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All IPCC definitions taken from Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Annex I, Glossary, pp. 941-954. Cambridge University Press.

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What were climate scientists predicting in the 1970s?

What the science says...

Select a level... Basic Intermediate

The vast majority of climate papers in the 1970s predicted warming.

Climate Myth...

Ice age predicted in the 70s

"If you go back to Time Magazine, they actually were proclaiming the next ice age is coming, now it's become global warming… How do you believe the same people that were predicting just a couple decades ago that the new ice age is coming?" (Sean Hannity)

At a glance

If you are aged 60 or over, you may remember this particular myth first-hand. For a brief time in the early to mid-1970s, certain sections of the popular media ran articles describing how we were heading for a renewed ice-age. Such silliness endures to the present day, just with a different gloss: as an example, for the UK tabloid the Daily Express, October just wouldn't be October without it publishing at least one made-up account of the impending 100-day snow-apocalypse.

There were even books written on the subject, such as Nigel Calder's mischievously-entitled The Weather Machine, published in 1974 by the BBC and accompanying a “documentary” of the same name, which was nothing of the sort. A shame, because the same author's previous effort, The Restless Earth, about plate tectonics, was very good indeed.

Thomas Peterson and colleagues did a very neat job of obliterating all of this nonsense. In a 2008 paper titled The myth of the 1970s global cooling scientific consensus, they dared do what the popular press dared not to. They had a look at what was actually going on. Obtaining copies of the peer-reviewed papers on climate, archived in the collections of Nature, JSTOR and the American Meteorological Society and published between 1965 and 1979, they examined and rated them. Would there be a consensus on global cooling? Alas! - no.

Results showed that despite the media claims, just ten per cent of papers predicted a cooling trend. On the other hand, 62% predicted global warming and 28% made no comment either way. The take-home from this one? It's the old media adage, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”

Please use this form to provide feedback about this new "At a glance" section. Read a more technical version below or dig deeper via the tabs above!

Further details

In the thirty years leading up to the 1970s, available temperature recordings, with a poor global coverage compared to today, implied at times there might be an ongoing cooling trend. At the same time, research was continuing into the building levels of carbon dioxide and their effects on future climate, but the science world of that time was somewhat disconnected, compared to the modern age of instant communication, Zoom and so on.

There were also some notably cold winters scattered through that time, such as the UK one of 1962-63. As a result of these various goings-on, some scientists suggested that the current interglacial period could rapidly draw to a close, which might result in the Earth plunging into a new ice age over the next few centuries.

We now know that the smog that climatologists call ‘aerosols’ – emitted by human activities into the atmosphere – caused localised cooling closest to the areas where most of it originated. Smogs constitute a deadly health hazard and governments acted quickly to clean up that type of pollution: highly visible (unlike CO2), it was hard to ignore. Once largely removed, its effects no longer influenced Northern Hemisphere temperatures, that have steadily climbed since around 1970.

In fact, as temperature recording has improved in coverage, it’s become clear that the cooling trend was indeed localised – it was most pronounced in northern land areas. Other places around the world revealed a different story. Furthermore, at the same time as some scientists were suggesting we might be facing another ice age, a significantly greater number - approximately six times more - published papers indicating the opposite - that we were warming. Their papers showed that the growing amount of greenhouse gases that humans were putting into the atmosphere would cause much greater warming – warming that would exert a much stronger influence on global temperature than any possible natural or human-caused cooling effects.

By 1980, with northern hemisphere smogs a distant memory, the predictions about ice ages had ceased, at least among those working on the science, due to the overwhelming evidence for warming presented in the scientific literature (Peterson et al. 2008). Unfortunately though, the small number of predictions of an ice age were far more 'sticky' than those of global warming, so it was those sensational 'Ice Age' stories in the 1970s popular press that so many people tend to remember. Sticky themes sell papers. Today of course, with 40+years more data, far better coverage and a far bigger research community, we've reached a clear scientific consensus: 97% of working climate scientists agree with the view that human beings are causing global warming.

