Weatherwatch: an unsung climate hero comes in from the cold

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Eunice Foote, a pioneer in climate research of whom few people have heard. She showed that water vapour and carbon dioxide helped to heat Earth’s atmosphere, and realised that when the atmosphere had higher levels of carbon dioxide it made the climate much warmer.

Her work was presented in August 1856 at a prestigious scientific conference in the US, but had to be given by a male colleague because women were not allowed to give talks at the meeting. Her study was not even included in the conference proceedings, although a summary of the talk appeared in a report about the meeting a year later.

In 1859, the renowned physicist John Tyndall, working in London, demonstrated how certain gases such as carbon dioxide and water vapour in the atmosphere warmed the climate – what later became known as the greenhouse effect. He made no mention of Foote in his research and whether he did not know of her work or deliberately ignored it remains unknown. But Tyndall’s experiments became widely accepted as a cornerstone of work on the greenhouse effect. Despite Foote’s insights, her contribution to climate research became a footnote in history and is only now starting to come to light.


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