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Brick by brick

Studies on global warming have been conducted for 180 years

Reproductions EDUARDO CESAR The next day the “Folha da Noite” consulted experts working in BrazilReproductions EDUARDO CESAR

News about research into global warming has increasingly been gaining  more cover in the press, moving from minor reports to assuming a permanent place in the headlines. Before the most recent studies indicated the true gravity of the environmental situation of our planet, the subject was only really reported on, with any degree of regularity, when there were major meetings on the subject, such as Eco 92 and Kyoto in 1997, or when some new theory attracted attention to the issue. This conduct is neither new to Brazil nor to the world.

Fifty years ago, the Hungarian born US physicist Joseph Kaplan, from the University of California, published an article in the Santa Monica Evening Outlook newspaper that caused an uproar there and had repercussions in Brazil.

It hit the headlines in a report published on April 10, 1957 in the Folha da Noite newspaper, now called Folha de S.Paulo. The text stated that: “… the burning of oil and heavy oil produces gases that are heating the atmosphere. Over time this heating will cause the polar icecaps to melt with a consequent increase in sea levels of nearly 12 meters. Unless science manages to control air temperature within that time the sea will flood cities like New York and Tokyo”. The period mentioned was 50 or 60 years – in other words, now.
It was the headline story in Folha da Noite – “Is it possible that the Earth will be invaded by the sea?” – and ran to eight columns, and the newspaper spoke to João Dias da Silveira, Professor of Physical Geography from the Philosophy, Science and Arts School of the University of São Paulo (USP). Silveira said that the temperature in regions of Siberia, Greenland and Spitzberg, in the north of Russia, had increased by “somewhere around 1.5o °C” between 1883 and 1934. As a result, in some areas, the frozen wasteland had receded 40 km northwards. The Brazilian researcher quite correctly emphasized that the data had been taken from isolated parts of the Earth and did not allow any conclusions to be drawn relative to the Kaplan forecast.

The following day the São Paulo newspaper returned to the subject and interviewed Icelandic oceanographer, Ingvar Emilsson, then working at USP’s Oceanographic Institute. Emilsson, who is now at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said at the time that Kaplan’s hypothesis was not new, but stated that the Hungarian physicist’s reasoning was logical. “Observations have already shown that  in both the northern and southern hemispheres there has been an increase in the average temperature over the last few decades”, he stated.

The deliberations of Kaplan, Silveira and Emilsson, 50 years ago, followed the evolutionist line of science. The first scientist to talk about atmospheric warming caused by the emission of gases was a Frenchman, Jean Baptiste Fourier, in his essay, “The temperature of the Earth and planetary spaces” in 1827. Starting in 1859, the Irish physicist John Tyndall carried out a series of tests in his laboratory in order to try and understand the nature of these gases. In 1896, Swedish chemist Svante August Arrhenius wrote an article pointing out the influence of carbon dioxide on the greenhouse effect.

After these studies the discussions abated for more than 40 years, until English engineer Guy Callendar published his works in 1938. An amateur meteorologist who analyzed and compared statistics about the climate of extensive regions, he saw that the numbers, indeed, pointed to a rise in global temperatures. In 1957, the same year in which Joseph Kaplan’s article was published, the North American Charles Kelling created a mechanism for measuring carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. “Every researcher laid a brick and went up one step”, says Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, Scientific Director of FAPESP. “What we know about global warming today is due to good science and to the obsessive efforts of these and many other scientists.”