How Humboldt founded climate research

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Humboldt’s "Tableau physique des Andes" as a climatological diag
Humboldt’s "Tableau physique des Andes" as a climatological diagram Source: "Tableau physique des Andes" to Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland, Essai sur la Géographie des Plantes accompagné d’un tableau physique des régions équinoxiales, Paris, Tubingen: F. Schoell and J. G. Cotta 1807. © zvg

Alexander von Humboldt was a pioneer of climate research. On his voyages to America (1799-1804) and Asia (1829), he conducted meteorological measurements that he used to develop a modern, holistic model of the Earth’s climate. Humboldt thus founded comparative climatology. Now Humboldt’s climate writings have been collected and edited at the University of Bern, annotated from the perspective of the history of knowledge and climatology.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) made research contributions to 30 disciplines, most of which are still valid today. In addition to his book works, he published 750 essays, which were edited in 2019 at the University of Bern(Sämtliche Schriften in 10 volumes). One discipline that Humboldt had a lasting impact on is climate science. For the first time, Humboldt’s climate writings have now been collected, edited according to philological standards, and comprehensively annotated in one volume. They have been edited by Thomas Nehrlich and Michael Strobl of the Institute for German Studies at the University of Bern, with commentary by Stefan Brönnimann of the Oeschger Center for Climate Research at the University of Bern and Martin Claussen, Director Emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg.

Humboldt is considered a pioneer of ecological thinking and the founder of comparative climatology,’ explains Thomas Nehrlich. ’Through our Bern edition of the Sämtliche Schriften, we have gained an overview of Humboldt’s research contributions. He evaluated numerous other meteorological, geographical and oceanographic data in addition to his great voyages to America and Central Asia. Humboldt’s climate research is interdisciplinary and global.’ Michael Strobl adds: ’Humboldt was one of the first to recognize the Earth’s climate as a complex system. However, he did not summarize his findings in a book, but in his essays.’ The edition, published by Wehrhahn Verlag, brings together for the first time Humboldt’s most important climate writings from the years 1795 to 1847.

From the Humboldt Current to the Isothermal Lines.

A climatological research biography, this edition shows Humboldt as both theorist and empiricist of a cross-disciplinary climate research that considers interactions of geological, biological, and anthropological processes. Humboldt’s contributions cover atmospheric chemistry in mining, heat distribution on Earth, sound propagation at night, the temperature of raindrops, a northern light in Berlin, and conditions for viticulture. Humboldt compared the snow depths of the Andes, the Himalayas, and the Alps. He measured the temperature of the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and the Baltic Sea. He studied the climate of Spain and Central Asia. Humboldt described a cold water current on the west coast of South America - the ’Humboldt Current’ named after him. He developed the infographic concept of ’isothermal lines’ (zones of equal average temperature), which is now familiar from every weather report.

Still relevant today

A comprehensive afterword by Michael Strobl explains Humboldt’s decades-long preoccupation with climatological issues. ’Humboldt recognized early on that humans influence the climate with their interventions in the environment,’ says Strobl. A foreword by climatologists Stefan Brönnimann and Martin Claussen puts his work in context from today’s perspective. ’Atmospheric chemistry and physics, glacier boundaries, ocean currents, vegetation belts, temperature layers and climate zones - all of these were already known to Humboldt, and he largely helped to establish the research on them,’ says Stefan Brönnimann. Martin Claussen explains: ’In addition to his enormous range, we are impressed by Humboldt’s precise observations, his innovative conclusions and his holistic view of the climate, which always includes man. As both a theorist and an empiricist, he laid an important foundation for climate science today.’ Brönnimann’s conclusion on Humboldt’s research achievement is: ’Humboldt’s definition of the elements and factors that make up the climate is still relevant today.’