Three Little Known Scientists Who Changed Our World View of Climate

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.

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.

Alfred Wegener


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).


Figure 1

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.


Milutin Milankovitch



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).


Figure 2: Intensity of radiation curve for 65°N. Ice Ages names are for Europe.

Source: Imbrie and Imbrie, 1979, Ice Ages: Solving the Mystery.

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.


Figure 2: Variations in the amount of insolation (incoming solar radiation) at 65°N

Source: BERGER, A. 1978. Long-term variations of daily insolation and quaternary climatic changes. J. Atmos. Sci. 35: 2362–2367.

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.

Vladimir Köppen


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.


83 thoughts on “Three Little Known Scientists Who Changed Our World View of Climate

  1. 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.
    And far exceeds the 1.5 watts per square meter caused by solar activity.

      • Dr Ball wrote: ‘Most people still don’t know the Earth’s tilt swings…..or the date on which critical events…are constantly changing’. Very true, but what can you expect from Joe Public, when ‘experts’ like Brian Cox don’t know anything about Lunar phases. Check out ‘The Reference Frame – Brian Cox Lunar phases’. When asked by a little kid why the Moon is sometimes round, and sometimes looks like a banana, the professor said because it’s in the shadow of the Earth. There’s no hope!

    • And the variation of ice sheet albedo can increase insolation absorption in the northern latitudes by up to 200 w/m2. Which exeeds both solar and Milankovitch insolation increases, althoug the latter helps. Paper to be peer-review published in the comming months.

    • “And far exceeds the 1.5 watts per square meter caused by solar activity.”
      Today, at 33 deg. S in Western Australia,solar irradiation ranged from 229.5 WM2( at 1003Hrs) to 704 WM2 (at 1058 Hrs.),and appeared to heavily depend on cloud cover. Cloudless days typically produce values above 1,000 WM2.
      How do these observations relate to your 1.5 WM2?

      • ‘Sun itself is not dimming’. Although spacecraft observations have shown that the Sun becomes overall slightly fainter at minimum.

    • false positioned – 2nd try:

      Johann Wundersamer on April 18, 2016 at 5:55 am
      Yeah, had to be said, LS.

      You know you’ll never break through to the boreheads – unconscious mantra.

    • The Globe gets the same watts per square meter as a Whole. What is changing and is The difference is what parts of Earth gets more or less.

      • According to Dr Willie Soon, great uncertainty in measuring the level and variation in TSI still exists, so much so that estimates from several measurements differ by as much a 5 to 10 watts per square meter.

      • This is true for the absolute calibration, but not for the changes in TSI [and that is what matters] which are precise to 0.01 W/m2. The large differences in the absolute values of the past were due to construction flaws in the sensors which allowed extra light into to instrument. All this has been rectified and the systematic errors eliminated:

  2. At school in my geography class I reckoned Alfred Wegener was right, and that shifting continents explained the shape of the continents better than land bridges and synclines and anticlines. Geography master said that there was no evidence for shifting continents – and apart from the shapes of the continents, and flora and fauna across the gaps he was right.

    Until the deep sea exploration found the mirror image magnetic stripes either side of the mid ocean ridges, and we had the idea of sea floor spreading and subduction at the edges to help us.

    • When I was at school, between 1966 and 1973, I was taught in geography about continental drift without any mention that it was in any way controversial. Indeed I recall the mid Atlantic ridge was discussed as where the old and new worlds were separating.

      Perhaps the UK (and other parts of the world) had accepted Wegener’s theories while it was still controversial in the USA.

      • I was in school in the US in approximately those same years. Took two years of geography (eventually ended up getting degrees in economics), and definitely remember being taught continental drift. As I recall it was presented as originally being controversial, but by that time was becoming widely accepted.

      • Agreed; in the late 50s, early 60s, my geography teacher treated Continental Drift in a quite matter of fact way, save for a warning that it had been contentious earlier. I hadn’t decoded that as referring to Americans though. Was this some sort of fundamentalist thing? Was CD as sinful as Evolution?

      • I think continental drift exploded as an acceptable idea only when they could get cores from the Mid-Atlantic ridge, which I believe was in the “Geophysical Year”, 1957-58. When that data started coming in it really raised eyebrows, and exciting articles began appearing in the Scientific American in the early 1960’s.

        They hadn’t revised my 8th grade textbook in 1965, when I got a compilation of Scientific Articles about continental drift for Christmas. This put me in shoes adolescent punks relish: I knew more than my teacher! Poor Mrs. Mulroy!

        Now the tables are turned. I’m the one being educated by young punks, especially when it comes to computers.

      • By 1965, plate tectonics was a well-formed idea, and it found immediate acceptance in the geological world. Not surprising, since it explained so much that was previously enigmatic. Like all really good ideas, it has remained essentially unchanged in the subsequent 50 years, although there’s been a colossal amount of study to fill in the details. Data collected in the International Geophysical Year (1957-58) paved the way for plate tectonics, and the world was ready for the answer. Plate tectonics received a lot of coverage in the “popular science” publications and even in mainstream media, so its dissemination among (almost everyone) was rapid and complete, hence it was being taught in good schools.within a year.

