim any connection with forecasting an activity
of dubious scientific standing."(11)
| These textbooks came
into use during the Second World War as meteorology professors trained
thousands of meteorologists for the armed services. The training gave
a big boost to the few universities where scientific meteorology already
existed, and led to further expansion after the war. One example was
the young geology student Reid Bryson, who was picked up by the Air
Force and trained in weather forecasting. After the war he got a Ph.D.
in meteorology and, finding himself unwelcome in the geography department
at the University of Wisconsin, founded a one-man meteorology department
there. In 1962, the National Science Foundation gave him funds to
establish an important climate research center.(12)
Another example was Edward Lorenz, who had intended to be a mathematician
but was diverted into meteorology during the war, when the Army Air
Corps put him to work as a weather forecaster. Bryson and Lorenz were
among "a new breed of young Turks" who broke away from the tradition
of climatology as a mere handmaiden to forecasting. (At any rate,
that was how they saw themselves in retrospect.)(13)
| Leading the movement was a group at the University of Chicago,
where in 1942 Carl-Gustav Rossby had created a department of meteorology.
Rossby was a Swede who had learned mathematical physics in Stockholm
and spent two years at Vilhelm Bjerknes's institute in Bergen, Norway.
It was in Bergen that some of the key concepts of meteorology had
been discovered, notably the weather "front" (first recognized during
the First World War and named in accord with the concerns of the time).(14) Rossby had come to the United
States in 1925 to work in the Weather Bureau. Outstanding not only
as a theorist but also as an entrepreneur and organizer, Rossby soon
left the somnolent Bureau in disgust. In 1928 he created the nation's
first professional meteorology program at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology. He did still more in Chicago, thanks to the ample wartime
support for training military meteorologists. The department trained
some 1,700 in one-year courses. Rossby also helped coordinate new
programs for graduate training of meteorologists at several other
| Support continued after the war, as the Cold
War and the expanding economy especially the rapid growth of
civil aviation raised the demand for meteorologists. The Chicago
group flourished. It was the first group anywhere to systematically
develop physical models of climate, sending out numerous students
to carry on the approach elsewhere. As Rossby remarked a few years
later, basic questions of climate change, such as storage of heat
in the oceans or the level of carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere,
"mean a completely new class of questions... In these investigations
one is hardly interested in geographical distributions." Unlike the
traditional regional climatologists, his group looked at the entire
planet as a physical system.(16)
War-trained young meteorologists
also moved into the U.S. Weather Bureau, where they found "the stuffiest outfit you've ever
seen," as a member of the research-oriented new generation later recalled "deadly, deadly
dull... a backward outfit." An official report complained that "the Bureau has displayed an
arbitrary and sometimes negative attitude toward new developments in meteorology originating
outside the Bureau." As for climatology at the Bureau, in 1957 another report described it as
more than ever a mere passive "subsidiary to the task of forecasting."(17)
| Stagnation was unacceptable to those who
recalled the invaluable contributions of meteorology to military operations
during the war. The armed forces thought it no less important for
their postwar global operations, even if the Cold War stayed cold.
And if nuclear bombs exploded, meteorology would be especially vital
for tracking the deadly fallout. The Navy and Air Force in particular
continued to employ many hundreds of meteorologists. Besides, in keeping
with the new respect for science that they had learned during the
war, they supported a variety of academic researchers whose studies
might ultimately make forecasting better. As for climate, some of
these researchers held out the fascinating prospect of changing it
deliberately. The advances that meteorology was making toward solid
scientific understanding, combined with the lavish Cold War funding
for all science, made for a rapid expansion and professionalization
| It helped that the entire area of geophysics,
which included most of the fields relevant to climatology, was becoming
stronger and better organized. Since early in the century there had
been a few institutions, notably university institutes in Germany,
that embraced a wide enough range of studies to take the name "geophysical."
