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General remarks on the temperature of the earth and outer space

Article Link

General remarks on the temperature of the earth and outer space. American Journal of Science. 32, 1-20 (1837) by Ebeneser Burgess. English translation of "Remarques générales sur les températures du globe terrestre et des espaces planétaires." Annales de Chimie et de Physique. (Paris) 2nd ser., 27, 136-67 (1824), by Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier.

Essay about this article

Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier (1798-1830) is best known today as a mathematical physicist who developed Fourier Analysis and studied heat transfer. His contemporaries knew him as an administrator and scientist whose fortunes rose and fell with those of Napoleon Bonaparte. In his 1824 article reproduced here, Fourier compared the heating of the atmosphere to the action of glass in a greenhouse, but made assumptions about the Earth’s heat budget that are vastly different than those of today. He described the heating of the Earth by three distinct sources: (1) solar radiation, which is unequally distributed over the year and which produces the diversity of climates; (2) the temperature communicated by interplanetary space irradiated by the light from innumerable stars; and (3) heat from the interior of the Earth remaining from its formation. Examining each of these three sources and the phenomena they produce, Fourier concluded that the temperature of the Earth can be augmented by the interposition of the atmosphere, “because heat in the state of light finds less resistance in penetrating the air, than in repassing into the air when converted into non-luminous heat.” For Fourier both the atmosphere and the ocean resisted the free exchange of heat. "The transparency of the waters appears to concur with that of the air in augmenting the degree of heat already acquired, because luminous heat flowing in, penetrates, with little difficulty, the interior of the mass, and non-luminous heat has more difficulty in finding its way out in a contrary direction."

Fourier compared the atmosphere to a giant heliothermometer, a thermometer encased in a box with glass panes that was used by mountain climbers to register solar intensity at high altitudes. In Fourier’s analogy the atmosphere was sandwiched between the surface of the Earth and an imaginary cap provided by the finite temperature of interstellar space. He also foresaw humanity’s inevitable modification of the Earth’s heat budget. He pointed out that “the establishment and progress of human society…may in extensive regions produce remarkable changes in the state of the surface, distribution of waters, and the great movements of air. Such effects, in the course of some centuries,” Fourier continued, “must produce variations in the mean temperature for such places.” This work was subsequently cited by Pouillet, Tyndall, Arrhenius, and many others, but note that Fourier was not necessarily the “first” to examine what we today call the greenhouse effect. In 1681, Edme Mariotte wrote that although the sun's light and heat easily passed through glass and other transparent materials, heat from other sources ("chaleur de feu") did not.

For further reading see Fleming, J.R. Historical Perspectives on Climate Change Oxford. Oxford Univeristy Press. (1998). Chapter 5.

Discussion Questions

a. Who was Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier and what else, in addition to this article, can you find out about his scientific interests and accomplishments?

b. Can you find relations between his work on terrestrial temperatures and his other work?

c. What assumptions did Fourier make about the Earth’s heat budget that are vastly different than those of today? What does this say about the course of scientific discovery?

Community Expertise: Suggest appropriate laboratory experiments, lesson plans, or tech-based exercises within the Classic Articles Discussion Wiki. Requires login after free registration.

Articles citing this paper

Washington, WM (2006) "Computer Modeling the Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Climate." Proc Amer Philos Soc vol. 150, 3 pg 414-427

Pierrehumbert, RT (2004) "Warming the world." Nature 432, pg 677

Bard, E. (2004) Greenhouse effect and ice ages: Historical perspective | [Effet de serre et glaciations, une perspective historique] Comptes Rendus - Geoscience vol. 336, nos. 7-8, pp. 603-638

van der Veen, C.J. (2000) Fourier and the "greenhoue effect." Polar Geography vol. 24, no. 2, pp. 132-152

Fleming, J.R. (1999) Joseph Fourier, the 'greenhouse effect', and the quest for a universal theory of terrestrial temperatures. Endeavour vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 72-75

Fleming, J.R. (1998) Charles Lyell and climatic change: speculation and certainty. Geological Society Special Publication vol. 143. pp. 161-169

Dolan, B.P. (1998) Representing novelty: Charles Babbage, Charles Lyell, and experiments in early Victorian geology. History of Science vol. 36 no. 3, pp. 299-327

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