For the first time in human existence, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been reported to reach the highest level ever recorded in 800,000 years of data.
Last month, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory recorded a chart-topping carbon dioxide level of 414.7 parts per million (ppm) — which means that carbon dioxide makes up 414.7 of every one million gas molecules in the atmosphere. According to the data published by NOAA and Scripps Institution of Oceanography, this is the highest seasonal peak recorded in 61 years of observations on top of Hawaii’s largest volcano and the seventh consecutive year of steep global increases in concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2). This figure was higher by 3.5 ppm compared to the 411.2 ppm peak in May 2018 becoming the second-highest annual jump on record.
NOAA and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography independently measure carbon dioxide levels from NOAA’s Mauna Loa observatory. The full data record can be found here.
Carbon dioxide is a colorless and odorless gas that is considered a greenhouse gas — along with nitrous oxide, ozone, and methane — because of its ability to trap and reflect the sun’s radiation to the Earth’s atmosphere. According to NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, this gas is responsible for 63% of the warming attributable to all greenhouse gases.
The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases every year. It reaches its highest levels in May and goes back down in the fall since the plants start to absorb the gas. However, the rate of its increase has been accelerating throughout the years. In the early times, the rise of carbon dioxide in Mauna Loa average about 0.7 ppm per year, increasing to about 1.6 ppm per year in the 1980s and 1.5 ppm per year in the 1990s. During the last decade, the rate of increase has reached about 2.2 ppm per year.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s climate portal, carbon dioxide levels at Mauna Loa were first tracked by scientists in 1958; wherein, they have recorded carbon dioxide levels of about 315 ppm. However, in 2013, the levels reached about 400 ppm.
Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, tells Live Science’s Yasemin Saplakoglu. “We keep breaking records, but what makes the current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere most troubling is that we are now well into the ‘danger zone’ where large tipping points in the Earth’s climate could be crossed.”
Scientists attribute the release of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and oceans to the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil. The carbon emitted has caused temperatures to increase over the past decades. “Greenhouse gas pollution traps heat in the atmosphere, which has consequences,” said James Butler, the director of NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division. “There’s no getting around it — burning fossil fuels is changing the course of our planet’s future. How society deals with that will be a major challenge in the coming decades.”
Compared to the 19th century or the pre-industrial period, global temperatures nowadays have been higher by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit or 1 degree Celsius. This increase in temperature may be associated with a lot of extreme events like shrinking of glaciers, frequently occurring droughts, stronger ocean wind and waves, bleaching coral reefs, and intensifying heat waves and storm. The World Meteorological Organization confirmed that the increase in these greenhouse gases is resulting in climate change making the planet “more dangerous and inhospitable for future generations.”
Over the years, there have been a lot of proposed solutions which intends to mitigate the effects of these greenhouse gases. However, scientists say that this effort will still not make a significant effect unless there is a rapid decrease in the emission of carbon dioxide obtained from the burning of fossil fuels.
Pieter Tans, a senior scientist in NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division also said that “it’s critically important to have these accurate, long-term measurements of carbon dioxide in order to understand how quickly fossil fuel pollution is changing our climate. These are measurements of the real atmosphere. They do not depend on any models, but they help us verify climate model projections, which if anything, have underestimated the rapid pace of climate change being observed.”