The Climate Change Debate: The History and The Forefathers

To many of us it seems as though the climate change debate is only a recent phenomena, and indeed, we have been positively bombarded by the media coverage of global warming in the past decade. Surprisingly, though, climate change speculation and study have been taking place for quite some time. In his recently published article in Weatherwise, a non-profit weather magazine, professor of geological sciences and contributing editor Randy Cerveny points out that some unexpected characters were just as concerned with weather change as we are now.

Any self- respecting history buff might guess that the foremost of our founding fathers to study climate change would have been Benjamin Franklin. It all adds up—he discovered electricity, invented bifocals, and constructed the first lightning rod. However, although Franklin was an outspoken student of weather and nature, Cerveny classifies none other than Noah Webster, lexicographer and founder of the modern Merriam- Webster Dictionary, as “one of the most strident investigators on the subject of early American climate change.”

In his intriguing Noah Webster: Lexicographer, Climatologist, Professor Cerveny points out the low and high points of Webster’s career studying climate change. The lexicographer had many rivals in the scientific field, among whom were Thomas Jefferson and Harvard professor Samuel Williams, who hypothesized that local weather patterns changed with the colonization of American settlements as forest was cut down and converted to fields used for crop production. Webster built on this concept when he noted that “the clearing of lands opens them to the sun, their moisture is exhaled, they are more heated in summer, but more cold in winter near the surface; the temperature becomes unsteady, and the seasons irregular.” Among his successes in climate change study also include his prediction that orbital changes of the earth alter long- term climate, a theory he anticipated, notes Cerveny, almost 200 years before it became known as fact.

Webster may have not received the credit he deserved for the observation of the urban heat island effect, the phenomenon that describes how cities are warmer than their surrounding countryside. Traditionally, this discovery is attributed to Luke Howard, a famous amateur meteorologist who published it as a footnote in hi book The Climate of London. However, Webster described the same instance in New York City 21 years prior.

Perhaps his most striking misstep in the process of climate study was Webster’s belief that the temperature of the earth had remained the same since the time of the Bible, a falsehood. Because of these beliefs, Cerveny calls Webster a “literary climatologist,” a man who used ancient Greek and Roman writings to formulate his modern beliefs. To close, Cerveny notes: “perhaps those of us who make weather and climate our passion and avocation might want to remember that… Webster also knew a thing or two about climate change.” In all, the article gives a surprising history of climate study, intriguing insight into the mind and contributions of a forefather of weather sciences, and the perspective that what we fear now has been recognizable for centuries.

Professor Randy Cerveny is a contributing editor of Weatherwise, a President’s Professor of Geographical Sciences at Arizona State University, and the author of the recently published book Weather’s Greatest Mysteries Solved! by Promethius Books.

by M. Molendyke

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