Already in 1919 an International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics was
founded, with separate sections for the different fields such as terrestrial
magnetism and oceanography. An American Geophysical Union was also
created in 1919 as an affiliate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences
(although it would not become an independent corporation with an international
membership until 1972). There followed a few other national societies
and journals such as the Zeitschrift für Geophysik.
Several German universities created formal programs teaching "Geophysik."
| As a founder of the International Union remarked, it was not so
much a union as a confederation.(18) The other early professional organizations
likewise brought little cohesion. Through the 1920s and 1930s, very
few institutions of any kind addressed geophysics in a broad sense.
Most individuals who might be called geophysicists did their work
within the confines of one or another single field such as geology
or meteorology. In the scientific investigation of climate change,
when I look over the more significant publications or at any
rate the ones I have used as references in the present study, found
in the bibliography a great variety of
books and journals turn up. The only ones that stood out from the
crowd in this period were the Quarterly Journal and Memoirs
of Britain's Royal Meteorological Society, which together published
18% of the pre-1940 journal articles I have cited. The runner-up was
the Journal of Geology, with 9%.
| Beginning in the late 1940s, a more significant
number of inclusive institutions appeared. Institutes of geophysics
were created at American universities and under the Soviet Academy
of Sciences, along with funding organs like the Geophysics Research
Directorate of the U.S. Air Force. Another big boost came in 1957-58
when the International Geophysical Year pulled together thousands
of scientists from many nations. They interacted with one another
in committees that planned, and sometimes conducted, interdisciplinary
research projects involving a dozen different "geophysics" fields.(19)
Most of these fields were relevant to climatology.
| The annual meetings of the American Geophysical Union became a
rendezvous for divers fields, and for the same purpose the Union began
publishing a Journal of Geophysical Research (expanded from
the older and narrower Terrestrial Magnetism). However, for
the scattered scientists engaged with climate change, the best meeting-place
was Tellus, a "Quarterly Journal of Geophysics" that the
Swedish Geophysical Society created in 1949. The journal's importance
is evident in the list of papers that found their way into the bibliography
that I compiled in my research for this study. During the decades
1940-1960, Tellus published some 20% of these papers, more
than any other journal. (The runners-up were the American interdisciplinary
journal Science, with 15%, the Journal of Meteorology,
with 10%, and the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological
Society, with 5%. The Journal of Geophysical Research
accounted for only 3%, about equal to the American Journal of
Science and the Journal of Geology.)
Some two-thirds of these papers
were written in the United States a much higher fraction than for earlier years.(20) This was partly because the rest of the
civilized world spent the 1950s recovering from the war's devastation. It was still more because
generous U.S. government support for geophysical research, based on Second World War
successes, did not falter even when memories of the war faded. For the global military and
economic concerns of the Cold War put geophysics near the head of the line for research funds.
| In geophysics as in all the sciences of the 20th century, expansion
raised a risk of further fragmentation. Early in the century, so little
had been known about anything in geophysics that the best scientists
had broad knowledge of many aspects of the subject. For example, between
the world wars Harald Sverdrup published research on the circulation
of the atmosphere, the circulation of the oceans, glaciers, geomagnetism,
and the tides, not to mention the ethnology of Siberian tribes. A
few decades later, when knowledge had grown deeper and techniques
had become more esoteric, hardly anyone could do significant work
in more than one or two fields.
It was getting ever tougher for a
scientist to become expert in a second field of knowledge. Few now attempted it, for the
diversion of energy risked your career. "Entering a new field with a degree in another is not
unlike Lewis and Clark walking into the camp of the [Native American] Mandans," remarked
Jack Eddy, a solar physicist who took up climate studies in the 1970s. "You are not one of
them... Your degree means nothing and your name is not recognized. You have to learn it all
from scratch, earn their respect, and learn a lot on your own."(21) Some of the most important discoveries came from people like
Eddy, who did spend years in a foreign camp. Another example was Nick
Shackleton, who after studying physics (essential for laboratory work measuring isotopes) and
mathematics (necessary for analysis of time series) became part of a research group that analyzed
pollen in a university botany department.(22) Such combinations, however valuable, were uncommon.
