The Forgotten Father of Climatology
Alexander von Humboldt’s Contributions to Natural Science Were Ahead of His Time
Wikipedia has a list of people considered to be Father or Mother of a Scientific Field, but it fails to nominate anyone for the study of climatology. It also misses the mark completely when it comes to the founding fathers of geography, cartography, and oceanography. Each of these scientific disciplines is important to the study of climate. They are all interdependent, with advances in one leading to further advances in the others.
Let us correct this omission, and recognize the work of one man, Alexander von Humboldt, who could easily be elevated onto the pedestal of “founding father of climatology” for his early 19th century work in the natural sciences, cartography, data visualization, and the nascent field of ecology.
The Age of Scientific Exploration
In order to understand his brilliance, we must properly appreciate the Age of Scientific Exploration and how our understanding of Earth was shaped during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Household names of that time included a diverse group of globe-trotting naturalists: Gerhard Friedrich Müller (Leipzig), Philibert Commerson (France), Joseph Banks (London), Thaddäus Haenke (Bohemia), Archibald Menzies (Scotland), Meriwether Lewis (Virginia), and Charles Darwin (Shrewsbury).
As they traveled, they collected all manner of living, preserved, and fossilized wonders. They carefully noted every aspect of their discoveries, and when they returned they sorted, organized, and stored everything they collected. Their log books, journals, and published books became the source material for decades of follow-up studies.
We may ask, what was the intent behind this frenzy of measurements?
Unlike the Age of Discovery, where exploration led to claims on the land, rights to exploitation, and the plunder of exclusive trade, this new age was more about prestige. It was analogous to our modern-day space race where countries vie for the title of highest, longest, farthest, and “mostest” in every category.
Just being able to boast about their achievements helped to keep the patriotic flags flying back home.
And just like now, where the populace eagerly watches Martian rovers carrying out their duties, so too the populace of the early 19th century eagerly awaited publication of the thrilling tales of danger and hardship endured by the naturalists as they performed their duties.
Year after year, new data about the world came pouring in. New taxonomic species. Nautical surveys. Barometric readings. Magnetic anomalies. Linguistic vocabularies. Strange customs.
Too Much Data
We know that large collections of data are the basis for all scientific endeavors. Measurements, when taken with consistency, over varying conditions, reveal patterns that provide the basis for understanding what’s going on. But the human brain has trouble understanding large tables of numbers, even when categorized and sorted.
Then, as now, people had short attention spans, and found the reading of long monotonous journals to be too much. Oftentimes, the scientific data collected during the explorations were placed in appendices or moved to obscure academic journals. And many times the prohibitive cost of publication forced the data to remain in manuscript form, never to be published.
The public was eager to learn about distant geography, but wasn’t willing to put in the effort to make sense out of all the measurements and minutiae that proper science demanded.
So this is where our Prussian geographer hero, Alexander von Humboldt, makes his mark.
Humboldt looked into all this data and saw patterns that others didn’t. But seeing something yourself isn’t the same as explaining it to someone else. The arc of Humboldt’s life became a quest to find the simplest possible means of showing others what he saw. Of particular interest to climatologists, he tried to do this through the graphic arts. In his famous 1805 poster Naturgemälde, Humboldt shows the interrelatedness of temperature, elevation, rainfall, and plant ecology on the Andean volcano Chimborazo. This type of artwork had never been tried before. He was so far ahead of his time that there was no word for it. Today we call this data visualization.
Also of interest to climatologists, was his novel depiction of temperature across the globe. Today’s climate models take in daily temperature measurements from thousands of meteorological stations, allowing us to develop diurnal, seasonal, and decadal heat flux models. In Humboldt’s time though, temperature data was scattered across numerous journals and logbooks. No one could predict with any accuracy, what the temperature range for an arbitrary location on Earth might be. The best science of the time suggested that temperatures decreased uniformly from their high point at the equator to the frozen arctics.
Humboldt’s brilliant solution was the isotherm — a cartographic line of equal-value temperatures. With this novel depiction, it became child’s play to compare temperatures between any two locations on Earth. In fact, most of us have seen modern versions of Humboldt’s isothermal map, perhaps even hanging on a 4th grade classroom wall!
