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Commentary and opinion on current civic, political, and religious events and issues.

Past Issue
7 January 2002

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 3, No. 1

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Ice Cores Indicate Skepticism Needed on "Global Warming"

Possibility of impending ice age based on drilling into Greenland's ancient ice sheet tells us to be cautious about wrecking the world's economy to avoid supposed global warming.

by Jerome F. Winzig

"Ice Memory," an article in the latest issue of The New Yorker magazine, describes research being done on climate history and the recent ice ages by drilling miles into the ice sheet on Greenland. While the author, Elizabeth Kolbert, accepts global warming as a given, the evidence she presents of a possible impending ice age indicates the need for greater skepticism about the dire predictions of global warming.

For the last half million years or more, ice ages have dominated the earth's climate. The pattern has been regular: 90,000 years of cold followed by 10,000 years of warmth. Unfortunately, however, much of the current concern about global warming is driven not by scientific research but by a political outlook that frowns upon industrialization, despises capitalism, and deplores overpopulation. Consider some of the other dire predictions of the last 35 years.

In his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, Paul Erlich said, "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs." Writing in Ramparts magazine the next year, he warned that millions would die in smog disasters in New York and Los Angeles and U.S. life expectancy could drop to 42 years by 1980 due to cancer epidemics.

In 1972, the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth. It predicted that by the year 2000 world population would reach 7 billion, we would be running out of farm land, natural resources like copper, tin, silver, and oil would be in short supply, and we would be facing the inevitable collapse of civilization.

In the 1970s, predictions of global cooling were fashionable. In an article called "The Cooling World" in 1975, Newsweek magazine reported "ominous signs that the Earth's weather patterns have begun to change dramatically" and predicted this "cooling trend" would "reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century."

The truth is that we are still struggling to understand the world's climate and the real impact of human behavior. The ice cores from Greenland indicate there have been vast and significant changes in world climate that have nothing to do with human beings. Perhaps a little humility about our own power is in order.

According to the U.S. Environmental Pollution Agency, global temperatures have risen by one degree Fahrenheit or less over the last century. In contrast, the Greenland ice samples indicate that around 15,000 years ago, Greenland abruptly warmed by 16 degrees in 50 years or less. Around 12,000 years ago, the average temperature rose by 15 degrees in a single decade. Other samples indicate there have been additional temperature spikes of 10 or 20 degrees in either direction.

Today, scientists in Greenland are trying to verify the startling finding of a European research group, which indicates that about 115,000 years ago -- at a moment in the climate cycle roughly similar to our own -- temperatures plunged within a few decades from levels warmer than they are today to the coldest levels of the ice age, and then climbed back up again a century later. This finding is all the more disconcerting when it is pointed out that the current warm cycle has already lasted 10,000 years -- the length of each warm cycle for at least the last 500,000 years.

Before we try to implement the global warming provisions of the Kyoto Protocol, which call for vast, wrenching changes in the world economy, shouldn't we come to a clearer understanding of how much -- or how little -- humans affect global climate? Shouldn't we determine whether our impact is for good or ill? Isn't it a tiny bit relevant to find out whether we're on the verge of an abrupt ice age? Before we try to cool the world's climate, shouldn't we try to understand what would happen if we returned to the "little ice age" climate of 1600 to 1900, when bitter winters prevailed, Londoners roasted oxen on the frozen Thames River, and iceboats sailed the Hudson River almost as far south as New York City?

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