The problem was particularly
severe for climate studies. There had never been a community of people working on climate
change. There were only individuals with one or another interest who might turn their attention
to some aspect of the question, usually just for a year or so before returning to other topics. An
astrophysicist studying changes in solar energy, a geochemist studying the movements of
radioactive carbon, and a meteorologist studying the global circulation of winds, had little
knowledge and expertise in common. Even within each of these fields, specialization often
separated people who might have had something to teach one another. They
were unlikely to meet at a scientific conference, read the same journals, or even know of one
another's existence. Nor did theorists interact regularly with people who worked out in the field.
As one climate expert remarked, "lack of interest has all too often characterized the attitude of
physical scientists to the masses of information produced by botanists examining pollen deposits
and the data turned out by geologists, glaciologists, entomologists, and others. These types of
literature have never been part of their regular diet."(23)
To make communication still
harder, different fields attracted different kinds of people. If you went into the office of a
statistical climatologist, you could expect to find ranges of well-organized shelves and drawers
stacked with papers bearing neat columns of figures. In later years the stacks would hold
computer printouts, the fruit of countless hours spent coding programs. The climatologist was
probably the kind of person who, as a boy, had set up his own home weather station and
meticulously recorded daily wind speed and precipitation, year after year. Go into the office of an
oceanographer, and you were more likely to find a jumble of curiosities from the shores of the
seven seas. You could hear adventure stories, like Maurice Ewing's tale of how he was washed
overboard and escaped drowning by a hair. Oceanographers tended to be salty types, accustomed
to long voyages far from the comforts of home, outspoken and sometimes self-centered.(24)
| These differences went along with divergence in matters as fundamental
as the sorts of data people acquired and used. The economic importance
of weather forecasting meant that climatologists could draw on a century-old
and world-wide network of weather stations. "Meteorologists use mainly
standard observations made by technicians," as an oceanographer recently
remarked, "while the much smaller number of oceanographers usually
make their own measurements from a small number of research ships,"
often with instruments they had built for themselves.(25*) The climatologist's weather, constructed
from a million numbers, was something entirely different from the
oceanographer's weather a horizontal blast of sleet or a warm
relentless trade wind.
| On top of social and perceptual gaps were technical
divergences. As one expert remarked in 1961, "The fact that there
are so many disciplines involved, as for instance meteorology, oceanography,
geography, hydrology, geology and glaciology, plant ecology and vegetation
history to mention only some has made it impossible
to work... with common and well established definitions and methods."
Scientists in different fields might use standards so different, he
said, "that comparisons between the results have been hardly possible."(26)
| Meteorology itself had always been divided. The climatologists
who gathered weather statistics and analyzed them were intellectually
remote from the theorists, who worked up mathematical models based
on physical principles rather than observations. Both often looked
down on practical forecasters, who in turn had little faith in the
professors' abstractions. Among all three types of meteorologist,
very few worked on questions of long-term climate change.(27)
| This fragmentation was becoming
intolerable by the 1960s. More than half a century of reliable temperature
measurements were now in hand from around the world, and they showed
that global temperatures had risen. Meanwhile observations of the
climbing level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere brought a threat
of serious future changes. Besides, scholarly studies that extended
the climate record far into the historical past were revealing large
climate shifts. Most notable was evidence of a century or so of exceptional
warmth in parts of medieval Europe and the North Atlantic (this was
when the Vikings settled Greenland). There had followed winters so
harsh that early modern times could be called a “Little Ice
Age” — at least in some countries. Records were spotty
at best for the world outside the North Atlantic region, but there
too, evidence was emerging of anomalies such as centuries of prolonged
drought. Apparently there was no such thing as a “normal”
Painful experience drove the point home. One notorious case was the
experience of firms that contracted to build dams in central Africa
in the 1950s, and consulted with climatologists about the largest
floods that could be expected according to past statistics. The firms
then began construction, only to suffer "fifty-year floods" in each
of the next three years.(28)
Such experiences pulled the props out from the traditional climatology.
