• Home
  • Current News
  • Three Little Known Scientists Who Changed Our World View of Climate

Three Little Known Scientists Who Changed Our World View of Climate

Written by wattsupwiththat.com - Guest Opinion: Dr. Tim Ball

In this age of specialization, it is very difficult for scientists to integrate information and create a wider cross-discipline understanding of how the Earth works. Three scientists, Alfred Wegener, Milutin Milankovitch, and Vladimir Köppen, had such abilities and their work profoundly impacted our view and understanding of the world and climate.

Sadly, because of the glorification of specialization and denigration of generalization, and control of knowledge and education by the government they are little known or understood today. As always happens with a history they are accused of saying things they never said, or not saying things they did say. It is why in all my classes students were required to go back to the source and not perpetuate the practice of what I call “carping on carping.”

Assignment of the three to the arcane backwaters of the history of science and climate reflects the loss of perspective in climate science manifest in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). That political body deliberately directed climate science and world attention to anthropogenic global warming (AGW), and more narrowly to one greenhouse gas, CO2. They even proved the validity of their attention with computer models that pre-determined that CO2 from humans explained 95 percent of all temperature and climate change since 1950.

Wegener, Milankovitch, and Köppen knew each other very well (Wegener married Köppen’s daughter). The three produced groundbreaking individual and specific research, but the fruits of their collaboration led to the production of general global theories that underpin so much of climate and earth sciences today.

Vladimir Köppen’s global climate classification, the basis of most systems in use today, combined meteorology, climatology, and botany so that plants were a primary indicator of climate categories and regions. It introduces the important and mostly overlooked concept of the “effectiveness” of precipitation. Wegener produced the continental drift theory that provides the foundation for geophysics and the understanding of earthquakes and volcanic activity. Milutin Milankovitch, a Serbian mathematician, and climatologist, combined the effects of changes in Sun/Earth relationships to determine their role in varying the amount of energy reaching the Earth and causing climate change.

psi 1


Their ideas challenged prevailing scientific views, especially the underlying philosophy of uniformitarianism. What was interesting was that their ideas provided a framework for diverse patterns and evidence but did not identify the underlying mechanisms. It is similar to the fact that Darwin knew nothing about the underlying role of genetics.


Others, including Sir Francis Bacon in 1620, noticed the similarity in the pattern of the coastlines between Europe and Africa and North and South America. George Best’s 1578 map produced just a decade after Mercator’s world map of 1569 illustrates the awareness of shapes and juxtapositions (Figure 1).

psi 2

Wegener expanded on the idea of the “fit” applying it to all the continents as pieces of a giant puzzle. He also identified the dynamism and breakup starting from a single continent called Pangea about 300 million years ago. It divided into two continents he called Gondwanaland (southern) and Laurasia (northern). The continents continue to separate and define the areas of earthquakes, volcanoes, and other features that cause catastrophic events.

The idea that continents could move was incomprehensible and so grasping the idea of plate tectonics didn’t take hold until the 1960s when Vine and Mathews identified the mechanism of convective cells within the mantle. They drive the plates of the crust to converge and diverge creating all the major geologic features on Earth. Continental Drift is now a fully accepted theory that is the basis of modern dynamic geology.

The implications of continental drift for climate and climate change received attention early in Hubert Lamb’s 1977 masterpiece, Climate: Present, Past and Future (Volume 2) is the effect of different land/ocean patterns on climate. This can include even relatively small but critical changes. For example, consider the different ocean circulation before the closing of the gap between North and South America. The role of plate tectonics on climate change also received attention in Oliver and Fairbridge’s Encyclopedia of Climatology published in 1987. They wrote,

“We can thus now begin to develop principles that help to elevate paleoclimatic to the rank of a science, as distinct from your anthologies and methodologies of data collection. Two paradigms have marked recent revolutionary turning points in the sciences of the planet Earth. They are the Principle of Plate Tectonics and the Principal of Exogenetic Modulation.”

psi 3

Early studies by geologists and glaciologists attempted to find a climate mechanism to explain the evidence of massive ice sheets during the recent Ice Age (Pleistocene). Louis Agassiz identified the existence and extent of the ice sheets in Europe as early as 1837, but it wasn’t accepted until the 1860s. There were many theories. One that endured was Joseph Adhemar’s proposal that the likely cause was change in the earth’s solar orbit. James Croll was the major early contributor to the orbital variation idea and calculated orbital eccentricity for different latitudes over 3 million years, and published in 1867. Milankovitch spent years combining changes in the sun/earth relationships including changes in orbit, tilt, and date of an equinox.

