Gilbert N. Plass (1921-2004) was a Canadian-born physicist who made important early contributions to the carbon dioxide theory of climate change. He graduated from Harvard University in 1941, received a Ph.D in physics from Princeton University in 1947, and eventually became a professor at Texas A&M University. Between 1953 and 1959, Plass developed an early computer model of infrared radiative transfer and published a number of articles on carbon dioxide and climate. Plass used new detailed measurements of the infrared absorption bands and newly available digital computers to replace the older graphical methods.
Plass developed his approach with a thorough set of one-dimensional computations, taking into account the structure of the absorption bands at all layers of the atmosphere. His final figures showed convincingly that adding or subtracting CO2 could seriously affect the radiation balance layer by layer through the atmosphere, altering the temperature by a degree or more down to ground level. In a seminal article in 1956, Plass calculated a 3.6 °C surface temperature increase for a doubling of atmospheric CO2. Contrary to the conventional wisdom at the time, Plass argued that the effect of water vapor absorption did not mask the carbon dioxide effect. Plass also postulated that the oceans would be able to sequester only a small amount of the anthropogenic carbon, resulting in an increase in atmospheric CO2. He calculated that consumption of all of the Earth's fossil fuel resources over the next millenium would increase surface temperature by 7 °C. Plass' work was pivotal in the establishment of the central role of carbon dioxide in climate change, and in the danger that anthropogenic carbon emissions posed to the Earth's climate system.
- Weart, Spencer, Basic Radiation Calculations, The Discovery of Global Warming, American Institute of Physics.
- Fleming, James R., The carbon dioxide theory of climate change: emergence, eclipse, and reemergence, ca 1850-1950, Colby College, Waterville, ME