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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Climate Predictions

Air Date: Week of

In the 1950’s there wasn’t much talk about global warming or climate change. In fact, those terms didn’t exist back then. But rising global temperatures was the topic of discussion among three scientists in a 1954 radio program “The Reviewing Stand” from Northwestern University. Living On Earth host Steve Curwood and Dr. John Firor of the National Center for Atmospheric Research listen to excerpts of the radio show and comment on the scientists’ observations.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The year was 1954. Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House. And on January twenty-first, his wife Mamie christened the U.S. Navy's first nuclear submarine the U.S.S. Nautilus. In May, the Supreme Court handed down the famous Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. And Elvis Presley had his first hit. In 1954, most of today's environmental issues were barely blips on the public's radar screen. The term "global warming" didn't even exist. Back then, most folks would have never imagined that in the summer of 2000 scientists would report that the thick ice cap that once covered the North Pole was shrinking and thinning. Or that nations would gather in Lyon, France, as they are this month, to negotiate greenhouse gas reductions. But in 1954, a very small group of people were thinking about melting ice caps and warming climates. As you might expect, most of them were scientists, and in May of that year they met at Northwestern University in Chicago to discuss their concerns on the radio.

MAN: Today the reviewing stand asks, "Is our climate getting warmer?" Our unrehearsed give-and-take discussion will describe recent climatic changes, and tell how they may affect the future of our world...

CURWOOD: For decades this recording sat gathering dust on a shelf in New York City's Public Library [Editor's Note: The recording is from the WNYC- New York City Municipal Archives Collection, not New York City's Public Library.]. Recently it was rediscovered by WNYC radio archivist Andy Lanset and producer John Rudolph, who are preparing programs to mark the station's seventy-fifth anniversary. They sent us the tape, and we'd like to share with you some of the program's highlights, with an eye toward putting the issue of global climate change in perspective.

PEDERSEN: The atomic bomb came on the market after 1940, and the main climatic change was before that year. So there can be no question that the bomb can account for it.

CURWOOD: One thing that makes this radio program so remarkable is the absolute certainty with which the scientists state the global temperatures had risen dramatically. Here the moderator, Martin J. Maloney, puts the question to Svere Pederson, a professor of meteorology at the University of Chicago; and Walter Schute, a research associate in geography at Northwestern University.

MALONEY: Within the limits of your professional concerns, can you answer this question? Is our climate getting warmer? Mr. Pederson, what do you think of that?

PEDERSON: Well, we can say what has happened, but we can't say what is happening now. All we can say is that the climate in the Northern Hemisphere and in particular in the polar regions, during the last 50 years, has gotten noticeably warmer. But whether that trend is continuing, no, I don't know, and I don't think anyone can say.

SCHUTE: And not until we have found the causes to this --

PEDERSON: Right --

SCHUTE: -- climatic fluctuation, can we start to predict anything.

MALONEY: How does this change amount? Now, presumably, there's an increasing temperature from 1900 to 1940, roughly. How has this changed conditions in the Arctic?

PEDERSON: It is especially the winter temperatures that have been changed. We have most of our information from the regions in northwestern Europe. And in northern Norway, for instance, the January temperature has grown about five, six degrees Fahrenheit, seven, eight maybe, even, higher, for January. And up at Spitzbergen around 75, 80 degrees north, it has become about 15 - 14, 15 Fahrenheit --

MALONEY: I think one of you was saying that -- probably you, Mr. Schute, that as a result of this the glaciers have receded?

SCHUTE: Well, they recede very fast, and they are still receding most places. Only some information from Norway, some information from Alaska, Canada, that talks about a few glaciers that are now advancing.

CURWOOD: Listening to this program got us thinking about the current debate over global climate change. If scientists knew a half a century ago that temperatures were rising, why is there still a debate over global warming today? Joining us now is Dr. John Firor, senior scientist and director emeritus of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Dr. Firor, in 1954 was this new information that global temperatures had been rising?

