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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 09/16/2010

The six great early American climate myths

By Don Lipman

Part II

Recently, in the Six Great Early American Climate Myths, Part I, I discussed three of the climate myths that the late David Ludlum, founder and longtime director/editor of Weatherwise magazine, summarized as "American Climythology." Ludlum, one of America's foremost weather historians, died in 1997. Following is a discussion of the other three myths...

The California Health Myth

The California Health Myth, one of Ludlum's favorites, apparently arose from the great attraction that California -- particularly southern California -- seemed to hold for easterners. Magazine and newspaper ads in the 1800s beckoned people to move there and if they did, they would live 10-15 years longer, they were told. The Federal Trade Commission, which might have banned such misleading ads, wasn't formed until 1914. Many people may have believed the claims, however, as the California population ballooned during this period, aided, of course, by the 1849 gold rush.

Keep reading for two more early climate myths...

The Alaskan Myth

After the Civil War, when Secretary of State William Seward advocated the purchase of Alaska from the Russian Empire, Congress initially thought little of buying this "icebox in the Arctic" that was only good for Eskimos and polar bears, they thought. But Seward, who had survived an earlier assassination attempt on the night of Lincoln's assassination, was quite persuasive and eventually helped convince Congress to purchase Alaska in 1867 for $7.2 million, over $100 billion in today's dollars, by one estimate. Known as "Seward's Folly" at the time, the Alaska Purchase may be one of America's greatest land acquisitions of all, considering the importance of Alaska's vast natural resources.

But aside from its natural resources, which include oil, gold and other minerals, salmon, forests, etc., Alaska may be even more important to the United States (and Canada) in another way: security. Situated between the former Soviet Union and the rest of North America, how would the outcomes of all of the great 20th century conflicts been affected if Alaska had still been a Russian territory? What William "Billy" Mitchell, father of the U.S. Air Force, told Congress in 1935, may still apply today: "Alaska is the most important, strategic place in the world."

The Changing Climate Myth

Today, of course, hardly a day goes by when we don't hear something about the degree to which human activity is responsible for the global warming that we've experienced since the start of the industrial revolution. Therefore, it may seem surprising that in 19th century America, many people also believed, but for different reasons, that the climate was warming.

In the mid-to-late 1800s, although Ludlum documented many severely cold winters, it was clear that the "Little Ice Age," which had locked much of (at least) the northern hemisphere in its icy grip for hundreds of years, was waning. At the time, however, it was probably not widely recognized that, rather than just a milder interlude, as was thought, there was a waning cold epoch and increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide caused primarily by the start of the industrial revolution, and reduced carbon dioxide absorption caused by the deforestation needed to build homes and factories.

Instead, the prevailing theory at the time was that so much land had been cleared that solar radiation had a much greater opportunity to warm the soil, and thus the air above the soil.

Was this a credible idea? What do you think?

By Don Lipman  | September 16, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Education, Lipman  
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Don't forget about the great global cooling scare during the late 1970's.

The Coming Ice Age

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | September 16, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

As a native Southern Californian, I will say the following in defense of the myth: the climate there is better, thus it is easier to engage in healthier, outdoor activities, which in turn could lead to a longer life.

Posted by: oldtimehockey | September 16, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Q. may not have seen my posts last week on NOAA data showing that solar radiation displays a sine-wave pattern of regular maxima and minima over a series of 11.5 year sunspot cycles, but otherwise remains constant, while climatic data displays global temperature increases here on earth during the past century.

The California Health Myth was widely advertised prior to the emergence of smog as a major issue in SoCal.

There may be some credibility to the idea of increased heating of bare and near black-body asphalt surfaces. In addition, we would be in a much different world today if Russia still possessed Alaska.

Billy Mitchell is a folk hero back home in Wisconsin, especially around Milwaukee where the airport is named in his honor. During the 1920's he was court-martialed for his often prophetic statements regarding the role of air power in modern warfare. At his court-martial during the 1920's he made the statement that the Japanese would one day launch a surprise air attack on the huge naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The ground-based Army brass of the time debunked Mitchell's remarks, and no strategy decisions of note were made...until Dec. 7, 1941!

Posted by: Bombo47jea | September 16, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

Looks like you replaced one myth with another (or at a misunderstanding). The rise in CO2 from around 280 to 295 (to be generous, see gave us 5.35 ln(295/280) or 0.28 W/m2 in increased forcing from CO2 back radiation. The change in temperature, at maximum with all feedback, is 0.8 (lamda) times forcing or less than a quarter of a degree C temperature increase from CO2.

The more likely explanation for the warming in the 1800's was solar constant increases and the other natural factors that ended the LIA.

Posted by: eric654 | September 16, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

I'm confused about the Alaska myth. What does it have to do with climate?

Posted by: cassander | September 16, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

cassander: What Ludlum was referring to was the fact that Alaska's climate was thought to be uninhabitable, except for Eskimos and polar bears. That was the myth. It took the imagination and persuaviness of people like Seward to convince Congess of Alaska's potential.

Don Lipman, Capital Weather Gang

Posted by: Weatherguy | September 16, 2010 3:33 PM | Report abuse

cassander: As you probably surmised, the word was "persuasiveness."

Don Lipman, Capital Weather Gang

Posted by: Weatherguy | September 16, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

Regarding the global cooling (an ice age is coming, an ice age is coming!), it wasn't just the late 1970's. It was the early 70's as well.

