A brief history of the Climate science

Large rift near the Pine Island Glacier tongue, West Antarctica. Credits: NASA/Nathan Kurtz

Large rift near the Pine Island Glacier tongue, West Antarctica. Credits: NASA/Nathan Kurtz

At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution the world experiences industrial and demographic boom. As a consequence of these substantial events, scientists of the time begin to question whether climate changes over time or not. In the 1760s, the ability to generate an artificial warming of the Earth’s surface was demonstrated by Horace Benedict de Saussure. In 1824, French mathematician Joseph Fourier published a scientific paper titled “Remarques generales sur les Temperatures du globe terrestre et des espaces planetaires” in the journal Annales de Chimie et de Physique, Tome XXVII (pp.136-167), where he presented some ‘general remarks’ on the temperature of the Earth and interplanetary space describing the Earth’s natural “greenhouse effect” without naming it. Terrestrial temperatures was on Fourier’s mind as early as 1807, when he wrote on the unequal heating of the globe. Following Fourier’s work, physicist C.S.M. Pouillet wrote in 1836 a memoir on solar heat, the radiative effects of the atmosphere, and the temperature of space.

Illustration of John Tyndall's setup for measuring the radiant heat absorption of gases (From Wikimedia Commons)

Illustration of John Tyndall’s setup for measuring the radiant heat absorption of gases (From Wikimedia Commons)

In 1861, Irish physicist John Tyndall demonstrated that gases such as methane and carbon dioxide absorbed infrared radiation, and could trap heat within the atmosphere. His interest in radiant heat and its passage through the atmosphere was triggered by his long-standing interest in glaciers and their mass balance. Tyndall’s experimental work suggested the possibility that by altering concentrations of these gases in the atmosphere, human activities could alter the temperature regulation of the planet. In his essay ‘On the Absorption and Radiation of Heat by Gases and Vapours’, Tyndall credited Fourier for the notion that ‘the interception of terrestrial rays [by the atmosphere exercises] the most important influence on climate’. 

In 1896, Svante Arrhenius  was the first to quantify the contribution of carbon dioxide to the greenhouse effect. He used infrared observations of the moon to calculate how much of infrared radiation is captured by CO2 and water vapour in Earth’s atmosphere and formulated his greenhouse law: “Thus if the quantity of carbonic acid increases in geometric progression, the augmentation of the temperature will increase nearly in arithmetic progression.”

Svante August Arrhenius (1859-1927). From Wikimedia Commons

Svante August Arrhenius (1859-1927). From Wikimedia Commons

Almost simultaneously, American geologist Thomas Chamberlin proposed that carbon dioxide fluctuations could cause large variations on Earth’s Climate, including Ice Ages.

By 1930s British engineer Guy Callender proves that temperature of Earth has risen compared to previous century, given records of 147 weather stations across the world. Moreover, he shows that carbon dioxide concentrations has increased at the same time and claims that it is the most plausible reason behind the global warming.

After the World War II, the impact of human activity on the global environment dramatically increased. In 1958, Charles Dave Keeling carries out a long-running experiment in Hawaii and Antarctica and enables unequivocal evidences of increasing carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere after four-year-research.

pet vs antropocene

Comparison of the effects of anthropogenic emissions (total of 5000 Pg C over 500 years) and PETM carbon release (3000 Pg C over 6 kyr) on the surface ocean saturation state of calcite. From Zeebe, 2013

In 1972, the United Nations summits the first environment conference in Stockholm and the climate change is determined as the agenda item. Since the conference the importance of this issue increases and public start to deal with the notion of climate change.

The earth’s climate has already reached a tipping point. Glaciers  from the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets are fading away, dumping 260 billion metric tons of water into the ocean every year. The ocean acidification is occurring at a rate faster than at any time in the last 300 million years, and  the patterns of rainfall and drought are changing and undermining food security which have major implications for human health, welfare and social infrastructure.

References:

Hulme, M. (2009), On the origin of ‘the greenhouse effect’: John Tyndall’s 1859 interrogation of nature. Weather, 64: 121–123. doi:10.1002/wea.386

Tyndall J. 1861. On the absorption and radiation of heat by gases and vapours. Philos. Mag. 22: 169–194 and 273–285

Arrhenius, Svante; On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air Upon the Temperature of the Ground. Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science. 41 (5): 237–276. 1896.

