≡ Menu

1981 Climate Change Predictions Were Eerily Accurate

The disintegrated Wilkins Ice Shelf in April 2009. (Chelys/EOSnap)

A paper published in the journal Science in August 1981 made several projections regarding future climate change and anthropogenic global warming based on manmade CO2 emissions. As it turns out, the authors’  projections have proven to be rather accurate — and their future is now our present.

The paper, written by a team of atmospheric physicists led by the now-controversial James Hansen at NASA’s Institute for Space Studies at Goddard Space Flight Center, was recently rediscovered by researchers Geert Jan van Oldenborgh and Rein Haarsma from the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI). Taking a break from research due to illness, the scientists got a chance to look back through some older, overlooked publications.

“It turns out to be a very interesting read,” they noted in their blog on RealClimate.org.

Even though the paper was given 10 pages in Science, it covers a lot of advanced topics related to climate — indicating the level of knowledge known about climate science even at that time.

“The concepts and conclusions have not changed all that much,” van Oldenborgh and Haarsma note. “Hansen et al clearly indicate what was well known (all of which still stands today) and what was uncertain.”

Within the paper, several graphs note the growth of atmospheric carbon dioxide, both naturally occurring and manmade, and projected a future rise based on the continued use of fossil fuels by humans. Van Oldenborgh and Haarsma overlaid data gathered by NASA and KNMI in recent years and found that the projections made by Hansen et al. were pretty much spot-on.

If anything, the 1981 projections were “optimistic”.

Data from the GISS Land-Ocean Temperature Index fit rather closely with the 1981 projection (van Oldenborgh and Haarsma)

Hansen wrote in the original paper:

“The global temperature rose by 0.2ºC between the middle 1960’s and 1980, yielding a warming of 0.4ºC in the past century. This temperature increase is consistent with the calculated greenhouse effect due to measured increases of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Variations of volcanic aerosols and possibly solar luminosity appear to be primary causes of observed fluctuations about the mean rend of increasing temperature. It is shown that the anthropogenic carbon dioxide warming should emerge from the noise level of natural climate variability by the end of the century, and there is a high probability of warming in the 1980’s. Potential effects on climate in the 21st century include the creation of drought-prone regions in North America and central Asia as part of a shifting of climate zones, erosion of the West Antarctic ice sheet with a consequent worldwide rise in sea level, and opening of the fabled Northwest Passage.”

Now here we are in 2012, looking down the barrel of the global warming gun Hansen and team had reported was there 31 years earlier. In fact, we’ve already seen most of the predicted effects take place.

“Drought-prone regions” are receiving less rainfall, the Antarctic ice has begun to crack and crumble and bowhead whales are using the Northwest Passage as a polar short-cut. 

The retreat of Pedersen Glacier in Alaska. Left: summer 1917. Right: summer 2005. Source: The Glacier Photograph Collection, National Snow and Ice Data Center/World Data Center for Glaciology.

And that’s not the only prediction that seems to have uncannily come true.

“In light of historical evidence that it takes several decades to complete a major change in fuel use, this makes large climate change almost inevitable,” Hansen et al wrote in anticipation of the difficulties of a global shift away from dependence on carbon dioxide-emitting fossil fuels.

“CO2 effects on climate may make full exploitation of coal resources undesirable,” the paper concludes. “An appropriate strategy may be to encourage energy conservation and develop alternative energy sources, while using fossil fuels as necessary during the next few decades.”

(Watch a TED talk by James Hansen on “Why I Must Speak Out About Climate Change”)

As the “next few decades” are now, for us, coming to a close, where do we stand on the encouragement of energy conservation and development on alternative energy sources?  Sadly the outlook is not as promising as it should be, not given our level of abilities to monitor the intricate complexities of our planet’s climate and to develop new technologies. True advancement will rely on our acceptance that a change is in fact necessary… a hurdle that is proving to be the most difficult one to clear.

Read van Oldenborgh and Haarsma’s blog post here, and see the full 1981 paper “Climate Impact of Increasing Carbon Dioxide” here. And for more news on our changing climate, visit NASA’s Global Climate Change site.

Tip of the anthropogenically-warmer hat to The Register.


A graphic designer in Rhode Island, Jason writes about space exploration on his blog Lights In The Dark, Discovery News, and, of course, here on Universe Today. Ad astra!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Hydargos April 8, 2012, 1:04 AM

    There’s been global warming since the ice age!

    • SJStar April 8, 2012, 9:27 AM

      Dante-isk views are far more powerful.

      It is actual a balance point between fire and ice, where at the moment, humankind, by its continues unsustainable abuses of the planet’s atmosphere (and crust), to artificially modify the natural narrow balance point to induce real change on the Earth’s climate.

      If you take the humans out of the equation, then the same natural balance point has no need to compensate for the influence of humans.

      It is that simple.

  • Wezley Jackson April 8, 2012, 4:21 AM

    ps. Did you even read past the first paragraph of my post?

