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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Justin Gillis, Green, NYT: Reading Deep in Climate Science

Reading Deep in Climate Science

Green: Science
After reporting a few months ago on the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, I got e-mails from readers asking where they could find more information about the basics of climate science. My interlocutors even included climate-change contrarians who seemed open to the possibility that they might be wrong. I found myself struggling with the question of where to send them.
The Web is chockablock with blog posts and other material about climate change, of course, but picking your way through that to the actual science, or even to reliable write-ups on what the science means, is no easy task. Likewise, hundreds of books about climate change have been published, but not that many of them lay out the basics of the problem in a clear, understandable way. Still fewer provide any rich sense of the history of how the science came to exist in its present form.
The Web does have some excellent resources, to be sure. I often send people to Climate Central, a fine site based in Princeton that works to translate climate science into understandable prose. For people starting from a contrarian bent, nothing beats Skeptical Science, a Web site that directly answers various skeptic talking points, with links to some of the original science. And Real Climate is a must-read, since it includes some of the world’s top climate scientists translating their research into layman’s language.
Still, for wrapping our minds around a subject, many of us want to flee the Web and curl up with a good book. So I was enthused recently when “The Warming Papers” came to my attention.

A hefty new volume published by Wiley-Blackwell and edited by the climate scientists David Archer and Raymond Pierrehumbert at the University of Chicago, it’s a rich feast for anyone who wants to trace the history of climate science from its earliest origins to the present.
(Note that it’s a pricey book, north of $60 in paperback and closer to $150 in hardback — so perhaps it won’t be an impulse purchase for many people. But I suspect well-stocked libraries will have it, and even if yours doesn’t, you should be able to get a copy through interlibrary loan. And the book might work for college classes in climate science; by textbook standards, $60 is a steal.)
The idea of the book is to present the touchstone scientific papers in the field, all of which have in some way stood the test of time, even if not in all their details. The book begins, for instance, by reprinting the 1827 paper “On the Temperatures of the Terrestrial Sphere and Interplanetary Space,” in which Joseph Fourier discovered the phenomenon we now call the greenhouse effect.
It includes an 1861 paper in which John Tyndall measured, with considerable precision, the heat-trapping powers of water vapor, carbon dioxide and other trace gases in the atmosphere, and speculated that changing the concentration of some gases might alter the Earth’s climate.
Svante ArrheniusSvante Arrhenius
And most delightfully, the editors included the 1896 paper in which a Swedish scientist,Svante Arrhenius, spelled out the implications of an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Arrhenius did the hard mathematics to predict what might happen to the temperature of the planet if the carbon dioxide level doubled.
Although he made some errors, he came up with a number, 11 degrees Fahrenheit, that is in the same range as modern forecasts, albeit at the high end of most of them. The editors write, “In Arrhenius’ 1896 paper we witness the birth of modern climate science.”
“The Warming Papers” goes on to reprint many of the seminal modern papers on climate change, including reports from Charles David Keeling about his pioneering measurements of carbon dioxide. It includes papers from the 1960s and 1970s in which Syukuro Manabe and his colleagues at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton worked out the mathematics needed to build computerized models of the atmosphere. Those have become fundamental tools of the science.
Dr. Pierrehumbert pointed out to me in an e-mail that reading the older papers should dispel for anyone the oft-heard claim “that climate science is ‘in its infancy’ ” — it has, in reality, been making predictions since the 19th century, and we are now living in an era when those predictions are coming true.
“It’s exciting to read original scientific papers, to follow along as people struggle with figuring things out,” Dr. Archer told me in an e-mail. “For the climate-change question, there is another point to be made, about how deep the roots of the ideas go, how far back in time. The forecast for global warming predates the actual anomalous warming by many decades.”

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