Amid Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, this edition of Climate Switch honors the 19th-century science pioneer Eunice Foote, who helped explain the mechanism that underpins climate change.

An amateur scientist, or “natural philosopher” in the parlance of her time, Foote’s experiments delved into the heat-trapping properties of gases like carbon dioxide. This led her to hypothesize that more CO2 in the atmosphere would lead to higher temperatures—an idea that modern atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe calls “remarkably prescient.”

Foote was born in Connecticut in 1819 and spent much of her life in New York. In addition to her pioneering scientific work, she campaigned for women’s rights and an end to slavery. She was present at the first women’s rights convention—the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention—and helped prepare its proceedings to be published, alongside her neighbor, the famed suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others.

Foote’s experiments involved pumping various gases—air, CO2, hydrogen—into glass tubes to measure and compare their temperatures in sunlight. It’s worth noting that while credit for discovering the greenhouse effect often goes to Irish physicist John Tyndall, he enjoyed the resources and education to carry out much more advanced experiments—and Foote’s work predates his by a few years.

For Foote’s part, she wrote of her findings on CO2 that “an atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature; and if, as some suppose, at one period of its history, the air had mixed with it a larger proportion than at present, an increased temperature from its own action [...] must have necessarily resulted.” This was in 1856

Her resulting paper became the first known physics publication in a scientific journal by an American woman outside the field of astronomy. 

Foote died in 1888 and is buried in Brooklyn. While her scientific contributions were long overlooked, in recent years she and her work have received some overdue recognition, including a medal named for her by the American Geophysical Union and a New York Times obituary.

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