Eunice Newton Foote and the Story of Cycles of Matter

Eunice Newton Foote was an american scientist, inventor and women’s rights campaigner who lived in the 1800’s. She was the first person in the world to suggest that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would increase world temperature’s – which we now call the greenhouse effect. Through the story of Eunice Newton Foote we will explore cycles of matter. 

Eunice Newton Foote was born in 1819 in Connecticut, USA and attended the Troy Female Seminary where she studied chemistry and biology. From there, Foote went on to do research on the interaction of the Sun’s rays  with different gases. She used a simple set up of an air pump, four thermometers, and two glass cylinders. First she placed two thermometers in each cylinder, then by using the air pump, she removed the air from one cylinder and condensed it in the other. Allowing both cylinders to reach the same temperature, she placed the cylinders in the sunlight to measure temperature variance once heated and under different moisture conditions. She performed this experiment on CO2, common air, and hydrogen. It was through this experiment that she noted that an atmosphere with high concentrations of CO2. This discovery, however seemed to get lost in the history for a long time. In 2010, retired petroleum geologist Ray Sorenson came across Foote’s work in a 1857 volume of Annual Scientific Discovery. He quickly realized that Foote was the first to make the connection between carbon dioxide and climate change and that her work had gone unrecognized. In January 2011, Sorenson published his findings on Foote in AAPG Search and Discovery, where it received ‘more response than any of his other work’. In 2018, a symposium at University of California, Santa Barbara recognized Foote’s contribution to climate science and her erasure from the history of the field.

How does the Earth support life?

The planet earth is rare. It is the only planet in the solar system that can support and sustain life. Plants, animals and us humans, owe our existence to the perfect balance of conditions in our atmosphere. This is why we haven’t been visited by Martians or Neptunians yet, those planets do not support life. Earth supports life by the cycling of matter. In this case, matter is anything that takes up space and has mass. In particular, the cycling of three chemicals – water, carbon and nitrogen – is essential for life on Earth. These chemicals move from living things, to non-living things and back to living things. An example of this would be:

  1. Grass uses nitrogen, carbon and oxygen from the soil to live and grow
  2. A cow eats the grass to get energy and survive
  3. Humans eat the cow to get energy
  4. Humans die, are buried, broken down by microorganisms and matter is released back into the soil

We call this type of cycling a food chain. This is just one example of the cycles that happen constantly around us, without us even knowing.

What happens during the water cycle?

Every living thing on earth needs water to survive. This would mean a lot of water is constantly being needed, for centuries. How is this possible?

The answer to that is that water is continuously being recycled, so the water that was on earth 1000 years ago is the same we have today. How does this happen? Let’s look at the steps in the water cycle.

  1. Evaporation: The water on earth gets heated by the sun and turns to steam (evaporates)
  2. Transpiration: Water is absorbed by a plant’s roots and evaporates from its leaves.
  3. Condensation: The water vapour gets cold as it rises into the sky and condenses into clouds
  4. Precipitation: The water droplets grow larger and eventually fall back to earth as rain

The Earth’s atmosphere

The Earth is surrounded by a layer of gases called the ‘atmosphere’. The two main gases in the atmosphere are nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%) which make up 99% of it. All other gases together make up the last 1% (0.04 % is carbon dioxide, CO2). With CO2 making up such a small amount of our atmosphere, why is it so destructive and dangerous? That is because it is locked away inside the earth in fossil fuels, living plants and in the earth itself.  The carbon dioxide that is trapped in the earth can get released into the atmosphere through the carbon cycle.

How do we know that 20% of the atmosphere is Oxygen? Watch this to find out!

What happens during the carbon cycle?

The carbon cycle is the movement of carbon through the ecosystem: from the atmosphere, through the food chain, and back to the atmosphere.

Fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas are made up of decayed plants and animals (that’s why we call them fossil fuels!). Carbon is present in these fuels and is released into the atmosphere when the fuel is burned. Carbon is also part of the fats, carbohydrates and protein that you eat. Plants contain carbon, so when humans and animals eat them, we absorb the carbon and release it when we breathe (we call it respiration).

Animals (through respiration) and industry (through burning) release CO2 into the atmosphere. While plants use and remove CO2 from the atmosphere. As humans burn more and more fossil fuels to produce energy, the rate of CO2 in the atmosphere increases, resulting in climate change (a.k.a global warming)

Climate change

Climate change refers to global changes in weather patterns like temperature, rainfall, air and water pollution, storms, floods and droughts. These changes affect habitats, which affects the plants, animals and humans that live in them. The rate of change being experienced by the Earth’s varying climate is growing every year. We are at a point in our history that if something dramatic is not done soon, we will have irreversible climate change on a global level. It’s amazing to think that this problem was seen by Eunice Newton Foote all the way back in 1857, over 150 years ago, and is still being debated and ignored by some people.