"Late in 1966, in the sprawling computer lab of the Washington, D.C., office
building that housed the United States Weather Bureau, Syukuro Manabe was
waiting for a print job to finish. At stake was the fate of the planet. Manabe,
who was thirty-five, had come to the U.S. from Japan almost a decade earlier.
He managed a team of computer programmers, tasked with building a mathematical
simulation of the planet’s atmosphere. It had taken years to perfect, and cost
millions of dollars. Now the simulation was complete.
With an alarming clatter, the printer came to life, and a single continuous
sheet, striped in light-green and white, unspooled to the floor. The I.B.M.
1403 could print six hundred lines per minute, but Manabe couldn’t stand the
noise it made, and usually avoided it by going out for lunch. This job couldn’t
wait. If successful, Manabe’s simulation would quantify, for the first time,
the relationship between carbon dioxide and the temperature of Earth’s
That the Earth’s atmosphere retained heat from sunlight had been understood
since the early nineteenth century. Water vapor was the primary driver,
trapping heat energy at lower altitudes and warming the planet’s surface by
about sixty degrees Fahrenheit. (If Earth had no atmosphere, its surface
temperature would average zero degrees Fahrenheit.) The open question was
whether other atmospheric gases contributed to this greenhouse effect. Carbon
dioxide was thought to have an effect, but it made up just three parts per ten
thousand of Earth’s atmosphere by volume. Researchers wondered whether its
impact was detectable.
Manabe speculated that it was. Three parts per ten thousand wasn’t much, but
even a trace gas, with the right properties, could have an outsized impact.
Without carbon dioxide, there would be no photosynthesis, and almost everything
on the planet would die. Perhaps moving carbon-dioxide levels in the other
direction—as the combustion of fossil fuels was doing—would have a similarly
Via Robert Sanscartier.
*** Xanni ***
Chief Scientist, Xanadu
Partner, Glass Wings
Manager, Serious Cybernetics