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Oral History Transcript — Dr. Lester Machta

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Interview with Dr. Lester Machta
By Spencer Weart and William Elliott
In Silver Spring, Maryland
April 25, 1991

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Lester Machta; April 25, 1991

ABSTRACT: This oral history focuses on Machta's interest in the human impaction on the climate. It begins with a discussion of Machta's original exposure to meteorology in the late 1930s before going on to how he became interested in the specific topic of how humans impact the climate. Throughout the interview there is discussion of his relationship with and role in governmental programs and the relationship between those programs and academia. The majority of the time is spent on the monitoring of carbon dioxide at various measuring stations around the world as well as discussion of attempts to expand the monitoring beyond carbon dioxide. Also discussed is the way in which monitoring of carbon dioxide became a global pursuit.

Transcript

Weart:

I am not going to be interviewing you about the whole history of the lab because these people want to do that. My own interest, as I guess you know, is in the whole question of human impact on climate. But I do want to get started just by asking a little bit about how you got started in meteorology, where your interest in climate picked up and so forth. So if you could just tell me a little bit about yourself  how you got started in life —

Machta:

Well, it was in 1938 when I got my bachelor's degree. The Depression was still on and I could not become a high school mathematics teacher.

Weart:

That had been your goal?

Machta:

I studied mathematics and was good at it. So, I got my degree —

Weart:

Just to interrupt  early on you had an interest in science or in mathematics?

Machta:

Science. My older brother, who I respected very greatly, was really a very brilliant physicist even though he ended up being a dentist  he was a very good dentist, too. But at any rate, he had a friend named Morris Gershon who actually got a job as a meteorologist working for American Airlines. He got it pretty easy  jobs were very hard to get. [I thought] well, if you can get a job that easy maybe I ought to study meteorology also. Frankly I didn't know what meteorology was! And so my last year in college I took one course in meteorology. New York University was just about starting its graduate school at that time and a Professor Athelstan Spilhaus from South Africa had a class there. The other professor was Gardner Emmans, who was really a twoperson department. I and one other person paid our way  the other three people who were in the graduate school were all Weather Bureau people who were sent on scholarships: Colman, who you will probably interview because he knows all of Harry Wexler's background, and Wilgus and Wobus were there. At any rate, I finished my one year of meteorology and then almost immediately when the war was very threatening I got a job working at Chanute Fields. This is where the ArmyAir Force was teaching students  enlisted men primarily  in meteorology. They needed more instructors because they were expanding, so I got a job there. That grew to be much, much larger. Ultimately, we had to put on a uniform besides, after being civilians, and I as a Private was teaching Lt. Colonels and so on.

Weart:

Basic meteorology?

Machta:

Even advanced meteorology  but I realized that I really preferred research. One of the other teachers at Grand Rapids, where the school had moved from Illinois, was Harry Wexler. I guess he took a liking to me and I certainly kept after him. He became the Director of Research after Rossby in the Weather Bureau. When he got there he came into the Washington scene and was the most brilliant meteorologist I think in the Washington area.

Weart:

This was after the war?

Machta:

Yes, after the war in 1945, 1946, 1947. 1 think he was on practically every DOD advisory committee imaginable. So, he had his finger in every pie.

Elliott

Let me ask you, just for a minute, what was Wexler like?

Machta:

He was a very easygoing person to other people but he must have worked so many hours; in fact my main criticism of him was that he had his finger in just too many pies. He started the numerical weather forecasts in the United States, he started New York on the work I'll talk about, he started off the Atomic Energy, the Public Health Service  he had his finger in virtually every pie and I never understood how he could do this. I can't and never could. He was brilliant and on top of that — you may have overheard me saying a moment ago  his wife said he published 390 papers and did live to a very old age. He died in 1962. He is really, I think as far as the Weather Bureau is concerned, the founder of research in meteorology and everything and I owe my greatest debt to him.

Weart:

Did he have any particular interest in climatology?

Machta:

He did. He was the one  we might as well get started  who had the foresight to realize that Dave Keeling was, on to something in being able to measure carbon dioxide.

Weart:

Right. Now that's getting ahead of our story.

Machta:

It was he who did it  it was not me. He actually went out of his way to see to it that the Mauna Loa observatory was set up and he took one of his people and sent him to Scripps Institution as a hired hand for Dave Keeling. Rafella spent his year or two there, he brought him back and sent another person over. So he went to a great deal of effort to get this program started. He realized its importance.

Weart:

Anyway  so he went to Washington —

Machta:

Apparently in his dealings in the Department of Defense, there was a decision made that there would be a program to see when and where and if the Russians set off the first nuclear test.

Weart:

Right. We're going to get into that but because we don't have too much time we'll let these people — Machta. He hired me and hired about three other people. The other people were students at the University of Chicago. For a while after the war  and before the war  he was a professor at the University of Chicago.

Weart:

I know this is important but we don't have time to cover all these things today.

Machta:

After he died the point was, who would take over the responsibility for all the things? They split it up to the most senior people who were under him in research. The thing that I got was the Mauna Loa observatory.

Weart:

I want to run back. We are still back  he went to Washington, you went to MIT at that point?

