Maquina Lectora

Notes of a curious mind

Tag: carbon dioxide

Climate Histories: The engineer and the artificial production of carbon dioxide

Almost 80 years ago, on April 1938, an English steam and combustion engineer and  amateur weather-watcher, published a paper in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society. His name was Guy Stuart Callendar and his paper, titled “The artificial Production of Carbon Dioxide and its Influence on Temperature”, was going to be one of the most influential papers on climate change science.

Born in Canada in 1898, Callendar earned a certificate in Mechanics and Mathematics in 1922 at City & Guilds College and at the time he published his seminal paper was employed as a steam technologist by the British Electrical and Allied Industries Research Association. A keen meteorologist, interested in climate, Calendar spent his spare time gathering temperature and weather data from around the world. He made all the calculations by hand in his home, in West Sussex, England, and his measurements were so accurate that “they were used to correct the official temperature records of central England”.

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Climate Histories: Glen T. Trewartha and “the so-called greenhouse effect of the earth’s atmosphere”

It is mid-thirties, and the United States is in the middle of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. The drought that has struck Texas and Oklahoma is wreaking havoc in the American prairies. Lacking the strong root system of grass, the winds easily pick the loose topsoil and swirl it into dense dust clouds, known as the black blizzards. The dust chokes thousands of cattle and drives 60 percent of the population, later they called them exodusters, first in the cities, and later in the agricultural regions in the Far West.

At the same time at the University of Wisconsin, the geographer Glen Thomas Trewartha keeps himself busy investigating the weather and the climate elements, such as temperature, precipitation, and storms and their relative significance in contributing to an understanding of regional climates.

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Climate Histories: The emergence of the first interdisciplinary research programme in global climate

In the mid-1970s the evidence about the greenhouse effect and its effect to climate change was growing among the scientific community. Data showed a steady increase of CO2 (carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere during the twentieth century at a rate of 25 times the historical average. Scientists, influenced by the work of Callendar, Revelle, Suess and Keeling have started to wonder if the worming trend which was occurring in the twentieth century was indeed, due to industrial emissions of greenhouse gases like CO2.  At the same time, they discovered that the biological productivity of the oceans was an important regulator of the way the CO2 built up in the atmosphere, and that the water vapour which had been found to be an important factor in the formation of clouds, could also play a role in the modulation of weather and climate. And as the questions multiplied, scientists were starting to realise that only an interdisciplinary research programme could provide the much needed answers.

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Storms of my Grandchildren by James Hansen & the Story of a Bet

“My role is that of a witness, not a preacher”, says Dr James Hansen, one the world’s leading scientist on climate issues. A witness, as defined by the writer Robert Pool, is “someone who believes he has information so important that he cannot keep silent.”

In his book, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, James Hansen, often called the father of global warming, talks about the science and the mechanisms that drive global warming in a way that makes it relatively easy for readers to understand.

“Politicians are happy if scientists provide information and then go away and shut up”, he writes. But science and policy cannot be divorced. ” Policy decisions on climate change are “being deliberated every day by those without full of the science, and often with intentional misinformation spawned by special interests.” “This book” says Hansen, “was written to help rectify this situation. Citizens with a special interest – in their loved ones – need to become familiar with the science, exercise their democratic rights, and pay attention to politicians’ decisions Otherwise, it seems, short-term special interests will hold sway in capitals around the world – and we are running out of time.”

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The Callendar Effect by James Rodger Flemming

Guy Callendar was an English engineer, who in the 1930s estimated that man had added about 150,000 million tonnes of CO2 during the past century and the planet had undergone warming on the order of one degree Fahrenheit (0.5 degrees Celsius).

CallendarIn his first published paper, in February 1938, titled “The artificial Production of Carbon Dioxide and its Influence on Temperature”, Callendar showed that there is “a quantitative relation between the natural movement of this gas and the amounts produced by the combustion of fossil fuel”, and argued “that the activities of man could have any influence upon phenomena of so vast a scale… that is not only possible, but is actually occurring at the present time.”

He also referred to the oceans as a “giant regulator of carbon dioxide” which had exceeded the limits of the natural carbon cycle and would not be able to absorb all or most of its excess. But as Arrhenius before him, Callendar appealed the idea of atmospheric warming. Concluding his article he speculated that the combustion of fossil fuels “is likely to prove beneficial to mankind in several ways, besides the provision of heat and power…..  Small increases of mean temperature would be important at the northern margin of cultivation, and the growth of favourably situated plants is directly proportional to the carbon dioxide pressure. In any case the return of the deadly glaciers should be delayed indefinitely.”

Callendar published his discoveries in a series of papers, but they did not raise any interest from the scientific community. Only, later, in 1957, just before the beginning of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) – the first global scale experiment that recognised the potential of satellite technology in studying the Earth -, Hans Seuss and Roger Revelle, although they believed “that it was absolutely impossible to have had a sufficient increase in the CO2 amount in this century”, they referred to the “Callendar effect,” defining it as “climatic change brought about by anthropogenic increases in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, primarily through the processes of combustion.” Suggestive of Callendar’s brilliance was the fact that years later, scientists forecasted that some countries (Russia, Canada, New Zealand) will gain form climate change through an improved capacity for growing food, and used his prognosis that to promote and gain political support for their research projects to study climate change.

James Rodger Fleming is a professor at Colby College and a leading historian of atmospheric sciences and weather prediction. He has written a really fascinated book.


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