Who is Eunice Foote?

Climate Change and its Pioneering Scientists

By Michael Caduto

Today’s carbon-based fuels formed from the ancient remains of giant plants (coal) and photosynthetic microorganisms (oil and gas). Many of today’s oil and gas deposits formed from diatoms and other kinds of marine plankton that lived from 252 to 66 million years ago during the Mesozoic era. Coal formed from the remains of ancient ferns, trees, clubmosses and other giant plants that grew during the Carboniferous period—a 60-million-year span that ended some 299 million years ago. Solar energy from eons ago accumulated in the tissues of these ancient plants and accrued in their remains. Under heat and pressure, those ancient stores of carbon were transformed over time into what we now refer to as fossil fuels. Beginning with the industrial era in the 18th century—and greatly accelerating over the past 50 years—humankind has been burning fossil fuels and releasing millions of years’ worth of stored carbon into the atmosphere at a blistering pace.

During the first two weeks of November 2021, political leaders from around the globe will meet in Glasgow, Scotland for the COP (Conference of the Parties) 26 UN Climate Change Conference. Participants include the 197 countries that have signed the 1994 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. If a full-scale in-person event is able to be held, up to 30,000 people are expected to attend. Scottish politicians have invited President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Following years of retrenchment on climate change action, COP 26 offers the world, and particularly the United States, an opportunity to demonstrate a renewed commitment toward taking action to combat global warming.

Humankind has allowed global warming to advance and wreak havoc on the environment despite the fact that we have known about the impacts of greenhouse gases on climate for at least 175 years. In 1856, Eunice Foote’s groundbreaking paper, “Circumstances Affecting the Heat of the Sun’s Rays,” was presented at the Eighth Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Albany, New York. Her research demonstrated that concentrations of certain gases, especially carbon dioxide, heated when exposed to the sun. Explained Foote, “an atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature…” Although John Tyndall didn’t publish his paper drawing similar conclusions until 1859, his work is often cited as having been the first to open the door to our understanding of climate change. Down through history, women’s work has often been discounted, and so Foote’s pioneering discovery was largely ignored. (In fact, Foote was not allowed to read her own paper at the 1856 proceedings; it was presented by the Smithsonian’s Joseph Henry.)

Woodstock, Vermont’s own leadership role in recognizing the causes of climate change date back to conservationist George Perkins Marsh, whose 1847 lecture to the Agricultural Society of Rutland may be the earliest direct reference to human-induced changes in climate:

“It is certain that climate itself has in many instances been gradually changed and ameliorated or deteriorated by human action. The draining of swamps and the clearing of forests perceptibly effect the evaporation from the earth, and of course the mean quantity of moisture suspended in the air… Within narrow limits too, domestic fires and artificial structures create and diffuse increased warmth, to an extent that may affect vegetation. The mean temperature of London is a degree or two higher than that of the surrounding country.”

With these early observations, Marsh touches on water vapor’s role as a greenhouse gas. He also observes an urban phenomenon now known as a “heat island,” in which the artificial surfaces in urban environments—such as concrete, asphalt and steel— absorb and radiate heat more readily than the leaves and other surfaces found in natural environments, raising the average temperatures in cities and towns by 2-5°F above that of the surrounding countryside.

Nearly 175 years after Foote’s and Marsh’s prescience about climate change—and now that the world is experiencing a full-blown climate crisis—the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences recognized the work of three contemporary scientists for their crucial work in modeling and measuring climate change by awarding them the 2021 Nobel Prize in physics. Japanese-American meteorologist Syukuro Manabe and German oceanographer and climate modeler Klaus Hasselmann were awarded half of the prize “for the physical modelling of Earth’s climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global warming.” The other half of the prize went to Italian physicist Giorgi Parisi, whose innovative research methods to discover patterns amid chaos were later adapted for use in understanding the impacts of climate change through time.

Time is the crown, and the root, of climate change and its multifarious impacts on the global environment. Humankind has had ample foreknowledge of this critical problem for the better part of two centuries, but we waited until our meteorological backs were up against the wall before doing something about it.

Whether or not a particular scientist has been recognized for their contribution to our understanding of climate change, however, is not just a matter of timing. It is also a matter of sex and degree.

Eunice Foote’s article, “Circumstances Affecting the Heat of the Sun’s Rays,” American Journal of Science, 1856.

What you can do: 

  • See the author’s article, “What You Can Do About Climate Change” on page 2D of the October 7, 2021 edition of the Vermont Standard.
  • Visit the following web page to learn how you can get involved with shaping the direction of Vermont’s Climate Change Action Plan: https://climatechange.vermont.gov/getinvolved
  • Contact Sustainable Woodstock: Collaborate in our efforts to fight global warming and assist in crafting a plan for climate action in Woodstock and the Upper Valley: director@sustainablewoodstock.org. Join SW’s Energy and Transportation Action Group: programs@sustainablewoodstock.org


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