    My post was about a viable, practical clean energy source that is here now and could both help wean us all off fossil fuels and also help disable the ticking environmental timebomb that is uranium/plutonium based power (from a waste and profliferation point of view)

    sheesh.. I find that the argument is just a distraction and perhaps it more
    productive for people to form consensus that clean power sources and addressing serious emvironmental issues

  • lcrowell April 8, 2012, 2:04 PM

    It is interesting how blog entries on climate change bring out the ideological true believers and the outright moronic.


  • Adam Apollo April 8, 2012, 2:48 PM

    This is garbage, the fact is before this was the reality that they found another planet effecting our Solar System dubbed Planet X, the Summerian documented this planet and called it Nibiru. This is what is effecting the Magetism of the North and South poles. Creating fluctuation in temperatures in regions throughout the planet. The Earth is not experiencing Global Warming, that is a lie created by the Carbon peddlers from Government and scientist employed to peddle the lie. The fact is our planet is experiencing a natural effect and if you believe in their CO2 story well why is it Australian Summer is colder and for the past 10 years and why is it no one reports truth? Reason is because the entire CO2 myth is a lie made to make Trillions of Dollars from tax payers. Only a moron can believe such garbage.

  • snq7 April 8, 2012, 5:09 PM

    Hey people, you’re wasting time discussing like this.
    Global Warming is the coolest thing that is happening to our planet…
    It will mean sunken cities e sinners gone bye bye, more beaches &surfing, global tropicalization
    and whatever. There is nothing you can really do right now to change it, but it would be wise to
    practice some snowboarding and ski and to make that one-time-in-your-life visit to Alaska, unless you wanna see those glaciers only in pictures.

  • snq7 April 8, 2012, 5:17 PM

    Ok Mr. M of Commentaries I guess your from Alaska. Sorry to touch deep in your heart.

  • SlickR April 8, 2012, 5:34 PM

    They are trying to use the environment to take our rights away and force us to pay carbon taxes!

    We’re up to you globalists, your scam won’t work!

  • Prism2Spectrum April 9, 2012, 12:21 PM

    Appreciate response, Mr. Flimmer:

    On cross-field advise, or suggestion. No major disagreement. What you
    say is sensible.

    No, a “Cobbler” should not advise a Taylor on his business. This thought
    just came, though: they BOTH can understand Business: running and operating one.

    So, your not a Climatologist. But, you know more than a little something about
    the Science Process, and how it is, or should be conducted.

    Some, you surely know, have questioned the Science METHOD behind some of what
    maps-out the doom and gloom forecasts. Now, whether they are right or wrong, each has to judge for
    themselves – critically, hopefully. Being a hot topic, that stirs the atmosphere (just scan this forum!), opinions will be anything but cool (under those new lamps).

    – “Things should cool down.” Indeed. But, here (USA), everything seems to be heating up!

    “There is no real debate, only a political one. The science is clear and overwhelmingly pointing into one direction (and yes, I rely on the experts here!).” Well, so many do, and believe.

    – Much sound reason in your closing paragraph: Traumatic change is coming, regardless. It may even be too late to avoid some disastrous dislocation – at the least (your point on Earth’s Oil Tank needle approaching “Empty”).

    “Our economies will have to adept, they must change!” I wholeheartedly agree. “And what’s wrong with change that actually helps to get (probably) a cleaner environment?” NOTHING.

    But HOW that change is carried-out, enforced, timed…

    An extreme example(!), admittedly: Stalin forced economic change (different, yes) – and bulldozed communities and peoples into the ground, and left a wounded earth in the reckless industrial-treads of his Plan’s wake, it has not yet healed, fully recovered.

    “… new [economies] … will rise! And those countries which make that change first will have the lead! I think, this is obvious, is it not? Change now, and you will have a head start! There is a chance! Why not go for it?”

    In frame of all the above interchange, I can agree! – let the green (small g) light be seen!

    Good Success, Mr. Flimmer!

  • Rev C Curtiss April 11, 2012, 9:01 AM

    And yet there are those who syill wish to insist that global warming is a hoax.

  • Typhon1 April 17, 2012, 6:59 PM

    While we in the western, developed world can get on our high horses and wring our hands at the prospect of increasing temperatures the nations who are and will be increasingly responsible for these rises will NOT stop burning coal and oil. China, India and Brazil are undergoing their Industrial Revolutions as we did 150-200 years ago and you can rest assured they will not put a halt to their burning of fossil fuels until they are at the equivalent level we are today. It doesn’t matter how many Guardian-reading types trade in their Range Rovers for a bloody Prius or how many useless wind turbines are built across Europe and America the fact remains that the ’emerging’ nations want their heavy industries and they will continue to pollute the atmosphere for decades to come. It is a form of neo-colonialism for we in the developed west to tell them to stop because we know what is best for them and to consider the state of the planet for ‘our children’s’ sake. The preachiness coming out of the developed world is truly sickening because the hidden message is, “I’m sorry China/India but you’re going to have to stay in the past because we’re concerned about the Maldives sinking and we’ll have nowhere to take our holidays” This attitude of “we’re comfortable and you Third Worlders can lump it” is intolerable.