Given the endless heated discussions of global warming and climate change today, it is of little surprise that we should be informed of the field of climate science before making judgments. This understanding includes understanding the development of the field of climate science. In this series of lectures, we have already heard from Dr. Gillen D’Arcy Wood’s talk on the Tambora eruption, which sparked the curiosity of European and American scientists, and, in a sense, was the beginning of the discipline. This time, we were lucky to have Dr. Kerry Emanuel from Massachusetts Institute of Technology to talk about the evolution of climate science. Having had a basic idea of the history of climate science, I realized that the development of this field was largely driven by curiosity and advances in other, more fundamental sciences such as Physics and Chemistry. In addition, this observation of the revolutions in climate science might shed light on our general understanding of revolutions: rather than independent events, revolutions are usually integrated processes.
The public’s interest in climate science started in early 19th century, when amateur scientists found geological phenomena that they could not explain with existing theories. With the climate data they had collected in the unstable first half of the 19th century, James Croll proposed the theory of long term climate change based on Earth’s orbital variation. This theory is currently known as the theory of Ice Ages. Though this theory seems self-evident today, it was considered a breakthrough, especially at the time when climate and astronomy data were sparse. It’s also noteworthy that the scientists that contributed to the theory were driven by their own curiosity of the world.
As scientists started to realized that the temperature of the Earth could endure fluctuations, with their curious minds, they started to question why the surface temperature of the Earth was the way it was. This can be said to be the origin of the study of the greenhouse effect. However, this process is not simple nor independent: climate science at the time depended on the discoveries made by physicists, such as Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier, Gustav Kirchhoff, Ludwig Eduard Boltzmann, and Max Planck. Their endeavor in the understanding of radiation, in addition to John Tyndall’s study on the physical property of air, finally allowed people to understand the dynamic equilibrium of Earth’s surface temperature.
Although climate science has become an increasingly independent discipline, revolutionary changes in the field have never been completely independent. Recent revolutionary methods in climate science such as geochemistry and robotics involve integration of multiple disciplines.
To conclude, throughout the history of climate science, the revolutions have been driven by scientists’ curiosity and their interdisciplinary perspective.