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No 'eureka moment': the evolution of climate science

 

What if Earth's atmosphere was infused with extra carbon dioxide, mused amateur scientist Eunice Foote in an 1856 research paper that concluded the gas was very good at absorbing heat.

"An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature," she wrote superslot  in the study, published in the American Journal of Science and Arts and then swiftly forgotten.

The American scientist and women's rights activist, who only wrote one more paper, could not have known the full significance of her extraordinary statement, said Alice Bell, author of a recent book on the climate crisis -- "Our Biggest Experiment" -- that features Foote.

This was the decade that the United States first began to drill for oil. It is also the baseline period of global temperatures we now use to chart the fossil fuel driven warming of the planet.

Foote, whose work was rediscovered in recent years, is now seen as part of a multi-generational exploration, spanning some 200 years, unravelling the mysteries of how the climate works -- and more recently how human activities have tipped it out of balance.

"There is no eureka moment with one great genius in climate change science," Bell told AFP.

"Climate science is a story of people over centuries and different disciplines, different countries working together, incrementally learning more and more."

People have believed human activities like deforestation could alter the local climate since at least the ancient Greeks.

But in terms of the global climate, the story of our understanding of what we now call the greenhouse effect, arguably began in the 1820s with French scientist Joseph Fourier.

- Greenhouse gases -

Fourier calculated that Earth would be much colder if it was not enveloped in an insulating blanket of gases.

"He realised that the atmosphere was doing something to prevent heat immediately being radiated into space," said science historian Roland Jackson.

A few decades later -- in perhaps the first documented experiment of C02's warming potential -- Foote filled glass cylinders with ordinary air, moist air and carbon dioxide to see how hot they became in sunlight compared to shade.

The container with C02 warmed more than the others and "was many times as long in cooling", she reported, although she was not able to make a distinction between Earth's outgoing infrared radiation -- which is behind the greenhouse effect -- and incoming solar radiation.

"Carbon dioxide can absorb heat, that's her discovery," said Jackson, who co-authored an analysis of her work published by the Royal Society last year.

"And she made the supposition from that, that if you increase the amount of C02, it could change the climate. She needs to be recognised for that."

Centre for Community Journalism