        One part of plate tectonics that is a bit controversial is the mantle plume hypothesis. I remember thinking (in 1965, when it was first proposed) that it’s a convenient concept, but what could a mantle plume possibly look like? And I never got a decent answer that used straightforward physical processes. There is still a sceptical faction who don’t believe in mantle plumes. They are however, not insulted in the media or threatened with prosecution, unlike certain other sceptics we’ve heard about.

        Really good, revolutionary ideas that explain so much in a simple concept (e.g. Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Watson-Crick) don’t need to be forced on the world. The world is generally ready for them. Although there are still factions who think Darwin got it wrong. That’s religion for you, in its favourite role as a barrier to progress.

        The AGW hypothesis hasn’t really taken root the way the revolutionary ideas I alluded to above did. Instead, it has been foisted on the world by a collaborative effort between a small group of scientists, a larger group of radical environmentalists, the UN and astonishingly large numbers of national and sub-national governments. And it doesn’t seem to tolerate criticism very well (which is one of the things that often characterize bad ideas).


        To return to the theme of Tim’s post, the polymaths (I think that’s the right word) that Tim eulogizes represent a type of scholar that’s become very rare. Partly because there is so much knowledge out there, it’s almost impossible to be well read in more than one field. Tuzo Wilson, who almost certainly did more than any one person to formalize plate tectonics into a coherent theory, was something of a generalist and a well-travelled polymath. He published a couple of books on his travels in China, and I remember him talking about science as practiced in the Soviet system and how it differed from “western” science. “Intellectual” is another word that describes that sort of person – someone who not only knows a lot of stuff, but uses that knowledge to pose and/or answer questions that transgress boundaries between disciplines.

        Tim Ball’s writings at WUWT are the product of an intellectual mind, that sees things outside narrow disciplinary boundaries. We need more like him.

        Tuzo Wilson said, in a seminar he gave at Cambridge, that he got the concept of transform faults (one of the key elements of plate tectonics) when flying over one of the Great Lakes during spring break-up. Big slabs of ice act just like tectonic plates as they move around, break up and drift apart by wind action. Such is the way that great ideas can be sparked by chance observations in an unrelated field. There’s a message there.

      • When I was a very young child, one of my favorite friend’s father was Dr. Damon, a huge pusher of the ‘tectonic plate’ theory way way back when it was being hotly debated. We children loved hearing him talk about it at dinner. Fond memories of fine scientists.

      • Evolution is not sinful . . Evolve to your heart’s content ; )

        But seriously, the Book mentions events that could rather easily be “harmonized” with what we call continental drift. Uniformitarianism. is antithetical to the Biblical world-view.

      • PS~ I’d love to hear of anything at all that has been “progressed” by the theory of Evolution . . other than progressivism of course ; )

    • At University as an undergrad in Geology from 1966-1970. We were taught continental drift but there were no textbooks. Our readings were from publications like Science…Vine and Matthews on magnetics and Hess on sea floor spreading. For a geologist, continental drift united all the disciplines of geology and provided an explanation for what we can observe.

      • My undergraduate years began in 64. I remember conversations over coffee debating the pros and cons of the plate tectonic theory. Seems that a large scale map of the atlantic basin showing the mid atlantic ridge showed up sometime in 65–pretty much ended the debate right there.


    • I had geology in college in 1970. My Professor taught continental drift though mentioned earlier controversy about the theory. He also dismissed then current fears of global cooling as rubbish. Wegener, Koppen and Millankovich were required reading. Great prof with an open mind. He would have no patience for the likes of IPCC, Mann, etc. today.

  3. One more modifications of the Milankovitch insolation over time at 65North also remains little known, that’s the Keplers second laws modification on the total summer insolation as calculated by Huybers 2006

    It’s not only the peak intensity of the insolation in July but also the total duration of the summer, which is modified by the second law of Kepler. When the sun is closest in a more elliptical orbit, it’s also moving fastest, shortening the summer and lenghtening the winter. The nett effect is that the strongest influence of the Milankovitch cycles is definitely obliquity at 41k, completely at odds with the strong 100ky cycle of the last million years.

    • This doesn’t make sense to me:
      “When the sun is closest … shortening the summer and lengthening the winter…”
      Isn’t the earth’s orbit eliptical, and isnt this what happens every year?
      What am I missing here?
      Please explain?

      • Check the second law of Kepler

        the animated figure shows how the orbiter speeds up when closest to the sun and slows down when farthest to the sun. So, yes the eccentricity Milankovitch cycle of ~400ky and ~100ky combined clearly contributes to the distance to the sun, but that’s only half the story, it’s also closest to the sun, the shortest time and that means that the total accumulated energy during the summer is not that much different. it’s either more and shorter or less and longer.

        I hope that this makes sense.

      • Sometimes the northern summer coincides with perihelion and sometimes with aphelion. So sometimes each summer is short and strong, and sometimes it is weak and long. But this is more a function of precession than obliquity, so happens over an average 23 kys cycle.

        Huyber’s theory concerns obliquity. This is the variation in the axial angle of the Earth, from about 22.1 to 24.5 degrees over a regular 41 kyr cycle. And as the Earth tilts more, the northern and southern latitudes pick up more insolation. (Obliquity is merely ‘borrowing’ insolation from the tropics, and lending it to the higher latitudes.). And the important factor is that this obliquity insolation increase is not effected by the ‘short and strong’ element of the precessional cycle’s maxumum. So obliquity gives a full ‘six month summer’, and therefore more insolation that you might expect, in comparison to the ‘stronger but shorter’ precessional maximum.

