The 19th Century Woman Who Predicted Global Warming

Eunice Foote made an exceptional scientific discovery in 1856

Clive Thompson

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Photo by Chris LeBoutillier on Unsplash

By now, we all know the problems of greenhouse gases. Burning fossil fuels creates CO2 — with methane sometimes as side product as well — and it traps the sun’s heat. The result: Global warming, and all the weirding of climate that comes with it.

We moderns have known this since the 80s, when James Hansen testified to congress. I was 20 years old and read reports of his testimony with a cold feeling of dread. I remember thinking, shit: I wish society had known this long ago! We should have taken action years ago!

It turns out that we did know. Sort of!

The basic idea behind greenhouse gases was discovered over a century earlier — by a female suffragette who, in 1856, did some ingenious scientific experiments. When she wrote up her work, she neatly and pithily predicted the possibility that we’d one day cook the planet.

Eunice Foote was born in 1819 on a farm in Connecticut, and raised in Bloomfield, New York. In that period of history, few women received good technical educations, but Foote was an exception: Her parents sent her to the Troy Female Seminary, where she learned advanced math and science. She later became a prominent supporter of women’s rights; a friend of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she was on the editorial board of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, the first significant suffragist conference.

Foote also was deeply curious about the scientific debates of the day. Back in the mid 19th century, geologists were uncovering evidence about fascinating shifts of climate in the planet’s past. By looking at the coal deposits left behind in formerly swampy seas, they figured that Earth’s atmosphere had — for long periods of time — contained considerably higher levels of carbon dioxide. But, as the Kent State geologist Joseph D. Ortiz notes, none of the Victorian-era scientists understood that this increased CO2 would have affected the planet’s temperature.

That’s where Foote came in. She got intrigued by the question of whether gases can trap heat, and, if so, which gases were most potent at doing this.

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Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net