Scientists like 19th century physicist John Tyndall laid the groundwork for modern climate science. (Getty: Kean Collection)
We tend to think of climate science as a relatively recent field of study, but geologists, glaciologists and meteorologists have been piecing the Earth’s systems together for more than 150 years.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, pioneering scientists began to unravel the complex interactions of ice, ocean and atmosphere.
Science historian and author Sarah Dry has been tracing the human stories of those who toiled in the lab and field.
“I wanted to show a bigger picture of our understanding of climate and show that it’s something that’s very old; it’s a lot older than the post-war story that we often hear about the discovery of global warming,” she tells RN’s Late Night Live.
Here are two scientists who captured Dry’s imagination because of the key role they played in the development of climate science.
The human story behind the science
Dry, who has profiled the early scientists in her book Waters of the World, was inspired by her quasi-obsession with the 19th century Irish physicist John Tyndall.
“I have been living with him in my head for quite a long time, almost an embarrassing length of time,” she says.
“Tyndall was really extraordinary, as it seems so many of the Victorians were; they seemed to pack more into their lifetimes than is believable.”
Working away in his laboratory in the basement of London’s Royal Institution, Tyndall proved himself to be an “outstanding experimentalist”.
John Tyndall’s work on the heat-trapping properties of gases in the 1850s foreshadowed the greenhouse effect. (Getty: Andrew Aitchison/ In pictures)
Thanks to ground-breaking tests he carried out in the late 1850s and early 1860s, Tyndall discovered the heat-trapping properties of various gases including water vapour and carbon dioxide.
He claimed this could explain “all the mutations of climate which the researches of geologists reveal”.
This is the phenomenon we now know, over 150 years later, as the greenhouse effect.
High stakes on the ice
Tyndall was also deeply interested in glacial movement and throughout his career he regularly risked life and limb on scientific expeditions to the Alps.
John Tyndall regularly embarked on risky scientific expeditions to the French Alps. (Getty: Carl Simon/United Archives/Universal Images Group)
On Christmas Day in 1859, he travelled to the Mer de Glace, a famous glacier near the French town of Chamonix, embarking on a risky open-air experiment which involved driving wooden stakes into the ice in the midst of a blizzard.
“The reason the Alps became interesting from a scientific perspective in this period is because people were putting together lots of new evidence about the way the Earth had changed in the past,” Dry says.
In the 1840s, the Swiss-American geologist Louis Agassiz had come up with what came to be known as the Ice Age Theory.
This was the “then really shocking and almost unbelievable idea that massive ice sheets had covered the Northern Hemisphere of the globe in the past,” Dry says.
Glaciers were not only the perfect laboratory for testing ideas about the history of the Earth.
Tyndall realised these “rivers of ice” were also the perfect subject for popular science books.
Indeed, his 1860 publication The Glaciers of the Alps, which Dry describes as “a mixture of science and Boy’s Own Adventures”, sold phenomenally well and helped launch the vogue for Alpine tourism.
Fast forward eight decades and we get to Joanne Simpson, the only female scientist mentioned in Dry’s book.
“It’s a tricky thing when you’re investigating the history of climate science to find women,” says Dry, “because generally they didn’t have access to a career in science at all.”
Simpson, who was born Joanne Gerould in Boston in 1923, was a woman who broke the mould.
In 1949, Joanne Simpson became the first woman in the United States to obtain a PhD in meteorology. (Supplied: Wikipedia Creative Commons)
Dry describes her as a “fascinating figure who searched for escape from a young age”.
Eager to break away from her mother, who had trained to be a journalist but been thwarted from following a career after giving birth to her daughter, Gerould obtained a pilot’s permit at the age of 16.
“This was both a metaphorical and a very real form of escape,” Dry writes.
Gerould also flew away from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to study at the University of Chicago where the wide range of science classes on offer appealed to her.
The beauty of clouds
Gerould had originally intended to study astronomy but, given that it was 1943 and the United States was at war, the Air Force was looking for people with a basic understanding of weather forecasting to train its pilots.
Simpson’s fascination with the mysteries of cloud formation led to new theories about atmospheric circulation. (Getty: Tony Studio)
“So, at age 21, she finds herself standing in front of a room full of hundreds of male cadets teaching them the rudiments of meteorology,” Dry says.
Gerould taught for a year on the course, from the fall of 1943 to the summer of 1944, developing a lifelong passion not just for weather patterns but clouds.
She described being struck by a bolt of lightning and deciding: “This is it — tropical cumuli are what I want to work on!”
Like Tyndall, Gerould took a practical, hands-on approach to science.
She managed to persuade the US Navy to loan her an old amphibious plane, kitted out with all sorts of instruments for measuring atmospheric humidity and density including a nose-camera to take pictures of clouds.
“I should emphasise, she wasn’t flying the plane herself at that point, because initially she wasn’t even allowed to go up in the plane because the Navy wouldn’t allow a woman,” Dry says.
Defying Navy protocol and gender discrimination, Gerould went on to create the first numerical cloud model using a series of physical equations to describe how clouds grew and developed.
In 1949, she became the first woman in the US to obtain a PhD in meteorology, despite having been advised by male colleagues that her gender would make this impossible.
Gerould married and divorced three times in quick succession, going by the names of Joanne Starr, Joanne Malkus and finally Joanne Simpson.
She also had two young children to look after, but this did not mean she restricted her meteorological experiments to theoretical work on cloud models.
She insisted on continuing her flying missions and together with her colleague, Herbert Riehl, went on to prove that clouds played a significant role in the climate system.
Dry explains that the pair realised that some clouds — which they dubbed “hot towers” — could grow extremely tall, up to eight or nine miles in height.
“They came up with this theory that just a few of these clouds, and by ‘few’ I mean say 1,500 clouds around the entire globe at any one time, could act as conveyor belts for getting heat from the ocean surface to the upper atmosphere,” Dry says.
So what had started out as a new way of thinking about clouds developed into a new way of thinking about the circulation of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Like Tyndall before her, Simpson was instrumental in laying some of the groundwork for contemporary climate science.
And this is the message Dry would dearly love readers to take away from her research: “We should remember that our current understanding of how the planet works is a product of all the history that has come before.”
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