Machta:

Yes. Right after the war, because my wifetobe came east, I had to find an excuse to come east. My best excuse was that I had to go to school. So, I went to MIT for two years and got my doctor's degree.

Weart:

Studying under?

Machta:

Under Henry Houghton, Bernard Horowitz  both these people are deceased  and Tom Malone who was really the big wheel and had just graduated the year before I left there. Bob White was a very big name, came and got his degree a little bit after I did.

Weart:

You wouldn't have necessarily chosen MIT if it weren't in the east. You would have gone to Chicago perhaps?

Machta:

I might not have even gone. I must confess I had to chase after my wife-to-be!

Weart:

If you could have gone anywhere, where would you have gone to get a doctorate?

Machta:

I didn't even think  no other school interested me because that's the only place I wanted to go. Every weekend I had to go from Boston down to New York.

Weart:

And a doctorate didn't seem absolutely necessary to you?

Machta:

No. At that time I was a teacher and really a Master's degree was adequate as it was.

Weart:

Since we were talking about the Weather Bureau let's follow that up a little bit. There was, I know, some criticism of the Weather Bureaus climatology in the late 1940s and early 1950s, that it was somewhat moribund. Were you involved at all in the way it was organized?

Machta:

No, I was not. They had a number of people. I was not directly connected with it but I think the word moribund was not the proper word. At that time, if my memory serves me, every agency after World War II started to expand tremendously. The Air Force that Bill was on, just AFCRL grew tremendously. Reicheldorfer was being criticized constantly because he was so conservative that he didn't want to spend money and he therefore didn't go in and ask for all the money that we could use B said that if you wanted to do these things you needed money. He was cheap by those standards. I have a piece of paper, for example, that the first director of research under Reicheldorfer was Rossby, so it is the big name in meteorology. The piece of paper I have says, “I am hereby resigning my job as director of research. The $25,000 that you gave me to conduct research during this past year has been spent  all done. You don't need me anymore.”

Weart:

Hard to imagine that nowadays especially. So you weren't much involved with the climate at that time?

Machta:

I was not involved in the climate history at all.

Weart:

You were primarily involved in the atmosphere tracing experiments.

Machta:

It was realized soon after I got involved in the Mauna Loa observatory —

Weart:

I want to get to that but we're still back in the 1950s. I am not interviewing you about your career because there is a lot to be covered here. My interests are focused on the climate interests. I want to ask you when you first became aware at all of the whole question of human impact on climate? I am not talking about necessarily carbon dioxide global warming, just human impact on climate.

Machta:

Well, this is almost on the side but I wrote papers with a man named D. Lee Harris on whether or not atom bomb tests were changing the climate.

Weart:

Yes, I noticed that.

Machta:

But in those days that was a big thing. Whenever there was an unusual weather, they had to blame it on something and so they were blaming it on atom bomb tests. We wrote a paper trying to discredit that.

Weart:

How did you come to write that paper?

Machta:

Because the Atomic Energy Commission with whom we were connected used to get letter after letter saying “Stop the tests, you're changing the weather.” It rubbed off on us a little bit.

Weart:

You were just sort of aware of that.

Machta:

Actually we were being supported by the Air Force and then by the Atomic Energy commission. A lot of the people, including Nick Hefter and others went out and saw most of the nuclear tests. So we were very closely connected.

Weart:

Yes, I was amused to find that the first congressional hearings on the effects of fallout back in the 1950s concentrated on the climate effects, on whether they were causing droughts and so on.

Machta:

We sold one of my papers there. That was the first thing but it was sort of incidental and had nothing to do with the greenhouse effect. I don't think I got interested in greenhouse effect until after I had got responsibilities for the carbon dioxide program at Mauna Loa.

Weart:

I see. That came to you rather than you going after it. Let's talk about that Mauna Loa story. You've already told me, and I guess Keeling talks about it in this anniversary volume on Mauna Loa, how he went to Wexler and so on. So, just tell me how you got involved in the Mauna Loa story.

Machta:

Primarily because the administration  administrative assignment  was given to me after this. I can't reconstruct the dates but I think it was in the 1960s to 1970s  another laboratory was set up parallel to the laboratory I have with Helmet Weikmann, who is now deceased. His son is now in the National Science Foundation as a rather eminent climatologist/meteorologist. The new laboratory was a weather modification laboratory of sorts, and he felt as though if it’s man's influence on weather and climate, he should have that. I don't know what conniving went on behind the scenes (I was not privy to it) but the Mauna Loa observatory was assigned to him. He ultimately got Parkinson's disease and has passed away. When his successor took over, I made stirrings and the laboratory was then returned to me.

Weart:

This was about when?

Machta:

I think in probably the late 1960s or late 1970s. So, for a period of about three or four years it was not under my responsibility.

Weart:

So it was under yours at the beginning and that's when it came back.

Machta:

Until last November.

Weart:

I see. Now already at this point ARL [Air Resources Lab] had been doing other things than tracer studies. At the time the carbon dioxide monitoring came out, you'd been involved in pollution and that sort of thing.

