The greenhouse effect, and its ability to influence the temperature of the planet, is not some new scientific fad. The discoveries supporting this effect began almost 200 years ago, have stood the test of time, and have been widely accepted by the scientific community.
Our understanding of how the temperature of our planet is regulated began in the 1820s. Joseph Fourier, a French physicist, determined that our planet’s temperature is a balance between the energy received from the sun and the amount of heat emitted back into space.
In 1859, John Tyndall discovered that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. By that he meant that carbon dioxide can absorb and hold heat.
In 1896, a Swedish scientist claimed that burning coal, oil and natural gas (the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere) would eventually warm the planet. He made the first calculations of how much the earth would warm from burning increasing amounts of fossil fuels. His predictions were surprisingly accurate.
Guy Callendar in1938 made the first actual linkage between rising carbon dioxide levels and the increase in the Earth’s temperature.
In 1958, Charles David Keeling began to measure atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide in Mauna Loa Hawai‘i. This measurement showed a carbon dioxide concentration of less than 320 parts per million (ppm) when it was started in 1958, compared to today’s concentration of over 400 ppm.
In the 1960s, Syukruo Manabe found that Earth's lower atmosphere (troposphere) is warming but the upper atmosphere (stratosphere) is cooling. This fact shows that global warming is not caused by an increase in heat coming into our atmosphere from space, which would warm both lower and upper atmospheres. Rather, it shows that it is caused by heat being trapped next to the Earth due to the greenhouse effect.
Scientists have known about the greenhouse effect for a long time. It has just been in recent decades when the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere have gotten to the level where significant warming is occurring.
Don Hofstrand is a retired agricultural economist from Iowa State University Extension. During the last few years of his work life, he focused on renewable energy and climate change. He and his wife live in Mason City.