Important But Little Known “Earth” Scientists

by Dr. Tim Ball on May 9, 2011

in Astronomical,Atmosphere,Biography,History,Land,Oceans,Philosophy,Theory

Three scientists from the beginning of the 20th century had a profound impact on our view and understanding of the world and climate, yet are virtually unknown. They knew each other well; one was related by marriage to another. They worked together and the connections influenced their contributions to a global view and understanding of climate change. Vladimir Koppen produced a global climate classification that is the basis of most systems since. His training combined meteorology, climatology and botany and his system used plants as an indicator of climate. Koppen’s daughter married the second scientist, Alfred Wegener. His contribution was the continental drift theory that provided a fundamental foundation for geology. The third was Milutin Milankovitch, Serbian mathematician and climatologist, whose work combined the effect of changes in Sun/Earth relationships on climate change.

All three saw their ideas challenged in the appropriate scientific way, but have withstood attempts to disprove them. Despite this, the public is generally unaware of their work and its implications. They challenged prevailing views, which always creates a struggle. They also challenged the underlying view of uniformitarianism, the western scientific idea that change is gradual over long periods of time. A common denominator for all their ideas was lack of a mechanism that drove the discernible patterns and evidence.

Alfred Wegener

Alfred Wegener

Alfred Wegener
Source: Wikipedia

As early as 1620, Frances Bacon noticed the similarity between the coastlines on each side of the Atlantic. Wegener applied the idea to all the continents and showed how they fit together as a single continent he called Pangea. He hypothesized they began to separate about 300 million years ago, first dividing into two continents he called Gondwanaland and Laurasia. These continue to separate and define the areas of earthquakes, volcanoes, and other features that cause catastrophic events. The idea that continents could move was incomprehensible. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Vine and Mathews identified the mechanism of convective cells within the mantle. They drive the crust to converge and diverge creating all the major features on Earth. Continental Drift is now a fully accepted theory that is the basis of geology.

One aspect of continental drift that received attention in Hubert Lamb’s 1977 masterpiece Climate: Present, Past and Future (Volume 2) is the effect of different land/ocean patterns on climate. This can include even relatively small but critical changes. For example, consider the different ocean circulation before the closing of the gap between North and South America.

Milutin Milankovitch

Milutin Milankovitch

Milutin Milankovitch
Source: Wikipedia

Early studies by geologists and glaciologists attempted to find a climate mechanism to explain the evidence of massive ice sheets during the recent Ice Age. Louis Agassiz identified the existence and extent of the ice sheets in Europe as early as 1837, but it wasn’t generally accepted until the 1860s. There were many theories. One that endured was Joseph Adhemar’s proposal that the likely cause was changes in the earth’s solar orbit. James Croll was the major contributor to the orbital variation idea and calculated orbital eccentricity for different latitudes over 3 million years, published in 1867. Milankovitch spent years combining changes in the sun/earth relationships including changes in orbit, tilt, and date of equinox.

He wanted to find the mechanism primarily responsible for climate change. Prior to computers he calculated variations in solar energy received at every five degrees of latitude over 650,000 years. He published them in 1920 as Mathematical Theory of Heat Phenomenon Produced by Solar Radiation. His work caught the attention of Koppen, who sent him a postcard. It said he was working with his son-in-law Alfred Wegener on a book about past climates and they were very excited by the mechanism Milankovitch proposed. In 1924 he published, with Koppen, the now classic graph of variation in summer radiation for 65°N that identified the correlation with Ice Ages (Figure 1).

Intensity of radiation curve for 65 degrees North

Figure 1: Intensity of radiation curve for 65°N. Ice Ages names are for Europe. Source: Imbrie and Imbrie, 1979, Ice Ages: Solving the Mystery.

Milankovitch acknowledged that without Koppen’s input from his extensive understanding of global climate patterns he would not have identified that summer temperatures at 65°N were the critical issue.

Milankovitch’s theory was initially accepted as a plausible answer to the major fluctuations and triggered research in the 1950s. Then it was pushed aside because it showed glaciers in a part of Alaska that the new technique of radiocarbon dating indicated were forested. It turned out the radiocarbon was wrong because it assumed constant solar energy. A reference to Milankovitch was immediately challenged. It wasn’t until the 1980s that a reference to his work went unchallenged. The amazing thing is, most still don’t know that Earth’s orbit changes significantly because of the gravitational pull of the planets, especially Jupiter. They still don’t know the earth tilt swings between 21.8° and 24.4°, or that the date on which critical events, Equinox and Solstices, are constantly changing.

At a presentation at the University of Victoria, I stated that the IPCC computer models do not include the Milankovitch Effect. A person challenged this and said the models do include it. He was confused because some models do include it, but not those used by the IPCC. On a radio program, Andrew Weaver, a lead author of the computer model chapters in the IPCC Science Report, called and said it was not included because it was insignificant on a short time scale. Figure 2 shows a plot of variations in the amount of solar radiation at 65° north for a period of 1 million years.

Variations in insolation at 65 degrees north

Figure 2: Variations in the amount of insolation (incoming solar radiation) at 65°N
Source: BERGER, A. 1978. Long-term variations of daily insolation and quaternary climatic changes.
J. Atmos. Sci. 35: 2362–2367.

Range of variation is approximately 100 watts per square meter, which far exceeds the 2 watts per square meter the IPCC attributes to humans.

Vladimir Koppen

Vladimir Köppen

Vladimir Köppen
Source: Wikipedia

Koppen’s work is least known or acknowledged even in science, yet it holds potential for understanding climate and climate change. It is more important than the IPCC and most climate research because it recognizes the importance of water in all its forms.

Koppen, Wegener, and Milankovitch did more to help us understand the world and its dynamic systems than most, yet they’re virtually unknown. Some blame lies with the education system used to indoctrinate and keep people ill-informed or misinformed. It’s the only explanation for continued teaching of a fixed pattern of sun/earth relationships when science knew 100 years ago how much it changed. However, the biggest hindrance since its inception in 1988 is the IPCC and governments who accepted their findings. They reinforced them by funding only research that proved their views. They settled the science.