Four Billion Years Of Climate Change

23:31 minutes

Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Kayvon Sharghi

It’s not uncommon these days to hear scientists and journalists say that our planet is experiencing record-setting temperatures due to climate change. But they’re talking about a small part of Earth’s history—human history. The story of the earth’s climate contains much more than what human beings have recorded.

[Watch these researchers create Category 5 hurricanes… in a giant box.]

It starts 4.56 billion years ago, when our planet developed an atmosphere. Scientists believe at one point that Earth’s atmosphere may have been pink due to a buildup of methane, and at another point it rained for about a million years. That kind of time scale is tough to comprehend. But in their new book, Weather: An Illustrated History, longtime climate reporter Andrew Revkin and co-author Lisa Mechaley track the incredible range of climate history. They condense that history—from the formation of Earth’s early atmosphere to the invention of temperature, the tracking of tornados and the discovery of greenhouse gases—into a digestible timeline of 100 weather-related events. Revkin joins Ira to discuss how climate and human beings have evolved over time, and offers his weather predictions for the year 102,018.

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Segment Guests

Andrew Revkin

Andrew Revkin is the author of Weather: An Illustrated History (Sterling, 2018). He’s also a longtime climate reporter and strategic advisor for science and environmental journalism at the National Geographic Society. He’s based in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. These days, it is not uncommon to hear scientists and journalists say that our planet is breaking records due to climate change. But what they’re really talking about is a small part of Earth’s history, and that’s human history.

The story of Earth’s climate contains much more than what humans have recorded. For example, sometime around 4.3 billion years ago, it rained for a million straight years. Poof, mind blowing. And scientists say about 2.9 billion years ago the sky was most likely pink due to all the methane in the atmosphere. Those weather events were happening on time scales that are hard to get your head around, but my next guest has, for the last 30 years, been thinking about the Earth’s weather and climate before and after humans appeared on the scene.

He’s written a new book that condenses the vast range of Earth’s climate history into a digestible timeline of 100 weather related events, like the invention of temperature. Yes, temperature had to be invented, not discovered. Think about that. We will with Andrew Revkin, who’s a strategic advisor for science and environmental journalism at the National Geographic Society. His new book is Weather, An Illustrated History. Always good to see you.

ANDREW REVKIN: It’s great to be back.

IRA FLATOW: It’s nice to have you. You’ve been reporting on climate change for 30 years. Why did you decide to write a book about the history of weather?

ANDREW REVKIN: Well, I’m at a stage of my career and my life when it’s– you tend to reflect a little bit– well, what have I learned? What have I unlearned going back and forth in time, looking at my own stuff? And I was just noticing recently on eBay I got one of the original copies of my Discover Magazine debut, my cover story on global warming 1988, and there’s cigarette advertising on the back.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, is that right?

ANDREW REVKIN: That’s how long I’ve been at this, but that also says– wow, so back then, you could work at a science magazine, and that could be kind of normal. And that’s got me– there’s so many aspects of this have gotten me thinking about the history of when an idea emerged. 1896 is when Svante Arrhenius, this chemist in Sweden, was famously– just calculated how much the climate might warm from burning a certain amount of coal. Back then, coal is– it’s a boom time for coal, and at that time, he wrote that this would be good. It would be warming the world. And he was in Sweden– not a place where– a place where he would be helpful, and he’s talking about bountiful crops.

IRA FLATOW: But they were thinking about it that far back.

ANDREW REVKIN: Oh, yes. So the science–

IRA FLATOW: So the fossil fuels would warm the planet.

ANDREW REVKIN: The science was there, but the perception of it was, at that time, Industrial Revolution– boom, boom, we’re great– was kind of positive. And then 50, 60 years later, the science emerged more toward the concerns that we now are exploring.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about the weather a little bit. What is the oldest sign of weather?




IRA FLATOW: No, go ahead.

ANDREW REVKIN: The oldest physical thing you can actually look at were these 2.7 billion year old raindrop marks.

IRA FLATOW: That blew me away. I saw the illustration in the book of little holes in rock that are raindrops. How do you know that they’re raindrops?

ANDREW REVKIN: Well, a lot of geologists looked at them carefully. And there’s– the photographs have a meerkat sitting on one. This is in South Africa. And the– and actually the depth of the rain mark was used by some scientists recently at NASA trying to calculate how dense the atmosphere was, how fast was that raindrop falling when it hit that mud to make that mark.

Amazing, and to me again, going back in time– and my wife helped me write the book, Lisa Mechaley. We just were probing into stuff we thought we knew and kept coming up with stuff. We were saying, wow, did you hear that?

IRA FLATOW: It’s amazing. Our phone number– 844-724-8255 if you’d like to talk about the weather. What’s the old saying? Who doesn’t like to talk about the weather? Or you can tweet us At SciFri.

We talk about extreme weather today, but we forget what was going on, what, two, three billion years ago. I mentioned this at the beginning. I was surprised to learn it rained for a million straight years. First, how do we know that, and why did it rain for a million years?

ANDREW REVKIN: Well, the atmosphere we know now is– has a biography to it. Actually, even earlier than that, it’s thought that the moon, the collision that formed the moon, there was an earlier atmosphere right at the very beginning, 4.5, six, seven billion years ago. And it looks like it got ripped away completely, so it was like a reboot. It had to start all over again. The moon– that collision that made the moon.

But there’s also a lot of uncertainty going back in time. Some of these interpretations are made from looking at things like a certain kind of zircon crystal that you or I or anybody who doesn’t know isotope chemistry will never find an answer in. But that’s where they’re looking for these clues to the atmosphere of the earlier ages.

IRA FLATOW: So why would it rain for a million years? What caused that?


IRA FLATOW: Water? It just was–

ANDREW REVKIN: Water vapor. It was emerging from the forming Earth. A lot of water came to the planet from– in the form of all this stuff colliding together in the early stages of the solar system.

IRA FLATOW: So sort of an outgassing?

ANDREW REVKIN: Yeah, Outgassing.

IRA FLATOW: What about the theory that comets brought all that water in?

ANDREW REVKIN: Well, that’s part of it, sure, that it had to come from somewhere. And then as you were saying in your introduction, one of the other surprises was, to me, something you would never think about, which is the invention of the concept of temperature. Through this whole process of elucidating answers from evidence around us, and that was Galileo, and that was right when this these things called thermoscopes– I’m sure some of your listeners have had a toy one– where you could get a rough sense of the temperature.

But it was Galileo, according to this fantastic historian Albert Van Helden, who had been at Rice University. There’s a great web site, the Galileo Project, that I stumbled on looking at these facts, and he’s quoted in the book talking about this idea that Galileo was the guy. Before him, people said it’s warm, it’s warmer, it’s really warm.

IRA FLATOW: But how warm is it?

ANDREW REVKIN: But measurably, having a quantitative way to break that into fragments, and then that led, of course, to Fahrenheit and Celsius.

IRA FLATOW: So Fahrenheit came first?

ANDREW REVKIN: Well, no, Galileo came first.

IRA FLATOW: I mean after Galileo came Fahrenheit? Or Galileo came first then– well, what was the order?


IRA FLATOW: Galileo.

ANDREW REVKIN: And then the–

IRA FLATOW: Did he create– did he create a temperature scale?

ANDREW REVKIN: He and– there was this whole ferment in Italy around that time. Galileo was part of a group of men. There are other parts of the book where the history has women who emerge, but they were experimenting with ways to measure temperature– Torricelli, the barometer. And those were the earliest days of really starting to standardize these kinds of things.

IRA FLATOW: And why was Celsius– he came along. Why did Celsius– hey, we’ve got to come up with a new scale? Just make it easier? To make it 0 and 100 instead of all those 212, whatever it is.

ANDREW REVKIN: It was– I’m trying to think of a contemporary comparison of when you have a new phenomenon, a new way to measure it, mercury and a tube. No one has a standardization yet for how to do that, and they were sort of early stage competitors in a sense. Not directly competing, but trying to come up with a way to go forward.

IRA FLATOW: How far back did humans in our culture, any culture, start to think about trying to understand the weather? How far back?

ANDREW REVKIN: Well, there is this juncture that both Greece, ancient Greece, and China seem to go through roughly within a few hundred years. So in the history of human experience, a few hundred years difference between China and Greece is minor, but around 300 BC and a little bit after. That was when Aristotle and Wang Chung in China were both writing about the hydrological cycle.

So until then, there’s a moment in the book where there’s a transition from mythology to meteorology. It wasn’t called meteorology quite– well, it was by Aristotle. And it was like, they were first– they both wrote these passages about the water cycle that were really kind of very similar.

You see the mist rise off the land in the morning, and it comes down as rain. And it’s not some function of the gods. There are actual physical forces at work.

IRA FLATOW: And of course, sailors would have to know about winds blowing and different times of the year when they would change.

ANDREW REVKIN: Yeah, and that’s when– there’s one item on sail, just the history of sail. One thing about the book, we decided early on to make it not just about concrete things like the worst storm or the discovery of x. It’s about a relationship, and so it’s just as much about us harnessing weather as it is about– or dealing with it, as it is about the scientific discoveries. And wind– the Age of Sail goes back right through to the Egyptians and earlier in terms of having a boat that could be moved by a sail.

But then the wind turbine– the idea of getting electricity from the wind as opposed to the windmills in the Netherlands, which were harnessing it for physical work– 1888 1887, in both Scotland and Cleveland, Ohio, there were these tinkerers who came up with these amazing things. The one in Ohio blows my mind. The picture in the book is unbelievable. He was an inventor. He– Charles Brush, and he had this 40 ton, I think it’s a 150 foot wide wind turbine generating electricity for his mansion in his backyard, and it’s amazing.

IRA FLATOW: It’s amazing. We think we know what– for example, I always uncover these things. The fuel cells are very big now. Fuel cells were invented in 1839, patented– older old batteries.

All kinds of stuff was going on. It’s great to discover these things. It’s lot of fun. Speaking of discovery, tell me about James Crowell. Who is he?

ANDREW REVKIN: He was a janitor in a library in Glasgow. He was clearly a brilliant man. He got the job there– trying to remember the dates– in the mid-1800s because he was fascinated with physics and astronomy. And he befriended– he started writing about– well, I think many listeners would know about the Milankovitch Effect, the idea that little wobbles and changes in the Earth’s orbit over tens of thousands of years are part of that clock driving ice ages and warm periods.

But he was– this is decades before Milankovitch. That was more 1912-ish, and this guy in a library figured out on his own some of the aspects of this, and he wrote a book about time and ice. And he befriended Charles Lyell and other more prominent scientists of the time and played a role in setting the stage for something that we now think of that came around in the 20th Century.

IRA FLATOW: A lot of tweets are coming. In let’s see if we can go to a couple of tweets. Just if for joining us, we’re talking with Andrew Revkin, author of Weather, An Illustrated History. It’s really well done because you have little small snippets at one time everywhere in the book. It sort of is very interesting, an easy way to read it. Let’s see if– Evan Mathis writes, if it rained for a million years, is that what filled the oceans?

ANDREW REVKIN: Yeah. Yes. Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: That’s an easy one. Mr. Sheppey says how accurate are the current projections of global warming, also known as what is the margin of error?

ANDREW REVKIN: Well, that’s something I’ve been writing about for a long time.

IRA FLATOW: Right, yeah, you have.

ANDREW REVKIN: One of the interesting issues is that, while the basic idea of greenhouse gases warming the planet is bedrock, it happens. It’s the reason we’re here, and there’s an equable climate. The work that began in the– really, in the ’70s going forward, on how sensitive is the climate system to this push from these heat trapping gases– the range is about the same as it has been since then. It’s between, let’s say, three and seven degrees warming. That would be– that’s Fahrenheit.

So it’s a pretty wide range. Essentially, it’s the range between something that would truly be calamitous and lead to rapid ice loss and raging high sea levels and crop failures, and something that is probably within the range of manageable. And how we deal with that robust uncertainty is really part– it’s why some people feel empowered by the uncertainty to say we don’t need to do anything, and some people feel freaked out by the uncertainty and say that’s the reason we do need to do something. But it’s one of the known– basically, one of the most profoundly known things about global warming is that we don’t know how hot it’s going to get. That makes it tough.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios talking with Andrew Revkin, and also his wife Lisa Mechaley. Right?


IRA FLATOW: Author of the book Weather, An Illustrated History. How has your view about climate change evolved? And talking to people about it, because that’s what you’ve done. You’ve had blogs and articles and things.

ANDREW REVKIN: Yeah, 30– 30 years–

IRA FLATOW: How has it evolved?

ANDREW REVKIN: I think– I have a piece coming out in National Geographic in the July issue laying out a few things I think. One, I’m quite convinced that I misinterpreted it. When the issue emerged in the ’80s, we had gone through the Clean Air Act. We had pollution here in this country, and we kind of fix it. There’s still issues with the air quality, but the country, in a very bipartisan way, passed a bunch of bills that really made a change in pollution levels.

And then the Montreal Protocol was a treaty to manage global chemical– chemicals that were threatening the ozone layer, this protective shield of the planet. And then along comes global warming, which is carbon dioxide and other gasses that trap heat and were part of industrial processes. So it made sense that, well, OK, it’s another one of those, so we just pass another law or have another treaty, and we’re done.

What’s happened since then is, I think, the dominant concern for energy for societies around the world– it basically enables everything about modern life and mobility and climate control and refrigeration and so many other things, that that’s the implicit real time need. Climate change is there in the midst. It’s this background forcing on the system behind all the variability we have that gave us a cold winter here in the Northeast and a hot time at the North Pole, comparatively, this winter.

So that becomes kind of a tertiary thing. Even in the run up to the last presidential election, I wrote on when I was doing my DotEarth blog at the times, on a study that said even liberal Democrats had climate as number six on their list of concerns going into that election. So it’s not like–

IRA FLATOW: It’s still not near the top.

ANDREW REVKIN: No, no, and that’s what makes it– there’s a piece in this book on science of why we– people look at the same body of evidence and can come away with completely different interpretations of it.

IRA FLATOW: So have you concluded that it’s– how hard it is to change people’s minds no matter how much evidence you throw at them?

ANDREW REVKIN: Well, I– then you have to ask, do you need to change their minds? And this is something that I think– I’ve written quite a bit about. You can have people who will diverge forever on global warming, how dangerous is it, what should we do about it, because there are people who will resist a top down government solution.

But there have been these great situations where you see people, even in Oklahoma, a county that was identified by Yale and some other researchers, as the– it was Woodward County, Oklahoma, was the most skeptical county in America on global warming. And they interviewed– CNN– a friend of mine, John Sutter, at CNN, interviewed a man from an oil company there who said– in one line, he says, only God controls the environment. And in another line he says, we have half of our roof covered with solar panels, and we want to do the rest because we want to get off the grid entirely.

And I guarantee you, if you go to Woodward County, and you try to engage him on a debate over global warming as your predicate for doing something meaningful on clean energy, you’d be wasting your time. But here he is getting off the grid. But it’s because– it’s the same reasons he would never vote for a Democrat or whatever. He doesn’t want to be beholden to government or a utility.

IRA FLATOW: But he realizes the practical side of it.

ANDREW REVKIN: And he likes solar power. So why–

IRA FLATOW: Why change his mind if he’s doing the right things anyhow.

ANDREW REVKIN: That’s it. And there are people working around the country, I think, who are starting to build it from that standpoint. And so that’s why I don’t wake up every morning completely bummed out.

IRA FLATOW: All right, we’ll come back and talk about not being bummed out. Talking with Andrew Revkin author of Weather, An Illustrated History, From Cloud Atlases to Climate Change. Our number– 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us At SciFri.

We’re going to take a short break and talk lots more about the weather, the climate, and other stuff you would like to talk about. So stay with us. We’ll be right back.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. If you’re just joining us, we’re talking this hour with Andrew Revkin, author of the new book Weather, An Illustrated History– all kinds of stuff about the weather. Our number– 844-724-8255. Lots of tweets coming in also today At SciFri.

There’s a lot of talk about California these days. We talked about it earlier in the program, about– and what people are not worrying about out there is not that big one earthquake, but the big next rainfall season. You talk about that in your book.

ANDREW REVKIN: Yeah, there was this history, this moment in weather and climate history back in 1861, 1862, that winter. There’s a woman, a researcher named Lynn Ingram from Berkeley, who helped with an item in the book on this incredible flood. It’s this atmospheric river phenomenon that a lot of Californians know by heart now, Pineapple Express.

You look at these aerial shots of this– satellite views of these streams that look like a fire hose. And there was one that year that just got stuck pointed at the Central Valley of California, and you had steamboats running up and down areas in the Central Valley that were fields and farms, and it was an incredible costly– it would have been. And there’s no reason why it couldn’t happen now.

