The discovery of the greenhouse effect.

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The greenhouse effect is the process by which radiation from a planet’s atmosphere warms the planet’s surface to a temperature above what it would be without its atmosphere.

  • ¹In the 1820s, the French mathematician and physicist Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier discovered the greenhouse effect after wondering what determined the average temperature of Earth.
  • He also wondered that when light from the Sun strikes the Earth’s surface and warms it up, why the planet doesn’t keep heating up until it is as hot as the Sun itself.
  • Fourier’s answer was that the heated surface of the Earth emitted invisible infrared radiation which carried the heat energy away into space. He calculated that an object the size of the Earth, and at its distance from the Sun, should be considerably colder than the planet actually is if warmed only by the effects of solar radiation¹.
  • Fourier compared the Earth and its atmosphere to a box with a glass cover. The box’s interior warms up when sunlight enters while the heat cannot escape. The main effect of the glass is to keep the air, heated by contact with sun-warmed surfaces, from flowing away. The glass does also keep heat radiation from escaping.

Here is an engraved portrait of Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier:

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