Viewport width =
September 21, 2009 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

The man who changed the world


It was a cold, dark winter’s night, when a Swedish chemist sat alone in his home. His marriage to his research assistant had just ended. Rather than hitting the bottle and drinking himself to a stupor, he put pen to paper to calculate an idea. He spent over a year working on his theory. He ended up discovering one of the most important theories in human history, the theory of global warming caused by greenhouse gases.

Svante Arrhenius had shown extraordinary promise, even from a young age. He was born in Wikj, Sweden on 19 February, 1859. He was a child prodigy, teaching himself to read at three and graduating from high school as the youngest and brightest in his year. He later attend the Physical Institute of the Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, where he completed a PhD. One of the most important discoveries he made was neither pure salts nor pure water could conduct electricity, whereas a mixture of the two could. Although his work did not impress the university, as he only earned a third class degree, extension on this work earned him a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1903.

In 1889 he established the concept of activation energy, the energy needed for chemicals to react. His equation gives the quantitative basis of the relationship between the activation energy and the rate at which a reaction occurs.

He became a lecturer at the Stockholm University College in 1891, being promoted to professor of physics in 1895. There was much opposition to his promotion, as he had a reputation of being difficult to work with. There was a strong dislike towards him from his colleagues.

It was during 1895 Arrhenius spent filling workbooks with calculations, determining the climatic effects of varying the concentrations of heat trapping gases in the atmosphere. He initially set out to answer a mystery baffling scientists at the time. The question of how the world might have cooled during the ice ages.

What he found showed a reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels of between a third and a half would cool the planet by 4 to 5°C. This would be enough to cover northern Europe in a permanent ice sheet. His calculation was confirmed eighty years later, when researchers examined ice cores dating back to the last ice age.

As he ended his work in 1895, he became concerned about the potential of increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases to cause global warming. He worked out the doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide would raise global temperatures by an average 5 to 6°C. This is exactly the same as today’s scientists predict as the upper range of warming for a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

He published his work in a paper, On the influence of carbonic acid in the air upon the temperature of the ground, at the end of 1995. Not only did he get his calculations correct, his predictions seem to be accurate. He foresaw high latitudes would experience greater warming than in tropical regions, warming would be greater at night than in day, winter rather than summer and over land rather than sea.

Unfortunately, this work had been ignored for decades and it is only in the last few decades where scientists have taken his work on global warming seriously.

After the death of his son in the First World War, his mood darkened. He saw society as wasteful. He wrote “Concern about our raw materials casts a dark shadow over mankind.” Being a pioneer in the early environmental movement, he went on to write: “Our descendents surely will censure us for having squandered their just birthright.”

He feared world oil supplies would one day run out and the US would run out of oil as early as 1935. He became an advocate for renewable energy and energy efficiency. His work saw Sweden become one of the first countries in the world to invest in hydroelectric power.

He never connected the dots between the build up of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels and global warming. In fact, he thought global warming would be a good thing, writing “We may hope to enjoy ages with more equable and better climates, especially as regards the colder regions of the Earth, ages when the Earth will bring forth much more abundant crops for the benefit of a rapidly propagating mankind.”

What he did fail to predict was the rate in which global warming would occur. He believed significant global warming would take over three millennia to occur, when in reality would most likely occur within this century.

Svante Arrhenius died on 2 October, 1927, when he came down with an attack of acute intestinal catarrh. He made several amazing achievements, including his work on global warming and climate modelling. His work over 100 years ago has been reproduced by today’s top climate scientists and his calculations seem to predict a dire future, in which we only have a handful of years to reverse.


About the Author ()

Comments are closed.

Recent posts

  1. VUW Halls Hiking Fees By 50–80% Next Year
  2. The Stats on Gender Disparities at VUW
  3. Issue 25 – Legacy
  4. Canta Wins Bid for Editorial Independence
  5. RA Speaks Out About Victoria University Hall Death
  6. VUW Hall Death: What We Know So Far
  8. New Normal
  9. Come In, The Door’s Open.
  10. Love in the Time of Face Tattoos

Editor's Pick

Uncomfortable places: skin.

:   Where are you from?  My list was always ready: England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, puppy dogs’ tails, a little Spanish, maybe German, and—almost as an afterthought—half Samoan. An unwanted fraction.   But you don’t seem like a Samoan. I thought you were [inser

Do you know how to read? Sign up to our Newsletter!

* indicates required