        And the obliquity cycle also operates during periods of low eccentricity, which is important. So while the precessional insolation cycle fades to almost nothing, obliquity is still going strong. Thus obliquity can assist much more in periods of low eccentricity, which happen every 400 kyr or so.

        But there are many indicators that Huybers is wrong. The interglacial cycle is every 90 and 115 kyrs, which does not match obliquity. The insolation increase of obliquity is only 1/4 of precession (although this rises to 40% during low eccentricity periods). Obliquity warms both poles together, not one at a time. While precession warms one pole at a time, just like the annual year does. And each interglacial is coincident with a precessionary maximum in the northern hemisphere, not in the southern hemisphere.

        It seems clear that recent interglacial periodicity is triggered by precession, although it does help if both obliquity and eccentricity are in phase with the precessional maximum.

      • Here are images of:

        Temperature (red) vs obliquity.
        Note that the obliquity is just passing through, sometimes in phase and sometimes out of phase with the interglacial cycle.

        Temperature (red) and precession
        (This is Milankovitch insolation, so it also includes the obliquity element within it.)
        While some precessionary maximums produce an interglacial maximum and some do not, all the interglacials and many of the minor warmings align with the precessionary cycle. But do note that some ‘orbital tuning’ is already included within the ice-core data.

        Images courtesy of Prof Palmer. Many thanks !

    • But Huyber’s theory does not hold for the late Pleistocene era. It is pretty obvious if you look at the wave-forms, that interglacial warming is triggered every four or five precessional cycles, while obliquity is just a cycle this just passing through.

      Sure, obliquity enhances and diminishes the influence of the precessional cycle, but it is the latter that primarily controls the interglacial cycle. And the precessional cycle is pretty variable, so a statistical analysis may just lead to confusion. Precession ranges from 15 to 25 kyr, with an average of about 23 kyr. And four or five cycles add up to either 90 kyr or 115 kyr, which matches the interglacial cycle, post the Mid Pleistocene Transition.

      Obliquity plays a more significant role every 400 kyr, when eccentricity diminishes and the precessional cycle diminishes along with it. And eccentricity gives the precessional cycle a boost every 100 kys. And because of this assistance we seemingly get a 400 kyr and a 100kyr cycle in interglacials. But this is simply a harmonic of the precessional and obliquity cycle, and of the precessional and eccentricity cycle. So although precession controls the present interglacial cycle, the ghosts of obliquity and eccentricity can still be seen in its periodicity.


      • I think you have to look at how and when the combination of all three cycles creates the maximum effect. Clearly at the start of the current interglacial NH summer solstice coincided with the Earth approaching perihelion and maximum obliquity with low eccentricity. You can work backwards from there and see that these three conditions occur together approximately every 100K years.

      • Tom
        You can work backwards from there and see that these three conditions occur together approximately every 100K years.

        But they don’t. As you can see in the diagram above, obliquity did not align with the interglacial 240 kyr ago, and was not terribly in phase with the interglacial 140 kyr ago. But precession was. It helps when obliquity is in phase with precession, but it is not essential. And the diagram I posted above may be misleading, because it gives the impression that obliquity is equally powerful as precession; but it is not, it normally provides only 1/4 the insolation.

        What does help to generate interglacials is greater eccentricity, because eccentricity enhances the precessional cycle. The diagram below shows enhanced precession-insolation cycles shaded in orange. And as eccentricity rises and more precession-insolation reaches the northern latitudes, an interglacial can be triggered. So interglacials can be seen to be in phase with the eccentricity cycle, as they are on this diagram, but only because eccentricity enhances precession.

        Temperature and eccentricity and precession

        Image courtesy of Prof Palmer.

      • @ralfellis, there is no such thing as a Huybers theory. All he does is using the same data for the Milankovitch cycles to calculate the accumulated insolation during the summertime above a certain threshold value. That produces a theory-less graph and nothing more than that. Next you can try to fit alleged climate proxy graphs to that and then you can hypotheze or theorize whatever you want. Essentially Huybers compares them both for two to one million years ago to produce a near perfect match:

        and then from one million years until now to produce a lot of questions:

        (both fig2 from Huybers 2006)


      • In defense of Milankovitch:
        “[1] The Milankovitch hypothesis is widely held to be one of the cornerstones of climate science. Surprisingly, the hypothesis remains not clearly defined despite an extensive body of research on the link between global ice volume and insolation changes arising from variations in the Earth’s orbit. In this paper, a specific hypothesis is formulated. Basic physical arguments are used to show that, rather than focusing on the absolute global ice volume, it is much more informative to consider the time rate of change of global ice volume. This simple and dynamically-logical change in perspective is used to show that the available records support a direct, zero-lag, antiphased relationship between the rate of change of global ice volume and summertime insolation in the northern high latitudes. Furthermore, variations in atmospheric CO2 appear to lag the rate of change of global ice volume. This implies only a secondary role for CO2 – variations in which produce a weaker radiative forcing than the orbitally-induced changes in summertime insolation – in driving changes in global ice volume. Citation: Roe, G. (2006), In defense of Milankovitch,
        Geophys. Res. Lett., 33, L24703, doi:10.1029/2006GL027817.

