By Nancy Faber
November 01, 1976 12:00 PM

A monstrous earthquake rocks China, and another the Philippines. A volcano threatens the Caribbean, and unprecedented drought in northern Europe brings crop failures to France and forest fires to England. In the U.S. there are both drought and floods—and more than the average number of tornadoes. This year’s freaky natural phenomena have people nervously wondering what’s next. Albuquerque scientist Dr. Iben Browning has a grim forecast based on what’s happening in the solar system and beneath the earth’s surface. He says much of the world is headed for cooler, crueler weather.

Weather is a subject that has fascinated Browning since his four and a half years as a bomber pilot in World War II, “when it meant survival.” Something of a Renaissance scientist (his specialties are physics, mathematics, physiology, genetics and bacteriology), Browning got his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Texas, studied biophysics at Pennsylvania and worked as an engineer and weapons systems analyst before setting up the Thomas Bede Foundation, a consulting firm, in 1962. He is the co-author of Climate and the Affairs of Men, published last year, and an adviser on weather to several industrial and agricultural firms. His wife, Florence, a former Army nurse, works with her husband. Recently Browning talked with Nancy Faber of PEOPLE about the long-and short-term significance of his projections.

What will the world’s climate be like for the next 50 years?

The trend will be toward colder weather in the Northern Hemisphere and warmer in the Southern. In the years between 1920 and 1950 we had an extremely warm period in the Northern Hemisphere, probably the warmest since 400 B.C.

How much colder will it get?

About two degrees Fahrenheit. That compares to a 400-mile latitude shift. Weather in Norfolk, Va. will be like the weather is now in Boston, and the weather in Albuquerque will be like Denver’s.

What caused the warm trend we have been having?

Low tidal forces triggered very few volcano explosions. And at the same time there was very high solar activity. This means that the high production of ultraviolet rays from the sun has increased the layer of ozone. Ozone absorbs the sunlight and warms the air.

How can high volcanic activity make cold weather?

A big volcanic eruption shoots dust and sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. The dust reflects the sunlight away from earth; the sulfur dioxide combines with ozone and water to make sulfuric acid droplets which also reflect away sunlight. And both the dust and droplets also seed clouds, which provides another cover.

Can you give an example?

Yes. The great volcano Krakatoa erupted off the island of Java in 1883. For three years it cut off 25 percent of the earth’s direct sunlight. Twenty-five percent of sunlight for a year equals all the energy all people have used for all purposes in the three million years that man has been a species.

Does the cooling trend mean earth will receive less solar energy?

Yes. Many astronomers say for at least 30 years we can expect fewer sunspots and less ultraviolet light. Consequently, there will be less ozone to warm the earth.

How would a colder climate affect North America?

Crops that have moved north may return south again. Tobacco, once a staple of the Confederate states, now is the second most valuable crop in Ontario, Canada. I expect with the colder weather up north that tobacco-growing areas will retreat south again. The overall trend in this country will be for more rainfall in the Corn Belt. But you have to realize that along with a colder climate we will have highly variable local weather. Thus right now there is the likelihood of drought in the Midwest lasting in varying degrees until 1982.

What about the food-growing ability of the rest of the world?

There will be a net decline in agricultural production in the U.S.S.R., northern Europe and places with the latitude of Central America. The Southern Hemisphere will not increase its production proportionately, except in the area, say, between Brasilia and the equator. Countries around the Mediterranean, southern China, northern Mexico and the southern U.S. would become more productive.

What will this overall lower food production mean?

Poorer countries will have famine. When affluent and particularly aggressive countries have a decline, they do whatever works to avoid famine. It could be purchasing food—or conquest. We are now facing such a time. Anyone who thinks Europe will suffer food shortages in silence has not studied history.

How many volcanoes are there?

Approximately 10,000 around the world, and 85 percent of them are on the edges of continental plates. There are three very nervous ones now in the state of Washington. The edge of the Pacific is called the ring of fire.

Was this summer’s earthquake in China due to volcanic action?

That quake occurred on the day of the second highest tide of 1976. This signifies the greatest strain on the earth’s surface in six months. If you build a fire under a boiler with all the valves closed and then tap the boiler with a hammer frequently, you are certain to have an explosion. On a global scale, the tidal force acts like such a tap. The explosion is either a volcano or an earthquake. The earth has forces building up all the time and tidal forces trigger them.

Hasn’t man triggered the changing climate?

No. Growing up on a south Texas cotton farm, I never developed the illusion that I influenced anything. When windstorms blew the cotton right out of the bolls, it kept reminding me that humans are very small in the scheme of things. Anyone who thinks man has a large influence on his environment is on an ego trip. Consider Krakatoa: When it erupted it shot roughly one cubic mile of granite 50 miles high. By comparison, if all the world’s people were as rich as Americans and could produce three pounds of garbage a day, and if it were ground up and shot into the stratosphere, it would take 400 years of garbage to equal Krakatoa’s one shot.

Do such climatic changes have a social effect?

Planners expect one year to be like the last. Thus in warm weather bureaucrats make plans that will work. But as this anvil chorus of volcanoes begins, the weather becomes so variable that plans won’t work anymore. My studies of the last 4,000 years show that most dynasties start at times of high tidal force—like now—because the old ways no longer work. All revelation-type founders of religions are born during warm-weather times—Christ and Confucius, for example. But reformers like the first Protestants are born in cold, high-tidal-force times, when the ideology no longer works.

How do you interpret this?

People who develop their image of the world in hard times are hard people. Those born in easy times are softer. It is the environment that shapes man, not vice versa.

What do you predict might happen to man in the next 50 years because of the climate changes?

Well, first of all, I don’t predict. I project from past data. Tidal forces and solar activity were last like they are now between 1887 and 1893. In that time there was a dust bowl in the U.S., drought on the high plains and in the Midwest, a financial panic and depression, famine in Russia and severe food shortage in northern Europe.

How might the future differ from the past?

One thing is different now: Most areas of the world have such large populations that they cannot produce enough food even in good times. Yet in the U.S. we have created the most productive land in the world. Cooler trends will not stop us. Our farmers, who make up only one-quarter of one percent of the world’s population, managed to produce 25 percent of the world’s wheat and feed grains last year. In the future the U.S. will be the absolute dominant producer of essential food.