When we think of change and improvement within a subject, gradualism and catastrophism come to mind as drivers of the progress. Revolutions in climate change seem to follow this trend, mainly starting with catastrophism and then following a trend of gradualism thereafter. In slightly fewer, shorter words, science proceeds by revolutions and small steps.
Over the years, there have been significant advances in climate science. Many of these important discoveries were driven by curiosity and evidence for large ice sheets and about what determines the Earth’s surface temperature. By the 18th century, climate science was already looking towards the ice age and geologists searched for boulders that may have been transported by glaciers during one of the multiple ice ages. Before considering examples of scientists who embody the revolutions followed by small steps theme, it is important to mention that science makes advances and ideas gain traction because of those scientists who are good writers, not necessarily the best scientists who make the first discovery.
The first man who made an example of catastrophism leading into gradualism was Jean Baptiste Fourier. Fourier was studying heat flow theory and was curious about the Earth’s temperature. He drew analogies between the Earth and the sun and a heated rod. He was under the impression that the Earth was warmed by the sun and starlight, a revolutionary claim that would later be studied by other climate scientists and corrected. Fourier essentially started a journey of climate scientists looking for the reasoning behind the heating of the earth.
Tyndall was one of the scientists who conducted experiments motivated by Fourier. Tyndall was aware of the wavelength dependence of radiation, and discovered that oxygen, nitrogen and argon make up close to 99% of the atmosphere and are almost entirely transparent to solar radiation, while water vapor has a better response and carbon dioxide and other, extremely small components of the atmosphere actually have the largest effect on the atmosphere. Tyndall also used his research to find out the equation for energy radiation of a black body.
The gradualism following Fourier’s catastrophism was met with Max Planck, who represented a new error of catastrophism. Planck realized that the model for total emissions did not allow for theory and actual results to match up, and so he threw out all of the physics that he knew and started from scratch. He hypothesized that radiant energy is quantized in discrete packets as opposed to the prior hypothesis that it was continuous. Planck did not fully understand his theory, but in coming up with the idea, created quantum physics.
While gradualism and catastrophism are so different, they are both extremely important in the context of climate science revolutions. We would not have seen the progress that has occurred if it had not been for the two effects playing along with each other. The big breakthrough would not have as revolutionary of an effect if it was not followed by the scientists who were gradually building and improving upon the theories set forth by catastrophism.