Last updated on 8 March 2024 by John Mason. View Archives

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Related video from DENIAL101x - Climate science in the 1970s


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Comments 26 to 50 out of 89:

  1. My favorite early paper on climate change is Wally Broecker's 1975 paper in the journal Science: Broecker, W. 1975. Climatic change: are we on the brink of a pronounced global warming? Science, 189-460-463. It's discussed in some detail at RealClimate ("Happy 35th birthday, global warming!"). Kind of neat that even back in 1975, Wally B. was using both "climat[ic] change" and "global warming" more or less interchangeably ... even in the very title of this paper. Also, amazingly prescient of Wally, considering that 1975 is more or less when global temperatures came out of a lull and began rising steadily.
  2. 24 snowhare Volcanic triggering of glaciation says "AN instantaneous glaciation model for the formation of the large Pleistocene ice sheets..." so maybe the poodle has a case? The abstract then says... "I suggest here that such a survival could have resulted from one or several closely spaced massive volcanic ash eruptions." or maybe the poodle is being highly selective in his interpretation of the relevance of this. People really shouldn't go round destroying their own credibility that way, especially when they've spent that much time building it up.
  3. I've tried to post replies but my posts are being pulled. What's the point of continuing the discussion when only one side is being represented? The posts concening my college experiences is true. Why do you question my veracity and censor my replies?
    Response: [Daniel Bailey] I see only one deleted comment. That comment was deleted as it contained an inflammatory comment about another poster here on Skeptical Science. Keep the dialogue on the science and on the subject matter of the post (being off-topic is a prime reason comments get pulled) and all will be well.
  4. muoncounter, Re:PDO; "So you are claiming that correlation requires causality? Did you run that past the denial establishment to see if they reached a consensus on that?" Is this post not inflammatory? Shouldn't all inflammatory comments be pulled? Some comments are more inflammatory than others I suppose.
  5. we still wait for the name of the elusive institution of learning thepoodle went to ? I was a science major (starting in 1977) at the University of South Florida... (Tampa and St. Pete campuses) and we were learning about global warming in 3 of my classes I remember .. Ecology and both Biological and Geological Foundations of Oceanography ... talking about the physics and looking at the CO2 level data from Mona Loa and some temperature prediction models (which turned out to be remarkably accrate, I might add) It was even mentioned in my high school Biology class in 1975 (Kaiserslautern American High School, Germany) I don't remember anything about global cooling except a few referrals to media coverage ....
  6. At the intermediate level, this is the final sentence in the caption for Fig. 1 ... "In no year were there more cooling papers than warming papers." Yet it appears in that very chart that there were more cooling than warming papers in 1971 (2 vs. 1). Am I misinterpreting either the chart or the assertion in the caption? The basic premise remains solid that climate papers in the period leaned heavily towards suspected warming, but it's best to correct overreach, before the "doubt mongers" use your own words against you.
  7. Climate Depot's Factsheet on 1970s Coming 'Ice Age' Claims. I think that your 10% predicted cooling statistics need revision. It's a tad low don't ya think? These '70's papers were consistent with the global cooling theme that I was taught while taking college meteorology classes in 1980-1982.
  8. Why even mention Newsweek when claiming to focus on peer-reviewed scientific research? They lost my respect by using that as the opening argument.
  9. I decide to give them a second chance and push on past the Newsweek reference, and then past the Washington Times, New York Times, and Times Magazine references to find the 1975 NAS report on "Understanding Climate Change". That report did not make any predictions and the coming ice age discussed was several millenia out based on orbital parameter variation.
  10. #34 I'm just starting to review some of the relevant articles, W.S. Harley (1979) concludes "evidence of a change to a cooler regime has been found in the East Asia areas in each season except winter, in the Eastern North American area in winter, and in the Central Atlantic area in the spring and summer." And "no evidence of climatic warming is found."
    Response: [Dikran Marsupial] s/relevent/relevant/g
