Obituary: Gustaf Arrhenius, oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography
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Gustaf Arrhenius
Gustaf Arrhenius
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Gustaf Arrhenius, an oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego whose varied research considered the earliest life on Earth and origins of the solar system, died Feb. 3 at his home in La Jolla. He was 96.

Arrhenius’ family tree included Nobel laureates and renowned polar explorers, making a career in science his destiny. He joined Scripps in 1952 at the invitation of its then-director Roger Revelle in the midst of what many consider oceanography’s golden age of exploration. 

“Gustaf Arrhenius was one of Scripps Oceanography’s most distinguished scientists,” said Scripps Oceanography Director Margaret Leinen. “His research into deep-sea sedimentation during the 1950s defined the major sedimentary processes and provinces of the ocean and opened the door for the studies of ocean and climate history that followed. Arrhenius was also a geochemist who studied crystal chemistry, cosmo-chemistry, pre-biotic chemistry and worked to plan the analysis of lunar samples. He and his Scripps geochemistry colleagues expanded the boundaries of geochemistry.”

Arrhenius’ career was interwoven with many of the milestones in Scripps history and the development of UC San Diego as a young university. He played a key role in the formation of UC San Diego prior to its 1960 founding. He was among a handful of oceanographers helping Revelle with the task of recruiting humanities and science professors for the new university. 

Former students and colleagues remembered Arrhenius not only for his scholarship but for his generous and encouraging spirit.

“He was the ultimate example of an open mind. Everything could be discussed, everything was interesting, and literally everything was possible,” said Mark van Zuilen, now a researcher at the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris in France who was Arrhenius’ graduate student from 1997 to 2003. “A trait that is often lost in this game, and that is rarely instilled in young scientists, is to simply be nice to fellow scientists. Gustaf did that. He actually instilled that in people – to be nice.”

“Gustaf was not only a great scholar and teacher, he was also a deeply committed humanitarian and the epitome of a true gentleman,” said Asoka Mendis, an emeritus distinguished professor of space physics at UC San Diego and longtime colleague of Arrhenius.

Arrhenius joined Scripps as a visiting researcher in 1952. Prior to that, he had discovered his own love of natural sciences after having been born into a family that had made a name for itself in science and exploration on both sides.  His paternal grandfather was Svante Arrhenius, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1903. Sometimes called the “father of physical chemistry,” Svante Arrhenius’ examination of the greenhouse gas effect of carbon dioxide preceded the work 60 years later of one of Arrhenius’s contemporaries at Scripps, Charles David Keeling. Ancestors on Gustaf Arrhenius’s mother’s side include polar explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld and his son, Gustaf Nordenskiöld, a noted anthropologist.

Gustaf Arrhenius was born in 1922 in Stockholm, Sweden. He developed his own career interest in oceanography as a teenager in need of a topic for a science project. The fjords near his family’s estate fascinated him and he began a study of the physics and chemistry of them. As a young man, he heard of an expedition being planned by the researcher Hans Pettersson, who had been experimenting with a new technology that enabled scientists to extract cores of seafloor sediment from unprecedented depths. It would be a cruise around the world lasting 15 months and Arrhenius, looking for adventure, was one of the few students willing to be away from home that long. He signed up. 

The cores Pettersson had begun to retrieve held a history of the planet that would be one of Arrhenius’ main topics of interest for the rest of his career. Arrhenius first took part in a preparatory cruise in the Mediterranean Sea aboard the research vessel Skagerak in 1946. He was then hired on to be a geochemist on Pettersson’s 1947-48 Albatross expedition in which cores were collected from locations around the world.

The Albatross expedition yielded thousands of cores and Arrhenius’ father, Olof, an environmental chemist, had at the family estate known as Kagghamra one of the few spaces in Europe large enough to house them. The cores drew the interest of researchers around the world, including Revelle. Arrhenius used cores from his region of interest in the eastern Pacific Ocean to complete his doctoral dissertation at the University of Stockholm in 1952.

That same year, Revelle and Scripps were preparing for the Capricorn Expedition to the Marshall Islands, which was timed to follow up secret nuclear tests near the island of Bikini. Revelle wanted to incorporate piston corers and Arrhenius’ knowledge of them. As Arrhenius later recalled, Revelle wrote him a letter saying, “You know, why don’t you come over?”

