Lawrence Solomon: History Trumps Climate Scientists

  • Date: 20/04/13
  • Lawrence Solomon, National Post

History trumps science when the science is speculative, politicized, and at odds with reality.

Many blame the public’s confusion over global warming on a widespread ignorance of science. A scientific grounding wouldn’t hurt but it also wouldn’t help much — few laymen, no matter how well informed, could be expected to follow the arcane climate change calculations that specialized scientists wield.

The much better explanation for the public’s confusion lies in a widespread ignorance of history, not least by scientists. Any child can understand that the Romans conquered the world when temperatures were warmer than today, that the Dutch invented the ice skates during the Little Ice Age five hundred years ago, and that melting glaciers off Newfoundland a century ago produced the iceberg that sunk the Titanic. Each of these well documented periods shreds speculations from climate alarmists, such as their assertion that the Arctic is only now warming, or that temperatures had been relative stable over the past one or two thousand years, and only in the last century climbed dramatically.

This week’s scary climate change news, courtesy of an article in Nature Geoscience, claims that temperatures in the Antarctic peninsula are the hottest they’ve been in the last 1000 years. This claim follows a “reconstruction” of the climate using a boatload of assumptions.

Another article on the Antarctic in the same issue of Nature Geoscience is less scary, in part because it employs history to buttress scientific conclusions. “If we could look back at this region of Antarctica in the 1940s and 1830s, we would find that the regional climate would look a lot like it does today, and I think we also would find the glaciers retreating much as they are today,” said lead author Eric Steig of the University of Washington. Steig’s study made use of actual temperature records taken by sailors, explorers and scientists over the past two centuries in the tropics and beyond.

The vast Antarctic, of course, has been mostly inaccessible, but numerous expeditions to the region, beginning with James Cook’s voyage in the 1770s, provide actual, rather than scientifically surmised or reconstructed, data. The explorers from Australia, Britain, Belgium, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden and Switzerland tell us, for example, that the contours of the continent continually changed. Antarctica’s Bay of Whales, used by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in 1911 and Richard Byrd expeditions in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, changed so often and became so unstable that in the 1950s it became unusable as a port and in the 1980s, after a 99-mile-long iceberg broke off it, the bay disappeared entirely.

Those unaware of this history would be easily taken in by dramatic media footage over the last decade of icebergs breaking off Antarctic glaciers, accompanied by breathless prose warning that global warming had unleashed unprecedented changes. Those unaware of more recent history would not know that since the mid 1950s the U.S. has maintained a continual base at the south pole. The temperatures it recorded – actual, not reconstructed readings – show the south pole to be colder today than when it was established more than 50 years ago.

History has similar tales to tell at the north pole and environs. “It will without doubt have come to your Lordship’s knowledge that a considerable change of climate, inexplicable at present to us, must have taken place in the Circumpolar Regions, by which the severity of the cold that has for centuries past enclosed the seas in the high northern latitudes in an impenetrable barrier of ice has been during the last two years, greatly abated,” wrote the president of London’s Royal Society to the British Admiralty in 1817. In urging an expedition, he stated “new sources of warmth have been opened and give us leave to hope that the Arctic Seas may at this time be more accessible than they have been for centuries past, and that discoveries may now be made in them not only interesting to the advancement of science but also to the future intercourse of mankind and the commerce of distant nations.”

Many expeditions were in fact made, by the British and others, and the Northwest Passage would be several times traversed, first by the same Amundsen who had earlier explored the Antarctic. History shows us that the Arctic has oftentimes warmed, making a mockery of claims that the modest recent warming is in any way extraordinary.

A newspaper report this week from the Alaska Dispatch recalls that Alaska’s all-time high temperature – 100 degrees Fahrenheit – occurred in 1915. A newspaper headline from Australia during World War II asks: “The North Pole, Is It Warming?” The answer: “From soundings and meteorological tests taken by the Soviet explorers who returned this week to Murmansk, Russia’s-sole Ice-free Arctic port, it was concluded that near Polar temperatures are on an average six degrees higher than those registered by Nansen [a Norwegian explorer] 40 years ago.”

The rich historical evidence from the Arctic is as nothing compared to those from heavily populated Europe and Asia, where written accounts describe how changes in temperature affected what crops could be grown and where people could live. We learn that in the warmer-than-today period a thousand years ago – the Medieval Warm Period — grapes grew in Britain and Scandinavians farmed Greenland. We learn that during the warmer-still period two thousand years ago – the Roman Warm Period – olives grew in Germany and citrus trees in Britain.

We learn that history trumps science when the science is speculative, politicized, and at odds with reality.

National Post, 19 April 2013