atmoaggie's WunderBlog

circa 1920, H. G. Wells climate comments

By: atmoaggie, 4:50 AM GMT on December 10, 2009

The following is but a tiny excerpt from a very interesting book, The Outline of History, Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind, by H. G. Wells. This is not a work of fiction. It is a history, as known by 1920, of the planet, life on earth, and man. Wells appears to have been in contact with plenty of experts in many different fields and is careful to delineate what is surmised, accepted as fact, or proven. He covers many of the geological theories we know today by idea if they had not been named what we know them as today. For example, he includes a discussion of continental drift, in function, though does not call it that, and admits that it is a likely explanation for the separation of like species and the way South America and Africa "fit" together. He also discusses a number of ideas as to the origin of the planet and includes, again by function, the Big Bang theory, but not by that name.

This book, given it's age, gives me the impression that there are very few new ideas about our planet. Seems that the last 80 years, or more, have mostly just been about proving or disproving this or that theory.

Anyway, in light of the (rather excessive, in my opinion) climate banter and Copenhagen talks, I decided to transcribe a small section from the book concerning climate on Earth as per H. G. Wells' impressions based on the fossil record available to him in 1920.

I did my best to transcribe it exactly as it lies on the yellowed pages before me, including every letter and punctuation mark. Here goes:
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The Record of Rocks is like a great book that has been carelessly misused. All its pages are torn, worn, and defaced, and many are altogether missing. The outline of the story that we sketch here has been pieced together slowly and painfully in an investigation that is still incomplete and still in progress. The Carboniferous rocks, the "coal-measures," give us a vision of the first great expansion of life over the wet lowlands. Then come the torn pages of the Permian rocks (which count as the last of the Palaeozoic) that preserve little of the land vestiges of their age. Only after a long interval of time does the history spread out generously again.

The Permian rocks record an age of harshness and desolation in the world's history. They mark the phase of transition from the Palaeozic age of fish and amphibia to the Mesozoic age of reptiles.

It must be borne in mind the great changes of climate have always been in progress, sometimes stimulating and sometimes checking life. Every species of living thing is always adapting itself more and more closely to its conditions, which are always changing. There is no finality in adaptation. There is a continuing urgency towards change.

We do, however, find certain creatures of a lowly type which early adapted themselves to widespread simple conditions so completely that they have never been greatly modified or exterminated or replaced. For example, there is a little shell-fish called Lingula fitted to an obscure sedentary life in warm seas. This genus has endured without conspicuous change throughout the entire geological record.

On the other hand, geologists show us collections of fossils in which one can trace modification in only a few thousand years, as climate, food and enemies have changed.

About these changes of climate that are always in progress on the earth's surface some explanations are necessary here. They are not periodic changes; they are slow fluctuations between heat and cold. The reader must not think that because the sun and earth were once incandescent the climatic history of the world is simply one of cooling down. The centre of the earth is certainly very hot to this day, but we feel nothing of that internal heat at the surface; the internal heat, except for volcanoes and hot springs, has not been perceptible at the surface since first the rocks grew solid. Even in the Azoic or Archaeozoic Age there are traces in ice-worn rocks and the like of periods of intense cold. Such cold waves have always been going on everywhere, alternately with warmer conditions. And there have periods of great wetness and periods of great dryness throughout the earth. They depend upon astronomical and terrestrial fluctuations of extreme complexity into which we will not enter here.

And in accordance, we find from the Record in the Rocks that there have been long periods of expansion and multiplication when life flowed and abounded and varied, and harsh ages when there was a great weeding out and disappearance of species, genera, and classes, and the learning of stern lessons by all that survived.

It is probable that the warm spells have been long relatively to the cold ages. Our world to-day seems to be emerging with fluctuations from a prolonged phase of adversity and extreme conditions. Half a million years ahead it may be a winterless world with trees and vegetation even in the polar circles. At present we have no certainty in such a forecast, but as knowledge increases it may be possible that our race will make its plans thousands of years ahead to meet the coming changes.
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I stand by my impression of the book. It is generally correct, but some of his statements do conflict with ice core inferred temperatures.

My personal opinion is that little has changed since the time of H. G. Wells. "At present we have no certainty in such a forecast", in my opinion, still applies. It seems that science does come along at a frustratingly slow pace. Over the last 89 years that have passed since Wells penned the words above, we have learned little in the way of verifiable facts about our distant and not-so-distant climate history. We do still have a lot to learn and may not do so anytime soon.

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Comments about H. G Wells, climate change SCIENCE (including data, research, and personal opinions about the science), and geological history are very welcome.

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