Nautilus

If Only 19th-Century America Had Listened to a Woman Scientist

Human-induced climate change may seem a purely modern phenomenon. Even in ancient Greece, however, people understood that human activities can change climate. Later the early United States was a lab for observing this as its settlers altered nature. By 1800 it was known that the mass clearing of forests raised temperatures in the Eastern U.S. and that climatic changes followed the pioneers as they spread west.

The causes for such changes, and the understanding that they could have global scope, came from eminent European scientists. Yet an amateur 19th-century American researcher, a woman named Eunice Foote, made a first crucial discovery about global climate change. Her story gives insight into early American science, women in science, and how the understanding of climate has changed. It also reveals how that understanding might have evolved differently to better deal with today’s climate problems.

“Foote went from a farmer’s daughter to one of the greats in the science of climate change,” says John Perlin, a visiting scholar at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of books on solar power and other topics. Perlin is currently writing a book about Foote. His extensive new understanding of her environment and development.

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