Irish scientist John Tyndall: climate change visionary in 1861

26 Sep 2011

Instrumentation created by Irish scientist John Tyndall 150 years ago. His research paved the way for modern day climate science

It is 150 years since the Irish scientist John Tyndall published his breakthrough scientific paper, which identified the critical role of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in maintaining the earth’s temperature. A major environmental conference in Dublin this week will look at Tyndalll’s pioneering climate change research, and how it has informed modern-day scientists to address one of the greatest crises of our time.

In releasing On the Absorption and Radiation of Heat by Gases and Vapours, and on the Physical Connexion of Radiation, Absorption, and Conduction in 1861, the co Carlow-born Tyndall solved many questions, namely why was the earth so warm?

Tyndall’s paper identified carbon dioxide and water vapour as key components of the atmosphere which trap radiant heat energy in the Earth’s climate systems.

The instruments and techniques he invented have been pivotal in giving rise to new branches of climate science.

Such instrumentation derived from John Tyndall’s work includes sensors used to study the hidden world of infra-red radiation and the transmission of light.

Environmental conference in Dublin this week, featuring leading climate change scientists

To celebrate Tyndall’s achievements, and to raise international recognition of how he paved the way for modern climate scientists to look at and measure climate change patterns, Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency is holding a three-day environmental conference in Dublin Castle from 28–30 September, along with the Royal Irish Academy (RIA).

The conference will be attended by representatives from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Leading international climate scientists, including Prof Richard Somerville from the US, Jean Pascal van Ypersele, IPCC vice-chair, Keith Shine, John Mitchell, and Ray Bates, will be at the event.

The heads of University College Cork’s Tyndall National Institute, named after the acclaimed Tyndall, and Tyndall the Tyndall Centre based in Norwich, UK, will also make presentations during the three-day conference.

The actual instrument constructed and used by Tyndall in his experiments on atmospheric absorption of heat will be on display at the conference, along with rare historic documents. They are on loan from The British Institute.

The conference will explore the robust body of scientific work that exists on greenhouse gases.  It will examine the science on global warming potentials, the metric used to compare various greenhouse gases. It will also include analysis of observations from Mace Head on Galway’s Atlantic Coast and satellite observations from space by the European Space Agency (ESA).

Scientists will also consider climate feedback issues at the conference. These may finally determine how the Earth responds to human enhancement of atmospheric GHG concentrations, said the EPA today.

Professor Luke Drury, president of the RIA, said today: “This conference shows what a major figure of science John Tyndall was, in the 19th Century, and the importance and originality of his work.  Even with two major centres named after him his work remains relatively unknown in Ireland and internationally. Hopefully, this Conference will redress this.”
John Tyndall climate change pioneer who hailed from Co Carlow in Ireland
John Tyndall

Climate change public lecture – Dublin tomorrow evening

As well as this the EPA is holding a climate change public lecture on Tuesday evening, 27 September, at the Mansion House in Dublin, starting at 6.30pm.

Pointing to how greenhouse gases have become synonymous with global warming and with concerns about climate change due to the enhanced atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, the EPA asserts these increases are largely due to human activities.

Speaking today, Laura Burke, director of the EPA’s Office of Climate Change said: “John Tyndall’s work resonates strongly today in a world where we know that enhanced greenhouse warming is a major global challenge. We also know that failure to act on reducing emissions will be more costly than taking action and that to successfully reduce or avoid these costs requires a well structured and co-ordinated strategy coupled with effective implementation. Science, research and innovation are central to solving the challenges of climate change.

EPA climate change lecture speaker line-up

Professor Richard Somerville, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, will speak about John Tyndall: his work and scientific heritage in a lectured titled “From Carlow to here: 150 Years of Greenhouse Gases” in the Mansion House on the evening of the 27 September.  

Somerville, an expert meteorologist, will speak of the debt modern society owes to Tyndall’s pioneering work in many of the physical sciences, but most notably climate science.

Somerville himself is a world-renowned climate scientist and scientific writer. His book The Forgiving Air – Understanding Environmental Change is widely regarded as a benchmark for clear and accessible communication of complex environmental issues.



Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic