How Humboldt founded climate research

19.07.2023
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Alexander von Humboldt was a pioneer of climate research. On his travels to America (1799-1804) and Asia (1829), he carried out meteorological measurements, which he used to develop a modern, holistic model of the earth's climate. Humboldt thus founded comparative climatology. Humboldt's climate writings have now been collected and published at the University of Bern, annotated from the perspective of the history of knowledge and climatology.

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

"Humboldt is regarded as a pioneer of ecological thinking and the founder of comparative climatology," explains Thomas Nehrlich. "Through our Bern edition of the All writings we have gained an overview of Humboldt's research contributions. In addition to his major voyages to America and Central Asia, he analysed numerous other meteorological, geographical and oceanographic data. Humboldt's climate research is interdisciplinary and global." Michael Strobl adds: "Humboldt was one of the first to recognise the Earth's climate as a complex system. However, he did not summarise his findings in a book, but in his essays." The edition, published by Wehrhahn Verlag, is the first to bring together Humboldt's most important climate writings from the years 1795 to 1847.

From the Humboldt Current to the isothermal lines

As a climatological research biography, this edition shows Humboldt as a theorist and empiricist of interdisciplinary climate research that takes into account the interactions of geological, biological and anthropological processes. Humboldt's contributions deal with 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, the Pacific and the Baltic Sea. He analysed 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 familiar today from every weather report.

Still relevant today

A comprehensive epilogue by Michael Strobl explains Humboldt's decades-long preoccupation with climatological questions. "Humboldt recognised early on that humans influence the climate with their interventions in the environment," says Strobl. A foreword by climatologists Stefan Brönnimann and Martin Claussen categorises his work from today's perspective. "Atmospheric chemistry and physics, glacier boundaries, ocean currents, vegetation belts, temperature layers and climate zones - Humboldt was already familiar with all of this, and he was largely instrumental in founding research into it," 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 included mankind. As a theorist and empiricist, he created an important foundation for today's climate science." Brönnimann summarises Humboldt's research achievements as follows: "Humboldt's definition of the elements and factors that make up the climate is still relevant today."


About the book

Alexander von Humboldt: On the main causes of temperature variation on the earth's surface. Writings on climate, with a foreword by Stefan Brönnimann and Martin Claussen, edited by Thomas Nehrlich and Michael Strobl, Hanover: Wehrhahn 2023. 460 pages with numerous illustrations.

ISBN: 978-3-86525-990-5.

Further information and reading sample

About the editors

Thomas Nehrlich and Michael Strobl hold doctorates in literary studies and are editorial philologists at the Institute for German Studies of the University of Bern. 
Thomas Nehrlich edited Alexander von Humboldt's complete writings with Oliver Lubrich (2019 in ten volumes published by dtv, Munich; 2021 online: humboldt.unibe.ch/text). Most recent book publication: Alexander von Humboldt Berlin 1830-1835. Eine Publikationsbiographie, Bielefeld: Aisthesis 2021 (https://doi.org/10.46479/TNA00002). 
Michael Strobl is the editor of several volumes of Alexander von Humboldt's Complete Writings. In his dissertation, he researched, among other things, the Berlin Diary of the US correspondent William L. Shirer from 1934 to 1940: William L. Shirers Werk über NS-Deutschland. A contemporary witness as author, Darmstadt: WBG 2021.

About the authors of the foreword 

Stefan Brönnimann is Professor of Climatology at the Institute of Geography and Head of Climatology at the Oeschger Center for Climate Research at the University of Bern. He specialises in past climate fluctuations and current urban heat. The history of science repeatedly leads him to interdisciplinary collaboration.
Martin Claussen is Director Emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology and Professor of Meteorology at the University of Hamburg. He is interested in climate system modelling and the interaction between vegetation and climate.

19.07.2023

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