      • ralfellis April 18, 2016 at 7:48 am T

        “But they don’t. As you can see in the diagram above, obliquity did not align with the interglacial 240 kyr ago, and was not terribly in phase with the interglacial 140 kyr ago. But precession was. It helps when obliquity is in phase with precession, but it is not essential.”

        You must keep in mind that the melting of the northern ice sheets does not occur at the peak of the cycles but starts well before much like the start of the Arctic ice melting season begins well before peak NH insolation. So while peak obliquity of 24.5 degrees was about 8500 years ago the melting started well before that as obliquity became greater than 23 degrees because at the same time the NH summer solstice was approaching perihelion. So working back from the start of the melt rather than the peaks of the cycles you will find that the last time these parameters were the same as 12-14000 years ago was about 99,000 years prior which also matches with low eccentricity thus the start of the interglacial then.

      • >>Leftturn
        >>Essentially Huybers compares them both for two to one
        >>million years ago to produce a near perfect match:

        To make that match, Huybers made up his own ice age chronology, using sea sediment data. So Huybers is not using the same ice-core chronology as everyone else (from Epica, Dome, Vostok or the others). And because Huyber’s chronology has no volcanic chronology-pegs, and no orbital tuning, the entire chronology is guesswork from its beginning to its Brunhes–Matuyama magnetic reversal end. And it is much easier to make a theory fit, if you manufacture your own chronology.

        And even if you believe that Huyber’s home-made chronology and obliquity match, Huybers has still not explained the missing cycles in the obliquity record. Interglacials only happen approximately every two obliquity cycles, so why does such a ‘strong’ forcing have no effect on global temperature (sometimes)? At best this is only half a theory, and at worst it represents 1/10th of the entire story.


      • lsvalgaard April 18, 2016 at 11:32 am
        In defense of Milankovitch:
        Basic physical arguments are used to show that, rather than focusing on the absolute global ice volume, it is much more informative to consider the time rate of change of global ice volume.

        But Leif, surely you can see that this paper is sleight of hand.

        Correct me if I am wrong Leif, but by turning ice volume into ice volume rate of change, they have turned the minor warming events in the glacial cycle into the equivalent of full interglacials. Thus they are effectively misrepresenting the data.

        It is like saying that a temperature rise in the weather from 15ºc to 17ºc, is exactly the same as a temperature rise from 15ºc to 27ºc – because they both rose at the same rate. But that is nonsense, for in weather terms there is no comparison to be made between a 2ºc rise and a 12ºc rise.

        The truth of the matter is that some orbital cycles, be they precessional or obliquity, are completely missing from the ice age record. And there is no comprehensive theory of ice ages, until that vast lacuna can be explained. Why would any orbital insolation process, miss out several cycles before having an effect? Any answers? Any suggestions?

        I’ll give you a clue – the answer is albedo.


      • Tom
        So working back from the start of the melt rather than the peaks of the cycles you will find that the last time these parameters were the same as 12-14000 years ago was about 99,000 years prior which also matches with low eccentricity thus the start of the interglacial then.

        But that does not work for the interglacial 240 kyr ago. And the last time these events happened was actually 400 kyr ago. And these events are:

        a. Low eccentricity.
        b. Thus no great precessional insolation variation.
        c. Thus no precessional minima (a presessional ‘winter’ ).
        d. Thus a greater proportion of obliquity assistance.

        And the result of these events was an extended interglacial 440 kyr ago, just like the present Holocene. Because there is no precessional minima-winter at times of low eccentricity, there is no sudden reduction in NH insolation forcing, and no sudden precessional drive or forcing back into ice age conditions. And so obliquity can use its in-phase assistance to keep the the world reasonably warm. Which is why obliquity is controlling Holocene temperatures at present and why the Holocene maximum was warmer than now, as can be seen in the diagram below.

        So precession is still the great driver of ice ages, post the Mid Pleistocene Transition, it is just that precession is staying neutral for 150 kyr or so, and letting obliquity play the lead role (in its own muted and understated fashion).

        And since precession is doing nothing significant for the next 150 kyr, because eccentricity is remaining low, there is not going to be an ice age for the forseeable future. There are minor precessional minima-winters at 50, 100, and 125 kyr in the future, but even these are not deep as they go down to 470, 470, and 465 wm2 at 65ºN respectively. The next deep ‘winter’ is 170 kyr in the future, which goes down to 455 wm2. In comparison, the initiation of the last ice age was a chilly 440 wm2 at 65ºN. So we are potentially in an ice-age free zone for some considerable time, which is a pleasant position to be in (we are currently at 480 wm2 at 65ºN, and going up slightly to 490 wm2 in 10 kyrs time).

        Holocene temperature (blue) vs Obliquity angle (green)
        Obliquity is currently controlling global temperatures, because precession is neutral. So there is no precessional drive or forcing into glacial conditions.

    • HUH, …… “When the sun is closest (to the earth) in a more elliptical orbit, it’s (the earth) also moving fastest, …

      The earth is closest when ….. and moving the fastest when? In respect to the Sun, that is.

  4. It is wrong to assume that answers exist for the main questions posed by plate tectonics.
    I recall Prof S Warren Carey, another of the now-departed giants, making list after list of the unexplained. He was so full of doubt that he researched an alternative, the expansion of the Earth that might be needed to conceal all that matter spreading from the ridges and subducting, with problems of density balance, over historic time periods far larger than the magnetic stripes indicate.
    Data from satellites seems to have demolished his earth expansion theory, but it remains to note that such a wild sounding theory was tolerated and researched in a multi disciplined way without the censorship of now, without battling that stupid “science is settled, consensus reigns” organised opposition.
    Climate science remains at a poor level, damaging the fine prior record of the earlier proper scientists.

    • Some combination of voluntary, private funding and funding coerced by threat of violence and imprisonment (aka taxation).

  5. Excellent article. I teach Intro Geology courses and my students learn about these men because I want them to know where the ideas come from. I especially champion Agassiz and Croll who were geniuses.

  6. There is a natural trap that most people fall into when they consider our world – we don’t think in geological timescales. It takes a certain type of contra-intuitive personality to reject a steady state environment.

    A lot of establishment thinking is too invested in the current paradigm, so it nearly always takes years for the new thinking to become mainstream. I think it was Karl Popper who said science advances one funeral at a time.


    • Actually, it was Max Planck, not that it changes the sentiment.

      “Truth never triumphs — its opponents just die out. Science advances one funeral at a time”
      —– Max Planck

    • Pointman,

      It was Dr. V. (can’t type his whole name here) who first took on the establishment’s gradualist, uniformitarian dogma that absolutely refused to accept a catastrophic explanation for anything that I was aware of. I read him as a young child in 7th grade.

      To this day, I see gradualism in all sorts of ‘scientific’ disciplines. Why the resistance to fast changes?

      • Why the resistance to fast changes?

        Have you ever read Worlds in Collision? More times than not, innovative postulations fail.

      • Prior to Darwin, Huxley, et al, the scientific world accepted the story of Noah’s Flood, and was happy with the idea that great catastrophes occasionally swept the earth. Many religions taught that catastrophes of various sort had occurred in the past. The story of Apollo and his son Phaeton is one of them – “When the god [Apollo] promised to grant him whatever he wanted, he [Phaeton] insisted on being allowed to drive the sun chariot for a day. Placed in charge of the chariot, he was unable to control the horses. The earth was in danger of being burnt up and, to prevent this disaster, Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt.” (from Wikipaedia). The generally accepted dating of the earth’s age was that calculated by Bishop Ussher, about 5850 years.

        When Darwin made his observations, he concluded that a far greater time would be needed to change species and genera in the way he believed. If this was the case, then the generally accepted idea of global catastrophes would have to go. Luckily for him Louis Agassiz had proposed the theory of “Ice Ages” which almost by definition required vast ages to start, grow and end. Thus he was able to replace the doctrine of “Catastrophism” promoted by Georges Cuvier with a doctrine of “Uniformitarianism” as proposed by Charles Lyell, which gave him the millions of years he needed to accommodate the tiny changes required for evolution.

        Perhaps even more in astronomy, scientists accepted the uniformitarian doctrine. In effect, the Solar System was like an clockwork orrery, wound up and subject only to the Law of Gravitation, in which no effect that could not be viewed at the present time could possibly have occurred in the past. This was held as strongly as any religious dogma, and when Dr V produced a theory which required a past effect not currently observable, he was scarified as much as if he had been Luther, or Calvin, or Wycliffe.

        Scientists accept what they are taught at school and at university, and if they go into graduate school to get a PhD they are under the supervision of an older scientist well versed in the relevant discipline. Hence while the ideal is new research, there can be a resistance to new ideas. Change can really only succeed where there is a body of well known data with no unifying theory, and then someone comes up with an idea that provides an acceptable solution. Thus Alfred Wegener and many others had noted the similarity of the shapes of the continents, and the distribution of plants and animals across geographical divides, Wegener’s solution of continents floating on a denser layer of crust had insufficient motive forces to produce the observed separation. Not until cable ships identified the existence of the Mid Atlantic Ridge, and research vessels charted it, and then found the parallel stripes laid down in the basal magnetism as the earth reversed its magnetic polarity, was the idea of ‘sea floor spreading’ born. With that theory, once enunciated, the solution to the mystery of continental drift was found, and the idea of plate tectonics developed explaining the previous unrelated ideas of the “Ring of Fire”. Science at work!

        But there is also the other way in which change occurs. This is when politics intervenes and governments prostitute science and scientific organizations. For years, the ideas of Arrhenius regarding the ability of carbon dioxide to act to warm the atmosphere, and hence keep the earth’s surface warmer than it would be if there were no CO2 in the atmosphere. But this was irrelevant until 1973 when miners in teh UK rejected a ballot for a strike but imposed an overtime ban. This was intended to halve col production and force acceptance of their wage demands. Prime Minister Heath imposed what became known as the “Three Day Week” with the intent of saving coal. His actions were resented and he lost the February 1974 general election. Wilson led a minority Labour government and then the October 74 election.

        When Mrs Thatcher won the 1979 election she was determined to not be put in the same position as Heath had been. “the Thatcher government had prepared against a repeat of the effective 1974 industrial action by stockpiling coal, converting some power stations to burn heavy fuel oil, and recruiting fleets of road hauliers to transport coal in case sympathetic railwaymen went on strike to support the miners.” (Wikipaedia). The strike happened from March 1984 to March 1985 and ended in a return to work as a failure. However, later Margaret Thatcher supported the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia into research on climate change – and thus indirectly was the unwitting progenitor of CAGW. Politics looked for a way in which the UK could no longer be reliant on coal as a fuel. Politics created a scientific dogma as strong as any other baseless doctrine.

