Climate Corner: Foote predicted climate change 165 years ago

May 28, 2022

Linda Eve Seth

Scientists understood the physics of climate change in the 1800s — thanks to a woman named Eunice Newton Foote. Foote (1819-1888), an American scientist (and distant relative of Sir Isaac Newton), was the first person to conduct and publish an experiment on how carbon dioxide (CO2) absorbs solar heat. In other words, it was in the mid-1800s that she pinpointed the driving force behind climate change.

Foote was an American scientist, inventor, women’s rights campaigner, and a mother. She was a rare breed; a female scientist working in the U.S. in the mid-19th Century. She was known for her theory of the effect of carbon dioxide gas on atmospheric temperature.

In 1856, at the age of 37, Eunice documented the underlying cause of today’s climate change crisis. She prepared a brief scientific paper which was the first on record worldwide to describe the power of carbon dioxide gas to absorb heat — the driving force of global warming. Her article, “Circumstances Affecting the Heat of the Sun’s Rays” (1856), appeared in the American Journal of Science and Arts.

Foote’s experiment was not complex. She placed a thermometer in each of two glass cylinders, pumped carbon dioxide gas into one and air into the other. She set the cylinders in the sun. Reading the thermometers, Foote saw that the cylinder containing carbon dioxide got much hotter than the one with air. Her observations revealed to Foote that carbon dioxide would strongly absorb heat in the atmosphere.

Now that she had her simulated environments, she had to manipulate them. She placed both thermometers in the sun, then she observed and documented changes. The cylinder with a high-density environment became hotter than the low-density environment.

She decided to repeat the experiment with “moist” air and “dry” air by adding water to one cylinder. This allowed her to see that damp air would become significantly hotter than dry air. Finally, she also experimented with adding different gases to the cylinders to measure their effects as well.

After changing the conditions and variables, she reviewed all of her documentation to draw her conclusions. Upon comparing the different conditions, she noted that carbon dioxide would absorb and retain the sun’s rays much longer than other gases.

Foote then understood that changing the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would change its temperature. Her discovery of the high heat absorption of carbon dioxide gas led Foote to conclude that “…if the air (contained) a higher proportion of carbon dioxide than at present, an increased temperature” would result.

Foote was the first scientist to define what we now call the greenhouse gas effect. She was the first to demonstrate how different proportions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would change its temperature. She drew the conclusion that excess carbon in our atmosphere would lead to an increase in global temperature. And so, Eunice Newton Foote was the first person to determine and predict the cause of climate change — over 165 years ago.

As a woman, Foote was prohibited from presenting her findings to the other members of the 1856 American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Albany, N.Y. However, Foote’s work was published in a 1857 volume of The Annual of Scientific Discovery.

Since her early experiments, we’ve learned a lot more about the intricacies of climate change. While Foote was unable to determine why carbon absorbed more heat, she was still able to understand why it was significant and how it could impact humanity.

By the mid-1800s, human activities were already dramatically increasing the CO2 in the atmosphere. Burning more and more fossil fuels — coal, and eventually oil and gas — added an ever-increasing amount of carbon dioxide into the air. All of this was understood well over a century ago.

It turns out that the world has known about the warming risk posed by excessive levels of CO2 for many decades, even before the invention of cars or coal-fired power stations. Foote had explicitly warned about the basic science 165 years ago. Perhaps we should have listened to this woman more closely.

Until next time, be kind to your Mother Earth.


Linda Eve Seth, SLP, M.Ed., is a mother, grandmother, concerned citizen and member of MOVCA.