400 ppm at Mauna Loa

Mauna Loa, where Scripps has been measuring atmospheric background CO2 since 1958.

400ppm. It seems like a small number, but the significance is large.

On Thursday, May 10th, four hundred parts per million (400ppm) was registered for the first time, as the average daily CO2 at the Mauna Loa observatory, in the clean air high atop Hawaii. This location has been used by scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography since 1958.

The one scientist most credited with this research is Charles David Keeling. Dr. Keeling was born in 1928. He earned a PhD in chemistry at Northwestern University, in 1954.He then worked as a graduate fellow at Caltech in Pasadena, before moving to Scripps in 1956. It was during his brief tenure at Caltech that Dr. Keeling developed instrumentation to measure the CO2 content of air samples. Most importantly, he also established measurement and calibration protocols, and revealed that CO2 levels were precisely measurable, with surprisingly predictable day-night variations.

Prior to his first measurements, a review of the scientific literature suggested he would find CO2 levels varying by latitude. If he were to trust what other scientists were saying at the time, Dr. Keeling would have expected readings to vary from 150ppm in the arctic to 350ppm in the tropics. It was also believed that local geochemistry (e.g., the presence *He camped in the redwoods, just south of the town of Big Sur. The river (and air) were both sampled multiple times each day at what today is Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. of carbonate rocks such as limestone) would influence the CO2 concentration in local air and water. He chose Big Sur aiR PAGE* for his first measurements, to sample clean air off the ocean, and also to investigate the influence of local carbonate rocks.

This graph shows the daily variation pattern over four days in July 2006. Note that in Luxembourg there is a pronounced diurnal pattern, but in the rocky high altitude at Mauna Loa (with minimal plant influence), the CO2 level remains essentially constant throughout the day.

He was surprised by what he found. Essentially, his early measurements showed that plants remove CO2 during the daytime, but the CO2 level rises each night when the plants (and soil) release CO2 back into the atmosphere. Dr. Keeling also found a surprising constancy suggesting CO2 quickly distributes within the atmosphere.

Later measurements debunked the idea that CO2 levels varied by latitude, from 150ppm to 350ppm; this was shown to be just a wild idea, not supported by any real data.

When he started his measurements, Dr. Keeling found the CO2 concentration was 310ppm. It took only a few years to recognize that this level was on a steady rise. We passed 350ppm in 1988 and now, in May 2013, we are passing 400ppm.

File:Mauna Loa Carbon Dioxide.png

This graph became known as ‘The Keeling Curve”. The downward part of each annual cycle, from May to October, shows the importance of healthy vegetative growth. Essentially, plants consume CO2 from the atmosphere when healthy and growing. Development, land-clearing, and herbicides all reduce the health and diversity of our plants, and thus destroy the ability of our planet to check CO2 levels. Eventually, weather extremes and wildfires will diminish the vegetative growth, tipping the balance still further toward a physically hostile living environment.

Where Do We Go From Here?

There was a time not too far in the past where we thought nothing about dumping all of our waste into the oceans. It was believed then that all problems would be absorbed into the immensity of the ocean, and disappear. It was only sixty years ago that our best scientists believed CO2 would quickly ‘disappear’ into the ocean. They were wrong.

Industrial scale human consumption of coal began in the 1800’s. Massive consumption of oil and gas evolved around 1900, and accelerated immensely around World War II. Every fossil fuel molecule being removed from the Earth becomes water and CO2 and various other compounds, most of which end up in the air we breathe. Today, we have fallen so far from sanity, that we are watching entire mountains get leveled to extract more coal to export to other corners of the world. We have ‘professionals’ getting rich helping to obstruct the democratic process, so as to extend the opportunity for some fossil fuel robber-barons to continue to destroy our land, our air, and our water. Our political leaders are failing their responsibility to protect the people and the environment; in fact, these leaders are openly enabling fracking and pipelines and stripmines that are damaging human health. It is nothing short of insane.

In fact, the amount of CO2 we are loading into the atmosphere is so massive it is poisoning both our air and our water. Some is slowly being absorbed into the oceans, which are becoming alarmingly acidic, and destroying corals and other carbonate lifeforms. We have solid scientific records that show, during the entire time of man’s existence, atmospheric CO2 has oscillated in a 95,000 year cycle, between 200ppm and 280ppm. Milankovitch Cycles This was the range until the last hundred years. With our still-growing addiction to fossil fuel hyperconsumption, we went 25% beyond the upper limit (280ppm) in 1988. And now, just 25-years later, we have stretched that record another 14%. No rational person can deny the extraordinary impact this rate of atmospheric change can and will have upon all lifeforms, from the most fragile to the most robust, including homo sapiens.

And how does this Connect to Aviation?

Fuel used in aviation is a luxury, one of our most discretionary consumptions. We will continue to travel, and over very long distances, aviation will remain a sensible choice: it has a comparable fuel efficiency to automobiles, but flying is much faster. However, our future population cannot afford the damages caused by the excessive flying of our present population. If we are to truly address the CO2 issue, we have to severely reduce this excess consumption. People should consume far fewer miles each year, since miles roughly equate with CO2 pollution. FAA’s decades of boosterism, supporting the overdevelopment of U.S. airports, will end, and the money formerly directed to promote aviation will be more appropriately directed to support other industries, other projects, and a healthier and more sustainable economy.

400ppm. It is a very big change, and very fast.

And it will severely impact our children. We need real leaders, not captured agents supporting their cronies at BigOil.

We need to fix this problem … NOW

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5-10-2013Heat-Trapping Gas Passes Milestone, Raising Fears.
The Scripps CO2 observatory atop Mauna Loa recorded its first day ever with an average concentration of 400 ppm CO2. They began these measurements in 1958, recording 315 ppm. Historically, throughout mankind’s dominance on this planet, CO2 had never exceeded 280 ppm. We have only pushed to new records AFTER we began to burn large quantities of coal, oil and gas.
3-11-2013The Scientific Case for Urgent Action to Limit Climate Change.
Sommerville worked with ‘Dave’ Keeling when he came to Scripps in 1979. His lecture begins with a few memories of Dr. Keeling, and then proceeds to discuss the CO2 problem.
2-28-2011In The Curve: Monitoring Rising Carbon Emissions.
An article about collection of air samples at Colorado’s Niwot Ridge. The samples are used to calibrate all CO2 sampling worldwide. The article offers a good amount of explanation about the history of CO2 monitoring, the carbon isotopes involved, and the evidence that nearly all increased atmospheric carbon is from fossil fuels.
WEBCharles David Keeling biography.
The official biography, as posted by Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Includes many links to studies, papers, and other interesting documents.
WEBCharles Keeling & Measuring Atmospheric CO2.
An informative article (PDF) by John Leaf. An education-focused history about the Science and Politics that Keeling navigated through.
WEBCO2 Data updated monthly by Scripps.