This week in science history saw, in 1927, the death of Eduard Bruckner, the German geographer and climatologist who was one of the first to discuss whether changes in climate were due to a natural cycle or down to humans, and how this climate change would affect our future.
Climate change is a big topic these days, with Oscar winning films being made about it and the newspapers splashed with stories of how spring flowers are blooming earlier and London will be under water in 50 years. But the study of global climates, or climatology, was a highly debated subject even in the late 19th century, when it was more about how changes in climate have or will affect human civilisation rather than the chemical and physical aspects of our climate. Bruckner was a central character in the debate over the economic and political consequences of climate change at the turn of the century. He studied the history of changes in sea levels and glaciations as he knew that ‘proof of past climate change points to the possibility of future climate change’. With titles like ‘How constant is today’s climate?’ and ‘The influence of climate variability on harvest and grain prices in Europe’, his papers could have been written in the last few years, but were in fact written over 100 years ago, and Bruckner himself has been largely forgotten.
He was born in Germany in 1863 and grew up in Russia before going to university in Munich. He completed his doctorate on glaciation and at the age of 25, he was made professor of Geography at the University of Bern. Throughout his academic life he published articles in newspapers and gave public lectures, in order to bring his ideas on climate variation to the public.
The discussions amongst scientists at the turn of the 20th century were very similar to those had today between scientists, boards like the International Panel on Climate Change and governments, but all the changes and initiatives suggested then for slowing or reversing climate change, such as replanting forests across North America to reduce drying were forgotten about in the early 20th century in the face of other global problems, particularly the two World Wars.
One piece of work that Bruckner is remembered for is his work on what is now known as the Bruckner cycle – a naturally occurring 35 year cycle of periods of wet, cold weather alternating with warm/dry periods. He tried to predict when the dry or wet periods would fall and also predicted that they would have varying effects across the globe on agriculture, immigration and economics. Warmer, dry periods would increase agricultural productivity in Europe, whilst decreasing it in a larger continent such as North America, making it less likely that people would emigrate from Europe to North America in that period.
Bruckner and his contemporaries recognised that there were climate oscillations that occurred periodically, but also that there was progressive climate change, probably driven by human actions such as deforestation.
Bruckner felt he had a social duty to inform the public about his discoveries and that scientists had a key role to play in advising governments on changes that needed to be made to help to reduce the human impact on the climate. He was well respected in his field and published many papers raising concerns about human impact on climate change that although over 100 years old are still relevant today, but due to events of the first few decades of the 20th century he and his work have sadly been somewhat forgotten. He deserves to be remembered as one of the pioneers of an area of science that is now at the forefront of government policies and front page news stories around the world.