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Andrew Alden

Was Ben Franklin Really the Father of Volcano-Climate Science?

By March 20, 2013

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benjamin franklinMost geologists know about a famous assertion that Benjamin Franklin made in 1784, later published in a paper titled "Meteorological Imaginations and Conjectures." He argued that the great 1783 eruption of Laki, in Iceland, caused the bitterly cold winter that followed in Europe and America. Today we know this as a truism, part of what students are taught in Climate Science 101. And plenty of evidence does show that large volcanic eruptions depress global temperatures for a year or more afterward.

A research team led by Columbia University's Rosanne D'Arrigo argued in a paper, published in GRL in 2011, that not Laki but a double-whammy from two major atmospheric patterns, the El Niño—Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), was the real culprit. It happens that this same combination of a positive ENSO and negative NAO happened in the miserable winter of 2009–10. Those two seasons, 2009–10 and 1783–84, were the two worst ENSO/NAO combinations of the last 600 years in tree-ring records the authors consulted. Coauthor Jason Smerdon gave more detail in his research blog.

So, is Ben Franklin still the father of volcano-climate science? I think so. He was a true scientist at a time when the word hadn't even been invented, and the scientist's job is to generate fruitful ideas for rigorous testing. His idea was sound, he did as good a job with it as any of his peers would have done, and the mechanism he came up with has been borne out abundantly since 1784. He just happened to be wrong in his test case. And you know, Alfred Wegener was wrong about a lot in his theory of continental drift, yet most people don't dispute his title. Nevertheless I've argued that if we want to dub Franklin the "father" of anything in geophysics, a safer title would be father of borehole ground-temperature profiling.

Ben Franklin, geoscientist
The real father of geophysics
Basics of climate science
Franklin as hero-scientist — Geology Guide image


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