Environment

Atmospheric CO2 levels defy the pandemic to hit record high

Atmospheric CO2 levels defy th...
Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have hit record highs, scientists are reporting
Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have hit record highs, scientists are reporting
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Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have hit record highs, scientists are reporting
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Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have hit record highs, scientists are reporting
The upward trajectory of CO2 in the atmosphere as measured at the Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory
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The upward trajectory of CO2 in the atmosphere as measured at the Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory

Scientists measuring concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere at the Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory have reported the highest levels on record, and ones not seen on Earth in more than four million years. The average atmospheric CO2 levels of 419.13 parts per million (ppm) across May are far in excess of what experts consider safe, and demonstrate that it will take a lot more than the type of lockdowns seen recently across the globe to address this alarming trend.

Each May before plants in the Northern Hemisphere begin to absorb large amounts of CO2 as part of a yearly cycle, atmospheric scientists take measurements to observe the greenhouse gas at its highest levels. Two years ago these observations produced record readings, revealing levels of 415.26 ppm, a concentration that had never been reached before.

May last year then saw an average concentration of 416.2 ppm, in spite of the stringent coronavirus-related shutdowns across much of the globe. This might seem counterintuitive, as these lockdowns did lead to significant declines in some types of air pollution, including dips in carbon emissions in some locations.

But in some ways it is the perfect illustration of how real-time carbon emissions are a very separate phenomenon to the buildup of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere through decades and decades of fossil fuel use, where it persists for thousands of years. It also shows how these small declines are difficult to distinguish amidst the natural variability of the carbon cycle, which is influenced by plants, soils, humidity and temperature, among many other factors.

The upward trajectory of CO2 in the atmosphere as measured at the Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory
The upward trajectory of CO2 in the atmosphere as measured at the Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory

“We are adding roughly 40 billion metric tons of CO2 pollution to the atmosphere per year,” says Pieter Tans, a senior scientist with NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory. “That is a mountain of carbon that we dig up out of the Earth, burn, and release into the atmosphere as CO2 – year after year. If we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, the highest priority must be to reduce CO2 pollution to zero at the earliest possible date.”

According to the NOAA scientists, the types of atmospheric levels of CO2 we are now experiencing have not been seen on Earth for somewhere between 4.1 and 4.5 million years, during the Pliocene Climatic Optimum. At that time, the average temperature was around 7 °F (3.9 °C) warmer than pre-industrial times, and sea levels were around 78 ft (23.7 m) higher.

“The solution is right before our eyes,” says Tans. “Solar energy and wind are already cheaper than fossil fuels and they work at the scales that are required. If we take real action soon, we might still be able to avoid catastrophic climate change.”

Source: NOAA

8 comments
8 comments
Kurt Persson
They are measuring CO2 emission from the volcano.
piperTom
Here we have a vivid example of how the reputation and authority of Science gets cheapened. Pieter Tans, speaking as a scientist offers us a little science mixed with his opinions outside his area of expertise. He calls CO2 'pollution', which is not a scientific term. He then opines that climate change is 'catastrophic'; a social and economic condition that far transcends any (projected) temperature measurement. Continuing, he wants to tell us what is our "highest priority", which is a political and economic judgement. Surely, Tans has a right to his opinions, but when speaking as a scientist, he should stick to facts on which we might consider him an authority.
Signguy
piperTom: Well said. Just more fearmongering...
Catweazle
So, despite anthropogenic CO2 emissions having substantially declined over the last 12+ months, the rate of increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration has not varied by any measurable amount.
And yet the "climate science experts" are incapable of deriving the obvious conclusion, and are still ranting about CO2 - THE vital plant food - being "pollution" and that a trivial increase in temperature is "catastrophic".
Now, given that the relationship between CO2 concentration and ability to capture photons is well known to be logarithmic, hence will tend to the asymptote - almost certainly already has in fact - at what concentration does Tans consider that the addition of CO2 will cease to have any noticeable effect on the Earth's temperature?
Basically, geology clearly demonstrates that a few degrees increase in temperature is invariably beneficial to life on Earth whereas a similar decrease will be apocalyptic and there is in fact no clear correlation between CO2 and surface temperature, CO2 levels have been high in ice ages, for example.
Time to stop wasting resources attempting to prevent climate change - we have as much chance of doing so as altering the time the Sun rises and sets - and concentrating on living with it.
Douglas Rogers
Industrial CO2 represents, at most, 1% of the total greenhouse effect on the Earth. 95% is from water vapor and 5% is split between Co2 and methane.
Lamar Havard
This reminds me of back in the Dark Ages of global warming 'research', when atmospheric sensors were found at the ends of airport runways and inside metal sheds with lights in them. Apparently Mr. Tans needs to be informed that the Hawaiian Islands are the tops of volcanoes.
Karmudjun
Catweazel, can you tell me how many parts per million at sea level will reduce such comments from mammals? Since CO2 is a toxin to mammals, of which humanity is only one species, how much exactly?

What these scientists need to focus on is not just the CO2 levels, but the other greenhouse gases. Methane for example is rated at 28-34 times that of CO2. The fluorinated gases used for anesthesia are more of a greenhouse gas pollution (yes, pollution, not merely a free floating gas in normal quantities as it is completely lab produced) than CO2. And while the plants do need CO2 to exist, they have evolved to pull trace CO2 out of the atmosphere to meet growth needs with specific CO2 grabbing mechanisms - no one to date has studied the tolerance of plant life to double or treble the toxic levels of CO2 that may result in the future. Currently we have an average of 400 ppm (which is the high of 0.04% of atmospheric gases at sea level) and the atmosphere's measurable levels are rising in spite of the Ocean's ability to absorb CO2 acidifying the globe's waters. The shellfish have trouble with more acidic waters as they pull minerals from the normal pH water - either our shellfish must evolve the ability to pull minerals from acidic waters in sufficient quantities or go extinct. Plus the coral reefs are losing ground but researchers have found coral that have higher temperature and pH tolerance in the Red Sea. But we'll have to see. The current pollution levels are a risk for more than humankind, no matter what the "New Atlas" naysayers repeat time and again.
Worzel
CO2 is not a pollutant, and it is not a danger to life. ALL life on the planet depends upon it, for its very existence.
The biggest evolutionary creation of life forms was during the ''Cambrian Explosion,'' when atmospheric CO2 level was 17 times present at 7000ppm.
It was during these periods, and later, that the enormous amounts of limestone and marble were laid down, so marine life must have been prolific.
So, the 'naysayers' cannot be wrong in their assessment of the present comparatively, miserably low level of CO2 level of 400 ppm being of no consequence. In addition, tinkering with the tiny 40 ppm of estimated human caused CO2, can thankfully, have no effect on climate whatsoever.