Climate History: The Early Science
Hypotheses and experiments point to a warming planet.
The Industrial Revolution begins in Europe
Demand for coal to power steam engines, iron forges, and to provide light and heat increases. New steam-powered machinery allows miners to extract more coal from deeper inside the earth than ever before.
Fourier proposes a theory of the greenhouse effect
Joseph Fourier, a French mathematician and physicist, is the first to suggest that Earth’s atmosphere influences the planet’s temperature. He suggests that the atmosphere might insulate the planet, creating a warming effect.
A theory of human impact on climate
Prussian geographer Alexander von Humboldt hypothesizes that humans affect the climate in three ways: “Through the destruction of forests, through the distribution of water, and through the production of great masses of steam and gas at the industrial centres.”
First experimental evidence of the greenhouse effect
American scientist Eunice Foote conducts experiments that show a warming effect from water vapor and carbon dioxide. From her measurements, she infers that the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere must affect the Earth’s temperature.
The birth of America’s oil industry
Edwin Drake drills America’s first commercial oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania. At first, petroleum is only used for oil lamps. In 100 years it will surpass coal as the country’s biggest energy source—and the biggest source of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Mounting evidence of human impact
Irish physicist John Tyndall advances research into the warming effects of carbon dioxide, concluding that atmospheric warming is tied to fossil fuel emissions. He writes that variations in these gases could have produced “all the mutations of climate which the researches of geologists reveal.”
Arrhenius calculates the climatic effect of CO2
Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius attempts to put numbers to carbon dioxide’s climatic impact. He estimates that if the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere were to double—due to further industrialization—the global temperature would rise by about 6oC.
Astronomical theory of climate change published
Serbian engineer Milutin Milankovitch develops the “astronomical theory of the ice ages,” which says that variations in the tilt of Earth’s axis and the shape of its solar orbit cause major climate changes. But the current tilt and orbit favor a cold climate—not the observed warming trend.
Observed connection between global warming and CO2
English steam engineer and amateur meteorologist Guy Callendar ties the observed global warming trend to carbon dioxide levels. He uses a simple climate model to show that the 10% increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide coincided with the 0.25oC increase in global temperature.
Systematic CO2 data collection begins in Hawaii
Charles Keeling, an American chemist, begins measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. Over the next decades, his data forms the famous “Keeling Curve.” It is the first definitive data set that shows the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing.
Scientific conference on the causes of climate change
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences holds a conference called “The Causes of Climate Change.” The conference report says, “We are just now beginning to realize that the atmosphere is not a dump of unlimited capacity.”