  11. That Climate Depot 'Factsheet' is a nonsense. There are links to newspapers, blogs and books (many repeated or referenced more than once); broken links to the US Senate; and the use of the usual suspects, i.e. IceCap, JohnDaly and Inhofe, as well as such charming sites as AlGoreLied and PeopleForGlobalWarming. The only properly sourced links (three of them at the end) are : A broken one to AMS. One to an AMS paper (which does work) which states : If the actual ratio a/b of most tropospheric aerosols is of order unity, as inferred by previous authors, then the dominant effect of such aerosols is warming except over deserts and urban arms where the effect is somewhat marginal between warming and cooling. (WHERE a/b is "the ratio of absorption a to backscatter b of incoming solar radiation by the aerosol") Suggestions by several previous authors to the effect that the apparent worldwide cooling of climate in recent decades is attributable to large-scale increases of particulate pollution of the atmosphere by human activities are not supported by this analysis. The third link is to a book by Siegfried Fred Singer (!), which goes to a paper by J. Murray Mitchell Jr of NOAA, but which cannot be viewed in its entirety. However, the abstract states : A 32% increase of atmospheric CO2 over 1850 levels is predicted by 2000, causing an estimated 0.6 deg C increase in the global equilibrium temperature. This warming effect may be offset to a certain extent by cooling due to anthropogenic particle loading; in addition, CO2 input is expected to decrease as the consumption of fossil fuels decreases. It is observed that, although there is substantial evidence of global climate trends in the last century, such variations have occurred in the past as the result of natural processes. But even the portion of it that can be viewed from Singer's book states that CO2 is the dominant effect, which could have greater effects in the future, thereby causing warming. And it suggests volcanic ash as the explanation for the cooling from the 1940s. If all of that is proof of a 70s 'Coming Ice Age' claim, it is very poor.
  12. thepoodlebites - I prefer my opinions to based on reliable data dont you?
  13. #37 I find myself at a disadvantage here. If I answer your question my post most likely will be deleted, evaluated as an off-topic opinion. I'm finding the Climate Depot's link a valuable resource. I cited one peer-reviewed paper that supports my argument and I can cite many others, here. I will provide more links if this post is not deleted. Richard Feynman's first principle of scientific integrity states "you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool. After you have not fooled yourself, it's easy not to fool other scientists." This first principle should be applied to everybody in equal proportion.
  14. thepoodlebites, it is difficult to know what argument you are trying to support, especially as the first paper you linked to (W.S.Harley) also stated : "Thirty years of data are found of insufficient length to determine whether the cooling constitutes a climatic change under the given criteria"; and the second one (Barry Et al) concludes the introduction with : "The evident sensitivity of this area to climatic fluctuations on both short and long time scales makes it a rewarding area for interdisciplinary environmental studies". Is any of that evidence of anything you are trying to prove ?
  15. thepoodlebites - the question is whether the scientific consensus was that planet was cooling. You can find papers noting long term negative turn in solar forcing, and plenty on aerosol cooling but also considerable concern about warming. Was there a consensus like there is on AGW now? Was there even a slim majority worried about cooling? You can only answer those questions of with systematic survey of scientific literature, not picking papers.(eg Peterson) As for Climate Depot - how many examples of misinformation would we have to show you before you abandoned it? 5, 10, 100, every post, - or never so long as it says things you want to hear. (ie is it worth our time trying?)
  16. #39 Your Barry et al. link is broken. Read just before the sentence you quoted, "the summer cooling is apparently widespread through the Canadian Arctic so that a larger scale control must be sought." A thorough scientist will recommend the need for further study when a cause for the observed trend can not be conclusively determined.
  17. The Ice Age is not over and we are still in an Ice Age climate. Ice Age conditions first appeared on the Earth about 45 million years ago with the appearance of permanent ice sheets in Antarctica. The other feature of this ice age climate was the sharp drop in the concentration of CO2 which dropped from several thousand ppm 50 million years ago to levels as low 150-250 ppm as recently as 3 million years ago. Today we have a CO2 level of 380 ppm and most of Antarctica and Greenland are still covered with ice. The great ice sheets have at their maximum reached as far south as 40 deg latitude. Burying much of North America, Europe and Siberia. How do we know all this? 100,000s of ocean core samples collected since the Second World War when studies of the oceans and atmosphere became a priority for the US military. In addition to establishing our world's paleoclimate it also proved that the continents move on giant rocky plates. The message I take from this is that life on Earth can globalize and cope with a great range of climate and has survived worse climate upsets like those 65 and 250 million years ago. It will be a different place and there is no guarantee man will flourish in such a brave new world. Much of the flora and fauna didn't pass muster 65 and 250 million years ago.

