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Discovery of Carbon Dioxide and the Greenhouse Effect

Geologist, Alasdair Skelton explains how carbon dioxide was discovered and how this discovery led to the quantification of the greenhouse effect.

Joseph Black was a chemist working in Edinburgh during the Enlightenment. In a paper which was first published in 1755, Joseph Black describes an experiment he did on a substance called magnesium alba. He heated this substance and found that it lost more than half of its weight. He called the matter that was lost fixed air. Today, we would have called it carbon dioxide.

In this video, geologist, Alasdair Skelton and chemist, Lars Eriksson, reenact this experiment in a laboratory in Stockholm. They confirm that magnesium alba, on heating, loses half of its mass. This was how carbon dioxide was first discovered.

In 1827, Fourier recognizing that the atmosphere traps heat from the Sun, and in 1861, Tyndall found out that it was carbon dioxide and water vapor in the atmosphere that trapped the heat. Today, we call this the greenhouse effect. This effect was quantified in 1896 by Svante Arrhenius. He also indicated that by burning fossil fuels, we would increase the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere and thereby make the Earth warmer.

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