1953 Popular Mechanics: Growing Blanket of Carbon Dioxide Raises Earths Temperature

Yes, I know everybody used to think we were headed toward an ice age. Well, except Dr. Frank Baxter (and Frank Capra) in 1958. And except for James Hansen for three decades, of course. And the National Research Council along with the vast majority of climate scientifists from the 1970s on.

But Popular Mechanics warned us a full 55 (!) years ago.

Actually, Time magazine reported on Plass’s work in May 1953, in an article titled “Invisible Blanket,” which ends “for centuries to come, if man’s industrial growth continues, the earth’s climate will continue to grow warmer.”

The New York Times reported on Plass’s work in 1956 with this strong headline:


As an interesting aside, the NYT warned a “rise in the average temperature of only 4 degrees C. would convert the polar regions into tropical deserts and jungles, with tigers roaming about and gaudy parrots squawking in the trees,” which is hardly the most noticeable consequence of turning polar regions into the tropics — 80 to 280 foot sea level rise anyone?

Who is this remarkable climate scientist, Gilbert Plass? The Encyclopedia of Earth has the answer:

Gilbert N. Plass (1921–2004) was a Canadian-born physicist who made important early contributions to the carbon dioxide theory of climate change. He graduated from Harvard University in 1941, received a Ph.D in physics from Princeton University in 1947, and eventually became a professor at Texas A&M University. Between 1953 and 1959, Plass developed an early computer model of infrared radiative transfer and published a number of articles on carbon dioxide and climate. Plass used new detailed measurements of the infrared absorption bands and newly available digital computers to replace the older graphical methods.

Plass developed his approach with a thorough set of one-dimensional computations, taking into account the structure of the absorption bands at all layers of the atmosphere. His final figures showed convincingly that adding or subtracting CO2 could seriously affect the radiation balance layer by layer through the atmosphere, altering the temperature by a degree or more down to ground level. In a seminal article in 1956, Plass calculated a 3.6 °C surface temperature increase for a doubling of atmospheric CO2. Contrary to the conventional wisdom at the time, Plass argued that the effect of water vapor absorption did not mask the carbon dioxide effect. Plass also postulated that the oceans would be able to sequester only a small amount of the anthropogenic carbon, resulting in an increase in atmospheric CO2. He calculated that consumption of all of the Earth’s fossil fuel resources over the next millenium would increase surface temperature by 7 °C. Plass’ work was pivotal in the establishment of the central role of carbon dioxide in climate change, and in the danger that anthropogenic carbon emissions posed to the Earth’s climate system.

Pretty darn accurate for 50-year-old analysis on the most primitive computers.

Plass lived long enough to see his analysis vindicated by both the community of climate scientists and direct observation. I do wonder, though, what he thought about the disinformation campaign launched against the most straightforward of science and about humanity’s failure to act a half-century after the first national warnings.