FIROR: It was new in the sense that people were just beginning to put together these miscellaneous pieces of information, such as this glacier's retreating and that glacier, and this temperature gauge seems to be reading higher than it used to. No one was focusing on climate very much in those days. It was just postwar. People were using the captured rockets from the Germans to measure things in the high atmosphere, which had not been accessible to measurements before. Computers had been invented, and the first crude attempts to forecast the weather with that. In other words, lots going on, didn't need any discussion or speculation about climate. I notice on the tape, none of the scientists is willing to speculate at all about possible causes. They're very cautious. Meteorology was not a science of high reputation in those days, just because weather forecasts were a joke. Everybody thought you can't really trust a weather forecast, so anyone who was labeled meteorologist was a little bashful about being too public about anything.

CURWOOD: So these scientists, would they have been considered to have been part of the scientific mainstream in 1954? Or are they way out on a limb?

FIROR: Svere Pederson was one of the greats in American science. He was the center of the mainstream of science in those days.

CURWOOD: By the way, some of the data they were talking about seems amazing. Fifteen degrees warmer at Spitzbergen than 40 years ago? That sounds like a pretty big jump to me.

FIROR: That is. I'm surprised at that number, and I've pored through a few journals, seeing if I could find other references to that, and I can't. But we do know in retrospect that the Arctic has warmed much more rapidly than mid-latitudes and the equatorial zone. And that, not only that, this Arctic warming is what is predicted by the best of our climate models. So it fits together, so I'd hate to doubt Professor Pederson. It may in fact be an accurate measurement.

CURWOOD: One of the things that really caught my ear when I first went through this tape was the positive sense that the scientists had about climate change. In other words, the rising global temperatures, they seemed to think that this would be a good idea. And that view contrasts sharply with the view that is held by many scientists today. Let's play that section of tape. Again, we're going to hear moderator Martin J. Maloney questioning Svere Pederson, professor of meteorology at the University of Chicago.

MALONEY: What practical effect does this change in climate have on life in the Arctic? What difference does it make outside of the realm of scientific --

PEDERSON: When the climate changes, this polar ice, northern waters become navigable and there is more activity up in the north. In other words, if I may use an old phrase, say that the geopolitical world that is in somewhat disrepute since the Hitler era, is not a bad word, and the geopolitical balance begins to change.

MALONEY: In what say, sir?

PEDERSON: In the way that the Arctic no longer becomes a barrier between the nations surrounding the Arctic.

MALONEY: The Arctic now becomes an open trade route, for one thing.

PEDERSON: More or less open. I think that has happened in the past that there is no summer ice in the Arctic. There is evidence to indicate that, that from 1300 to 1700 there was a maximum of polar ice, and now it is receding. The thickness of the polar ice has sort of decreased by about 40 percent over the period of 60 years, the earlier shrunk very greatly. And now, if this trend, and I say if, if it goes on, it will only take another 50, 60 years to get rid of the Arctic ice in summer.

CURWOOD: And Dr. Firor, in the year 2000, the Arctic ice was gone from the North Pole in the summer.

FIROR: (Laughs) Good prediction that he didn't care to make.

CURWOOD: Dr. Firor, was it common for scientists who studied climatic changes in these times to see the warming global temperatures as a good thing, as a positive trend?

FIROR: I think so. And a lot of that is still abroad, where people think of climate change only in connection with how people live. They say, well, people moved to Arizona when they were tired, so warmer climate must be a good thing. What they don't recognize is that people are dependent on the biological wealth of the earth, ecosystems of one sort or another. And ecosystems are not adaptable. If you change the temperature of a forest, make it higher, many of the tree species cannot reproduce. Their seeds will not germinate at higher temperatures, things of this sort. So the question of whether a climate change is good or bad has been debated, but the shift has occurred over 20 or 30 years to saying it's mostly bad because there are irreversible changes that will affect everything we do, and many of them are detrimental to human occupation of the earth.

CURWOOD: Dr. Firor, thank you for listening along with us and for your comments.

FIROR: You're very welcome.

CURWOOD: Dr. John Firor is senior scientist and director emeritus of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

MAN: You've been listening to a transcribed Northwestern University reviewing stand discussion: Is our climate getting warmer? We want to thank our guests for day, Max E. Britton, associate professor of biology at Northwestern University; Svere Pederson, professor of meteorology at the University of Chicago; and Walter Schute, research associate in geography at Northwestern University. Our moderator was Martin J. Maloney, associate professor of radio and television in Northwestern's School of Speech.

CURWOOD: This segment was produced was John Rudolph. Special thanks to member station WNYC in New York, and New York City's Municipal Archives.



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