Discovery of the greenhouse effect: a short history
Whether you are a die-hard denier of anthropogenic global warming, believe unequivocally in catastrophic human-caused global warming, or lie skeptically somewhere between these "wing nuts", there is (at least) one critically relevant common denominator: the greenhouse effect.
Yet, I'll bet wherever you stand on the subject of global warming a vast majority believe the greenhouse effect is an invention of the 20th century. Not so!
The first science (physics) based possibility of what is now known as the greenhouse effect was proposed by Joseph Fourier in 1824. Fourier calculated the earth would be an average of about 60 degrees Fahrenheit cooler if it was warmed only by incoming (short-wave) solar radiation. He concluded the atmosphere must act as an insulator of heat loss by the outgoing (long-wave) radiation emitted by the earth's surface. However, Fourier did not speculate on what gases in the atmosphere were responsible for trapping the heat.
That question was not addressed until 1859 when John Tyndall began to study the capacities of various gases to intercept and absorb the heat radiated toward space. The general view of physicists at this time for seemingly inexplicable reasons was that atmospheric gases were effectively transparent to radiant heat leaving the earth's surface or absorbed imperceptible amounts.
Tyndall constructed an apparatus to measure the capacity of the individual gaseous constituents of the atmosphere to absorb or transmit heat. He showed that the main atmospheric gases, nitrogen and oxygen, are almost transparent to radiant heat. The most important discovery was that carbon dioxide and water vapor were strong absorbers of radiant energy and that even in relatively small quantities they could account for the heat trapped by the atmosphere. Indeed, New Scientist referred to Tyndall as the "man who discovered greenhouse gases".
Moreover, Tyndall was convinced that changes in the various components of the atmosphere could have produced "all the mutations of climate which the researches of geologists reveal". He could not possibly have imagined that this very subject 150 years later would become the science and political hot potato at the center of the intense discussion (debate) on global warming and climate change.
Note: An organization was established in 2000 based in the United Kingdom to bring together scientists, economists, engineers and social scientists to the issues surrounding climate change. In recognition of John Tyndall's contributions, it is known as Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.
| November 12, 2010; 12:45 PM ET
Categories: Climate Change, Tracton
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