The FIRSTS: Increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere results in global warming (1896)

Few people seem to know that although global warming and climate change are hotly debated topics right now (at least on the left side of the Atlantic) the effect of CO2 levels on the planet’s surface temperature was investigated and calculated more than a century ago. CO2 is one of the greenhouse gases responsible for the greenhouse effect, which was discovered by Joseph Fourier in 1824 (the effect, that is).

Let’s start with a terminology clarification. Whereas the term ‘global warming’ was coined by Wallace S. Broecker in 1975, the term ‘climate change’ underwent a more fluidic transformation in the ’70s from ‘inadvertent climate modification’ to ‘climatic change’ to a more consistent use of ‘climate change’ by Jule Charney in 1979, according to NASA. The same source tells us:

“Global warming refers to surface temperature increases, while climate change includes global warming and everything else that increasing greenhouse gas amounts will affect”.

But before NASA there was one Svante August Arrhenius (1859–1927). Dr. Arrhenius was a Swedish physical chemist who received the Nobel Prize in 1903 for uncovering the role of ions in how electrical current is conducted in chemical solutions.

S.A. Arrhenius was the first to quantify the variations of our planet’s surface temperature as a direct result of the amount of CO2 (which he calls carbonic acid, long story) present in the atmosphere. For those – admittedly few – nitpickers that say his views on the greenhouse effect were somewhat simplistic and his calculations were incorrect I’d say cut him a break: he didn’t have the incredible amount of data provided by the satellites or computers, nor the work of thousands of scientists over a century to back him up. Which they do. Kind of. Well, the idea, anyway, not the math. Well, some of the math. Let me explain.

First, let me tell you that I haven’t managed to pass past page 3 of the 39 pages of creative mathematics, densely packed tables, parameter assignments, and convoluted assumptions of Arrhenius (1896). Luckily, I convinced a spectroscopist to take a crack at the original paper since there is a lot of spectroscopy in it and then enlighten me.

118Boltzmann-grp - Copy
The photo was taken in 1887 and shows (standing, from the left): Walther Nernst (Nobel in Chemistry), Heinrich Streintz, Svante Arrhenius, Richard Hiecke; (sitting, from the left): Eduard Aulinger, Albert von Ettingshausen, Ludwig Boltzmann, Ignaz Klemenčič, Victor Hausmanninger. Source: Universität Graz. License: PD via Wikimedia Commons.

Second, despite his many accomplishments, including being credited with laying the foundations of a new field (physical chemistry), Arrhenius was first and foremost a mathematician. So he employed a lot of tedious mathematics (by hand!) together with some hefty guessing along with what was known at the time about Earth’s infrared radiation, solar radiation, water vapor and CO2 absorption, temperature of the Moon,  greenhouse effect, and some uncalibrated spectra taken by his predecessors to figure out if “the mean temperature of the ground [was] in any way influenced by the presence of the heat-absorbing gases in the atmosphere” (p. 237). Why was he interested in this? We find out only at page 267 after a lot of aforesaid dreary mathematics where he finally shares this with us:

“I certainly not have undertaken these tedious calculations if an extraordinary interest had not been connected with them. In the Physical Society of Stockholm there have been occasionally very lively discussions on the probable causes of the Ice Age”.

So Arrhenius was interested to find out if the fluctuations of CO2 levels could have caused the Ice Ages. And yes, he thinks that could have happened. I don’t know enough about climate science to tell you if this particular conclusion of his is correct today. But what he managed to accomplish though was to provide for the first time a way to mathematically calculate the amount of rise in temperature due the rise of CO2 levels. In other words, he found a direct relationship between the variations of CO2 and temperature. Today, it turns out that his math was incorrect because he left out some other variables that influence the global temperature that were discovered and/or understood later (like the thickness of the atmosphere, the rate of ocean absorption  of CO2 and others which I won’t pretend I understand). Nevertheless, Arrhenius was the first to point out to the following relationship, which, by and large, is still relevant today:

“Thus if the quantity of carbonic acid increased in geometric progression, the augmentation of the temperature will increase nearly in arithmetic progression” (p. 267).

118 Arrhenius - Copy

P.S. Technically, Joseph Fourier should be credited with the discovery of global warming by increasing the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in 1824, but Arrhenius quantified it so I credited him. Feel fee to debate :).

REFERENCE: Arrhenius, S. (April 1896). XXXI. On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground, The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science (Fifth Series), 49 (251): 237-276. General Reference P.P.1433. doi: FREE FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 24 June 2017

Don’t eat snow

Whoever didn’t roll out a tongue to catch a few snowflakes? Probably only those who never encountered snow.