A fresh representation of his original 1817 isotherms has been transferred onto an interactive global map of the world. Studying it, we can readily see that the equator itself is not always the hottest place on Earth, the “warm equator” is at 13°N near Venezuela, 17°N over Niger, 7°N near Thailand, and as far south as 6°S in Indonesia. Also clearly recognizable are two separate cold poles, one over North America, the other over Asia.
With isotherms, students can readily teach themselves that France is 5° warmer than Great Britain, and 5° colder than Spain. It’s elementary to compare any place you know, with any place you want to understand.
Less Is More
For centuries, the principle role of maps was to identify and locate places. Providing travelers with the information they needed to get from here to there was their whole point. Every exploratory expedition of the 18th and 19th centuries carried chronometers, sextants, and theodolites for accurately surveying ocean coasts. Their goal was to produce increasingly accurate maps of land features and their relationships.
But Humboldt envisioned using cartographic methods to do more. He saw that cartography could effectively be used to display data with less accuracy, to purposefully smooth over the highly precise measurements obtained from fieldwork.
With his isothermic map of 1817 he lied several times over. First, there is no account for the daily fluctuation in temperatures that occur everywhere on Earth as the sun rises and sets. Second, there is no account for the seasonal variation in temperatures as the Earth’s orbital tilt moves the sun’s noontime zenith from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn. And third, small regional temperature variations are smoothed and lumped into 5°C temperature bands. Is it a precise map? Definitely not. Is any place truly correct? Maybe not. But does the map tell us something that we didn’t know before. Yes.
All maps lie. Great maps lie so well that they reveal hidden truths.
Humboldt’s isolines went on to be used for other purposes. Isohyets show regions with similar rainfall. On weather maps, isobars show regions of equal atmospheric pressure. On solar panel maps, isohels show regions receiving equal amounts of sunshine. Anyone can use these types of maps to examine and compare one place against another.
Humboldt gave us a tool for comparative analysis. Today we call these thematic maps, because their data tells a story.
The Nature of Earth
Humboldt’s work as a naturalist allowed him to integrate the numerous earth science specialties of his time into something greater than the parts. This integrative approach has now coalesced into the field of biogeography, which studies the distribution of plant and animal communities over time. It draws on classic taxonomy, botany, zoology, oceanography, geology, palaeontology, and climatology.
In his later life, he wrote extensively about this, formulating and elucidating the idea that the earth sciences shouldn’t be reduced to the static descriptions, categories, and taxonomies of Carl Linnaeus. Instead, he took a clue from the geologist James Hutton, that Earth’s crust is the outcome of continual natural processes over a very long time period.
His own assertion was that Earth’s inorganic matter and organic life were dynamic forces bound together in a never-ending intricate fabric. Modern ecologists think of this as the web of life. Humboldt saw it as something even deeper.
Classic geography is the study of how the Earth shapes human existence. Modern geography is the opposite: how human existence shapes Earth. Humboldt was the first to approach geography from that direction.
He worked on this idea for ten years, finally publishing it at the age of 75 in two volumes titled Kosmos — Greek for “beauty and order”. The book’s success encouraged him to continue expanding on his idea, and over the final fifteen years of his life he extended the opus with an additional three volumes.
If the concept behind Kosmos feels familiar, remember this: it was published fourteen years before Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
It is a telling tribute that Darwin carried Humboldt’s earlier works with him when he traveled on the Beagle, as he was formulating his own ideas on the topic. And in a gracious compliment, after reading Darwin’s Journal of Researches, Humboldt wrote back to Darwin humbly remarking, “works are of value only if they give rise to better ones”.
The two titans would briefly meet in 1842, Darwin the junior at age 32, Humboldt the senior at age 72.
Advances in science often arrive out of other pursuits. Charles Darwin conducted serious research into the role of earthworms in the creation of soil. But it wasn’t until he applied that same rigor to the ornithology of the Galápagos Islands that he arrived at his theory of evolution.
Perhaps someone currently studying climatology will see beyond the problem of climate change and will develop an entirely new earth science, something that will give us a way to balance human activities, atmospheric dynamics, mineralogic resources, and biodiversity.
Maybe there’s a modern-day Humboldt in our midst, waiting to change the way we look at the world.