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Odén, Svante Swedish Agricultural Scientist

Svante Odén
Swedish agricultural scientist

One of the great environmental issues of the 1970s and 1980s was the problem of acid precipitation. Research studies suggested that rain, snow, and other forms of precipitation in certain parts of the world had become increasingly acidic over the preceding century. The southern parts of Scandinavia and England, the Northeastern United States, and Eastern Canada were four regions in which the phenomenon was particularly noticeable.

Evidence began to accumulate that the increasing level of acidity might be associated with environmental damage, such as the death of trees and aquatic life. Scientists began to ask how extensive this damage might be and what sources of acid precipitation could be identified.

If any single person could be credited with raising international awareness of this problem, it would probably be the Swedish agricultural scientist Svante Odén. Odén was certainly not the first person to recognize the existence, effects, or origins of acid precipitation. That honor belongs to an English chemist, Robert Angus Smith . As early as 1852, Smith hypothesized a connection between air pollution in Manchester and the high acidity of rains falling in the area. He first used the term acid rain in a book he published in 1872.

Smith's research held relatively little interest to most scientists, however. Those who did study acid rain approached their work with little concern about the environment and did so, as one of them later said, "with no environmental consciousness," but simply because "it was an interesting situation."

Odén's attitude was quite different. He had been asked by the Swedish government to prepare a report on his hypothesis that acid rain falling on Swedish land and lakes had its origins hundreds or thousands of miles away. In preparing his report, he came to the conclusion that acid rain might be responsible for widespread fish kills then being reported by Swedish fishermen. Odén was shocked by this discovery because, as he later said, it was the "first real indication that acid precipitation had an impact on the biosystem."

Odén's method of dealing with his discoveries was unorthodox. In most cases, a researcher sends the report of his or her work to a scientific journal, which has the report reviewed by other scientists in the same field. If the research is judged to have been well done, the report is published.

In this instance, however, Odén sent his report to a Stockholm newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, where it was published on October 24, 1967. Odén's decision undoubtedly disturbed some scientists, but it did have the effect of bringing the issue of acid rain to the attention of the general public.

A year later, Odén published a more formal report of his research, "The Acidification of Air and Precipitation, and Its Consequences," in the Ecology Committee Bulletin. The article was later translated into English. Odén carried his message about acid precipitation to the United States in person in 1971, when he presented a series of 14 lectures on the topic at various institutions across the country. In his presentations, he argued that acid rain was an international phenomenon that, in Europe, originated especially in England and Germany and was spreading over thousands of miles to other parts of the continent, especially Scandinavia. His work also laid the foundation for Sweden's case study for the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment "Air Pollution Across National Boundaries" presented at Stockholm in 1972. He further suggested that a number of environmental effects, such as the death of trees and fish and damage to buildings, could be traced to acid precipitation. Odén's passionate commitment to publicizing his findings about acid precipitation was certainly a critical factor in awakening the world's awareness to the potential problems of this environmental danger.

[David E. Newton ]


RESOURCES

BOOKS

Boyle, R. H., and R. A. Boyle. Acid Rain. New York: Nick Lyons Books, 1983.

Luoma, J. Troubled Skies, Troubled Waters. New York: Viking Press, 1984. Park, C. Acid Rain: Rhetoric and Reality. London: Methuen, 1987.

PERIODICALS

Cowling, E. B. "Acid Precipitation in Historical Perspective." Environmental Science and Technology 16 (1982): 110A123A.

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