The bad news is that snow, particularly urban snow is bad, really bad for you. The good news is that this was not always the case. So there is hope that in the far future it will be pristine again.

Nazarenko et al. (2016) constructed a very clever contraption that reminds me of NASA space exploration instruments. The authors refer to this by the humble name of ‘environmental chamber’, but is in fact a complex construction with different modules designed to measure out how car exhaust and snow interact (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 from Nazarenko et al. (2016, DOI: 10.1039/c5em00616c). Released under CC BY-NC 3.0.

After many experiments, researchers concluded that snow absorbs pollutants very effectively. Among the many kinds of organic compounds soaked by snow in just one hour after exposure to fume exhaust, there were the infamous BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes). The amounts of these chemicals in the snow were not at all negligible; to give you an example, the BTEX concentration increased from virtually 0 to 50 and up to 380 ug kg-1. The authors provide detailed measurements for all the 40+ compounds they have identified.

Needles to say, many these compounds are known carcinogenics. Snow absorbs them, alters their size distributions, and then it melts… Some of them may be released back in the air as they are volatile, some will go in the ground and rivers as polluted water. After this gloomy reality check, I’ll leave you with the words of the researchers:

“The accumulation and transfer of pollutants from exhaust – to snow – to meltwater need to be considered by regulators and policy makers as an important area of focus for mitigation with the aim to protect public health and the environment” (p. 197).


Reference: Nazarenko Y, Kurien U, Nepotchatykh O, Rangel-Alvarado RB, & Ariya PA. (Feb 2016). Role of snow and cold environment in the fate and effects of nanoparticles and select organic pollutants from gasoline engine exhaust. Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts, 18(2):190-199. doi: 10.1039/c5em00616c. ARTICLE | FREE FULTEXT PDF 

By Neuronicus, 26 December 2016



Only the climate change scientists are interested in evidence. The rest is politics

Satellite image of clouds created by the exhaust of ship smokestacks (2005). Credit: NASA. License: PD.
Satellite image of clouds created by the exhaust of ship smokestacks (2005). Credit: NASA. License: PD.

Medimorec & Pennycook (2015) analyzed the language used in two prominent reports regarding climate change. Climate change is not a subject of scientific debate anymore, but of political discourse. Nevertheless, it appears that there are a few scientists that are skeptical about the climate change. As part of a conservative think tank, they formed the “Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) as an alternative to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In 2013, the NIPCC authored Climate Change Reconsidered II: Physical Science (hereafter referred to as ‘NIPCC’; Idso et al. 2013), a scientific report that is a direct response to IPCC’s Working Group 1: The Physical Science Basis (hereafter referred to as ‘IPCC’; Stocker et al. 2013), also published in 2013″ (Medimorec & Pennycook, 2015) .

The authors are not climate scientists, but psychologists armed with nothing but 3 text analysis tools: Coh-Metrix text analyzer, Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, and AntConc 3.3.5 concordancer analysis toolkit). They do not even fully understand the two very lengthy and highly technical papers; as they put it,

it is very unlikely that non-experts (present authors included) would have the requisite knowledge to be able to distinguish the NIPCC and IPCC reports based on the validity of their scientific arguments“.

So, they proceed on counting nouns, verbs, adverbs, and the like. The results: IPCC used more formal language, more nouns, more abstract words, more infrequent words, more complex syntax, and a lot more tentative language (‘possible’, ‘probable’, ‘might’) than the NIPCC. Which is ironic, since the climate scientists proponents are the ones accused of alarmism and trumpeting catastrophes. On the contrary, their language was much more refrained, perhaps out of fear of controversy, or just as likely, because they are scientists and very afraid to put their reputations at stake by risking type 1 errors.

In the authors’ words (I know, I am citing them 3 times in 4 paragraphs, but I really enjoyed their eloquence),

“the IPCC authors used more conservative (i.e., more cautious, less explicit) language to present their claims compared to the authors of the NIPCC report […]. The language style used by climate change skeptics suggests that the arguments put forth by these groups warrant skepticism in that they are relatively less focused upon the propagation of evidence and more intent on discrediting the opposing perspective”.

And this comes just from text analysis…

Reference: Medimorec, S. & Pennycook, G. (Epub 30 August 2015). The language of denial: text analysis reveals differences in language use between climate change proponents and skeptics. Climatic Change, doi:10.1007/s10584-015-1475-2. Article | Research Gate full text PDF

By Neuronicus, 4 November 2015