IRA FLATOW: It could happen again. The past– so you’re talking about learning from history.

ANDREW REVKIN: Yeah, and there’s so many sobering lessons in history. We also talk about space weather, the Carrington event in 1859. Very similar, just a few years from when that giant flood happened. That was when telegraph lines caught on fire because of this solar flare coming toward the Earth, and both of those things, now that I think of it together, I think the estimates are that if they happened– either one happened today, you’d have a trillion plus dollar disaster. And that’s amazing.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s see if we can get a phone call in here. Let’s go to Regina in Sonoma, California. California’s waking up to what we’re talking about. Hi, there. Go ahead.

AMANDA: Hi, there. How are you?

IRA FLATOW: Fine. Go ahead.

AMANDA: Yes. Hi. Yeah, my question is– I’m located in Wisconsin. My name is Amanda. I have actually– I’ve also lived in Texas.

And my question is, I actually, when I lived in Texas, got to speak with their Channel 5 weatherman. And I asked him, I said– before, he had mentioned after 9/11, when the planes were not flying in the air for a while, that he noticed an impact with weather. And a conspiracy theory that some would debate, wouldn’t be a conspiracy theory with the use of geoengineering, barium and aluminum in the atmosphere to create a block from whatever the climate is doing in regards to warming. Do you feel that the public should be concerned about geoengineering?

ANDREW REVKIN: This is a great question. Before I get into it, I got to mention that Wisconsin had the worst wildfire in the history of the United States in 1871, Peshtigo. And no one knew about it because it was the same week that the Great Chicago Fire happened.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, wow.

ANDREW REVKIN: There’s millions of acres and a couple of thousand people. But now back to geoengineering– this is a question that is emerging more and more, as I said earlier, as it’s become clear that there’s no simple fix for global warming, but– in terms of shutting down our energy or systems quickly. And that’s led some very serious scientists since 2006, the item in the book, to be talking about what can we do to manage the heating at the upper end. We’re using things that volcanoes do routinely.

Sulfurous particles high in the atmosphere can cool– block sunlight, and there is kind of a– well, there’s a conspiracy theory for everything out there, as you know, and chem trails is this phrase that’s come up off and on. It’s not– this is a different thing. It won’t happen in any secret way. Whatever happens will be highly visible, and it involves airplanes and testing.

IRA FLATOW: But we won’t know what– we won’t know until they do it, the result.

ANDREW REVKIN: Well, we’ll know because we live in a very– the ability to impose transparency on any activity now is there, and it is a question to ask. Is there a way to feather our response? Can we, meaning scientists and governments, think about ways to at least test the idea?

Can you modulate this while we get our energy transition into gear? And people at Harvard and many other places around the world are asking these questions. None of it has moved to the point of releasing something in the atmosphere.

IRA FLATOW: One quick question for you because we’re running out of time. Your last entry in the book is a prediction of what the climate will be like 100,000 years. Why did you put that there?

ANDREW REVKIN: Well, how do you end a book on the history of our relationship with climate? Right now, we are– right now, we are charting the history of climates to come. That’s one of the paradoxes of our time. CO2 lasts a long time once it’s liberated from the ground, added to the atmosphere.

And this– David Archer, University of Chicago, and others have said there’s a 100,000 year tale of impact already in the works. And it’s a question of how big and how bad and what do we do to mitigate the effects. And actually, Andre Berger and others who– I met him at the North Pole believe it or not. This old, very old scientist from Belgium was at the North Pole on a tourist thing when I was there in 2003, and we talked about his research, which way back in the ’70s, he was writing that there’s enough in our greenhouse–

IRA FLATOW: Right, it’s there already.

ANDREW REVKIN: Our greenhouse influence is already going to– enough to sort of take away that Milankovitch wobble influence. And we probably staved off the next ice age.

IRA FLATOW: Well, there you go. If you want to read more about it, it’s a great book. Andrew Revkin is the author of Weather, An Illustrated History.

And if you want more weather, check out the latest macroscope video on hurricanes. See how researchers create and study category 5 storms inside a box we have, how they’re doing that. It’s on our website at sciencefriday.com/hurricanebox. Thank you, Andrew. Always good to see you.

ANDREW REVKIN: Great to be with you.

IRA FLATOW: Good luck with the book. It’s Weather, An Illustrated History.

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