Eunice Newton Foote
The Mother Of Climate Science.
By all rights, hers should be a household name.
Equipped only with an air pump, two glass cylinders and four thermometers, Foote performed a remarkable series of experiments investigating the interaction of the sun’s rays on different gases. She tested various samples, placing them out in the sun and observing their changes in temperature as heat was absorbed. She wrote these notes of her inquiry:
"The highest effect of the sun’s rays I have found to be in carbonic acid gas.”
"One of the receivers was filled with it, the other with common air, and the result was as follows . . . . The receiver containing the gas became itself much heated—very sensibly more so than the other—and on being removed, it was many times as long in cooling. . . . On comparing the sun's heat in different gases, I found it to be in hydrogen gas, 104º [Fahrenheit]; in common air, 106º; in oxygen gas, 108º; and in carbonic acid gas, 125º."
Today, the substance she describes ‘Carbonic Acid Gas’ is universally known. Around the world it sparks fierce debates; its prevalence, rapidly surging past 415 parts per million in the atmosphere (the highest level in 3 million years), has ignited a global crisis. You know it as carbon dioxide.
She immediately understood the importance of this revelation:
"An atmosphere of that gas [i.e., carbon dioxide] would give to our earth a high temperature; and if as some suppose, at one period of its history the air had mixed with it a larger proportion than as present, an increased temperature from its own action as well as from increased weight must have necessarily resulted."
She had, on her own, discovered that certain gases store and radiate heat differently than others. Foote theorised that changes in climate had and would result from changes to the concentration of certain gases in the atmosphere. The ice sheets of a glacial period, for instance, must have existed at a time when the atmosphere contained less carbon, which she had shown to be an effective trapper of heat.
Furthermore emitting more of these gases into the atmosphere would result in the opposite. More heat would be absorbed within the atmosphere instead of being emitted, yet the same amount would be received from the radiation of the sun . The profound conclusion: the globe would warm. We call her breakthrough discovery- the principal cause of our changing climate- the greenhouse effect.
Circumstances Affecting the Heat of the Sun’s Rays, the short paper in which she lay out these principles, was accepted at the American Association for the Advancement of Science on August 23rd 1856. It exemplified every attribute of an outstanding research scientist: independently, she proposed a problem, invented experiments to test it, manipulated apparatus and thoroughly reported all the results together with their scientific implications. However, although women were ‘in principle’ allowed to speak, in order to have her work taken seriously it had to be presented by a male colleague, Prof. John Henry, who began by stating that “Science was of no country and of no sex.” If only we could say that such a travesty as bias on the basis of an individual’s gender didn’t still exist in science today. One can only imagine what she might have achieved, given access to the same training, resources and respect as her male contemporaries.
From there her work was published, this time under her own name, in a journal where it seems to have been quietly forgotten until it as recently as 2010, when it was discovered by a retired geologist.
Years before breaching into the scientific world, Eunice had been a part of one other major event. In 1848, she attended the first Woman’s Rights Convention, and was the fourth signatory of the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments. This historic document marked the beginning of the movement for women’s right to political representation.
Foote ought to be listed among the titans of the scientific world. It is inconceivable that the first pioneer of climate science and an exemplary practitioner of the scientific method in the face of such obstacles is not deserving of such an accolade.