Machta:

That is correct. One of the other things that Harry Wexler got us into since we were doing trajectories was with the Public Health Service, the predecessor of the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]. He assigned me the responsibility for a meteorological unit which was located in Cincinnati, supporting the Public Health Service, and I oversaw it. Actually my own administrative philosophy was that if you've got a good person in charge of a unit somewhere, you don't micromanage it. So the person who is in charge of that was completely given the freedom. I used to visit them and learn about what they were doing but the decisions were made there. This was partly pushed by the fact that the Public Health Service viewed them as their people and they (the Public Health Service) told them what to do. I could not tell them what to do. They paid the bill, they wanted work done in the area that they did which was mostly urban meteorology.

Weart:

Would it be correct  if I could put this as a leading question  to say that the reason that Mauna Loa came to you was not because there was any climate interest here but because it was just one more thing that people were putting in the air?

Machta:

Probably something like that, yes.

Weart:

Putting in fallout, putting in smog, putting in carbon dioxide —

Machta:

My memory is not quite good enough to say that I had no interest in the time but my memory was it occurred after Harry passed away. I think had he lived for a much longer time he would have continued that.

Weart:

Just kept on at the Weather Bureau?

Machta:

Yes.

Weart:

Now were you at all involved in this budget crisis around 1963 where there is a little gap in the Mauna Loa records?

Machta:

No, I was not involved in that. I mean I knew that Dave Keeling always had financial troubles  I am sure Bill has given you what happened in these years. As you know, through the years every year we gave him $10,000 because he couldn't quite make it. Have you told him the story?

Elliott

No, I didn't.

Machta:

When he got his money from the NSF he ran out and he needed a little extra money until he got the next one and we would see to it that he got 

Weart:

This was out of your discretionary funds?

Machta:

Discretionary funds  but it was always a very small amount. We resisted  I resisted  funding him because I knew if we were to fund him, virtually our entire budget that we would get would go over to Scripps. The NSF was, at the time and still is, much richer and more able to support this.

Weart:

So he was funded through Scripps out of NSF?

Machta:

Yes well, NSF gave money to Scripps. We worked closely with Dave though. We made really great efforts to help him in every way we could, other than these piddling amounts of money. Our staff was up taking his observations, although in the first ten or fifteen years after 1962, he actually had his own person assigned there and they were part of the Weather Bureau as his staff working on it.

Weart:

But after that it was someone detailed from here to go.

Machta:

After that, not to go, it was just one of the other assignments. With time I, and perhaps others, read the reports that were coming out of the National Academy of Sciences [on] what the community was doing and realized that we really should be monitoring lots more than just carbon dioxide and we started expanding it. That was one of the expansions. The second expansion was the fact that we realized having one station at Mauna Loa and a partial station at Antarctica at the South Pole was really inadequate. We should have more than those stations. But I never could get money.

Weart:

I want to go into that in as much detail as you can recall  there is this story of the run up to what is now the GMCC [Geophysical Monitoring for Climate Change program], and I know there was an international component, there was the WMO [World Meteorological Organization] who had some interest in doing something.

Machta:

Not at the time we were expanding. This was entirely a US effort. My view is — I am prejudiced  that after they saw our success they took over and other countries came in to play, which is not to say that other people did not make carbon dioxide. Walter Bischof from Sweden under Bert Bolin, was as much or more an initiator of making measurements of carbon dioxide as Dave Keeling was. He was a little bit more practical and not nearly as careful as Dave was, though he caught Dave in one bad mistake (but Dave doesn't talk about it).

Weart:

What was that, if I may ask?

Machta:

Well, it turns out that water vapor or oxygen has a line in the same area where there is carbon dioxide and as a result the amount of carbon dioxide in the air was being overestimated by 4 ppm. The precision was perfectly good, but the absolute concentrations were off by 4 ppm.

Elliott

This is because Dave used to calibrate the CO2 in nitrogen and you get a difference if you use CO2 in nitrogen plus oxygen  it was a problem with the standard.

Weart:

When was that discovered?

Machta:

About 20 years ago I would say.

Weart:

I see. So all the earlier things had to go back and be readjusted.

Elliott

We changed the numbers to agree.

Machta:

Really the person who persevered and insisted on it, I may say so  was Walter Bischof. People were always speculating this might happen, but Dave Keeling had such a remarkable reputation for doing things carefully that it only took someone who was working in his own field with the courage to challenge him.

Weart:

So now let's talk about this more global monitoring. When did you first become interested?

Machta:

I don't remember the date but I would say about five or eight years after I got the Mauna Loa station I realized there had to be more. But this required that NOAA (the Weather Bureau at that time) get more money. I kept putting initiatives in the budget every year and for maybe five years I would do this over and over again until I got disgusted repeating it.

Weart:

You were asking for what specifically?

Machta:

Well for money to set up two more stations. We had agreed that those stations were going to be first at Point Barrow, Alaska, and then the second one in the southern hemisphere with the equivalent latitude of Mauna Loa, which we decided would be the windward tip of American Samoa. The person who helped me out and really needs a lot of credit, was a man named Jack Townsend, who is still alive and working in private industry. He is a very brilliant physicist. At that time he was Bob White's deputy. He said, “the world must have more of the kind of measurements you made  I'll give you the money.” Well, he was high enough up that he actually diverted money into this.

