A brief history of the Climate science

Large rift near the Pine Island Glacier tongue, West Antarctica. Credits: NASA/Nathan Kurtz

Large rift near the Pine Island Glacier tongue, West Antarctica. Credits: NASA/Nathan Kurtz

At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution the world experiences industrial and demographic boom. As a consequence of these substantial events, scientists of the time begin to question whether climate changes over time or not. In the 1760s, the ability to generate an artificial warming of the Earth’s surface was demonstrated by Horace Benedict de Saussure. In 1824, French mathematician Joseph Fourier published a scientific paper titled “Remarques generales sur les Temperatures du globe terrestre et des espaces planetaires” in the journal Annales de Chimie et de Physique, Tome XXVII (pp.136-167), where he presented some ‘general remarks’ on the temperature of the Earth and interplanetary space describing the Earth’s natural “greenhouse effect” without naming it. Terrestrial temperatures was on Fourier’s mind as early as 1807, when he wrote on the unequal heating of the globe. Following Fourier’s work, physicist C.S.M. Pouillet wrote in 1836 a memoir on solar heat, the radiative effects of the atmosphere, and the temperature of space.

Illustration of John Tyndall's setup for measuring the radiant heat absorption of gases (From Wikimedia Commons)

Illustration of John Tyndall’s setup for measuring the radiant heat absorption of gases (From Wikimedia Commons)

In 1861, Irish physicist John Tyndall demonstrated that gases such as methane and carbon dioxide absorbed infrared radiation, and could trap heat within the atmosphere. His interest in radiant heat and its passage through the atmosphere was triggered by his long-standing interest in glaciers and their mass balance. Tyndall’s experimental work suggested the possibility that by altering concentrations of these gases in the atmosphere, human activities could alter the temperature regulation of the planet. In his essay ‘On the Absorption and Radiation of Heat by Gases and Vapours’, Tyndall credited Fourier for the notion that ‘the interception of terrestrial rays [by the atmosphere exercises] the most important influence on climate’. 

In 1896, Svante Arrhenius  was the first to quantify the contribution of carbon dioxide to the greenhouse effect. He used infrared observations of the moon to calculate how much of infrared radiation is captured by CO2 and water vapour in Earth’s atmosphere and formulated his greenhouse law: “Thus if the quantity of carbonic acid increases in geometric progression, the augmentation of the temperature will increase nearly in arithmetic progression.”

Svante August Arrhenius (1859-1927). From Wikimedia Commons

Svante August Arrhenius (1859-1927). From Wikimedia Commons

Almost simultaneously, American geologist Thomas Chamberlin proposed that carbon dioxide fluctuations could cause large variations on Earth’s Climate, including Ice Ages.

By 1930s British engineer Guy Callender proves that temperature of Earth has risen compared to previous century, given records of 147 weather stations across the world. Moreover, he shows that carbon dioxide concentrations has increased at the same time and claims that it is the most plausible reason behind the global warming.

After the World War II, the impact of human activity on the global environment dramatically increased. In 1958, Charles Dave Keeling carries out a long-running experiment in Hawaii and Antarctica and enables unequivocal evidences of increasing carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere after four-year-research.

pet vs antropocene

Comparison of the effects of anthropogenic emissions (total of 5000 Pg C over 500 years) and PETM carbon release (3000 Pg C over 6 kyr) on the surface ocean saturation state of calcite. From Zeebe, 2013

In 1972, the United Nations summits the first environment conference in Stockholm and the climate change is determined as the agenda item. Since the conference the importance of this issue increases and public start to deal with the notion of climate change.

The earth’s climate has already reached a tipping point. Glaciers  from the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets are fading away, dumping 260 billion metric tons of water into the ocean every year. The ocean acidification is occurring at a rate faster than at any time in the last 300 million years, and  the patterns of rainfall and drought are changing and undermining food security which have major implications for human health, welfare and social infrastructure.


Hulme, M. (2009), On the origin of ‘the greenhouse effect’: John Tyndall’s 1859 interrogation of nature. Weather, 64: 121–123. doi:10.1002/wea.386

Tyndall J. 1861. On the absorption and radiation of heat by gases and vapours. Philos. Mag. 22: 169–194 and 273–285

Arrhenius, Svante; On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air Upon the Temperature of the Ground. Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science. 41 (5): 237–276. 1896.

Will Steffen, Wendy Broadgate, Lisa Deutsch, Owen Gaffney, and Cornelia Ludwig. The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration. The Anthropocene Review, January 16, 2015 DOI: 10.1177/2053019614564785

Smith, B.D., Zeder, M.A., The onset of the Anthropocene. Anthropocene (2013),http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ancene.2013.05.001


One thought on “A brief history of the Climate science

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 03, Vol. #19 | Whewell's Ghost

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