      • “Have you ever read Worlds in Collision? More times than not, innovative postulations fail.”

        Yes, I have. But have you read Earth In Upheaval (1955)??

        You see, the entire science establishment went after Dr. V. because he used the myths of ancient people to form a possible narrative. He answered the fools back with the ’55 book and no one ever mentions it because he used only the oddities discovered by science itself to prove that gradualism was full of crap,

        He showed us that the gradualism of Darwin never happened. Many adopted his ideas even as they refused to credit him. But, he won the battle of ideas. Those who make fun of him are the ones who only go on opinions rendered by others. I think for myself.

  7. Unfortunately, the Green movement has chosen Thomas Malthus as their patron saint, a man whose false prophesies helped give rise to several destructive cults, including the Green movement.

    And as Dr. Richard Lindzen points out, today’s environmentalists have a near religious devotion to the discredited cause of Climate Change.

  8. Dr Ball,

    You wrote,
    “Continental Drift is now a fully accepted theory that is the basis of modern dynamic geology.”

    I know that you take exception to the invoking of the consensus in climate science and object to the politicisation of science that this represents, but you have unwittingly invoked another scientific consensus with your comment above.
    It might be fair to say that people who have never studied geology or tectonics know there is a consensus on this subject (especially arts & engineering grads). However anybody who has studied the subject will tell you that the contenential drift theory of plate tectonics is only a model and although useful for demonstrating and teaching concepts in global solid earth processes, it remains just a model and as you are aware all models are wrong.
    The Continential drift version of plate tectonics only works if you make a few simple assumptions, all of which are never mentioned. There have been many alternate plate tectonic models that propose variations to the continental drift theory. A strong alternative model at the moment is the Expansion Tectonics model.
    Recent books by James Maxlow ( a retired geologist) on Expansion Tectonics provide detailed histories of the development of tectonic models over the last centuries in which the contribution of Alfred Wegener is given fair mention.
    I have found James work very persuasive and I for one do not accept that the continental drift theory is a definitive explanation of the global tectonic history of the earth.

    • Your comment gets to the heart of the idea that the “basic science” is settled. I think it is pretty universally accepted that the continents move and were once in different places, and this is largely driven by something like convection in the mantle. Whilst that is agreed, the precise mechanisms underlying the drift may be still disputed.

      However, I think it is not disputed that expansion is not one of the principle mechanisms of continental drift. Maxlow says that “In practice, the theory of Earth expansion has indeed been adequately rejected to the satisfaction of a scientific community constrained by a constant radius Earth pre-conception. But, the expanding Earth theory has never been proven wrong exactly.” It has not been proved wrong exactly, but it does not fit with the data we now have. Therefore it is rejected by the vast majoprity of experts in the field.

      Do you believe plate tectonics or expansion? The consensus of experts suggests to me that plate tectonics is the one to back.

      • It is not about belief, it is about the data. The most current data is strongly supportive of expansive tectonics.
        Continents have moved and were once in different places. Maxlow’s work documents this process more accurately than plate tectonics. Check his books or site at Expansion

        The necessity to appeal to concensus is in itself a weakness as the mantle plume issue is of its nature unknowable and therefore undermines the veracity of the concensus.

        Judith Curry has a recent post on the veracity of concensus science.

      • “if it proves correct it entirely changes the paradigm on which many other sciences are based, ”
        Possibly all other sciences. Such extraordinary claims require extraordinary justification.

        The quote leading the Curry post is also extraordinary. “In our view, the fact that so many scientists agree so closely about the [causes of the] earth’s warming is, itself, evidence of a lack of evidence for [human caused] global warming.”

        This is utter and obvious nonesense! They come up with an arbitrary idea of “knowability” then declare that the consensus does not fit with what they think the knowability of climate change is. This is epic failure, and I am surprised that Judith Curry apparently endorses it.

        There are one or two valid points – that the consensus is misrepresented, for example. Obama did this when he said 97% agreed that climate change was man made and dangerous. The “dangerous” bit is not in the 97%. This is a valid point, but the rest is rubbish.

    • Well austparagus, you are fully entitled to believe the expansion model. Nobody will accuse you of criminal intent. But I think it’s wrong if you accept earth expansion as the ONLY source of continental wandering. IMHO, if there had been sufficient expansion to account for all the continental breakups and drifting that have now been documented back as far as mid-Precambrian time, the earth must have been quite small at the beginning. Also, a theory must invoke a driving mechanism that uses acceptable physical concepts, and expansion physics is a bit on the fuzzy side..

      The big difference between real science and Climate Science™ is that – even though we all act as though the currently favoured theories are the ultimate truth – in practice, if a better idea comes along, it gets traction very quickly, BECAUSE it’s a better idea. It must have been a fascinating time between the Michelson-Morley experiment in 1887 and Einstein’s Special Theory in 1905. Eighteen years when physics just COULD NOT EXPLAIN the behaviour of light. No wonder Einstein’s better idea took hold so fast. Even if nobody could actually get their heads around it.

      Sir Arthur Eddington’s immortal reply, when asked by a journalist “Sir, I understand that you are one of the only three men who understand relativity?” was “I’m trying to think who the third person might be”. If it’s not true, it should be.