Weart:

What budget was this from then?

Machta:

I don't know where he got the money from but he gave it to us. We set up two more stations and hired people.

Weart:

So Bob White was at that point B?

Machta:

Well, Bob White probably had a hand in helping out.

Weart:

What was his position?

Machta:

He was the administrator of either ESO or NOAA at the time, or the Weather Bureau.

Weart:

So Townsend was right below.

Machta:

Right below. There were only two men in the organization.

Weart:

About what year was this that you got this?

Machta:

I can look it up because we have those records. I don't know it now.

Weart:

Roughly what are we talking about?

Machta:

I would have to guess it would be about 1970.

Weart:

Could you put that before or after the MIT summer study. What one of the points at which I see you first publishing and talking about carbon dioxide and global change and so on, the MIT study —

Machta:

I would say before summer studies. Certainly my initiative to try and get this money for it was thought of before the summer studies. But I think the stations were also set up before that. Then we started expanding them to the best of our abilities. I had the philosophy that we government scientists did not have a monopoly on doing this sort of thing. Particularly at Mauna Loa we tried very hard to get other academics to make measurements and in fact they did come there. But in the government running that station I ran into a considerable amount of flack from academia because I think they felt: 1) we didn't have the competence to make the measurements as carefully as was necessary, and 2) they did have the competence and this was not a responsibility of the government to do this.

Weart:

So they wanted —

Machta:

They wanted us to give them the money to run it.

Weart:

Who is they?

Machta:

I would rather not name names if I could even remember them. The main argument that I had, and the reason that I insisted on this, was I felt we could not maintain long-term continuity at an academic institution. In fact, if I can tell a story, one of my colleagues at MIT  Richard Craig  was at Florida State University. He set up an absolutely magnificent Dobson ozone measuring station. He was one of the world’s experts in this area, supported by the AFCRL, I think. Well, that station when he was there was perfect. When he passed away nobody in the department took an interest in it. We lost the station so it couldn't go on. My feeling was that when I was gone and other people were gone that monitoring would go on  it's the continuity that the government could provide. Besides which, I had the feeling our people were doing rather a good job. When we needed help with carbon dioxide we went to Dave Keeling. We didn't hesitate to go out and ask everybody. And I may say everybody in academia, even though they had these antagonisms to us, were very, very helpful to us. People at Oregon State, for example, used to give us standards for the chlorofluorocarbons and things like that.

Weart:

Let's go on in the 1970s now. One of the things that I noticed was at this 1970 MIT study you did a little paper on high clouds and the monitoring of those.

Machta:

I got the feeling, which I still have (and I do it to an extreme), that one way of trying to determine whether man has an influence on climate is to look at a record and get a longterm continuity, and if you see when man should be influencing it with some change on the record, then you can start blaming it on man. And this was why Dave Keeling was, of course, looking at carbon dioxide and so on  if you interview anyone you have to interview him, he has fascinating stories of the very early days of the carbon dioxide.

Weart:

I certainly intend to interview him.

Machta:

Let me mention something so at you can get him. You know there was a seasonality going on. His first measurement was at the high point, the second measurement was at the low point B you'd see a decrease. Or, you'd see something anomalous. What he did see, I think, was no change. At the point when he started his measurements the world scientific community was absolutely convinced that the oceans would take up any of the carbon dioxide we needed. This idea of having to go out and make measurements was total nonsense. It was a waste of money and time because everybody knew the oceans would take it up. With the first measurements made and he didn’t see any change — “God, they’re right.”

Weart:

Because this was part of Revelle's argument, right? It wasn't necessarily so.

Machta:

Then it turns out he was persistent enough, as he is in everything he did, and he got it, it went up, by then he converted everyone and the world now sees a crisis as a result of that.

Weart:

Although if his funding had been cut in 1963 it might not have gotten enough data.

Machta:

No, he had the record showing what was going on.

Weart:

It was enough by then to convince people.

Machta:

And besides, if the funding was cut in one year... If you know Dave Keeling, he would have gone after it in the second year, as he did. He felt what he was doing was important, which it was, and he would do it.

Weart:

Getting back to this high cloudiness study —

Machta:

High cloudiness  up until the early 1950s when jets came online, all aircraft ceiling, except for military aircraft which were relatively few in number, ceased at about 25,000 feet. When jets came on line you could go up to cirrus levels. There were also lots of reports that the cirrus cloudiness was increasing. This was in the press and other places.

Weart:

There was this fellow at Boulder, what was his name? [W.O. Roberts] Wasn't there a guy out there talking about it?

Machta:

There may have been but I think my work actually preceded his. In my unit there was a man named Tom Carpenter who was coauthor of this, who is a statistician. He laboriously got the records. What I decided to do was not just to take the records of high cloudiness but take it on only days when you could see the high clouds because there are many times when the high clouds are up there and you look from below —

Weart:

Well there's stratus or something —

Machta:

Yes, stratus interfering —

Weart:

So the impetus for this came from just people in the world looking up and seeing the contrails and saying, “oh, they're making clouds.”