The laboriously compiled tables of past statistics were plainly not
reliable guides to the future.(29)
| This unhappy fact was not easily accepted. As late as 1968, a textbook on
Climatology and the World's Climate said baldly, "The subject
of climatic change is not given specific treatment in this book."(30*) Applied climatologists
continued to base their projections of the future on their hoards
of old statistics, simply for lack of anything better. Their work
was in fact becoming increasingly useful. As the data base grew and
methods of analysis expanded, climatological studies brought a better
understanding of how warm spells affected crops, what factors contributed
to floods, and so forth.(31) Nevertheless, during the 1960s more
and more scientists realized that climate predictions could not rely
only on past observations, but must use physical models and calculations.
Traditionally "climate" had been defined as the weather in a region
averaged over a period. For example, in 1935 the International Meteorological
Organization had adopted the years 1901-1930 as the "climatic normal
period." Increasingly experts saw this was misleading. That thirty-year
span had turned out to have weather far from what was "normal" in later
decades, and indeed there might be no such thing as a set of decades
that could define "normal" weather. Climate was something that changed
continually under the impact of physical forces.(32*)
| The new thinking was
displayed in full at a 1965 symposium held in Boulder, Colorado on
"Causes of Climate Change." While the meeting made little special
impression at the time, in retrospect it was a landmark. For it deliberately
brought together scientists from a fantastic variety of fields, experts
in everything from volcanoes to sunspots. Presiding over the meeting
was an oceanographer, Roger Revelle. Lectures and roundtable discussions
were full of spirited debate as rival theories clashed, and Revelle
needed all his exceptional leadership skills to keep the meeting on
track.(33) Convened mainly to discuss explanations
of the ice ages, the conference featured a burst of new ideas about
physical mechanisms that could bring surprisingly rapid climate shifts.
In his formal summary of the discussions, the respected climatologist
Murray Mitchell reported that our "comparatively amicable interlude"
of warmth might give way to another ice age, and sooner than had been
supposed. That foreboding possibility required scientists to understand
the causes of climate change, he said, and to suggest how we might
use technology to intervene.(34)
| This sort of thinking spread widely in the
early 1970s. A spate of devastating droughts and other weather disasters
showed that climate was grossly unreliable. With the alarming news
came warnings that the near future might see still worse whether
global warming or drastic cooling thanks to pollution of the
atmosphere following the explosive growth of human population and
industry. This was an active and even aggressive view of climate in
relation to humanity. It called for aggressive research. "The old
descriptive climatology," an authority remarked in 1975, "concerned
mainly with statistics and verbal interpretation of them, is evolving
into a new mathematical, or dynamic, climatology with predictive capability
based on physical-mathematical processes rather than extrapolation
of statistical measures."(35)
That required a new kind of
research community, more closely linked to other fields and other kinds of science. This was
happening in all the Earth sciences. The traditional observational geologist, out in the field with
his high-laced engineer's boots and rock hammer, had to make room for the investigator who saw
rocks mainly in her laboratory, or perhaps only in pages of equations and calculations.
Old-school geologists grumbled that the move to laboratory and theoretical geophysics took
people away from a personal confrontation with nature in all its complexity and grandeur. The
same filtering of experience was spreading in climate studies. Most scientists with something to
contribute focused on technical problems peculiar to their own specialty. How do aerosols make
clouds? How can you get a computer model to show the annual cycle of the seasons? What was
the pattern of ancient glacial cycles? Those who did attack broader questions head-on seemed out
of date. Some continued to propose simple hand-waving models with physical explanations for
climate change (especially the ice ages). But the different explanations were patently speculative,
infected by special pleading and mostly incompatible with one another. ||
were becoming skeptical of the traditional approach, in which each expert championed a favorite
hypothesis about some particular cause for climate change blaming every shift on
variations in, say, dust from volcanoes or the amount of sunlight. It seemed likely that many
factors contributed together. Meanwhile the factors were interacting with one another. And on
top of these external influences, it appeared that some part of climate change was self-sustaining,
through feedbacks involving the atmosphere, ice sheets, and ocean circulation. "It is now
generally accepted," wrote one authority in 1969, "that most climatic changes... are to be
attributed to a complex of causes."(36)
The shortcomings of the old
single-cause approach were especially visible to those who tried to craft computer models of
climate change. A plausible model could not be constructed, let alone be checked against
real-world data, without information about a great many different kinds of things. It became
painfully clear that scientists in the various fields needed one another. Specialists began to
interact more closely, drawing on one another's findings or, equally valuable, challenging them.