      Climate Science does not accept the possibility of alternative hypotheses. Which is to say, it’s not real science. Even if AGW was totally correct, there is always room in real science for alternative ideas.

      • Oceanic crust from mid oceanic ridges has a maximum age of 170MY. The size of the earth prior to this is estimated at one third to one quarter of present size. Can only refer you to Maxlow’s work for accurate data on this issue.
        There have been a variety of theories mixing plate tectonics and expansion to explain “continential wandering”, but Maxlow has shown that they are just not necessary. Expansion does a highly accurate explanation all on it’s own.

        It is a facinating time in tectonics, as if it proves correct it entirely changes the paradigm on which many other sciences are based, including the climate sciences.

      • Expansion does a highly accurate explanation all [of continential wandering] on it’s own.

        …and for subsidence too. (?)

      • Rainer Bensch

        I took the question wrong.
        Maxlow’s model for the way continents respond / react on an expanding global surface provides an explanation as to why continents are relatively unaffected by absolute sea level rise as described by NASA. However the way I understand the model it does not always apply at the land / ocean interface, in coastal situations. Land at the edge of the continents is sometimes not part of the response and in relative terms is perceived to subside.

  9. And if you go back further, scientists had even wider interests that would seem heretical to modern scientists. In addition to his Principaea, Sir Isaac Newton also wrote : ‘A Dissertation upon the Sacred Cubit of the Jews’, which sought to find the sacred Jewish cubit in the Great Pyramid of Giza. And he was right too, as Ezekiel 43:13 makes clear. Although I am not entirely sure Newton realised he had solved the puzzle.

    There is much to be learned, by studying history and the history of science.

  10. Continental drift is no longer a theory, it died when the plate tectonics theory was confirmed by multiple examples. Please do not perpetuate a dead idea (granted, it promulgated the idea of plate tectonics), but use current theory by its actual name, it’s 2016 and not 1970……

    • “Continental drift is no longer a theory, it died when the plate tectonics theory was confirmed by multiple examples. ”
      This illustrates the difference between scientific usage and “normal” usage of the term “theory”
      One from Webster says a theory is:
      “an idea that is suggested or presented as possibly true but that is not known or proven to be true”

      The scientific meaning is
      “A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method and repeatedly tested and confirmed through observation and experimentation.”

      Confirmation by multiple examples is necessary for a scientific theory.

      • Confirmation by multiple examples is necessary for a scientific theory.

        Also for a valid hypothesis or conjecture. The bar is the same: each of them must be able to make repeated, accurate predictions, or they have been falsified.

        But not one alarming prediction has ever come true. As Einstein said, it only takes one — but the failures of the alarmist crowd are multiple and ongoing.

        Thus, CO2=cAGW is falsified. QED

      • “Also for a valid hypothesis or conjecture. The bar is the same: each of them must be able to make repeated, accurate predictions, or they have been falsified.”

        No DB, the bar is not the same. A conjecture is by definition not yet certain and has little evidence to support it. A conjecture can be valid without any evidence at all. It may not be correct, or true if you prefer, but it may still be valid. If it has more evidence to support it it may be called a hypothesis, and if it gets confirmation by repeated examples it may become a theory.

        I make a conjecture that there is humanoid life on extraterrestrial planets. This is surely valid. As yet it has no evidence, so it remains a conjecture. We do not know if it is true. It has not made any prediction we have yet observed, so it has not been falsified. We do not require accurate (true) predictions for a conjecture, only predictions.

        The difference between a conjecture, hypothesis and theory lies not in their truth or falsity, but in our knowledge of that truth.

  11. What these scientists had was a model which was testable against reality, which the IPCC tends to ignore. Wegener, and the varous people post-WWII who found radioactive dating and geology which tended to confirm plate tectonics had a pragmatic theory, which explains some (but not all) earthquakes and volcanoes. What, pray tell, is the practical results of the GCM’s used by the IPCC? ( I do not see panic as a useful product).

  12. Thank you Dr Ball for this reminder.

    I expect that throughout history those who challenged the prevailing wisdom faced a degree of ridicule and even persecution. As for today’s scene, well it was ably foretold by the 34th President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, in his valedictory address, when he warned of the dangers inherent in central authority controlling funding. Regrettably much of life now faces the corrupting influence of political ambitions that have little to do with the discharge of government for the benefit of the majority. This direction has dangers that may well bring about the destruction of modern life in the developed world and the denial of a decent future for those in those areas yet to develop. The attitudes that support this activity is criminal.

  13. Dr. Ball. Thanks for this article. I studied agricultural engineering in the early 1970’s and those three gentlemen and their work were part of my curriculum. It formed the basis of my understanding of climate variation ever since. The principles I learned still form the basis to check everything off against.

  14. Thank you Dr. Ball.
    You have sacrificed and have many irrational rent seekers against you. You sir are a modern day hero and I thank God for you and the many other fact and truth seekers.

  15. I remember Koppen’s climate maps from my education which included two degrees in some of the best geography departments in the UK and US.

    I sometimes wonder how much climate change has altered the climate regions depicted on those maps. Then I think they are probably pretty much the same. A Mediterranean climate is still a Mediterranean climate in its essentials. Athens and Naples are still in that region and Stockholm is still in a different climate zone. The change is literally at the margins. Travelling through France or the Balkans going south you imperceptibly move into the Mediterranean from other temperate zones. Where that line is fluctuates no doubt but perhaps not by much more than the thickness of Koppen’s pen. Climate is much more than average temperature or rainfall. It is also about seasonality and exposure to maritime and continental air masses and their associated barometry. Koppen highlighted those kinds of things.

