How cold hearts and ice ages kindled the science of warming

Svante Arrhenius, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry, and also was the first to show that while water plays the largest role in the greenhouse effect, the smaller but forcing effect from CO2 can be important. Image via Wikimedia Commons, PD-US

Svante Arrhenius, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry, and also was the first to show that while water plays the largest role in the greenhouse effect, the smaller but forcing effect from CO2 can be important. Image via Wikimedia Commons, PD-US

In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius took off into the atmosphere. Or at least into an immense calculation about the atmosphere that might distract him from having divorced his wife Sofia, who had taken custody of their baby son Olof. He looked to the skies to settle a key argument: How can landscapes around the world show evidence of ice scraping over it?

At the time, the idea of an ice age was controversial, and the world’s great minds struggled to explain the mile-thick sheets clues suggested had existed. For months Svante laboured by hand to calculate how tiny reductions in a gas called carbon dioxide – CO2 – could team up with water vapour to cool down the world. He didn’t produce an immediate answer to the riddle of the ice age, and he may or may not have escaped the woes of his personal life. But Svante Arrhenius did lay a foundation that climate science still rests upon today.

The tools that Svante used had recently been forged in the furnace of scientific progress that was the 19th century. Until then, even an effect as seemingly basic as heat had been poorly understood. Only slowly had the idea that it was a kind of fluid or gas been replaced by the modern understanding that it’s a flow of energy. In the 1820s French mathematician Joseph Fourier helped drive that shift. He also mused on why, when the Sun heats the Earth, doesn’t the Earth get as hot as the Sun?
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