It may seem ludicrous now, but there was a time when scientists wanted to melt the glaciers. Geologists at Penn State realized in 1939 that sprinkling coal dust on patches of snow would get the glaciers to absorb more of the sun’s heat, melting faster. Helmut Landsberg, the professor who led the experiment, mused that it would be “utopian” to cover large ice fields with coal soot in order “to melt off considerable portions of glaciers,” and open up northern frontiers for growing crops or trees for timber.
Back then, glaciers were already beginning to visibly recede because of a different use of coal. Greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal and other fossil fuels accelerated, and over the past decade Earth has been losing around 1.2 trillion tons of ice every year.
The coal-dust tests are just one of many strange episodes illuminated in Alice Bell’s new book, Our Biggest Experiment: An Epic History of the Climate Crisis. It frequently brings to mind the phrase “hindsight is 20/20.” Bell, a science writer and the co-director of the U.K. climate charity Possible, describes herself as a “part-time historian of the apocalypse, part-time campaigner ... Read more