Weather observing 160 miles above the Arctic Circle leaves a lasting impression. In the beginning of my atmospheric science career, I observed weather for a season at an isolated military outpost on Alaska’s west coast. Although snow fell on July 5, the temperature in the summer of 1977 later reached 70 degrees Fahrenheit on two days. More typically, the Arctic air was quite cool and the sky cloudy. Rain and mist were frequent.
Since then, my decades of work in meteorology have been within the lower 48. But captivated by my inaugural experience, I am drawn to news of polar conditions, such as climate change in the Arctic. When I learned of substantial, documented Arctic warming referenced in climatologist Roy Spencer’s recent book, “An Inconvenient Deception,” I took notice.
It had been reported that “fishermen, seal hunters, and explorers who sail the seas about Spitzbergen and the eastern arctic, all point to a radical change in climatic conditions, and hither-to unheard of high temperatures in that part of the earth’s surface.” An expedition observed that ice conditions were exceptional. “In fact so little ice has never before been noted. The expedition all but established a record, sailing as far north as 81 degrees 29 minutes in ice free water. This is the farthest north ever reached with modern oceanographic apparatus.”
This account is remarkable, maybe even alarming. Yet it was from “The Changing Arctic” by George Nicolas Ifft, published by the American Meteorological Society in Monthly Weather Review, November 1922.
The piece goes on to describe: In Arctic Norway, “[m]any old landmarks are so changed as to be unrecognizable. Where formerly great masses of ice were found, there are now often moraines, accumulations of earth and stones. At many points where glaciers formerly extended far into the sea they have entirely disappeared.”
But a couple of decades later, the Arctic ice was observed growing again.
It’s not likely that in 1922 anyone was seriously looking to blame the proliferation of the Model T for the disappearance of glaciers. But in the 1970s, people were looking to blame nuclear weapons testing and excessive particulate matter pollution from industry as the reason the next ice age seemed to have been imminent. As the back cover of the 1977 book “Our Changing Weather: Forecast of Disaster?” by Claude Rose, put it: “Northern hemisphere temperatures have been falling steadily since the 1940s. Glaciers are advancing once again. Scientists no longer debate the coming of a new ice age, the question now is when?” And “The Cooling” (1975), by Lowell Ponte, noted that “[a] handful of scientists denied evidence that Earth’s climate was cooling until the 1970s, when bizarre weather throughout the world forced them to reconsider their views.” Sound familiar? Back then, you were a “denier” if you weren’t in the global cooling camp.
Even a short book for youngsters by Henry Gilfond, “The New Ice Age” (1978), made the point with its dust jacket displaying six large thermometers in a row measuring ominously declining temperatures.
Other books and popular press like Time, Newsweek and National Geographic in the 1970s spread the fear. And a Christian tract by Walter Lang and Vic Lockman asked, “Need we fear another Ice Age?”
Of course, atmospheric science has advanced tremendously since the coming-Ice Age scare of the 1970s and long since the early 20th century when ice evaporated in the Arctic. Rather than sooty smokestacks coaxing a new Ice Age, we are now certain that increasing carbon dioxide will yield a melted ice cap and intolerable global temperatures by the end of the 21st century.
You can bet on it.
But I wouldn’t.
• Anthony J. Sadar is a certified consulting meteorologist and author of “In Global Warming We Trust: Too Big to Fail” (Stairway Press, 2016).