By Prof. James Renwick, VUW School of Geography and Environment and Earth Sciences [May 2018]
The roster of Scottish scientists, researchers and explorers who have contributed to climate research is far too long to cover in a single essay or presentation. Here, I touch on the lives and works of five eminent Scots who made crucial contributions to climate science over the past few centuries.
The story starts with Joseph Black (1728-1799), the discoverer of carbon dioxide. Black was a prominent member of the “Enlightenment” in Britain, contemporary of James Watt, Erasmus Darwin, and Josiah Wedgewood. He was there at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, helping Watt improve the efficiency of his steam engines, and along the way helping to found the science of thermodynamics. He established the concept of “latent heat”, the energy it takes to change ice to water and water to vapour. The absorption and release of latent heat turns out to be a very important way for the atmosphere to move heat around and regulate the climate of planet earth. For climate change research though, carbon dioxide is even more important. It is very good at absorbing the heat the earth radiates towards space, and it stays in the air for centuries, making it the most important “greenhouse gas” in the long run. Most of the carbon dioxide Watt’s coal-burning machines released in the 1750s is still in the atmosphere, warming us. Carbon dioxide in the air has increased nearly 50% since Black’s time, the highest level it has been for millions of years. Continue reading