Svante August Arrhenius (1859–1927) was a Swedish scientist who won the Nobel Prize for his work in physical chemistry. In 1896 he became the first person to show by calculation that burning fossil fuels would produce global warming.

Arrhenius was born at Vik, Sweden, the son of a land surveyor. He was an infant prodigy in mathematics and a high-achieving student. His early work was poorly regarded by his professors but provided the modern understanding of acids, alkalis and salts. It later gained him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Arrhenius had a distinguished though often controversial career. He did important work on the rates of chemical reactions (producing the Arrhenius equation) and contributed to immunology, geology and astronomy.

He became rector of Stockholm University in 1896 and in 1900 helped establish the Nobel Prizes.

Global warming

Arrhenius was interested in the origins of the ice ages and in 1896 he made calculations of the Earth heat budget. He drew on work by a variety of other scientists including observations of the moon.

He showed that the Earth would be much colder if its atmosphere did not contain water vapour and carbon dioxide – the ‘greenhouse’ theory. He concluded that the release of CO2 from burning fossil fuels would change the atmosphere enough to raise the Earth’s temperature – global warming. This, he thought, would be a good thing!