Machta:

Well, they were! But the question is was it statistically significant, so we looked into this. And, indeed what we found is that there was an increase in cirrus clouds over the halfdozen to dozen stations that we looked at. But I consider myself a good scientist  does that prove they're coming from jet aircraft? So we went back to earlier in time and I discovered a period in the 1940s when there was just as good an increase in high clouds using all the criteria I used. I lost heart because I didn't feel in all honesty I could positively attribute the increase in the 1950s to jet aircraft. In retrospect I think now it was correct, and what happened is that the observing systems before about 1946 or 1947 were so poor that you could not trust them. In fact, there have now been very extensive studies made of clouds over all continents, and in the United States in particular they've thrown out all the data earlier than this because the observing schemes weren't consistent enough. So I think really we were seeing something there but I never published anything beyond what you have seen. I may say that other people  Paul Crutzen who is a —

Weart:

So Crutzen wrote you —

Machta:

He wrote me recently that he would like to have all our records on high clouds. He is now interested in it. It probably has something to do with the effect of high clouds on some chemical constituent in the stratosphere or something like that. But I didn't know what it was and I've never seen any paper that he has written on the subject. I sent him everything we had.

Weart:

So let's carry forward then from that  events in the 1970s in trying to get both more comprehensive monitoring programs or more work on CO2 and climate change in general.

Machta:

Well, I don't know when I started but my feeling was that even the four stations we had was inadequate and even the extra stations that the Germans, the Canadians and Australians were either about to start or had started would be inadequate.

Weart:

By the way, you said four stations  you haven't told me how the Antarctic one got 

Machta:

The same way. We got the money and it was added on. In fact, it didn't have to be added on very much. This has given us a little bit of trouble because the big expense in Antarctica is logistics and that was provided and is still provided by the NSF.

Weart:

Out of a separate budget.

Machta:

Out of their Antarctic budget. When they are squeezed, as they were a couple of years ago, they come to us and as Bill knows said, You pay for it. That would use up all of our budget immediately. Besides, we couldn't do it. We didn't have the capability. But they've never pulled out. They also had a different motive  they also wanted academic people down there feeling they could do a better job. I guess, if I can be nasty a moment, I think the motivation was once again academic people feeling that the government did not have the good expertise sufficient to take the kind of measurements they thought were needed. Nor the ingenuity to do things that they felt were missing.

Weart:

So in the early to mid-1970s you recognized that you needed more.

Machta:

We got the four stations and we needed more, and what I did was say, I can't get a lot of money, let's get volunteers in very, very remote locations and start a flask program. We would would ask people  at no cost to us  to fill up flasks and send them back to a central laboratory, where by this time we had set up automated equipment for carbon dioxide that could handle a flask very easily. We had a lot of trouble in the beginning doing this. We did set things up  I think the Falkland Islands, Guam, Amsterdam Island, and a couple of these places. I may say other countries followed up and then put in permanent stations. For example, the French at Amsterdam Island in the southern hemisphere.

Weart:

You say you had troubles  meaning administrative?

Machta:

No, no it was scientific things. We had never had the experience of filling flasks —

Weart:

Right and that is tricky —

Machta:

 we had volunteers doing it and so on.

Weart:

They were breathing into it! Is that right?

Machta:

Yes they were  people pee into the rain gauges, and hot water and things like that.

Machta:

At any rate, Walter Komhyr(?) who was running the ozone program and who was an inventor par excellence  although there were personality problems of another sort  decided that we had to collect the air from some place not where people are breathing. What he did was build a very simple pump and a pipe somewhere high up and he made the pump so he pumps through a lot of air at one time 

Weart:

 just to evacuate it 

Machta:

And then pull the air in from below, and after that the data looked very beautiful. It was intended to augment our C02 program. Initially I thought we would see if there were any other stations which were so good that we ought to keep them going. I didn't envision this as being more than maybe three or four or five years  it's been going on now for I'd say about twelve or fifteen years. The reason being, once you get air from places and you use only a little bit of that air you can start looking at other things. So immediately the people in Boulder who were doing this analysis who got into the methane program and chromatography which only needs a few cc they start looking at fluorocarbon. They start looking for methane  they start to look for everything in those flasks. Therefore we had a world network just from the flask program which to this day, as I say, they are continuing.

Weart:

I see. So it came in sort of backwards. As long as you have the flasks you can do everything with the flasks.

Machta:

What we're worried about is some countries who think we're spying on them. We went to friendly countries.

Weart:

You could pick up fallout in those flasks. Was there any military crossover  so many things that we do now rely on, let's say, instrumentation that's developed by the military or administrative mechanisms  funding. Was there anything in all this monitoring?

Machta:

Not that I know of. We got no fallout in any of our instrumentation from the military. The place where I think we got the biggest boon as with Jim Lovelock, Gaia. Jim happened to be a very good friend of ours — mine in particular. We spent a week at his home. As you know, he invented electro capture chromatography which could see the CFCs and methane and it can see a lot of things with very, very small samples. When you have a standard, absolute instrument, you could really calibrate and do beautiful work with it. He came over and helped us on some of this. We paid him for it. If there was any benefit we got from the outside, my view is that aside from Dave Keeling having shown us how to make measurements of CO2 it came from Jim Lovelock. He was very, very helpful to us.

Weart:

So the instrumentation or the methods didn't rely on things that had been developed 

Machta:

A little bit of development went in there. In fact, in the last eight to ten years we got some higher class people who had PhDs and they didn't simply want to take the existing instruments. A man named Jim Elkins, who is doing the work; he did a lot of development for nitrous oxide. He wrote his Ph.D. thesis at Harvard on that. He improved on the techniques that we used. And Peter Tans worked on carbon dioxide and other things.

Weart:

Now are we talking at all about the GMCC program?

Machta:

They are in the GMCC program.

Weart:

Tell me about the origins of that.

Machta:

I don't know that there was any date when the name was given to it. If I were to guess it was probably 1965 or within a few years after I took it over. No, I am sorry  it would have had to be later than that because we would have to have a network. Before that we only had the one station and there was no real program in that sense.

Weart:

I see. So there isn't any formal institution of it. It just sort of grows.

Machta:

Yes, it became that. Part of the Air Resources Lab and there was no unit called GMCC. The people who did the measurements we're part of the program but they really were the unit in Boulder doing that and doing other things.

Weart:

The unit  was this the unit of the ARL?

Machta:

ARL until last November.

Weart:

Right.

Machta:

In fact, one of the reasons for splitting up ARL is that either by my conniving, or rather I think things I did  like getting money and so on  we had units all over the country, not only at Boulder, Colorado but Raleigh, North Carolina and Idaho Falls, Oak Ridge and for a time at Brookhaven [National Laboratory] and so on. The ARL took care of it but necessarily at different times they did the GMCC program. We took over the measurement of water vapor in the stratosphere. There was a man at the Naval Research laboratory  John X. Astenbrook  who was the premier person in the whole world with a frost point hygrometer; he flew it every month out of Washington, D.C. on a balloon. He retired and my feeling was that that must be kept on. We didn't have the people who could do it here in Washington but we did have good people in Boulder. When he retired he taught us how to make the instruments. I did spend some of my discretionary money to go to companies and try to improve on the instruments and so on so it would be easier for us to operate. This was a oneman operation that Astenbrook had and he knew how to make the instrument go — I don't think anyone else could make it go. Ultimately we learned how to do it, and a man named Sam Altmans in Boulder was now continued. The record started in the mid1950s or so; first in Washington and now in Boulder. It's the only long record anywhere in the world.

Weart:

Why did he start it?

Machta:

Well, the Navy must have had a need for it for rockets or for something else  I don't know.

Weart:

There it was  so it becomes another part of the GMCC — I see.

Elliott

It was my whole feeling and concept that longterm records contained lots of information of man's possible influence on climate or other (volcanic activity) influence on it. If there were strange things going on you see it in longterm records.

Weart:

Going back to the mid1950s when I think it was Landsberg. I came into the Weather Bureau  therewas talk then about the Weather Bureau taking on some kind of a longterm monitoring of climate things. Do you know anything about that?

Machta:

No it was Murray Mitchell  were he alive  who could tell you the story. That was actually of climate elements. We weren’t looking at compositions.

Weart:

Right.

Machta:

And what he's done  what Landsberg did  was set up a series of places at academic institutions, where he measures precipitation, temperature, and a few other things  and tried to do it in such a systematic way that he had a longterm record.

Weart:

So that didn't interact with you?

Machta:

No. I mean we looked at the records yes  but I had no say on what was being done.

Weart:

Except at some point when we get up in the mid1970s Mitchell began to have some interactions with ARL?

Machta:

This is because the unit he was assigned to kept moving around and moving around, and he had no home to live in physically.

Weart:

No office.

Machta:

No office and I think everyone of us felt as though Murray were just priceless, aside from being the most pleasant person to work with you can imagine. So I gave him the best office we could find and he stayed there and he interacted with us as though he were a member of our unit.

Weart:

I see. He wasn't funded through you but he had an office there.

Machta:

He was not funded through us.

Weart:

I begin to get a picture of your whole organization as one where the offices, the people and the funding are all separately manipulable entities.

Machta:

That's my trick. I got money from the Air Force — don't tell anybody but sometimes I use it for other purposes, .good purposes.

Weart:

I understand. You shuffle the counters around in different boxes.

Machta:

I did it for the good of the world.

Weart:

I know. I do the same thing. I'm not sure which pocket I prefer to list on this tape right now! Jim Angel began to take an interest in these things. He was on your staff.

Machta:

That's right. He did this entirely on his own. I guess, in talking with me it may have rubbed off, the idea of the longterm record as something useful.

Weart:

Mitchell here was talking with people.

Machta:

Yes, and he had another fellow who could do some of the leg work for him. Julius Korshover, who quite frankly had physical and maybe even mental difficulties of a very sad nature. He could mechanically do things. This was a very good job to give to Korshover.

Weart:

He added up the numbers?

Machta:

Added up the numbers  exactly. I really wanted to get rid of Korshover. He was not a creative scientist but because some medical difficulties arose when he was in the Army I would never have been able to separate him from service. So I had to find a niche for him and with the help of Jim Angel, he fit in perfectly.

Weart:

And then of course eventually Bill Elliott and Dian Gaffen 

Machta:

Then they were doing creative work —

Weart:

I am thinking more  it's related to Angel's work in a way, right?

Machta:

It showed that you could use the radiosonde data. Korshover, at my suggestion, did something else that's sort of been abandoned as some curious interest. My feeling is that we should keep track of the number of times there are air pollution episode, and we didn't want to look at air pollution from a chemical point of view but from a meteorological point of view. We knew by this time  this was 25 years ago or so — that air pollution episodes occur when you have a persistent high pressure system. So I made up all the rules for deciding what was a persistent high pressure system and before he worked too much with Jim Angel he laboriously used my rules and wrote paper after paper on the statistics on how one year differed from another, one part of the country differed from another, and the incidences. I'd say this is one of the most quoted bits of information and his name is really famous but he didn't do any of the work  except all the leg work.

Weart:

He got the numbers —

Machta:

He was very happy to get all the credit for it. Everybody felt sorry for him.

Weart:

I want to go back to the extent that you were involved in this; I am interested in the formulation of — well, we can't exactly call it national policy yet, but it eventually became national policy for studying the climate. The entry of the general idea of climate studies, in particular of global warming studies, into places like DOE and NASA, the National Academy studies and so forth. Were you involved in some of the early National Academy studies in 1974?

Machta:

Yes, but if I am going to say anything about that I am going to have to go back and look at my records. I was going to those meetings one every couple of months and they become a blur in my mind, except the ones where my daughter came with me and we had fun! So I can’t distinguish it, but I was with very, very many of them: nationally and internationally, government-wide and non-government-wide. There were oodles of them going on.

Weart:

Let me just ask you then if there is any that stand out in your mind as being particularly important in having an impact on the government. How did the government start becoming interested in climate, let me put it that way?

Machta:

My view is that the government became interested for the same reason the government becomes interested in almost anything. If the press picks it up and it gets into the newspapers, it becomes important.

Weart:

When do you think that the press started to notice these things? Do you have any feeling for that —?

Machta:

There was not any one particular time. My own judgment was that it started about when the carbon dioxide record really showed continued increase, and when this cooling we had up through the 1960s started to reverse itself, probably in the late 1960s or 1970s. But it’s sort of been snowballing from that point on and I don't think there might be any one particular date which is necessarily significant.

Weart:

One of the series of events I was talking about with Bill yesterday was getting the Department of Energy interested in it, starting with the study of the Miami Beach panel formed around Alvin Weinberg. I don't know how much you were directly involved in that?

Machta:

I was directly involved in one particular thing that I sometimes get credit for, and that is CFCs, which have sort of an interesting story  you can tell, that's part of the story.

Elliott

You can tell about CFCs.

Machta:

Well, it turns out when Jim Lovelock was with us he told us about this wonderful substance that, except for going a little bit soluble, in to the oceans, had no known sink; it was fluorocarbon 11 and fluorocarbon 12. It would be a wonderful tracer since it’s being put into the air more and more. This fit in exactly with my interests, which were global, circulations that I got out of the radioactive fallout tracer studies. So I got very excited. Also it was very cheap to make the measurements, easy to collect the air, had every single virtue. So, at this first meeting that Bill was talking about, I got up and made a very passionate speech on “we have this wonderful opportunity to make this!” But nothing ever came of it except Sherry Rowland was there, and Sherry Rowland said, “You mean there's no sink to that  it would stay in the atmosphere forever?” He went back home and figured out that the sink is that it gets destroyed in the stratosphere. But what happens when it gets destroyed? Chlorine is released, and once you have chlorine in the stratosphere the ozone will be destroyed. If he had not been at that meeting, or if I had not been at the meeting, I don't think this would have occurred as quickly as it did.

Weart:

It might have been a good bit longer.

Machta:

But1do I take credit for it just because I made this spiel? Weart: That's OK but it was something you were involved in.

Elliott

Excuse me. What really was that?

Machta:

There was one in Miami —

Elliott

It wasn't the Miami Beach meeting  I just wanted to —

Machta:

Ft. Lauderdale  yes. This was for atmospheric scientists and chemists to get together.

Weart:

I can check on that because Roland tells this story somewhere.[1]

Machta:

The other thing that I was involved with that I do have some memory of was the SST aircraft.

Weart:

I don't want to get into that.

Machta:

Originally it was just getting rid of the ozone but ultimately it had more consequences than that.

Weart:

I'll let other people interview you about that, or maybe you can write about it. Anything else on climate change and encouraging the government? Have you yourself felt that you needed to play a role in pushing the government to study climate change or is that not part of your particular role? Who were the people who have been especially pushing for that?

Machta:

I did attend many, many meetings at OSTP [Office of Service and Technology Policy] in the government where they were considering problems of what should be done, and argued strongly that we should look into it. I am not sure I ever made a statement that the world is going to come to an end and therefore you have to stop putting carbon dioxide in the air. I was not quite in that class, but I did feel as though it was something that needed far more research support. I now feel, I think privately, that perhaps it is necessary to start taking steps to control this. But at that time we really knew very, very little. We didn't believe the models hardly at all. We believe them a lot now but they were far more primitive.

Weart:

Who are the people who you think have been mainly responsible for getting the government to start spending money on this over the 1970s and 1980s?

Machta:

The case of the modeling, despite my work in monitoring air quality, I think is far more important. There is Manabe but the person who did the work in pushing the government and attending meetings at the Academy and OSTP was Joe Smagorinsky, and probably his influence also on people like Bob White and other heads of the Weather Bureau and NOAA and so on.

Weart:

He was one of the first people I talked with but only briefly  I know a lot more now and I will have to talk to him some more.

Machta:

Yes, get back to him. If you want the early days of the modeling he's really got it  Manabe was by far the first on this.

Weart:

Yes I talked with him about it also. You briefly said before I conclude  I just want to ask you what do you think should be done now?

Machta:

In regard to what?

Weart:

Global warming. What the scientific situation, what's the policy situation?

Machta:

Well, I am in the middle of this, where most people are: you don't disrupt the economy immediately and stop everything, which some people argue (that is, the emission of carbon dioxide and methane). That is much too disruptive. On the other hand I think people who say there is nothing to it are dead wrong. I say we should expand on the research and in particular expand research in how we can go about reducing the emission of the gases. The usual platitudes of conservation are something we've got to look into. I also have the feeling that a little bit more can be done apropos using renewable energy sources. You know during the 1970s with the Carter administration we went into that a lot, and in the Reagan administration we lost all of our initiatives.

Weart:

I'll tell you a story. I was visiting Los Alamos and I saw a long low building of unusual construction and I asked my guide, “What is that building?” He said, “oh that was built in the Carter administration for solar energy research and in 1981 it was converted for Star Wars research.”

Machta:

Ha! We actually got money from the Department of Energy or its predecessor and from the NSF to rehabilitate the solar radiation network. Our data was so bad  may I say is still so bad  that if you want to get a climatology of how good this resource is in the United States you have to have that kind of a network. We are now in the throes of possibly losing it again... That is the sort of thing I think we ought to try to avoid.

Weart:

If I ask you on the scientific side  that's the policy side  what do you think have been the main differences of opinion, the lines of division and places where people were not certain and took different attitudes?

Machta:

It is primarily, as far as I can see in the feedbacks: the monitoring of gases was never in dispute.

Weart:

It was never controversial?

Machta:

It was not controversial. Dave Keeling was so good that no one ever challenged him. In terms of the modeling and the prediction of the weather, I am only repeating what everybody has said. We don't understand what kind of a feedback we are getting from clouds. We don't completely understand the ocean feedback. The stuff that Bill is doing on the water vapor  is that really going to cut the effect in half or something like that, as Bill explained to you. The question is really how the atmosphere is going to respond to the heating in the troposphere. Jim Angel, if you interview him, will tell you that as far as the stratosphere is concerned there is now almost incontrovertible evidence that you're seeing the carbon dioxide and greenhouse effect in the stratosphere; the cooling is occurring. Everybody makes measurements  the numbers may not be precisely what the model is predicting but they're close enough that we don't worry.

Weart:

In questions like the value of modeling, the effects of clouds, what the ocean takes up  do you feel that you can identify schools of thought that are connected with scientific disciplines or with particular schools of thought at particular places or groups?

Machta:

Well, yes. The MIT group seems to be very much controlled by Lindzen and Reggie Newell who are, I won't say against it, but much, much more skeptical that we can properly make a prediction. So that is one school.

Weart:

And this goes back how far  how long?

Machta:

I don't know. I wouldn't want to put words in his mouth.

Elliott:

Well, Reggie goes back quite a while.

Machta:

He was turned sour  although this isn't the reason for his policy, he is much more honest than that — when he started to put out research which was skeptical of the greenhouse effect, the agency which was supporting him (which was not NOAA) cut him off and he blamed it on that. I don’t think that was the reason. They cut it off at the time because of budget problems. The people of NCAR [International Center for Atmospheric Research], I will say in general, are much more in the school that there is an effect — Steve Schneider. There is an article this week in the Bulletin of the AMS [American Meteorological Society] where Will Kellogg, who is just retired from NCAR, is trying to answer all the skeptics and critics of this. If you haven’t seen that it would be something to look at. I am sure there are people who are a little more dubious about this among them. That is about the only groups that I am aware of that take a side — the Livermore people, I don=t know whether they take one stand or another. They are, as far as I know, more in the science rather than trying to advocate policy.

Weart:

One last question. Can this tape be made available to other people? I am doing it for my own research but do you have any objections to having the tape with the transcripts —

Machta:

Well, there are some personal things where I have used people's names 

Weart:

I will send you the transcripts to review and you can decide at that point.

Machta:

If you want to — yes. Because if I have said unpleasant things about other people I —

Weart:

I will give you a chance to review and edit it.

Machta:

Fine.

[1]Roland learned of CFC’s from Machta at the January 1972 Fort Lauderdale meeting: John Gribbon, The Hole in the Sky (1988)