| These changes in geophysics were typical
of a movement in all the sciences. For more than a century many fields
of science had narrowed their perspective to simplified cases, pursuing
solutions as compact and elegant as Newton's equations. Subjects as
far afield as sociology were swayed by what some began to call "physics
envy." Only a few scientists insisted on looking instead at whole
systems with all their complexities. That approach began to spread
in various fields during the postwar years, and a growth spurt in
the 1970s brought into prominence what was coming to be called "holistic"
investigation. In biology, for example, different disciplines were
talking to one another within the increasingly popular field of ecology.
This was timely, for scientists were increasingly concerned that biological
communities were yet another feature that interacted intimately with
the planet's climate. Some specialists had long been aware of such
interactions most notably in oceanography, which was explicitly
a union of physical oceanography and biological oceanography (if only
because the researchers had to bunk alongside one another on their
voyages). Now all of geophysics was coming to be seen as part of a
larger field, the "Earth sciences."
In the fields relating to climate, as
in other sciences, textbooks and review articles in ever growing numbers summarized the recent
findings of this or that specialty for the benefit of outsiders. More and more conferences were
held with the aim of bringing together anywhere from a dozen to several hundred people from
different but relevant fields. Most scientists, however, continued to call themselves
oceanographers or computer scientists or paleobotanists or whatever. Not many would identify
themselves as primarily a... a what? A "climate change scientist?" There was not even an
accepted term to describe the non-discipline. The typical landmarks for the creation of a
discipline, such as departments at universities or a scientific society named for the subject, never
came. The key elements for any profession socialization and employment, which for
scientists usually meant training as a graduate student and employment as a professor
remained firmly fixed within traditional disciplines like meteorology or oceanography. Research
on problems directly related to climate change usually began only at the postdoctoral stage or
later, and was often done in some sort of interdisciplinary institute or project rather than within
an academic department.
| In 1977, one landmark for the recognition
and coalescence of a scientific discipline did come with the foundation
of a dedicated journal, Climatic Change. But unlike many
new journals, this one did not in fact launch itself as the flagship
of a new discipline. Its explicit policy was to publish papers that
were mainly interdisciplinary, such as explorations of the consequences
that global warming might have on ecosystems.(37*) Most scientific papers on climate change itself continued
to be published in journals dedicated to a specific field, like the
meteorologists' Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences or the
paleontologists' Quaternary Research. But key papers were
also welcomed by the two great interdisciplinary scientific journals,
Science and Nature, where specialists in every field
would see them. (In my bibliography for 1960-1980, JAS published
10% of all papers and Quat. Res. 7.5%. Science published
23%, if one includes a few news articles, and Nature 10%.
Tellus was down to 5%, equal to the J. Geophysical Research,
followed by the Journal of Applied Meteorology at 4%. The
Quart. J. Royal Met. Soc. fell to 2.5%.)
| On the whole, climate science remained "a scientific backwater,"
as one of its leading figures recalled decades later. "There is little
question," he claimed, "that the best science students traditionally
went into physics, math and, more recently, computer science."(38*) The study of climate was not a field where you could win
a Nobel Prize or a million-dollar patent. You were not likely to win
great public fame, nor great respect from scientists in fields where
discoveries were more fundamental and more certain. In the mid 1970s,
it would have been hard to find a hundred scientists with high ability
and consistent dedication to solving the puzzles of climate change.
