In 1865, the Danish geologist and mineralogist Johan Georg Forchhammer, with the help of naval and civilian collaborators, collected numerous samples of seawater from the Northern Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean. He wanted to determine why the salinity (or “saltiness”) of seawater varies in different areas of the ocean.
Forchhammer put the samples through a detailed series of chemical analyses and found that the proportions of the major salts in seawater stay about the same everywhere. This constant ratio is known as Forchhammer’s Principle, or the Principle of Constant Proportions. In addition to this principle, Forchhammer is credited with defining the term salinity to mean the concentration of major salts in seawater.
Forchhammer’s discovery helped scientists understand that salinity levels in seawater vary due to the addition or removal of fresh water, rather than differing amounts of salt minerals in the water. The principle is still applied today in marine research, and provides a simple way to estimate salinity and trace the mixing of water masses in the global ocean.