400 PPM: Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere Reaches Prehistoric Levels

May 10, 2013
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David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

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<!–Biello is the award-winning online associate editor for environment and energy. He joined Scientific American in November 2005 and has written on subjects ranging from astronomy to zoology for both the Web site and magazine. He has been reporting on the environment and energy since 1999long enough to be cynical but not long enough to be depressed. He is the host of the 60-Second Earth podcast, a contributor to the Instant Egghead video series, host of PBS’s “Beyond the Light Switch” and author of a children’s book on bullet trains. He also happens to think Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species is a surprisingly good read. – http://davidbiello.com/ – dbiello
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400 PPM: Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere Reaches Prehistoric Levels



400-ppm

On May 2, after nightfall shut down photosynthesis for the day in Hawaii, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere touched 400 parts-per-million there for the first time in at least 800,000 years. Near the summit of volcanic Mauna Loa—where a member of the Keeling family has kept watch since 1958—sensors measured this record through sunrise the following day. Levels have continued to dance near that benchmark in recent days, registering above 400 ppm for the first time in eons after midnight on May 7. When the measurements started the daily average could be as low as 315 ppm, already up from a pre-industrial average of around 280 ppm.

This measurement is just the hourly average of CO2 levels high in the Hawaiian sky, but this family’s figures carry more weight than those made at other stations in the world as they have faithfully kept the longest record of atmospheric CO2. Arctic weather stations also hit the hourly 400 ppm mark last spring and this one. Regardless, the hourly levels at Mauna Loa will soon drop as spring kicks in across the northern hemisphere, trees budding forth an army of leaves hungrily sucking CO2 out of the sky.



5-2-5-7-2013-mauna-loa

Courtesy of Scripps Institution of Oceanography

It may be next year before the monthly average level reaches 400 ppm—and yet longer still until the annual average reaches that number.

But there is no question that the world continues to inexorably climb toward higher levels of greenhouse gas concentrations. Barring economic recessions, the world may be lucky to stop at 450, 500 or even beyond. Last year, humanity spewed some 36 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases, up from 35 billion the year before.

In the coming year, Scientific American will run an occasional series, “400 ppm,” to examine what this invisible line in the sky means for the global climate, the planet and all the living things on it, including human civilization. Some scientists argue we passed the safe level for greenhouse gas concentrations long ago, pointing to the accelerating impacts, from extreme weather to the meltdown of Arctic sea ice. Others argue that we have yet more room to burn fossil fuels, clear forests and the like—but not much—before catastrophic climate change becomes inescapable. And the international community of nations has agreed that 450 ppm—linked to a rise of 2 degrees Celsius in global average temperatures—should not be exceeded. We are not on track to avoid that limit, whether you prefer the economic analysis of experts like the International Energy Agency or the steady monitoring of mechanical sensors.

The last time CO2 levels at Mauna Loa were this high, Homo sapiens did not live there. In fact, the last time CO2 levels are thought to have been this high was more than 2.5 million years ago, an era known as the Pliocene, when the Canadian Arctic boasted forests instead of icy wastes. The land bridge connecting North America and South America had recently formed. The globe’s temperature averaged about 3 degrees C warmer, and sea level lapped coasts 5 meters or more higher.



co2-levels-over-800000-years

Courtesy of Scripps Institution of Oceanography

The world will change again due to human activity and associated emissions of CO2, perhaps causing another set of coral reef extinctions like those found during the Pliocene, among other impacts. When Charles D. Keeling first started his measurements, CO2 made up some 317 ppm of the air we breathe and climate change was already a concern thanks to the work of John Tyndall, Svante Arrhenius and Guy Callendar. Every year since 1958 the sawtoothed line depicting Keeling’s measurements—readings kept up by his son Ralph—has climbed up, capturing the rise in greenhouse gas concentrations as well as the world’s breath.



keeling-curve

Courtesy of Scripps Institution of Oceanography

What can be done? In the short term, more potent but shorter-lasting greenhouse gas emissions could be curbed or a concerted effort to develop CO2 capture and storage technology could be undertaken. Whether we do that or not, given CO2′s long lifetime in the atmosphere, the world will continue to warm to some extent; at least as much as the 0.8 degree C of warming to date is likely thanks to the CO2 already in the atmosphere.

At present pace, the world could reach 450 ppm in a few short decades. The record notches up another 2 ppm per year at present pace. Human civilization developed and flourished in a geologic era that never saw CO2 concentrations above 300 ppm. We are in novel territory again and we show no signs of slowing to get our bearings, let alone stopping.


About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. profchuck 4:41 pm 05/9/2013

    As the article points out vegetation is voraciously opportunistic when it comes to atmospheric CO2. Most of the carbon in plant cellular structure is extracted from the atmosphere so as a result flora provides a powerful carbon dioxide sequestration function. It is likely that at some point a quasi equilibrium will be reached where plants can keep up with CO2 production from both natural and anthropogenic sources. Two issues should be considered with regard to this eventuality; what will be the metric of that equilibrium and how selective will the absorption process be in terms of different species of flora? It is possible that there will be a substantial growth in rain forests but anomalous growth of noxious plants in the form of toxic marine biota is also possible. It will be interesting to watch.



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  3. 2. sault 5:06 pm 05/9/2013

    profchuck,

    You said, “It is likely that at some point a quasi equilibrium will be reached where plants can keep up with CO2 production from both natural and anthropogenic sources.” Where is the proof to back up this statement? With the health and well being of countless generations hanging in the balance, you better have some extraordidnary evidence to back up this guess. And given that we’re releasing CO2 1000′s of times faster than when the planet came out of “Ice Ages”, how are you so certain that plant life can adapt to such quick changes? Please keep your sources to scientific papers as this is purely a scientific question.



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  5. 3. sault 5:36 pm 05/9/2013

    David,

    Carbon Capture and Storage is some of the most expensive CO2 mitigation available. Better to spend money insulating buildings, changing out light bulbs, improving appliance efficiency and a whole host of other things that reduce energy waste first.

    At the same time, we should put a price on carbon, even if it is nowhere near the level it should be to incorporate the costs of climate change into the price of fossil fuels. The efficiency measures will reduce the financial sting of the carbon price and the higher price for fossil fuels will kick the market into action in developing and implementing cleaner alternatives. Mandating strict pollution controls will also give the market the regulatory signal it needs to start shifting away from fossil fuels. Since EPA regulations have a 10-to-1 return on compliance costs, this makes good sense both environmentally AND economically:

    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/05/08/1981441/1-invested-epa-yields-10-benefits/

    Even during all this, we should be building a few nuclear plants here or there, especially in the Southeastern US where there isn’t as much wind power as the rest of the country and developing Gen IV reactor technology. If it is ready for prime time by the 2030′s or so, then it will make a great tool in eliminating the last 10% or so of our carbon emissions. If the technology doesn’t work as advertized, at least we’ll have all that renewable energy and efficiency in place and the know-how to build a lot more of it as we kick the fossil fuel habit.



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  7. 4. Owl905 5:48 pm 05/9/2013

    Quite the opposite of a plant-bloom equilibrium, the overload of CO2 will have a distorting effect on plant nutrition. The fallacy of the CO2-fertilizer camp has always been the incorrect assumption that CO2 was under-supplied. In reality, it’s nitrogen and water that are added to boost production. Only in the carefully controlled and monitored supercharge-mix of a greenhouse does increased CO2 have any beneficial effect.

    In terms of AGW, the only significance of 400 (or any other number) belongs to the digital beholder. The serious news is that the groups with the power to do something about the pollution have decided, through disagreement and denial and malaise and economic myopia, not to do anything about the problem. They’re betting they’ll be finished living off the profits of their pollution before the bills come due.



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  9. 5. jbensted 6:04 pm 05/9/2013

    A carbon dioxide monitoring station on Mauna Loa an active volcano …. makes sense to me.



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  11. 6. singing flea 6:18 pm 05/9/2013

    Plants are not going to be our salvation from stupidity and greed. Along with the extra CO2, we are dumping huge amounts of much less beneficial pollutants(assuming the excess CO2 is actually beneficial in the long run)like CO, sulphides, methane, and hydrocarbons that are actually poisoning our air, land and water in ways that few people understand and even less care about. We are not yet even taking a close look at the feedback loops that will eventually increase the greenhouse effect by factors of ten.

    At any rate, it is not the rise in CO2 that is alarming, it is the speed with which it is happening. Plant evolution is far too slow to react in a timely manner and many more areas will have negative affects compared to those areas that will benefit.



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  13. 7. singing flea 6:26 pm 05/9/2013

    Mauna Loa is up wind from the active vents on Kiluaea and is also much higher in elevation. As a resident of the Big Island I can assure you that the vog is not a factor on Mauna Loa or Mauna Kea. Once you get above 8,000 ft, the air is some of the purest on the planet. The Northeast trades keep the vog from ever getting close to Mauna Loa’s summit.



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  15. 8. syzygy 8:03 pm 05/9/2013

    Okay it sure looks like CO2 is on the way up. It seems likely that it will hit 450 ppmv at some point and keep on going. When I have tried to estimate costs to just stay even on CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, I get amounts of money so high that I can’t believe governments can get or will spend the money to make it happen. When I post estimates, I get howls of protest that I’m advocating doing nothing. So, don’t take my word for it, some of you take a stab at a realistic program to bend the curve to get back to say 300 ppmv, estimate how much that will cost, and estimate how long it will take.

    Hey, I’m all for getting back to 300 ppmv. How about some plans to get there rather than howls for someone else to do it? If you don’t know how to fix the problem, who will you get to save you? How will you know if they can?



