Discovery of the greenhouse effect

Figure 1. Svante Arrhenius was the first scientist to speculate that the climate would be effected by the presence of certain gases in the atmosphere, and was the first to promote the idea of the greenhouse effect.[1]

One common misconception about the greenhouse effect is that it is a new concept. However, scientists have speculated about the existence of some greenhouse effect since the 1800s. One of the most notable scientists who investigated the concept of a greenhouse effect was Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist who in 1896 was the first to claim that the combustion of fossil fuels could eventually result in global warming.[2]

Arrhenius' theory proposed that atmospheric carbon dioxide could lead to temperature changes of the Earth, and discovered that the temperature of the Earth was due to the absorption and re-emission of infrared radiation from water vapour and carbon dioxide. He presented his findings in a paper titled On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground.[3] From this, he became the first person to investigate what effect increasing atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide would have on the climate and temperature of the Earth.[3] The article he presented described a new model of Earth's energy budget, taking into account the effects of what we now know to be greenhouse gases on the temperature of the Earth. In addition, he suggested that doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would raise the temperature of the Earth by 5°C.[2] This estimate is consistent with modern predictions; however, he was incorrect in predicting how long it would take to achieve this doubling in carbon dioxide—estimating a time scale of 3000 years.[4]

Arrhenius drew significant amounts of information for his experiments from experiments and observations done by other scientists including Josef Stefan, Samuel Langley, Knut Angstrom, Joseph Fourier, and John Tyndall.[3] Although the predictions made by Arrhenius with the aid of Thomas Chamberlin were correct overall it took until 1988 for there to be any level of acceptance that the climate was in fact warming to levels that were hotter than any period since 1880.[2]

For Further Reading


  1. "Svante Arrhenius" by Nobel Foundation - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 S.M. Enzler, MSc. (May 5, 2015). History of the greenhouse effect and global warming [Online]. Available:
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Steve Graham. (May 5, 2015). Svante Arrhenius [Online]. Available:
  4. Richard Wolfson. (April 4, 2015). Energy, Environment, and Climate, 2nd Edition. W.W. Norton & Company.

Authors and Editors

Bethel Afework, Allison Campbell, Jordan Hanania, Ashley Sheardown, Kailyn Stenhouse, Jason Donev
Last updated: January 4, 2019
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