Scientists Have Been Talking About Greenhouse Gases for 191 Years

The first explorations of the greenhouse effect began in 1824

coal plant
Momatiuk - Eastcott/Corbis

Sometimes it feels as if every week brings a new host of stories about how climate change is affecting the planet, or new plans to battle its effects like the one announced by President Barack Obama today. But the concept itself isn't new at all — in fact, scientists have been exploring questions about climate change for almost 200 years.

The idea of "greenhouse gases" goes back to 1824, when Joseph Fourier wondered what was regulating the earth’s temperature. Fourier deduced that the atmosphere must responsible for containing the heat absorbed from the sun and described it as like a box with a glass lid: as light shines through the glass, the insides get warmer as the lid traps the heat, writes David Wogan for Scientific American. As Fourier’s ideas spread, it came to be called “the greenhouse effect.”

Scientists continued to study the greenhouse effect, but it wasn’t until a Swedish chemist named Svante Arrhenius came along that scientists understood how global warming actually works. In 1896, Arrhenius published a paper titled “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground” that finally quantified the effect that increased carbon dioxide had on the greenhouse effect.

Arrhenius first became interested in the topic through one of the great questions in the scientific community at the time: what caused ice ages? Believing that it could be the result of dramatic swings in the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, Arrhenius began to calculate the precise amounts that would heat the Earth, writes Ian Sample for The Guardian. After years of work, Arrhenius determined that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere did in fact have a direct effect on global temperatures.

“...if the quantity of carbonic acid [CO2] increases in geometric progression, the augmentation of the temperature will increase nearly in arithmetic progression,” Arrhenius wrote in what is now known as “the greenhouse law.”

Arrhenius found that CO2 and other gases trap infrared radiation, which warms the atmosphere. As a result, the atmosphere can hold on to more water vapor, the biggest contributor to global warming. Arrhenius was the first to suspect that burning coal could contribute to the greenhouse effect. But, as Sample reports, Arrhenius welcomed the warming effect on the planet. At a lecture later that year, Arrhenius noted that residents of a warmer Earth "might live under a milder sky and in less barren surroundings than is our lot at present."

While Arrhenius' findings won him the 1903 Nobel Prize for chemistry, scientists kept debating whether the greenhouse effect was increasing until 1950, when researchers finally began to find strong data supporting it. By the end of the 1950s, American scientists were sounding the alarm on the long-term consequences of climate change.

Climate change research has come a long way since Fourier first described the greenhouse effect — still, maybe Arrhenius should have been more careful of what he wished for.

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