The Date: January 1, 1966
The Magazine: Maclean's
The Story: What's Changing Our Weather?
Scientists now admit man's conquest of matter may upset the climate
What's causing this crazy weather?
Freak storms, massive droughts, killer hurricanes, snow in July....It's "those damn atom bombs," many people have muttered. "Nonsense," snapped the weathermen, but now some of them are beginning to change their minds.
Cutline: The chaotic weather of recent years is enough to make a rattled TV forecaster turn in his chalkboard.
And, experts ask, though it's warming up, can a new Ice Age be far behind?
Since implications are tremendous for birds, fish, animals and plants---and therefore for our whole economy---North Americans were posing a basis and vital question when they asked, "Is our weather changing?" Meanwhile, scientists were asking a question that is even more ominous, "Is it something that man is doing that is altering weather patterns?"
Chief Walking Eagle, an aged Indian who has predicted the weather accurately for the past five years, is certain of it. At Rocky Mountain House, Alta., recently, he explained, "The white man is getting too big and rich. Manitou does not like this and he gives bad weather."
Others, however, believe nuclear tests---the latest of these being China's atmospheric blast last May---may be the culprit. For years climatologists labeled such suggestions "idiocy", pointing out that more energy is released each second of an ordinary thunderstorm than in an entire nuclear blast. But many citizens doggedly go on insisting that "those damn atom bombs" are the real cause of our crazy climate.Lately, some authorities have begun to think the laymen might be partly right...
In 1961 and 1962, the U.S. and the USSR detonated a series of nuclear bombs, one of them (Russian) exceeding fifty megatons---the biggest man-made explosions in history. The following winter was Europe's worst ever. Snow even fell on the French Riviera.
These two series of events could be mere coincidence or they could be related. Many authorities, including Dr. A.B. Meinel, of the University of Arizona, think there is a connection; that only our ignorance of high-altitude wind patterns prevents us from predicting where and when the effects might show.
Dr. Walter Mitschfeld, head of the Department of Meteorology at McGill, ...contends that nuclear explosion in the upper atmosphere could---because of the lower pressure there---electrify dust particles over a vast area. That could upset the delicate balance of ultra-violet reaching earth. Since this form of radiation has its greatest effects on the equatorial zone, where tropical cyclones and hurricanes are born, the possible effects are enormous.
...there is general agreement among all climatologists that the world's climate is getting warmer. But whether we are comfortably in the middle or a warming cycle or near the end is another matter.
Robert M. White, head weatherman for the United States government,...believes computers may soon give answers to these questions, which would otherwise require centuries of weather observations to determine.
The first regular weather observations in Canada began in 1839 in Toronto. Records since show that average winter temperatures in the city rose about three degrees between 1895 and 1950. During the latter part of this period an increase in the rate of warming was also noted by weathermen in cities as far apart as Vancouver, which claimed an average winter rise of almost one degree over about fifty years, and Montreal, whose average winter temperature rose a significant three degrees in only eighty years.
But far more tangible signs indicate the trend. Between 1900 and 1935 the mean January temperature of Dawson City, Yukon, rose a startling ten degrees. (Oddly, however, it is now almost back to the turn-of-century low.) At Point Barrow, Alaska, residents were astonished to find the harbor thawing earlier and freezing later, giving them today a shipping season of ten weeks instead of six.
The possible causes and effects of this warming trend are intriguing subjects for speculation, particularly for Canadians. Science's most popular theory about the cause is that the sun, our sole source of heat, is a variable star whose own output of warmth continues to flucturate. Until 1957, and the first satellite, there was no practical way of measuring the sun's heat without having the earth's stored heat interfere with the results. Now such a measurement can be made, but it will be some time before enough data can be obtained to indicate whether the sun's heat does fluctuate enough to affect the earth's temperature.
The effects of new warmth could be startling. On the one hand it could encourage the northward march of man, animals, plants, fish and birds, opening great new areas to the concentrated populating that now makes, say, southern Ontario such a boom region. On the other hand it could mean the virtual end of civilization. For, as the late British climatologist C.E.P. Brooks has calculated, a worldwide rise of only two degrees in the annual temperature would melt enough ice to flood most of the world's coastal cities.
Two eminent U.S. scientists, geologist William L. Donn and oceanographer Maurice Ewing, take Brooks's deductions one step further. They believe the melting of the Arctic ice would, ironically, precipitate a new ice age over North America. Their reasoning goes like this: The glaciers did not spread south from the pole as is generally assumed. They began one dreary winter when more snow fell than melted and continued till snow was falling all year round. The deepest snow was around Hudson Bay, in the direct path of the northerly winds blowing from the Arctic Ocean, which must have been open water to give up so much moisture to the winds.
"Therefore," says Donn, " the rapidly thinning six feet of ice over the Arctic Ocean is all that's saving us from another ice age."
Oceanographer Ewing confirmed this theory by applying evidence found in the ocean bed that eleven thousand years ago an abrupt change occurred in Atlantic marine line, from cold-water to warm-water organisms. The reason, he believes, was that so much water had evaporated from the Arctic Ocean that the ocean sank below a land bridge connecting Iceland and Greenland. Cut off from warmer Atlantic water, the Arctic Ocean froze, and in turn, cut off the wind's supply of snow. The sun did the rest.
Greenland Eskimos now take big catches of cod where only fifty years ago cod stayed five hundred miles south of the island. This means that warmer Atlantic water is again moving north, hastening the melting of the ice crust. Will Donn's predictions of a new ice age soon become reality?
It may be a hundred years till this bleak prospect materializes, but we have enough to worry about till then. What, for example, could be causing the fantastic drought over the northeastern United States and the Maritimes, now in its fifth consecutive year? How much longer will this change continue--till the whole area is a desert?
Some of the hottest arguments between weather experts have arisen over temperature changes. Experts begin by agreeing there is at least one non-nuclear human activity that could be affecting the weather: the burning of plant-remains such as coal and oil.
Some U.S. physical chemists insist that the quantity of carbon dioxide in the air has risen by thirteen percent in the last century. By 2000 A.D. , they claim, there will be enough to raise much of North American's temperature as much as six degrees. snip
What really vexes weathermen, however, is their inability to build a model to study climate under laboratory conditions as other scientists do in such "simple" fields as physics, histology, cybernetics.
When the computers take over, things of course will be different. Then, when you've got that big annual picnic to plan, you'll just feed a machine with the basic data--the location and a choice of dates. One push of the button and the machine will look ahead several weeks and pick the ideal day--guaranteeing the balmy weather you need. Unless Mother Nature happens to decide at the last minute that snow would be nice in July, for a change.