Tag Archives: John Tyndall

Irish scientist was climate change pioneer

I discovered a connection to Ireland in a New York Times op-ed about the environmental impact of the Civil War. It’s also a reminder of how the past continues to influence the present.

[The Civil War] was an environmental catastrophe of the first magnitude, with effects that endured long after the guns were silenced. It could be argued that they have never ended. … The overwhelming need to win the war was paramount, and outweighed any moral calculus about the [environmental] price to be borne by future generations. Still, that price was beginning to be calculated – the first scientific attempt to explain heat-trapping gases in the earth’s atmosphere and the greenhouse effect was made in 1859 by an Irish scientist, John Tyndall.

John Tyndall from europena blog.

John Tyndall from europena blog.

Tyndall was born in 1820 in County Carlow. His life spanned from Catholic Emancipation through the Great Famine and up the second Home Rule Bill of 1893. Here’s a fuller biography from the Tyndall National Institute, a namesake scientific research center based at University College Cork. There’s also a Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research based in England (plus a mountain in California and a glacier in Colorado.)

This BBC piece by Richard Black details Tydall’s  “far-from-snappy title[d]” study, “On the Absorption and Radiation of Heat by Gases and Vapours, and on the Physical Connexion of Radiation, Absorption, and Conduction.”

What Tyndall had demonstrated for the first time was that gases in the atmosphere absorb heat to very different degrees; he had discovered the molecular basis of the greenhouse effect. … Tyndall’s lab experiments do not prove that humanity’s CO2 emissions are warming the planet … because in the real world, other factors can influence and outweigh those lab findings. But Tyndall did show how man-made global warming can work; and he did so 150 years ago.