Now as before, many of the most important new findings on climate
came from people whose main work lay in other fields, from air pollution
to space science, as temporary detours from their main concerns.
| Coordination and communication nevertheless improved as climate science was
swept along by changes in the sciences as a whole. During the 1960s
and 1970s, governments doubled and redoubled the budgets for every
field of research, and geophysics got its share. Scientists concerned
about climate change worked to get governmental and international
agencies to organize their diverse research efforts through a central
office or committee. It took decades of failures and false starts,
but by the end of the 1970s, they managed to put together a number
of ambitious climate programs. While still lacking central coordination,
each of the programs embraced a variety of fields. In particular,
the United States established a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
that united oceanography with meteorology in a formal institutional
sense, even if the usual bureaucratic barriers remained between divisions.
Meanwhile within NASA, where designing satellites to observe the Earth
from space gave a push to broader views, some worked deliberately
to break down disciplinary boundaries and create an “Earth System
in diverse fields with an interest in climate change found themselves
meeting in the various committees and panels that reviewed and directed
such programs. The process was officially capped in the mid 1980s
by the creation of an "International Geosphere-Biosphere Program,"
which coordinated work across so many disciplinary boundaries that
some began to worry that there were now too many cooks in the kitchen.
| The researchers
in such programs no longer spoke of studying "climates" in the old
sense of regional weather patterns, but of "the climate system" of
the whole planet, involving everything from minerals to microbes.
This was a fundamentally novel approach. We could call it a new "paradigm,"
in the word's basic sense of a pattern (like the amo, amas, amat
of Latin grammar texts) that scientists used to structure their thinking
as they attacked their research problems.(39*) Many things contributed to the new
approach, but nothing so much as the computer studies that began producing
plausible climate models during the 1970s. The models spoke eloquently
of a global system in their basic concepts, and showed it memorably
in their computed maps of weather patterns.(40)
| For studying a system
with features dispersed among many specialties, the solution was collaboration.
This trend was strong in all the sciences, as research problems spanned
ever more complexities. Scientists with different types of expertise
exchanged ideas and data, or worked directly together for months if
not years. Nearly all the papers written before 1940 in my bibliography
were published under a single name. Only a few were the work of two
authors. But of papers written in the 1980s, less than half had one
author. Many of the rest had more than two, and a paper listing, say,
seven authors was no longer extraordinary. Now the largest projects
were represented by, for example, a 1989 paper with 20 authors from
13 different institutions in seven countries. The trend continued
through the 1990s, as single-author papers became increasingly uncommon.(41*)
| Universities and other institutions, braced by ample funding, increasingly
encouraged coalitions of research groups in a variety of fields. Specialists
in the ionosphere, the Earth's interior, ocean currents, even biology,
found themselves sharing the same funding agencies, institutions,
and even buildings. While there was no regular annual meeting of the
sort that physicists or chemists were used to, the gap was filled
by the increasingly common practice of holding special meetings, conferences,
and seminars devoted to a particular interdisciplinary topic. Perhaps
most important, every scientist read Science and Nature,
which competed with one another for outstanding papers in all fields,
including those connected with climate change. Both these weekly journal-magazines
also published expert reviews and commentaries, and Science
published staff-written news articles, keeping everyone up-to-date
on selected developments outside their own field. (Of the papers in
my bibliography for 1981-2000, Nature and Science
tied with 25% each, including commentary and news articles, followed
by the J. Geophysical Research with 15% and Climatic
Change with 7%. Tellus fell below 1%. The journal EOS:
Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, publishing a
mixture of short scientific reviews and news articles, came in at
4%. A variety of new review journals titled Advances in...
and Reviews of... collectively contributed another 4%.)
| None of this entirely solved the problem
of fragmentation. The more the research enterprise grew, the more
scientists would need to specialize. And the imperatives of administration
would always maintain boundaries between academic disciplines, and
between the government agencies and organizations that supported them.
However, by now everyone was keenly aware of the dangers of fragmentation
and strove for better coordination. For many kinds of research, climatologists,
geochemists, meteorologists, botanists, and so forth added to their
disciplinary category a second form of identification an all-embracing
name reflecting a new social orientation and holistic approach
"environmental scientist."(42*) They were borrowing the luster of a word that had come
to stand for a widely admired attitude, with concerns embracing the
Earth as a whole.
Meanwhile, some scientists altered even their primary professional
identification. By the end of the century the issue of climate change
had become important and prestigious enough to stand on its own.
Certain scientists who once might have called themselves, say, meteorologists
or oceanographers, were now designated "climate scientists."(43)
There was still no specific professional organization or other institutional
framework to support "climate science" as an independent discipline,
but that did not much matter in the new order of holistic interdisciplinary
|The internet helped bring people closer together. As soon as you
heard about a paper in any journal on any subject, you could now find
it online with ease, sometimes months before its formal publication.
E-mail made it far easier to argue out ideas and exchange data, with
as many people listening to the conversation as you liked. A few climate
scientists went on to maintain blogs (notably realclimate.org),
encouraging a still more universal interchange.
|Still, the most important mechanism was the one that had sustained
scientific communities for centuries—you went to meetings and
talked with people. As one scientist described the system, "Most
sucessful scientists develop networks of 'trusted' sources—people
you know and get along with, but who are specialists in different
areas... and who you can just call up and ask for the bottom line.
They can point you directly to the key papers related to your question
or give you the unofficial 'buzz' about some new high profile paper."(44)
scientists, the process of meetings and discussion went a long step
farther when the world’s governments demanded a formal advisory
procedure. The resulting Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC) was not really a single panel, but a nexus of uncounted international
workshops, exchanges of draft reports, and arguments among individuals,
all devoted to producing a single authoritative assessement every
half dozen years. The process engaged every significant climate scientist
in the world (and many of the insignificant ones). In some fields
the IPCC process became the central locus for arguments and conclusions.(45)
This went farthest among computer modelers, whose efforts increasingly
focussed on cooperative projects to produce results for the IPCC assessements.
When climate modellers studied the details of each factor that went
into their calculations, and when they sought large sets of data to
check the validity of their results, they had to interact with every
specialty that had anything to say about climate change. Their projections
of future climate, and the IPCC reports in general, were thus the
output of a great engine of interdisciplinary research. In the world
of science this was a social mechanism altogether unprecedented in
its size, scope, complexity and efficiency—as well as in its
importance for future policy.
Simple Models of Climate
Reflections on the Scientific Process
1. Weyl (1968), p. 60.
2. For civil engineers demanding more data, see Genuth (1987), p. 244.
3. United States (1953), p. 24.
4. H. Lamb quoted in Alexander
(1974), p. 90.
5. For 19th-century origins of climatology, see Nebeker (1995), pp. 24-25; on the empiricism of the field, Eady (1957), quote p. 113, emphasis in original.
6. Cressman (1996), pp.
382-85; "know little:" Stringer (1972), p. xii.
7. Accuracy not improved: Mason
(1957), p. 175, see p. 183; Koelsch
(1996); College degrees: Byers (1976),
p.1343. "Blues": George Platzman to Jule Charney, 18 June 1950, Box 14:451,
Charney Papers, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Archives, Cambridge,
MA. On the low professional status of US meteorology see Harper
8. Lamb (1959), p. 299.
9. Napier Shaw in discussion of Harmer (1925), p. 258.
10. Lamb (1959), p. 4.
11. Landsberg (1941, rev.
ed. 1947, 1960), see the preface, p. iii; On the book's importance:
Taba (1991), p. 97; Haurwitz and Austin's Climatology
(and also Rossby) are noted by Smagorinsky (1991),
p. 30; "academic... dubious": Sutcliffe (1963),
p. 277. BACK
12. Bryson (1967), and
personal communication, 2002.