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  17. 9. jbensted 9:14 pm 05/9/2013

    Parts per million. 400 parts per million up from 380 part per million, or expressed another way 0.04% of Earth’s atmosphere up from 0.038%. Now, when I bring this up … this statistically insignificant trace element in the atmosphere … some will say that a trace amount of arsenic will kill you. True, arsenic is poison to human beings. Is carbon dioxide poison to life on Earth? I think the plants will argue against that!
    Until someone can prove a trace amount of CO2 has the ability to retain enough infrared energy to alter a planet’s climate, I will remain a AGW skeptic. Venus is hell because its atmosphere is 90% CO2 … and its closer to the sun. There is a huge difference between 90% and 0.04%.



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  19. 10. Owl905 9:27 pm 05/9/2013

    “it looks like CO2 is on the way up … likely it will hit’ … pro-pollution denialism at the slippery edge.

    The only group that sells a one-sided, rationalized, short-term, cost-benefit analysis is the do-nothing pro-pollutionist screaming. The Stern Report came up with a growing hit on GDP that would reach 20% by mid-century. Since then Stern noted that the GHG-pollution totals are running 25% higher than his worst-case scenario.

    Pro-pollutionists sell intransigence so the credit-card bill will paid for by someone else somewhere else sometime else. But the pollution cost is already eating away: extra taxes (disaster relief foreign aid), higher insurance rates (claims payout), and spiraling food costs (3 global-crop meltdowns in 7 years).

    Claiming a response is cost-prohibitive is just putting the sell in selfish.



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  21. 11. m 10:27 pm 05/9/2013

    There is one solution, fast growing trees that are then felled and stored, for a fast response to climate. Some vast underground storage facility should suffice.

    Next you could burn some of the trees for burners to turn some of the carbon into diamonds to sell to people, taken from the forests and engraved with the forests logo, so the diamond represents your interest in carbon capture.

    This money will pay for the whole process which repeats until the CO2 levels are stable and then the additional stored wood can be burned at a later point if we wish to raise the co2 levels.

    How much storage, about the size of america should do it.



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  23. 12. syzygyygyzys 10:53 pm 05/9/2013

    I’m building a factory that generates renewable energy. I put my own money at risk. My factory will reduce fossil fuel consumption with virtually no waste streams. So, tell me again how pro-pollution I am.

    Sitting at a computer slamming out invective with the keys isn’t part of the solution. To solve a problem you have to understand its magnitude. I have no interest in name-calling. Taking time to discuss this issue doesn’t make me a single extra dime.

    I just repeat my suggestion. Please make an attempt to understand the scale of the problem. Until you have some concept of scale, you have no chance of making a contribution. If you can’t do the engineering or math yourself, find someone you trust who can to help you examine the issues. Attacking people who are part of the solution isn’t going to reduce CO2 a single ppmv.



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  25. 13. sault 10:58 pm 05/9/2013

    jbensted,

    99% of the gas in Earth’s atmosphere is transparent to longwave radiation. Look, no matter how much fossil fuel propaganda they spew at the denier sites, the properties of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere have been well-understood for over a century now. Did you bother to even read this article?

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=seven-answers-to-climate-contrarian-nonsense



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  27. 14. rkipling 11:01 pm 05/9/2013

    At least m is trying to estimate how much wood a woodchuck could chuck.



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  29. 15. sault 11:01 pm 05/9/2013

    syzygy, or is it syzygyygyzys?

    Why are you changing user names? Forgot your password for a bit?



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  31. 16. divergingroads 11:03 pm 05/9/2013

    Can I request that you also track water vapour in the atmosphere? I believe that water vapour is well known to be many times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. I am sure that the any warming must be attributed to increased evaporation due to mankind’s increasing use of lawn sprinklers. (no leap of faith here)



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  33. 17. rkipling 11:35 pm 05/9/2013

    I’m new to Scientific American Digital blogs. I’ve gone back on some of these environmental topics and it appears that one guy (I don’t think I have to mention his user name) represents something like half the words in each comment section. To read how he tells it, he knows everything about the environment there is to know.

    Anybody else find it a little odd why such a talent spends all his time commenting on these blogs?



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  35. 18. bbwayne 11:47 pm 05/9/2013

    Come on, Mauna Loa farted. Leave her alone.



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  37. 19. profchuck 11:48 pm 05/9/2013

    sault: The point I was trying to make is that some sort of equilibrium is likely to be reached but that point may not be to our liking. Much work has gone into an evaluation of the relationship between rising CO2 and stimulation of the vegetation. One interesting article is

    http://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/effects-of-rising-atmospheric-concentrations-of-carbon-13254108

    and you can find much more with a search engine.
    My concern is that that none of the processes are well enough understood to make far reaching projections as to the future of the biosphere. As a result I fear that decisions that are driven primarily by political and ideological agendas rather than scientific objectivity will result in far greater harm than good.



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