    [DB] You may be interested in this, then:

    Carbon Release to Atmosphere 10 Times Faster Than in the Past, Geologists Find

    A blog post exploring this is planned.

  18. Found a much more recent paper, which is talking about a return to ice age conditions in the near future From the summary, published in 2000: "The solar-output model allows speculation on global climatic variations in the next 10,000 years. Extrapolation of the solar-output model shows a return to little-ice-age conditions by A.D. 2400–2900 followed by a rapid return to altithermal conditions during the middle of the third millennium A.D. This altithermal period may be similar to the Holocene Maximum that began nearly 3,800 years ago. The solar output model suggests that, approximately 20,000 years after it began, the current interglacial period may come to an end and another glacial period may begin." Chris Shaker
  19. In Regards to the Response to item #42, the following articles may be of interest: Controversial New Climate Change Data: Is Earth's Capacity to Absorb CO2 Much Greater Than Expected? Mathematical Errors Overestimate Persistence of CO2 in Atmosphere Chris Shaker
    Response: [Dikran Marsupial] Neither of these articles is of relevance to a discussion of predictions of an impending ice age made in th 70s. Please familiarise yourself with the comments policy, off-topic posts are normally deleted in order to keep the discussion focussed. I'll happily discuss the first article with you on a more appropriate thread. Note that the second article does not appear to be supported by any peer-reviewed science, unlike the statement by the Royal Society, which suggests some skepticism is in order.
  20. cjshaker wrote: "Found a much more recent paper, which is talking about a return to ice age conditions in the near future 'This altithermal period may be similar to the Holocene Maximum that began nearly 3,800 years ago. The solar output model suggests that, approximately 20,000 years after it began, the current interglacial period may come to an end and another glacial period may begin.' 20,000 - 3,800 = 16,200 You consider 16,200 years the "near future"?
  21. CBDunkerson I have just looked into cjshaker's posting history, and it appears that he asks many questions, but rarely replies to the answers.
  22. In response to CBDunkerson, did I misread 'Extrapolation of the solar-output model shows a return to little-ice-age conditions by A.D. 2400–2900', ie - a couple of hundred years from now? Chris Shaker
  23. In response to Dikran Marsupial: It seems that asking questions and then thinking about the replies is a problem? Chris Shaker
  24. cjshaker, no you didn't misread that... but it says "little-ice-age", while you said "ice age". These are not the same thing. The 'little ice age' was a brief comparatively minor cooling period centered around north western Europe. Technically, the term 'ice age' refers to any period where portions of the Earth are covered with ice caps... making the past several million years part of an ice age. However, the term 'ice age' is also often used to refer to glaciations (i.e. periods when the ice caps expand significantly)... which the quote you provided suggested could next occur in 20,000 years. Thus, reading your prediction of an 'ice age in the near future' as referring to a glaciation would be consistent with common usage of the terms. I have never before seen the term 'ice age' treated as synonymous with the 'little ice age'. One is a term used for two different types of global cycles that play out over hundreds of thousands to millions of years... the other was a localized phenomenon that lasted a couple hundred. That said, I wouldn't generally call 300 to 800 years from now the "near future" either. In any case, the topic of this post is global 'ice age' / glaciation. A return to 'little ice age' conditions would be a problem for Europe, but a non-event for most of the planet.

    [DB] CBD, a technical note.  We are currently within an interglacial phase of an ice age, wherein ice age is defined as a period of time where continental ice sheets are existent upon the globe.  That being said, everything you say is still true.  Absent CO2 forcing, the globe had already started the long, slow return to glaciated conditions.  However, evidence suggests that the next glacial phase has already been skipped.

  25. cjshaker wrote: "It seems that asking questions and then thinking about the replies is a problem?", no, not at all, but after thought about the replies, it is both polite and constructive to post your thoughs regarding the replies, rather than to simply move on.

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