Scientists understood physics of climate change in the 1800s – thanks to a woman named Eunice Foote

Eunice Foote, an American scientist, documented the root cause of the climate change crisis. This was long before the political divisions over climate change.
Carlyn Iverson/NOAA - The Conversation

1856 was the year. Foote's short scientific paper was the first one to explain the remarkable ability of carbon dioxide gas absorb heat, the driving force behind global warming.

Carbon dioxide is an odorless and tasteless transparent gas. It forms when fuels are burned, such as coal, oil, gasoline, or wood.

One might assume that heat from the Earth's surface radiates back into space as it heats. It is not so simple. Because greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and atmospheric water vapour absorb heat, the atmosphere is hotter than anticipated. Because they trap heat in the Earth's atmosphere and radiate it back, greenhouse gases are similar to glass. Although the idea that the atmosphere traps heat is well-known, it was not the cause.

Foote performed a simple experiment. Foote placed a thermometer into each of the two glass cylinders and pumped carbon dioxide gas and air into them. Then she set them in the Sun. Foote noticed that the cylinder with carbon dioxide was much hotter than one with air.

The American Journal of Science and Arts published Eunice Footes' paper. Royal Society

Foote's discovery of high heat absorption by carbon dioxide gas in the air led her to conclude that an increase in temperature would be possible if there was a higher concentration of carbon dioxide in the air.

John Tyndall, a well-known Irish scientist, measured heat absorption of carbon dioxide in 1861. He was so amazed that something so transparent to the light could absorb heat so strongly that he conducted several hundred experiments using this substance.

Tyndall recognized the potential effects on the climate. Tyndall stated that every variation in water vapor or carbon dioxide would cause a change in the climate. Tyndall concluded that even a small amount of methane could have significant effects on the climate.

In the 1800s, carbon dioxide was already being increased by humans.

Already in the 1800s, humans had already been causing a dramatic increase in carbon dioxide levels. The atmosphere has been adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as a result of burning more fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas.

Svante Arrenius, a Nobel laureate and Swedish scientist, was the first to quantify carbon dioxide-induced climate changes. He calculated in 1896 that the Arctic temperature would rise by 8 to 9 degrees Celsius if the carbon dioxide level rose to 2.5 or 3. Arrhenius's estimate was probably conservative. Since 1900, atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen by around 300 parts per million to about 417 ppm. The Arctic has already warmed up by approximately 3.8 C (6.8 F) since then.

Nils Ekholm (a Swedish meteorologist) agreed. He wrote in 1901 that the current burning of pit coal was so intense that it would undoubtedly raise the earth's mean temperature.

This was all well understood over a century ago.

The Keeling curve tracks changes in carbon dioxide concentrations. The rise and fall in seasons is evident as carbon dioxide concentrations increase. Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Scientists initially believed that a slight rise in Earth's temperature would be beneficial, but they couldn't see the future huge increase in fossil fuel consumption. Guy Callendar, an English engineer, documented in 1937 how rising temperatures were linked to rising levels of carbon dioxide. He wrote that man has increased the atmospheric carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels over the past 50 years. The world's temperature have actually risen.

1965. A warning to President Kennedy.

Lyndon Johnson was warned by scientists in 1965 about climate change. They concluded that man is conducting a huge geophysical experiment. He is now burning fossil fuels that have slowly accumulated over 500 million years.

Over the past half century, more of that ice has been lost, sea levels have risen further, and acidification has become a major problem for ocean-dwelling organisms due to increasing carbon dioxide absorption.

The conclusion that human-generated greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels are causing dangerous warming and other harmful effects has been supported by scientific research. However, politicians have been slow in responding. Some politicians have stuck to the same approach as some fossil fuel companies, which is to deny and cast doubt on the truth. Others prefer to wait and watch, despite overwhelming evidence that costs and harm will continue to increase.

Reality is fast surpassing scientific models. Megadroughts and heat waves in western U.S., record temperatures and deadly zombie fires in Siberia and Australia, as well as relentless, intense Gulf Coast rains and hurricanes on the European coast are all signs of climate change.

Since the inception of cars and coal-fired power plants, the world has known for decades about the warming risks posed by high levels of carbon dioxide. Eunice Foote was a rare female scientist of her time. She warned about basic science 165 year ago. We haven't listened to our intuitions more.

Neil Anderson, a former chemical engineer and chemistry teacher contributed to this article.

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This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site that shares ideas from academic experts. It was written by Sylvia G. Dee from Rice University.

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Sylvia G. Dee is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations (NOAA) and The National Aeronautics and Space Administrations (NASA).