“We just thought that’s the way Americans did it,” Arrhenius said.

Arrhenius and his wife, Jenny, traveled to the United States via freighter, bought a used black Pontiac in Baltimore and drove cross-country to Scripps, where he was immediately assigned a  role in the upcoming cruise. 

After the Capricorn Expedition, Arrhenius returned to Sweden to finish his PhD thesis, then returned to Scripps, formally joining its faculty in July 1953.  He would a few years later become involved in another iconic mission in Scripps history.

Arrhenius was interested in the history that was contained in ocean sediments, which held enough information in cores over a meter or two long to make inferences of long-duration geological phenomena such as the decay of isotopes. One of his early collaborators at Scripps was chemist Ed Goldberg. The research papers of the two throughout the 1950s are credited as seminal work in the study of marine sediments.

“These papers concerned themselves with the study of the geochemistry of marine sediments,” said Joris Gieskes, a professor of marine chemistry at Scripps. “Especially his paper on the chemistry of pacific pelagic sediments can be considered to be a classic contribution to the study of marine sediments.”

His interest in coring and Earth history made him a natural for an idea proposed in 1957 to reach the planet’s mantle by coring to sufficient depth. The idea turned into Project MOHOLE, an endeavor that for many reasons did not achieve its goal but that did give rise to an international ocean-drilling collaboration that continues to this day. 

Around this time, San Diego had been selected as the location of a new University of California campus after lobbying by Revelle and others. To prepare for the creation of a new campus, Revelle enlisted Arrhenius and other oceanographers.

“We were a rather small group of local faculty assisting Roger Revelle in the unusual task of starting a new university with the unconventional aim of acquiring only the most prominent or promising representatives of the diverse fields in science and the humanities,” Arrhenius recalled in 2016.

Arrhenius was among principal investigators selected by NASA to analyze lunar samples being brought back to Earth by Apollo missions in 1969. His interest in the history of Earth and the solar system continued to the end of his career. In 1996, he attracted some controversy when his research team claimed to have found 3.8 billion-year-old evidence of life within carbonate rocks found in Greenland. Arrhenius would have to retract that claim after further study identified another, younger, source of the organic material in the rocks. The setback led his team to create a new method of identifying the origin of carbon in such samples. The new work would help revalidate Arrhenius’ original estimate when other rocks were sampled in 1999.

“I felt very much privileged that I had an opportunity to conduct the biodiagnostics research with broad general interest in one of the principal research groups in the field under spearheading of Gustaf,” said Aivo Lepland, a researcher with the Geological Survey of Norway who was then a postdoctoral researcher who helped create the identification method with Arrhenius. 

By the time Arrhenius retired in 2005, he had served on the NASA Lunar Sample Analysis Planning Team (1970-72), the NASA Advisory Committee on Comet and Asteroid Exploration (1973-75), and the Ocean Science Board of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (1977-81). He was a Guggenheim Fellow (1957-58) and received the American Chemical Society PRF Award (1961), the NASA Group Achievement Award (1973), and the Hans Pettersson Gold Medal of the Royal Swedish Academy (1998). Arrhenius returned to Scripps from retirement to serve as a research professor in 2006 and was active in issues ranging from hiring to facilities at Scripps until concluding his research  in 2016. 

He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Mineralogical Society, the Meteoritical Society, the Explorers Club, and the Geological Society of India. He was a member of the International Academy of Astronautics, the Russian Akademiya Tvorchestva, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and the Royal Gothenburg Academy of Letters and Sciences, among other scientific societies. He published more than 150 papers and books.

Lepland was one of several former students and colleagues of Arrhenius who remembered him not just for his research “but importantly also for his overall positive attitude and his ability to see people truly as they are with their good and bad.”

Arrhenius is preceded in death by wife Jenny de Hevesy Arrhenius, who died in 2009. He is survived by his three children, Susanne, Thomas and Peter, his four grandchildren, Sylvia, Alex, Audrey and Julia, and his great granddaughter Camille.

Memorial service arrangements are pending.

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