Will Steffen, Wendy Broadgate, Lisa Deutsch, Owen Gaffney, and Cornelia Ludwig. The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration. The Anthropocene Review, January 16, 2015 DOI: 10.1177/2053019614564785

Smith, B.D., Zeder, M.A., The onset of the Anthropocene. Anthropocene (2013),http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ancene.2013.05.001

 

The Great Acceleration.

 

Iron and Coal, 1855–60, by William Bell Scott illustrates the central place of coal and iron working in the industrial revolution (From Wikimedia Commons)

Iron and Coal, 1855–60, by William Bell Scott illustrates the central place of coal and iron working in the industrial revolution (From Wikimedia Commons)

During a meeting of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) celebrated in Mexico, in 2000, the Vice-Chair of IGBP, Paul Crutzen, proposed the use of the term Anthropocene to designate the last three centuries of human domination of earth’s ecosystems, and to mark the end of the current Holocene geological epoch. He suggested that the start date of the Anthropocene must be placed near the end of the 18th century, about the time that the industrial revolution began, and noted that such a start date would coincide with the invention of the steam engine by James Watt in 1784.

Although there is no agreement on when the Anthropocene started, researchers accept that the Anthropocene is a time span marked by human interaction with Earth’s biophysical system. It has been defined, primarily, by significant and measurable increases in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from ice cores, and other geologic features including synthetic organic compounds and radionuclides. Eugene Stoermer, in an interview in 2012, proposed that the geological mark for the Anthropocene was the isotopic signature of the first atomic bomb tests. Hence,  Anthropocene deposits would be those that may include the globally distributed primary artificial radionuclide signal (Zalasiewicz et al, 2015).

 

anthropocene

Alternative temporal boundaries for the Holocene–Anthropocene boundary (calibrated in thousand of years before present) From Smith 2013

 

Human activity is a major driver of the dynamics of Earth system. After the World War II, the impact of human activity on the global environment dramatically increased. This period associated with very rapid growth in human population, resource consumption, energy use and pollution, has been called the Great Acceleration.

During the Great Acceleration, the atmospheric CO2 concentration grew, from 311 ppm in 1950 to 369 ppm in 2000 (W. Steffen et al., 2011). About one third of the carbon dioxide released by anthropogenic activity is absorbed by the oceans. When CO2 dissolves in seawater, it produce carbonic acid. The carbonic acid dissociates in the water releasing hydrogen ions and bicarbonate. Then, the formation of bicarbonate removes carbonate ions from the water, making them less available for use by organisms. Ocean acidification affects the biogeochemical dynamics of calcium carbonate, organic carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus in the ocean, and will directly impact in a wide range of marine organisms that build shells from calcium carbonate, like planktonic coccolithophores, molluscs,  echinoderms, corals, and coralline algae.

Clastic plastiglomerate containing molten plastic and basalt and coral fragments (Image adapted from P. Corcoran et al., 2014)

Clastic plastiglomerate containing molten plastic and basalt and coral fragments (Image adapted from P. Corcoran et al., 2013)

One important marker for the future geological record is a new type of rock formed by anthropogenically derived materials. This type of rock has been named plastiglomerate, and has been originally described on Kamilo Beach, Hawaii. This anthropogenically influenced material has great potential to form a marker horizon of human pollution, signaling the occurrence of the Anthropocene epoch (Corcoran et al., 2013).

Climate change, shifts in oceanic pH, loss of biodiversity and widespread pollution have all been identified as potential planetary tipping point. Since the industrial revolution, the wave of animal and plant extinctions that began with the late Quaternary has accelerated. Calculations suggest that the current rates of extinction are 100–1000 times above normal, or background levels. We are in the midst of  the so called “Sixth Mass Extinction”.

Dealing with the transition into the Anthropocene requires careful consideration of its social, economic and biotic effects. In his master book L’Evolution Créatrice (1907), French philosopher Henri Bergson, wrote:  “A century has elapsed since the invention of the steam engine, and we are only just beginning to feel the depths of the shock it gave us.”

 

References:

Will Steffen, Wendy Broadgate, Lisa Deutsch, Owen Gaffney, and Cornelia Ludwig. The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration. The Anthropocene Review, January 16, 2015 DOI: 10.1177/2053019614564785

Jan Zalasiewicz et al. When did the Anthropocene begin? A mid-twentieth century boundary level is stratigraphically optimal. Quaternary International, published online January 12, 2015; doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2014.11.045

Smith, B.D., Zeder, M.A., The onset of the Anthropocene. Anthropocene (2013),http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ancene.2013.05.001

Ellis, E.C., 2011. Anthropogenic transformation of the terrestrial biosphere. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 369, 1010–1035.