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Gilbert Plass

AKA Gilbert Norman Plass

Born: 22-Mar-1922 [1]
Birthplace: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Died: 1-Mar-2004
Location of death: Bryan, TX
Cause of death: Alzheimer's

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Physicist

Nationality: Canada
Executive summary: Climate change scientist

Working at Michigan State University in the mid-1950s, Canadian physicist Gilbert Plass had access to some of the era's most advanced computers, and used them to develop the first computer models of infrared radiative transfer, calculating how solar and infrared radiation contributes to climate and climate change. His modeling showed that the accelerating accrual of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, coming primarily from anthropogenic (man-made) sources including rapidly-developing industry and manufacturing, would have a serious impact on planetary climates.

Building on the work of Svante Arrhenius and Guy Stewart Callendar, Plass wrote several articles exploring the link between rising CO2 levels and rising temperatures. His landmark paper "The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change" was published in Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society in 1953, and his widely-read report "Carbon Dioxide and the Climate" was published in Scientific American in 1956.

In broad terms, Plass's work showed that adding CO2 to the atmosphere increases the absorption of infrared radiation; that the presence of water vapor in the atmosphere does not negate the effect of increased carbon dioxide; and that the oceans could absorb only a relatively small percentage of the increasing man-made carbons, leaving the majority of these carbons to accumulate in the atmosphere.

More specifically, he warned that anthropogenic effects on the climate amounted to an experiment already underway with the planet's atmosphere, but that the results of that experiment would not be well-understood for decades. "If at the end of [the 20th] century," he wrote, "measurements show that the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere has risen appreciably and at the same time the temperature has continued to rise throughout the world, it will be firmly established that carbon dioxide is an important factor in causing climatic change."

Plass predicted that CO2 levels would rise 30% from 1900 to 2000, warming planetary temperatures by about 1C findings which have proven remarkably prescient, especially considering the equipment and data available in the 1950s. The most recent research suggests that CO2 rose 37% during the 20th century, and that planetary temperatures rose by about 0.7C.

Plass also studied electron emissions, electromagnetic and gravitational action, electrostatic electron lenses, neutron physics, and nuclear fission, and worked on the Manhattan Project that developed the first atomic weapons. He was a lifelong collector of stamps, coins, and classical music, and for twenty years beginning in 1978, he produced and hosted Collector's Choice, a weekly program of classical music that aired (and still airs, in reruns) on Texas A&M's public radio station, KAMU. Some of his stamp collections were displayed under the pseudonym Norman Sunier.


[1] Some sources list 1920 or 1921.

Wife: Thyra (d. 2003)
Son: Gordon Marc Plass (d. 1994)
Daughter: Lucie Susan Plass Kerwood

    University: BS Physics, Harvard University (1941, summa cum laude)
    University: PhD Physics, Princeton University (1947)
    Scholar: Physics, University of Chicago (1942-45)
    Lecturer: Physics, Johns Hopkins University (1946-50)
    Teacher: Assoc. Prof. of Physics, Johns Hopkins University (1950-55)
    Scholar: Physics, Michigan State University (1954-55)
    Professor: Atmospheric and Space Science, University of Texas at Arlington (1963-68)
    Professor: Physics, Texas A&M University (1968-86)

    Lockheed Research Scientist (1955-56)
    Ford Motors Research Scientist (1956-63)
    Infrared Physics and Technology Consulting Editor (1960-79)
    American Meteorological Society
    Phi Beta Kappa Society
    Manhattan Project (1942-45)
    US Atomic Energy Commission Office of Scientific Research & Development
    Risk Factors: Alzheimer's

Author of books:
Methods for Calculating Thermodynamic and Optical Properties of Air (1957)
Infrared Transmission Studies (1962, three volumes; with V.R. Stull and P.J. Wyatt)
Infrared Physics and Engineering (1963)
Transmittance Tables for Slant Paths in the Stratosphere (1963)
Canal Zone Stamps (1986, philately; with Geoffrey Brewster and Richard H. Salz)


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