Sunday 5 March 2017

Global warming in the original Celsius scale

A short post with a question of counterfactual history.

The Celsius temperature scale developed by Anders Celsius (1701–1744) himself had 0 °C at the boiling point of water and freezing was 100 °C.

It had the advantage that negative numbers would not occur in normal use. Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit (1686–1736) achieved this for his temperature scale by choosing the lowest temperature in his village or a brine mixture as zero. Negative numbers may well have been controversial at the time. Only in the 17th century the idea of negative numbers was accepted by western mathematicians.

The forward scale we are used to was independently developed by several of Celsius' contemporaries. What would have happened if we had kept to original Celsius scale?

In forward degrees Celsius global warming produces an upward curve. In our current culture that is associated with progress and growth.

In the original Celsius scale the same plots would look more depressing like this.

If the temperature graphs had looked like the graphs of Arctic sea ice would that have changed the course of history? Would we have taken the problem seriously in the 1990s?


  1. This may have been driven by the air thermometers that were in use then, where a bulb of air expanded when heated and drove a liquid column down.

  2. Interesting idea. Even if I also suggested an explanation, thinking about it longer, I am not sure it needs one. Both directions were used at the time. The absolute zero temperature was not known yet and they did not have any traditions yet, so one direction did not feel more natural than the other, I would guess.


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