Climate

A Cold War Story Of Climate Science

The Cold War may be remembered as a time lived in constant fear of nuclear annihilation, but it was also a time of tremendous scientific progress. Just ask climate scientist Michael MacCracken.

Cold War competition with the Soviet Union fueled the Space Race, the arms race and, by extension, a host of groundbreaking discoveries and inventions. Much of that pioneering research was carried out at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, where MacCracken pursued his graduate research. Livermore was established to strengthen America’s nuclear arsenal. Scientists designed warheads, experimented with magnetic fusion, and investigated the risk of nuclear weapons to the global climate. Could atomic warfare lead to nuclear winter?

“People were interested in doing this. I mean, you’re working to protect the country in terms of the Cold War that was going on,” said MacCracken. “[People] came there for that purpose, believing if you could be strong, you could keep the peace. If you’re weak you’re going to get overrun.”

In 1960, Livermore physicist Chuck Leith, MacCracken’s graduate advisor, produced the first three-dimensional global atmospheric model. He created the model to test the fastest computer on Earth, the UNIVAC LARC, and he enlisted Hollywood animators to produce a visual rendering — wiggling neon lines denoting pressure and precipitation overlaid on a map of the Earth. The animation is mesmerizing, aglow with the peril and possibility of the Space Age.

Leith Atmospheric Model - Small

MacCracken eventually converted Leith’s three-dimensional model of the atmosphere into a two-dimensional model of the climate, tracking the movement of heat and energy to investigate the cause of ice ages. He discovered that, while simple physics produced a faithful representation of the climate, it could not explain profound shifts in eons past. What then, was responsible for the end of ice ages?

“You think it’s hard to change the climate,” said MacCracken, “but looking at the past climate, it shows the relatively small influences have had a large effect.”

Scientists had long hypothesized that increased atmospheric carbon dioxide could lead to planetary warming, but it was not until the 1960s the possibility of human-caused climate change began to really take hold in mainstream science. 1960 saw the birth of the Keeling curve, a measure of the increasing concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. 1965 marked another turning point. That year, Lyndon Johnson’s science advisory committee warned the president of the dangers of carbon pollution.

keeling

CREDIT: Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego

The following decade brought new adversaries and new impetus for inquiry and innovation. With the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, Americans watched oil-producing Arab states edge the U.S. economy into recession. Washington pushed for energy independence, igniting a new era of research.

Parts of the Atomic Energy Commission, which had supported MacCracken’s work at Livermore, were reorganized into the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), a new agency tasked with fostering energy technologies and investigating their environmental impact. MacCracken wrote to ERDA, urging the study of climate change. In his letter, he notes that while atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide “are small in an absolute sense and not a direct threat to man, the range of indirect consequences seems large.” The agency circulated MacCracken’s letter and assembled a blue ribbon workshop to investigate the matter.

“One of the findings at this workshop in the late 70s was indeed that the fundamentals of the science were very clear, and they had actually been identified quite a bit earlier,” said MacCracken. ERDA soon became the Department of Energy, which took up the issue of carbon pollution and its effect on the climate. MacCracken’s concerns had been validated.

Michael MacCracken

Michael MacCracken

CREDIT: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

The scientist continued his work on climate change throughout his long career and, in 2007, he was recognized for his contribution to the Nobel prize-winning research of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The award hangs in the entrance to his home, above a train set he built for his grandchildren. The significance is hard to miss.

In a career defined by uncertainty — the uncertainty of nuclear war, the uncertainty of fossil fuels, the uncertainty of his grandchildren’s future — the pioneering climate scientist came to a devastating conclusion.

“This is a very risky thing we’re doing,” said MacCracken. “Do we have an absolutely certain way out of it? No, but you got to make a try, because the consequences just look so dire if you don’t, that it just seems unacceptable to pass on to future generations.”

Jeremy Deaton writes about the science, policy, and politics of climate and energy for Nexus Media. You can follow him at @deaton_jeremy