Steve Connor: Climatology began 200 years ago

Science Notebook: Joseph Fourier was the first to realise the heat-trapping potential of the atmosphere

A A A

Listening to climate sceptics, it is easy to think the entire science of global warming hinges on the wording of a few emails sent from a university department. But with the Copenhagen conference under way, it is worth noting that climate science, or more specifically the influence of carbon dioxide on the natural greenhouse effect of the Earth, has a long and illustrious history.

It started 200 years ago with the work of Joseph Fourier, a French mathematician who in 1820 was the first to realise the heat-trapping potential of the atmosphere. Sunlight penetrates the atmosphere to heat the Earth's surface. Heat is re-radiated in the form of infra-red radiation, which is more easily trapped by the atmosphere on its outward journey to space.

In 1859, John Tyndall, a natural philosopher, demonstrated that carbon dioxide and water vapour were the most important heat-trapping molecules in the atmosphere. It was the atmosphere's ability to trap heat that made Earth habitable when compared with, say, Mars, which has a very thin atmosphere.

However, it was not until 1896 that Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist, named the phenomenon the "greenhouse effect" using a rather inaccurate analogy. Like many experts interested in this field, Arrhenius was concerned about what caused the previous ice ages and he was not too concerned about the chances of rising CO2 leading to higher temperatures.

Nevertheless, using very basic equations, Arrhenius calculated that doubling the CO2 content of the atmosphere could lead to a rise in temperature of 5C or 6C – a remarkably accurate forecast given the rudimentary knowledge at the time. He also thought it would take thousands of years to reach this level, which he did not see as a problem because he failed to anticipate the exponential increase in the rate of man-made CO2 emissions.

Steaming ahead of the rest

The unsung hero of the science of global warming, however, is Guy Stewart Callendar – an English scientist and amateur meteorologist. In 1938, he read old temperature measurements and found these had risen from the 19th-century onwards. He found a similar trend with CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and suggested this could account for the temperature rise. Callendar was interested in what caused the last ice age and worried about the prospect of another. Although he couldn't prove global warming was under way, he certainly provided some good evidence to suggest that it was a real possibility.

The man who blazed a trail

During the 1950s, US scientists demonstrated with a series of annual measurements how CO2 was rising. At the time, many still believed this had no influence on the greenhouse effect, but Callendar wrote a paper in 1958 insisting that a rise in anthropogenic CO2 could lead to a rise in global temperatures. Fifty years later, the science is largely settled, despite what sceptics say.

Sport
footballLIVE: All the latest from today's Premier League matches
News
newsNew images splice vintage WWII photos with modern-day setting
Arts and Entertainment
The star dances on a balcony in the video
music
News
Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen learns that Peeta is still alive in Mockingjay Part 1
peopleListen to the actress sing in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt 1
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Trainee Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines