Pioneers of the science of the greenhouse effect

  November 15, 2021   Read time 1 min
Pioneers of the science of the greenhouse effect
The warming effect of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was first recognised in 1827 by the French scientist Jean-Baptiste Fourier, best known for his contributions to mathematics.

He also pointed out the similarity between what happens in the atmosphere and in the glass of a greenhouse, which led to the name ‘greenhouse effect’. The next step was taken by a British scientist, John Tyndall, who, around 1860, measured the absorption of infrared radiation by carbon dioxide and water vapour; he also suggested that a cause of the Ice Ages might be a decrease in the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide. It was a Swedish chemist, Svante Arrhenius, in 1896, who calculated the effect of an increasing concentration of greenhouse gases; he estimated that doubling the concentration of carbon dioxide would increase the global average temperature by 5 ◦C to 6 ◦C, an estimate not too far from our present understanding. Nearly fifty years later, around 1940, G. S. Callendar, working in England, was the first to calculate the warming due to the increasing carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.

The first expression of concern about the climate change which might be brought about by increasing greenhouse gases was in 1957, when Roger Revelle and Hans Suess of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in California published a paper which pointed out that in the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, human beings are carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment. In the same year, routine measurements of carbon dioxide were started from the observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels since then, together with growing interest in the environment, has led to the topic of global warming moving up the political agenda through the 1980s, and eventually to the Climate Convention signed in 1992 – of which more in later chapters.

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