The untold story of the woman who discovered the greenhouse effect.
One of the biggest challenges facing our society right now is climate change, caused by large amounts of Carbon Dioxide, or CO2, in Earth’s atmosphere. But how did scientists figure out that the CO2 in the atmosphere causes the Earth to be warmer? You might think of this as a pretty modern question, but the answer can actually be traced all the way back to the 1850s, thanks to the work of an amazing female climate scientist named Eunice Foote.
"Eunice Foote’s work paved the way for modern climate science, but it was almost 150 years before she got credit for her important discovery characterizing and describing the Greenhouse Effect."
Watch the video or continue reading the transcript below!
A lab of one’s own
Eunice was born in 1819 in Connecticut as one of eleven children. At age 17 she enrolled in the Troy Female Seminary where she studied scientific theory for two years while also taking classes in biology and chemistry at a nearby college. Even though Eunice loved learning about the scientific world, she wasn’t able to continue her education or try to pursue a job as a scientist, because these paths weren’t really available to women at the time. So instead, Eunice tried to keep learning on her own, reading books and keeping up with the latest scientific findings as they came out.
In 1841, Eunice married Elisha Foote, a statistician who believed that women should have access to equal education as men. Elisha encouraged and supported Eunice’s love of science, and even introduced her to some famous scientists from the time. Even though Eunice wasn’t welcome as a scientist in the classroom or university laboratory, she managed to keep learning and discovering right in her own home!
It's getting hot in here
In the 1850s, one of the hottest questions being debated by scientists was “How does the Sun heat the Earth?” This question fascinated Eunice Foote, and to answer it, she decided to conduct her own experiments at home. She started by recreating the Earth’s atmosphere in small glass containers. To make a bunch of tiny atmospheres, she put thermometers inside glass cylinders and then pumped in the gasses that make up our atmosphere- gasses like nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor, and carbon dioxide. She then sealed the cylinders and placed them in sunlight. By varying the relative concentrations of the types of gasses that she put in each mini-atmosphere, she could figure out which would affect how warm the planet was!
As Eunice watched the sunlight heat the cylinders full of atmosphere, she saw that the container with the most carbon dioxide was the hottest. She also found that when it was removed from the sunlight, it was the one that took the longest to cool down. Foote conducted a series of these experiments with different amounts of CO2 and every time she found that the more CO2 added to the containers, the higher the temperature rose. Modern scientists now understand that this is because of the chemical structure of the CO2, which is able to trap heat coming off of the planet and send it back to the surface to warm it up more, like a blanket traps heat coming off of your body. This process is called the greenhouse effect, and CO2 is one of many gasses that can trap heat like this. But thanks to Eunice Foote, we know that increased carbon dioxide means increased warming in our planet’s atmosphere.
A planet-wide impact
In addition to her work trying to understand fundamental science, Eunice was also interested in building and creating new machines. Her inventions included a machine to make paper and a cooking stove with a thermostat that gave much more control over its temperature, both of which she was awarded a patent for. Beyond being a scientist and inventor, she was also a fierce advocate for women’s rights. In 1848, Eunice Foote helped organize the Seneca Falls Convention, a very important meeting of early suffragettes and feminists to discuss the fight to get women equal social status and legal rights, including the right to vote.
Eunice Foote’s work paved the way for modern climate science, but it was almost 150 years before she got credit for her important discovery characterizing and describing the Greenhouse Effect. Foote’s work did not initially receive the same recognition as her male colleagues and many publishers refused to print her work because they did not publish work done by women. At the time, no one really appreciated just how important Eunice’s discovery would be. But now, the effects of increased CO2 concentration in our atmosphere are changing the entire planet. And as we work together to figure out how to address climate change, we’re all building on the work done by one amateur scientist running experiments in her home to solve an incredibly important mystery.
Written by Lindsey Oberhelman
Edited by Katie Fraser and Caroline Martin
Illustrations by Taylor Contreras
Portrait by Lindsey Oberhelman
Sources and additional readings:
This Suffrage-Supporting Scientist Defined the Greenhouse Effect But Didn’t Get the Credit, Because Sexism from the Smithsonian
Eunice Foote from Wikipedia
Eunice Foote: Climate Scientist from the American Institute of Physics
Explore the wide world of climate science
Define (10-20 minutes): Search the term “Greenhouse effect” to write a definition in your own words.
Learn (60-90 minutes): Choose one of the following greenhouse gasses: water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, ozone, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons. Take some time to research this gas on Google. Create a small flyer to explain your greenhouse gas to the public. Be sure to answer these questions:
What is the gas made up of?
How does this gas get added to the atmosphere naturally?
What does the molecule look like?
What human activities add more of this gas to the atmosphere?
Expand (5-10 minutes): Think about how it feels to sit in a car on a sunny summer’s day? Why do you think it feels that way?
Investigate (45-60 minutes): What is the greenhouse effect? You can mimic the experiment that Eunice did by using a simulation of sunlight and the Earth’s atmosphere. Check out this simulation of the atmosphere. Play around with the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and watch how the temperature on Earth changes.
Challenge (1-2 hours): Build your own simple greenhouse in a jar at home. Observe how the temperature changes with added insulation.