He wanted to find the mechanism primarily responsible for climate change. Before computers, he calculated variations in solar energy received at every five degrees of latitude over 650,000 years. He published them in 1920 as Mathematical Theory of Heat Phenomenon Produced by Solar Radiation. His work caught the attention of Köppen, who sent him a postcard. It said he was working with his son-in-law Alfred Wegener on a book about past climates and they were very excited by the mechanism Milankovitch proposed. In 1924, he published, with Köppen, the now classic graph of variation in summer radiation for 65°N that identified the correlation with Ice Ages (Figure 2).

psi 4

Milankovitch acknowledged that without Koppen’s input from his extensive understanding of global climate patterns he would not have identified that summer temperatures at 65°N were the critical issue.

Milankovitch’s theory was initially accepted as a plausible answer to the major fluctuations and triggered research in the 1950s. Then it was pushed aside because it showed glaciers in a part of Alaska that the new technique of radiocarbon dating indicated were forested. It turned out the radiocarbon was wrong because it assumed constant solar energy.

A reference to Milankovitch was immediately challenged. It wasn’t until the 1980s that a reference to his work went unchallenged. The amazing thing is, most people still don’t know that Earth’s orbit changes significantly because of the gravitational pull of the planets, especially Jupiter. They still don’t know the earth tilt swings between 21.8° and 24.4°, or that the date on which critical events, Equinox and Solstices, are constantly changing.

Figure 3 shows a plot of variations in the amount of solar radiation at 65°N for a period of 1 million years.

psi 5


The range of variation is approximately 100 watts per square meter, which far exceeds the 2 watts per square meter the IPCC attributes to humans.

psi 6

Köppen’s work is least known or acknowledged, yet it includes important concepts for understanding climate and climate change. In my opinion, it is more important than the IPCC and most modern climate research because it recognizes the importance of water in all its forms. He produced a system in 1884 that named, ranked, and classified climates on the distribution of plants.

Köppen created a system based on average annual precipitation, average monthly temperature and average monthly precipitation. He identified six major divisions.

A. Tropical Humid

B. Dry

C. Mild mid-latitude

D. Severe Mid-latitude

E. Polar

H. Highland (added later).

B classification is the only one initially determined by annual precipitation. It is also the first one determined; if it is not a B climate, then it is one of the other classifications. The amount of precipitation must be sufficient to support trees. Thus, a desert is not defined by temperature, but by the lack of vegetation. Koppen recognized another important issue called the effectiveness of precipitation.

A portion of rainfall is evaporated, what remains goes into the ground and is available for the plants. Köppen defined what was effective, that is the water available for the plants, by identifying three different annual patterns: rainfall year round, 70% in the summer, or 70% in the winter. Each may have the same annual total, but the amount left for the plants varies considerably.

Köppen, Wegener, and Milankovitch did more to help us understand the world and its dynamic systems than most, yet they are virtually unknown. They operated in a world arguably more open to ideas and innovation than today. We have suppression, repression and control of ideas in education systems used to indoctrinate and keep people ill-informed or misinformed. They were young men when they brought forward their ideas. In their day, the young scholars challenged the prevailing wisdoms of the older scholars. Now, the young arrive at university with the prevailing wisdoms and it is the old professors who are the skeptics. Sadly, the skeptic community just experienced the passing at age 92 of Professor William Gray, a giant champion for truth and open science.

There is also the arrogance that we are smarter. This creates the standard confusion in society and therefore education, between knowledge and intelligence. We assume because people didn’t know something they lacked intelligence. We also assume that freedom of thought and ideas were repressed in the past. The recent attempts to prosecute climate deniers under racketeering laws exposes that myth. However, the biggest hindrance to advances in climate science and climatology since its inception in 1988 is the IPCC and the governments who accept their findings. They narrowed the focus to only human causes of climate change and reinforced that by funding only research that proved their views. They settled the science. One can only imagine the conversation over this state of affairs in the triumvirate of Köppen, Wegener, and Milankovitch.


[1] This article is an update of an article I posted to my web site in 2011.

Read more at wattsupwiththat.com