13. Koelsch (1996); "Turks":
Smagorinsky (1991), p. 31; Nebeker
(1995), ch. 9.
14. Friedman (1989).
15. Here and below I am grateful for the use of Doel (2001).
16. Byers (1959); Rossby (1959), quote p. 16.
17. "Stuffiest": Athelstan Spilhaus, interview by Ron Doel,
November 1989, AIP; see also Joseph Smagorinsky, "Climate's scientific maturity," in Baer et al. (1991), pp. 29-35, 31; "arbitrary:" United States (1953), p. 36, see pp. 3-4; "passive:" National Academy of Sciences (1957).
18. L.A. Bauer quoted in Good
(2000), p. 286, q.v. for this topic in general.
19. Doel (1997); Doel (1998).
20. My rough count from a sample.
21. J.A. Eddy, interview by Weart, April 1999, AIP, p. 4.
22. Shackleton (2003).
23. Lamb (1997), p. 200.
24. For strains on deep-ocean oceanographers, see Mukerji (1989), pp. 66-73; Ewing: Wertenbaker (1974), pp. 130-33.
25. Indeed "meteorology and oceanography are practiced in a
very different manner and by two largely non-overlapping groups of people... there are still
relatively few meteorologists who have more than a superficial knowledge of the ocean, and vice
versa." Charnock (1998), p. 623.
26. Wallén (1963), p.
27. Nebeker (1995), pp. 1-2.
28. Floods: Lamb (1997),
p.178, see passim for historical work.
29. Lamb (1959); Lamb (1966), p. ix.
30. Rumney (1968), p. vii; in
another widely used text, a chapter on climate change first appeared, with a new author, in 1980
(the fifth edition): Trewartha and Horn (1980).
31. Cressman (1996).
32. I have seen only one explicit statement about this at the time
("we are faced with an initial difficulty of definition which has far-reaching consequences..."),
Robinson (1971), p. 12; similarly but implicitly, Barrett and Landsberg (1975), p. 18; for the history, see Lamb (1995), pp. 10-11.
33. Mitchell (1968), p. iii-iv.
34. Mitchell, "Concluding Remarks," drawing on the remarks by
Roger Revelle, in Mitchell (1968), p. 157.
35. Barrett and Landsberg
(1975), p. 76; see Lamb (1995), pp. 12-14.
36. Lamb (1969), p. 178.
37. Edited by Stephen Schneider. Further, in 1983
the Journal of Applied Meteorology became the Journal of
Climate and Applied Meteorology, absorbed in 1988 into the Journal
of Climate, which had begun in 1986. Policy: Schneider (1991). BACK
38. The claim was made to warn policy-makers about the
unreliability of climate predictions, but it is plausible. Richard Lindzen, Testimony before the
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, May 2, 2001, available as appendix to United States Congress (107:1) (2001).
38a. Conway (in press).
39. The term has multiple meanings in the classic
Kuhn (1962); for this particular usage, see Weart (1983). BACK
40. Edwards (2001).
41. To be precise, 92 percent were single-authored pre-1940,
and 58 percent during 1980-1988. Seven authors: e.g., Hansen et al.
(1981); Dansgaard et al. (1982); 20 authors: Cess et al. (1989); multiple authorship in the 1990s is plain from
scanning the references in IPCC (2001).
42. Doel (1997); Earth
scientists had already begun to speak of "environmental sciences" as they coordinated Cold War
research in the 1950s, Doel (2001).
43. Richard Lindzen, Testimony before the Senate Environment
and Public Works Committee, May 2, 2001, available as appendix to United States Congress (107:1) (2001).
43. Gavin Schmidt, "AGU Hangover,"
posted Dec. 24, 2006. BACK
43. For example, in studying effects on
climate of atmospheric chemistry and aerosols, from the mid 1990s the
main advances were consolidated in international workshops under IPCC
auspices. Somerville et al. (2007),
p. 109. BACK
© 2003-2007 Spencer Weart & American Institute of Physics