Noah Webster on Climate Change

ECHO underway, posted Tuesday, January 18, 2011

In 1799, Noah Webster read before the newly established Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences his “Dissertation on the supposed Change in the Temperature of Winter.”

“It is a popular opinion,” Webster began, “that the temperature of the winter season, in northern latitudes, has suffered material change, and become warmer in modern, than was in ancient times.” This, he asserted, had become accepted fact. It was his duty, however, to ascertain whether that fact was actually true.

Suffice it to say that the next sixty-eight pages of disquisition would not pass for rigorous scientific analysis today. (And sixty-eight pages? Talk about “the promotion of useful knowledge!”)

Nevertheless, the renowned scholar’s conclusions eerily presage today’s debates about climate change:

From a careful comparison of these facts, it appears that the weather, in modern winters, is more inconstant, than when the earth was covered with wood, at the first settlement of Europeans in the country; that the warm weather of autumn extends farther into the winter months, and the cold weather of winter and spring encroaches upon the summer; that the wind being more variable, snow is less permanent, and perhaps the same remark may be applicable to the ice of the rivers.  These effects seem to result necessarily from the greater quantity of heat accumulated in the earth in summer, since the ground has been cleared of wood, and exposed to the rays of the sun; and to the great depth of frost in the earth in winter, by the exposure of its uncovered surface to the cold atmosphere.

But we can hardly infer, from the facts that have yet been collected, that there is in modern times an actual diminution of the aggregate amount of cold in winter, on either continent [North America and Europe].

–From Memoirs of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, Volume I (1810)