President Obama's "science czar", John Holdren, wrote in 1971 'about the probable likelihood of a “new ice age” caused by human activity'.

In 1971 it was the coming ice age. In 1990 it was global warming. In 2000 it was climate change. Now it is "global climate disruption".

They are dead set and determined to sell us on some imminent disaster, aren't they?

If there is an imminent disaster, then you can advocate for things like -
mandatory abortions
forced sterilizations via the water supply system
force teen mothers to put their babies up for adoption
and my personal favorite, create a transnational "Planetary Regime" to assume control of the global economy

Just lovely. A real bunch of nice fellas, huh?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | September 16, 2010 11:41 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Q,

In 1970, there were 6 times as many articles published and cited predicting a warming rather than a cooling planet. And that ratio increased as the decade progressed. ( ) Today, with an additional 30 to 40 years of data to analyze, there's been an even larger scientific consensus.

You do have a point regarding the 1970s when it comes to the media having discussed and been cited about an ensuing ice age. "They are dead set and determined to sell us on some imminent disaster, aren't they?" Well, yes, that's the media for you. But I don't think the "they" you use is referring to the media.

Posted by: DAK4Blizzard | September 17, 2010 2:52 AM | Report abuse

DAK4Blizzard, the paper you posted shows 1971 had two cooling and one warming papers. In 1972 there were 4 warming, 1 cooling and the rest neutral. But was that really true? Check out and click on the 1972 volume 2 issue 3. Lots of articles and papers about the end of the interglacial. I downloaded the one called "Speculations about the next glaciation", all of 1.5 pages plus pictures. Basically says we are on the cusp of an ice age and can go over rapidly at any time. So at least one 1972 paper that didn't make the cooling list.

Posted by: eric654 | September 17, 2010 8:08 AM | Report abuse

DAK4Blizzard wrote, "In 1970, there were 6 times as many articles published and cited predicting a warming rather than a cooling planet."

That's not my personal memory of 1970. Not at all. Can you substantiate your assertion?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | September 17, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

My bad, Mr. Q. I mean to say that (according to this survey: ) between 1965 and 1979, there were 6 times as many scientific articles published and cited that predicted global warming versus those that predicted global cooling.

Now, eric654 asserts that this survey may have overlooked a number of articles that could have predicted global cooling. I'm not able to read/download articles from ScienceDirect. How were you able to access that article, eric654?

Posted by: DAK4Blizzard | September 17, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: eric654 | September 17, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse


I am really, truly pressed on time. I simply don't have the time to adequately address the reference that DAK4Blizzard cited. Not today anyway. Maybe this weekend?

Even the CIA thought a new ice age was coming. Check out this pdf. It is fascinating.

Anyway, if you skip to page 32 of that CIA brief you will find 4 pages of references. If you have the time, can you do quick look up on a random sample of those references and -
a. verify they predict a global cooling
and then,
b. see if those papers were noted in the paper that DAK4Blizzard cited.

My gut tells me that the paper that DAK4Blizzard cited is seriously flawed. One of those papers that was written to refute a point rather than find the truth. I suspect you will find that paper "overlooked" on whole bunch of papers predicting cooling.

Got to run!

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | September 17, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

I am sooooo going to be late!!!

When Will the Present Interglacial End?
Kukla and Matthews
Science 13 October 1972: 190-202
DOI: 10.1126/science.178.4057.190

"Global cooling and related rapid changes of environment, substantially exceeding the fluctuations experienced by man in historical times, must be expected within the next few millennia or even centuries."

Another one "accidentally" omitted by the paper DAK4Blizzard cited? Do you have the time Eric?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | September 17, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Hi Mr. Q, I'm reading it now, but the first thing I noticed is that the present warm era is supposed to last another 18,000 years.


Posted by: eric654 | September 17, 2010 5:21 PM | Report abuse

The paper was more complex than at first glance. They analyzed cycles in past interglacials to determine where we are in this one. Basically where we are is a cooler period that started 2200 years ago.

Some issues might be how accurate the proxies are (confounding factors) and how globally they sample.

Posted by: eric654 | September 17, 2010 5:47 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for sharing that paper, eric654. Very much appreciated. I'll look into registering at that website.

Note that the survey I brought up defines the articles that discuss global warming and cooling on "time scales of decades to a century." So, a paper that discusses the possibility of global cooling "within the next few millennia or even centuries" were probably intentionally not counted.

Posted by: DAK4Blizzard | September 17, 2010 6:47 PM | Report abuse

It's a sad fact that people with average intelligence, or lower, truly believe that they are as smart or smarter than highly intelligent people.

That said, attacking the dignity of highly regarded scientific organizations is considered good politics on the conservative side of the political spectrum in the United States. The Republican Party wants everybody to believe that the most reputable scientists and scientific organizations in the world are all either corrupt or stupid.

And why, might you ask, are Republicans doing this?

Because not a single reputable scientist or scientific organization in the world thinks that man-made global warming is a myth, or that global warming and climate change aren’t very serious problems that require immediate attention.

If you actually take the time to fully listen to what the most vocal global warming deniers are saying, you will soon realize that they all sound like they studied science at the University of Archie Bunker.

Read: Talent and Taste

Posted by: HarryBraun | September 21, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

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