Florida state

FSU expert available for early climate change research context

Ron Doel, associate professor at Florida State University who researches the history of science and technology.

Earth Day marks a time to consider the environmental challenges facing humanity, including our changing climate. Thanks to the efforts of scientists around the world, the understanding of these changes is constantly being refined.

A wealth of our knowledge of how the climate works comes from interest from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), said Ron Doel, an associate professor at Florida State University who researches the history of science and of technology.

He is available to comment on how US military interest has funded earth science research that has shaped our current understanding of climate change.

“Within two years of the end of World War II, people at the Department of Defense were hearing about climate change as a national security issue,” Doel said. “The military needed and wanted to know as much as possible about the larger physical environment due to the emergence of new weapons systems and the political landscape that pitted the United States against the Soviet Union.”

Doel’s work revealed a pivotal moment in the Pentagon’s interest in climate – a 1947 meeting between DOD officers and a Swedish glaciologist named Hans Ahlmann.

Although the term “climate change” had yet to be coined, that was what Ahlmann’s research was about. He had just given a public lecture at UCLA where he discussed findings that showed rising temperatures at the North Pole. Ahlmann wondered how this would affect people, especially those who lived near the coast.

The people from the Ministry of Defense also asked themselves the question. The closest route to the Soviet Union from the United States was through the Arctic. A radically changed environment, with water where the ice was, presented significant implications for the country’s security.

The Pentagon has taken action. Initially driven by a desire to understand how weapons and logistics would be affected by a changing climate, the agency has made major investments in Earth science research at universities across the country. The researchers were trying to understand what was going on from a scientific perspective and were also aware of the national security implications of their work.

“Much of the understanding of how climate works initially comes from that research that is funded directly or indirectly by the military to build that capability,” Doel said. “Many earth science research centers have been established at leading American universities. The money flowed into new investigations of the Earth and its atmosphere. These funds have also helped train a new generation of young scientists who have studied Earth’s climate change.

Our understanding of climate change has improved since the Cold War. The Department of Defense’s review of the issue has also changed: the DOD now views climate change as a security issue that threatens global stability.

For Doel, it’s a new chapter in the ongoing saga of what scientists are learning about climate and how that research informs public policy.

“The military fascination with the melting ice of the North Pole is a history forgotten today, a victim of Cold War secrecy,” he said. “But already in the early 1950s, polar researchers were sounding the alarm that major climate change could have significant impacts on modern civilization.”

Professor Ron Doel is currently writing a book that explores the rise of environmental physical science in America, including how US military patronage shaped Earth science research during the Cold War. To arrange an interview, email [email protected].