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Feb 20, 2003 to Feb 6, 2013

Talking Global Warming in 1955

I’ve been reading Eric Sloane’s Almanac and Weather Forecaster ever since I found it at a yard sale last summer, one chapter a week in accordance with the calendar.  Sloane is a New England writer whose books feature wonderful, detailed pen and ink drawings of rural life in days gone by.  His weather almanac consists of bits of weather lore, stories of country life, and musings on the actual workings of weather and the seasons.  It’s the perfect casual read for a weather enthusiast, full of proverbs and fun facts.  

I’d been enjoying it right along, feeling a false sense of nostalgia for a time I never knew, when I hit a paragraph that didn’t seem quite so dated.  The topic?  Climate change.  Here’s an excerpt from the entry for the third week of January:

“We seem to have been in a period of weakening winters, caused by the melting of the polar icecap.  The oceans have risen close to an inch in the past two hundred years and if the receding of polar ice continues, the experts say, the oceans will rise over a hundred feet and cover most of the large cities in the world.”

Who knew that we were already talking about global warming in the early 1950s when this book was written?  Sloane, of course, isn’t buying it.  “Cycles end,” he concludes, “and in a few years we shall probably see iceboating on the Hudson, and New England children will get their sledding season back again.”

Sloane tells us that some people thought the reason for the unusally mild winters was nukes.  “The morning paper has an article in it entitled, “Is the atomic bomb causing our mild winter?” He promptly answers the question himself.  “ ‘No.’ As big a thing as an explosion can be, the air masses that cause weather are always infinitely bigger.  A moving warm or cold air mass may take half the continent and would be very little affected by the largest atomic explosion.”

In fact, in the years after the war, people were talking about nukes and the weather.  Mostly, they were concerned with nuclear winter, but as this bit of anecdotal evidence suggests, we were open to other possibilities.  As for the topic of climate change in general, there was some discussion of it in the 1940s, and influential research* had been carried out in 1938 suggesting that climate change was resulting from human activity on the planet, and in particular, the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere.

I had always thought of global warming as a fairly recent concept but Mr. Sloane’s book suggests otherwise.  Experts were talking about it before I was born. And yet, as my mother noted when I related this story to her, “we did nothing.”

Nope, we didn’t, or at least, not much.  It was too controversial and disruptive even then. For his part, Sloane thinks the “experts” are wrong and that weather will swing back cyclically as it always has.  Weather cycles aside, one thing that does seem fairly constant here is human nature. Then as now, there were people saying climate change is normal and other people saying it ain’t.  Isn’t history fun?  Sometimes it even repeats itself.

It should be noted that Eric Sloane was not a scientist—rather, he was an artist and observer of life who happened to be interested in weather.  But his observations, as tied as they are to his own era, make odd juxtapositions with our own from time to time.

* See Guy Stewart Callendar


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