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Svante Arrhenius 1896 Climate Change

Posted on: February 18, 2020

bandicam 2020-02-18 09-14-18-235






  1. SOURCE: JSTOR DECEMBER 2019 [LINK] : The road to understanding climate change stretches back to the tweed-clad middle years of the 19th century when Victorian-era scientists conducted the first experiments proving that runaway CO2 could, one day, cook the planet. In other words, “global warming was officially discovered more than 100 years ago. Joseph Fourier asked why the Earth was as warm as it was. In two papers published in 1824 and 1837 he proposed that the atmosphere creates barriers that trap earth’s long wave radiation and that this mechanism could change the earth’s temperature when altered by natural forces and human activity. These papers are the first predictions of climate change.
  2. In 1856, Eunice Newton Foote, an amateur scientist placed jars of different gas combinations in the sun and found that the jar with CO2 and water vapor  in it got hottest. These results were published in 1856 in the American Journal of Science and established empirical evidence of the heat trapping effect of CO2.
  3. Irish scientist John Tyndall set out to explain ice age cycles because it wasn’t clear why the earth’s surface temperature fluctuated so wildly. He reasoned that could be the atmospheric heat trapping effect of Fourier with the temperature cycle driven by a CO2 cycle due to the CO2 effect demonstrated by Eunice Foote. In 1860 Tyndall carried out experiments similar to those of Foote and found that water vapor and CO2 were powerful heat trapping gases.
  4. Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius put it all together into the climate science we know today more than 100 years ago in 1896: Arrhenius, like Tyndall, was interested in explaining ice age cycles. At the time, there were two competing explanations. One was the perturbations in Earth’s orbit and the other was changes in atmospheric composition, specifically, CO2.
  5. Arrhenius investigated the CO2 theory and with the help of CO2 expert Arvid Högbom and atmospheric heat  balance scientist Samuel Pierpont Langley, Arrhenius calculated how much heat would be trapped if levels of CO2 and water vapor changed. He determined if you doubled the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, it would raise the world’s temperature by 5 to 6 degrees Celsius – i.e., a equilibrium climate sensitivity of 5C to 6C.
  6. It is thus that the era of modern climate science was born. The industrial revolution was well underway but Arrhenius was not concerned with that because his science was an attempt to explain nature’s glaciation and interglacial cycles that had recently been discovered by geologists. In those cycles the horror was the glaciation and CO2 and water vapor driven warming the relief from the ice. The other significant event of nature that worried him was volcanic activity having lived through the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. Therefore, for Arrhenius CO2 driven warming was not a horror but a relief from nature’s cold spells.
  7. JSTOR conclusion: It was a nice idea at the time—but nature, as is now dangerously clear, had different ideas. We’re now faced with the challenge of mitigating as much climate change as possible, while adapting to what’s already set in place. The onset of a warmer planet can seem sudden, if you judge by today’s panicked headlines. But the science predicting that it would occur? It is, alas, generations’ old.
  8. This story line in various forms is found in many other sources that include (1) The Guardian’s “Father of Climate Change [LINK] , The Open Mind website’sThe Man Who Foresaw Climate Change” [LINK] , NASA’s “Svante Arrhenius” page [LINK] , and a comprehensive presentation by HISTORY.AIP.ORG’S “The Discovery of Climate Change“, that includes the important work of Callendar (1938) [LINK] .This work is presented below. 
  9. SOURCE: HISTORY.AIP.ORG: THE DISCOVERY OF CLIMATE CHANGE: In the 19th century, scientists realized that gases in the atmosphere cause a “greenhouse effect” which affects the planet’s temperature. These scientists were interested chiefly in the possibility that a lower level of carbon dioxide gas might explain the ice ages of the distant past. At the turn of the century, {Svante Arrhenius calculated that emissions from human industry might someday bring a global warming. False}. Other scientists dismissed his idea as faulty. In 1938, G.S. Callendar argued that the level of carbon dioxide was climbing and raising global temperature:   [[RELATED POST ON CALLENDAR 1938] . In the early 1960s, C.D. Keeling measured the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: it was rising fast. Researchers began to take an interest, struggling to understand how the level of carbon dioxide had changed in the past, and how the level was influenced by chemical and biological forces. They found that the gas plays a crucial role in climate change, so that the rising level could gravely affect our future.
  10. John Tyndall was fascinated by recent and alarming discovery of the time that the earth goes through glaciation and interglacial cycles. He considered the possibility that these “ice age cycles” were driven by atmospheric composition based on the works of Joseph Fourier and others that energy in the form of visible light from the Sun easily penetrates the atmosphere to reach the surface and heat it up, but heat cannot so easily escape back into space because of atmospheric absorption. For the air absorbs invisible heat rays (“infrared radiation”) rising from the surface. The warmed air radiates some of the energy back down to the surface, helping it stay warm. This was the effect that would later be called, by an inaccurate analogy, the “greenhouse effect.” The equations and data available to 19th-century scientists were far too poor to allow an accurate calculation. Yet the physics was straightforward enough to show that a bare, airless rock at the Earth’s distance from the Sun should be far colder than the Earth actually is.
  11. Tyndall set out to find whether there was in fact any gas in the atmosphere that could trap heat rays. In 1859, his careful laboratory work identified several gases that did just that. The most important was simple water vapor (H2O). Also effective were carbon dioxide (CO2), although in the atmosphere the gas is only a few parts in ten thousand, and the even rarer methane (CH4). Just as a sheet of paper will block more light than an entire pool of clear water, so a trace of CO2 or CH4 could strongly affect the transmission of heat radiation through the atmosphere.
  12. The next major scientist to consider the Earth’s temperature was another man with broad interests, Svante Arrhenius in Stockholm. He too was attracted by the great riddle of the prehistoric ice ages, and he saw CO2 as the key. Why focus on that rare gas rather than water vapor, which was far more abundant? Because the level of water vapor in the atmosphere fluctuated daily, whereas the level of CO2 was set over a geological timescale by emissions from volcanoes. If the emissions changed, the alteration in the CO2 greenhouse effect would only slightly change the global temperature—but that would almost instantly change the average amount of water vapor in the air, which would bring further change through its own greenhouse effect. Thus the level of CO2 acted as a regulator of water vapor, and ultimately determined the planet’s long-term equilibrium temperature.
  13. In 1896 Arrhenius completed a laborious numerical computation which suggested that cutting the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere by half could lower the temperature in Europe some 4-5°C (roughly 7-9°F) — that is, to an ice age level. But this idea could only answer the riddle of the ice ages if such large changes in atmospheric composition really were possible. For that question Arrhenius turned to a colleague, Arvid Högbom. It happened that Högbom had compiled estimates for how carbon dioxide cycles through natural geochemical processes, including emission from volcanoes, uptake by the oceans, and so forth.
  14. It had occurred to Högbom to calculate the amounts of CO2 emitted by factories and other industrial sources. Surprisingly, he found that human activities were adding CO2 to the atmosphere at a rate roughly comparable to the natural geochemical processes that emitted or absorbed the gas.
  15. Arrhenius did not see that as a problem. He figured that if industry continued to burn fuel at the current (1896) rate, it would take perhaps three thousand years for the CO2 level to rise so high. Högbom doubted it would ever rise that much. One thing holding back the rise was the oceans. According to a simple calculation, sea water would absorb 5/6ths of any additional gas. Arrhenius brought up the possibility of future warming but by the time the book was published, 1908, the rate of coal burning was already significantly higher than in 1896, and Arrhenius suggested warming might appear within a few centuries rather than millenia. Yet here as in his first article, the possibility of warming in some distant future was far from his main point. He mentioned it only in passing.
  16. What really interested scientists of his time — the cause of the ice ages. Arrhenius had not quite discovered global warming, but only a curious theoretical concept.(5) An American geologist, T. C. Chamberlin, and a few others took an interest in CO2. How, they wondered, is the gas stored and released as it cycles through the Earth’s reservoirs of sea water and minerals, and also through living matter like forests? Chamberlin was emphatic that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere did not necessarily stay the same over the long term. But these scientists too were pursuing the ice ages and other, yet more ancient climate changes — gradual shifts over millions of years.


  1. What we find in this history is that 19th century climate scientists were studying what was then a recent discovery that the earth goes through glaciation and interglacial cycles over a time scale of hundreds of thousands of years. The research agenda of these scientists, particularly Arrhenius, was to discover what drives glaciation cycles at time scales of 100,000 to 200,000 years. Arrhenius did find an explanation of these climate cycles in terms of the greenhouse effect of CO2 and water and that work was published and recognized as a significant advance in science.
  2. However, to draw a parallel between that and AGW climate change at multi-decadal and at most centennial time scales, is a failure to account for the importance of time scale in time series analysis (See for example [LINK] ). The authors in this work note that ” When monitoring complex physical systems over time, one often finds multiple phenomena in the data that work on different time scales. If one is interested in analyzing and modeling these individual phenomena, it is crucial to recognize these different scales and separate the data into its underlying components”.
  3. Therefore, the “climate science” of AGW climate change at multi-decadal or centennial time scales is not the same science as the “climate science” of glaciation cycles at time scales that are orders of magnitude longer. Therefore there is no correspondence between AGW science and Arrhenius although both these sciences rely on the heat trapping effect of atmospheric composition in terms of its CO2 and water content. Besides, these works had nothing whatsoever to do with an impact of the industrial economy on climate. These are two very different events in the history of climate research with very little if any correspondence between them.
  4. Yet another matter to consider in the claim that Arrhenius is the father of AGW climate change and that the science has been established for over a hundred years is that the Arrhenius theory of glaciation cycles has been discredited in favor of the theory of Milankovitch cycles proposed by Milutin Milanković about a hundred years ago and only 25 years after the work of Arrhenius.
  5. The only historical work that used the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere at the time scale of AGW climate change and did so in the context of the burning of fossil fuels in the industrial economy is Callendar 1938 described in a related post [LINK]. The history from 1938 to the present is summarized here [LINK]
  6. With respect to Callendar 1938, it should be mentioned that his theory of fossil fueled and human caused global warming explains the 38-year warming period from 1900 to 1938. This work has been discredited by the ETCW issue in climate science that finds this Early Twentieth Century Warming to be an anomaly not explained by the modern theory of AGW climate change. The ETCW issue is described in a related post.  [LINK]
  7. SUMMARY: To summarize, the parallel drawn between the work of Arrhenius on glaciation cycles and the current theory of catastrophic climate change of the industrial economy; that operate at grossly different time scales; appears to be a desperate search for validation. The need for such validation, along with the Ad hominem need for validation by way of consensus, suggests weaknesses in AGW science that require this kind of unscientific support for science. 

5 Responses to "Svante Arrhenius 1896 Climate Change"

add my thanks. Clearly sated and summarised. Just what I have been looking for.

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