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On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground

Arrhenius, Svante, 1896. On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground. Philosophical Magazine ser. 5, vol. 41, 237–276.

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Essay about this article

In 1896, Svante August Arrhenius (1859-1927) published a landmark paper that examined the effect of different levels of atmospheric CO2 (carbonic acid) concentration on the temperature of the planet. His energy budget model, the first of its kind, took into account solar and terrestrial radiation, including the fourth-power relationship between temperature and radiation, and contained estimates of the absorption of terrestrial radiation by water vapor and carbon dioxide based upon the work of John Tyndall, Samuel P. Langley, Knut Ånsgström, and others.

Arrhenius used his model to calculate the change of temperature that would follow if the quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was two-thirds, double, or even triple its present value. He reported that a doubling of CO2 would raise global temperatures by about 3 to 3.5 °C while a reduction of CO2 by one-third would lower temperatures by roughly the same amount. These values happen to be within the range of current estimates even though Arrhenius ignored the possible effects of changes of horizontal advection and cloud cover and worked with very limited spectroscopic data. For example, the infrared atmospheric window between 8 and 12 microns and the strong carbon dioxide and water vapor absorption bands beyond 12 microns were unknown at the time.

His calculations, made for every tenth parallel of latitude and for every season, showed that ice age conditions could be sustained between 40° and 50° North latitude if the carbon dioxide in the air should sink to about half of its present value. On the other hand, the temperature of the Arctic regions would rise dramatically if the CO2 concentration was double or triple its present value. In general, he wrote, “if the quantity of carbonic acid increases in geometric progression, the augmentation of the temperature will increase nearly in arithmetic progression.”

This was in essence a geological model, and the onset of ice ages and interglacials were his primary concern. Ultimately, crustal processess, not the biosphere, controlled CO2 levels and he considered volcanoes, not coal burning, to be the “chief source of carbonic acid for the atmosphere.” Over the course of a millennium, however, humans could have a major influence, since he estimated that burning the world's annual production of coal, approximately 500 million tons, produced about one-thousandth of the total atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide.

Discussion Questions

a. Svante Arrhenius was awarded a Nobel Prize for Chemistry, but it was not related to his climate change theory. What does his life story reveal about state of science at the time?

b. In an age well before digital computers were invented, what does it mean that Arrhenius developed a “model” of the effect of carbon dioxide on climate? What were the components of the model and how did he make the calculations?

c. Discuss the differences between Arrhenius’s results and those of more recent, computerized models.


Crawford, Elisabeth. 1996. Arrhenius: From Ionic Theory to the Greenhouse Effect. Canton, Mass, Science History Publications.

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