Understanding how atmospheric gases absorb solar radiation and affect Earth’s temperature is fundamental to climate science. We now know that the pioneering work for this understanding was done in 1856, by a relatively unknown woman, Eunice Foote. Her story, which came to light only in 2011 (go.nature.com/2xky63a), shows that climate science and history intertwine in ways still relevant today, on the 200th anniversary of her birth.
Foote’s laboratory work showed that certain gases absorb solar radiation and warm the atmosphere more than others. She found that the action of the Sun’s rays was “greater in moist than in dry air” and that the highest effect of the sun’s rays was in “carbonic acid gas”. She wrote that “an atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature” (Am. J. Sci. Arts XXII, 382–383; 1856). Her conclusions pinpointed the crucial role of carbon dioxide and water vapour as regulators of Earth’s temperature.
Although her paper preceded John Tyndall’s (Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 151, 1–36; 1861), Tyndall was the one credited with the discovery of the role of radiation absorption by atmospheric gases, in part owing to his later comprehensive work on the topic. Foote went on to contribute to the women’s rights movement after signing the Declaration of Sentiments in 1848.
Nature 571, 174 (2019)