The Great-Great-Grandmother of Climate Science
Herein of the now-forgotten woman who discovered the warming effect of CO2.
The primary climate science ever published was in 1856 by Eunice Newton Foote, who discovered that CO2 and water vapor trapped the sun’s heat. Her paper was read on the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That paper, together with one other paper of hers, were the one physics papers by an American woman for the following thirty years. She deserves recognition as a part of Women’s History Month, begun yesterday.
Foote was born in 1819, a distant relative of Isaac Newton. From age 19, she attended the Rensselaer School (now Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute). When she was 22, she married a lawyer who apparently supported her efforts. He apparently also had a technical turn of mind, becoming Commissioner of Patents in 1868 after which serving on the Board of Examiners-in-Chief.
Foote was an energetic feminist who attended the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, a milestone within the crusade for girls’s rights. She was a neighbor and friend of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the famous suffragette and signed the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments, which demanded equal rights for girls and the proper to vote.
Her experiment was easy but revealing. In her home lab, she exposed cylinders of air with various amounts of water vapor, CO2, and hydrogen to sunlight. When she measured the resulting temperature, she found that water vapor influenced the warming of air but that CO2 had probably the most pronounced and lasting warming effect. She observed that “an environment of that gas would give to our earth a extreme temperature; and if, as some suppose, at one period of its history, the air had mixed with it a bigger proportion than at present, an increased temperature from its own motion, in addition to from increased weight, should have necessarily resulted.” Thus, Foote was the primary to detect the warming effect of CO2 and the primary to see how that would impact global climate.
Foote died in 1888 on the then-ripe old age of 69. Last yr, the American Geophysical Union established the Eunice Newton Foote Medal for Earth-Life Science in her honor. The medal is given annually to “an exceptional senior scientist for outstanding creative achievements in research on the intersection of Earth and life sciences that substantially advanced understanding of the past, present, or way forward for key facets of the Earth system, or of the prospects for all times on worlds beyond our own, or of the long run of human well-being.”
The primary recipient of the medal was the late Marilyn Fogel from U.C. Riverside. In line with the citation accompanying the medal,
“Marilyn Fogel’s groundbreaking profession spurred the opening of entirely recent research areas within the biogeosciences, advancing knowledge on the Earth-life interface and provoking a generation of geoscientists. During a profession spanning greater than 40 years, she drove the mixing of isotope geochemistry with a wide range of topics within the environmental and life sciences, starting from paleoecology to the search for all times on other worlds to questions in human evolution.”
If anyone reading this happens to have the resources, it could be nice so as to add some funding to the medal. Even higher could be a Eunice Newton Foote Chair at Rensselaer.