  16. By coincidence I was reading an old review article by James McDonald about cloud physics and cloud modification recently, and learned that Wegener recognized the importance of the direct growth of ice crystals from vapor to precipitation mechanisms in the early 1900s. The man was a prolific thinker.

  17. On plate tectonics: Lawrence Morley was ahead of Vine and Matthews and his paper should have been published before theirs

  18. The Koppen climate classification system has been revived by modern climatologists to assess the output of GCMs (climate models) and since the Koppen climate criteria are based on ecological criteria, change maps based on the Koppen system may signal climate impacts. There is now a substantial literature on the subject.

    In this comment I describe my opinion of a recent paper by Belda et al, 2014.

    In the second edition of Climate, History and the Modern World, Hubert Lamb specifically warned of the danger of attributing human causes to natural climate fluctuations. His advice was to continue researching climate and to keep watch on the impacts of change, but not to attribute too much to the idea of the importance of human activity.

    Lamb wrote, “In fact, from about the beginning of this century up to 1940 a substantial climatic change was in progress, but it was in a direction which tended to make life easier and to reduce stresses for most activities and most people in most parts of the world. Average temperatures were rising, though without too many hot extremes, and they were rising most of all in the Arctic where the sea ice was receding. Europe enjoyed several decades of near-immunity from severe winters, and the variability of temperature from year to year was reduced. More rainfall was reaching the dry places in the interiors of the great continents (except in the Americas where the lee effect, or ‘rain-shadow’, of the Rocky Mountains and the Andes became more marked as the prevalence of westerly winds in middle latitudes increased).
    And the monsoons became more regular in India and west Africa. Planning on the climatic statistics of the preceding decades was in fact allowing wider safety margins for many activities than was apparent up to some time about 1950.”
    End of quote.

    The following paper confirms Lamb’s remark by assessing how climate zones changed during the 20th century based on the Koppen classification System modified by Trewartha (KTC)..The relevance of the KTC system is that the temperature and precipitation criteria are based on plant ecology. This subsumes animal ecology because animals depend on plants.

    Belda, M., Holtanová, E., Halenka, T. and Kalvová, J., 2014. Climate classification revisited: from Köppen to Trewartha. Climate research, 59(1), pp.1-13.


    The URL may require patience, but it does work. The web site has supplementary information.

    This study is probably the best to date in reconstructing the Koppen-Trewartha climate classification map using global gridded data. The maps constructed by the authors show the climate regions of the world (except Antarctica) for two periods, 1901-1931 and 1975-2005, based on CRU(UK) global temperature data interpolated to a 30 minute grid, average area about 2500 km2. Precipitation data was from a separate source.

    (About 50,000 grid cells cover 135 million km2, the land area of the Earth except Antarctica.)

    Between the two periods separated by 75 years, 8% of the cells changed climate type. When you plot a scatter diagram of distributions for the two periods, you will find there is little divergence from the straight line passing through the origin and with slope unity. R-squared is 99.5.

    The paper does not discuss error bars. However, the climate date has since been revised to remove wet bias. This correction would increase R2 by reducing the number of cells that have changed climate type. Since a large percentage of changed cells shifted because of increased wetness, the correction for wet bias may significantly reduce the estimated changes in climate zones during the period 1901-2005.

    In any other field of Earth science, using data with similar precision, we would concude that we cannot reject the null hypothesis that the two data Koppen-Trewartha climate maps, separated by 75 years, are not significantly different.

    We can accept that the Earth has warmed a little and some places now get little more precipitation, and most people worldwide are much better off than their parents and grandparents. In relative terms, the people benefiting the most from the changes are those on the margins of steppe to desert and those on the margins between ice and tundra. But they are few in number.

    I have spent several days studying this paper and analyzing the results using a spreadsheet. I conclude, based on 50 years study of geography and Earth science and extensive travel in Eurasia, Africa and the Americas, that H. H. Lamb was correct. With a few exceptions the changes have improved the lives of most people. I would go further to suggest that the slight ecological changes have made the struggle easier for most plants and animals.

    As Roger Pielke and his colleagues have demonstrated, financial losses from extreme weather events is mostly due to the fact people have much more to lose now compared to a century ago.

    As those of us who work in the field of economic development see so often, population growth has forced settlement of more risky locations. While land use control in a country like Malaysia has prevented settlement on the coasts and in the flood plains of rivers, few other tropical countries have effective controls. The end result has been to attribute to extreme weather events failure of institutions to cope with socioeconomic change.

    Inspection of changes in Koppen-Trewartha climate zones reveals that at the end of the century, the changes were consistent with Lamb’s view that “it was in a direction which tended to make life easier and to reduce stresses for most activities and most people in most parts of the world.”

    • “In any other field of Earth science, using data with similar precision, we would concude that we cannot reject the null hypothesis that the two data Koppen-Trewartha climate maps, separated by 75 years, are not significantly different.”
      I would caution the reader to be very cautious in extrapolating this to conclude that there have been no changes. We might analysis chimp DNA and find such a high correspondence with human DNA that under certain tests there would be no significant difference. It is a very big step from “this test shows no difference” to “there is no difference”.

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