Carbon Dioxide | Record Level Again

Marit Jentoft-Nilsen and Robert Simmon

Atmospheric carbon dioxide has been monitored since 1958 at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory in Hawaii. Values cycle up and down due to the amount of green vegetation available to convert CO2 to O2 by photosynthesis. Plants of the northern hemisphere reach maturity in June-August and reduce the level of CO2 from the previous month. Decomposition and respiration returns carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in the fall and winter. This is known as the fast carbon cycle. The carbon cycle of earth is discussed fully here.

The mean value of CO2 for May 2019 set the highest level in 61 yrs. This chart shows the monthly values plotted for the recent 5 years.

The full record for the Mauna Loa Observatory clearly shows the seasonal and long-term trends. The long-term rate is increasing evidenced by the greater steepness of the plot. More charts and analysis are available at this link.

NASA Earth Observatory posts a blog Earth Matters. The 14 June 2019 post by Adam Voiland clearly lays out the situation faced by the growth of CO2 in the atmosphere. Please read it for the full story. Here are highlights if you are short on time.

Rate of Increase is Accelerating

In the 1960s, the increase was about 0.8 ppm per year. The 1980s and 1990s showed it was 1.5 ppm year. It is now more than 2 ppm per year.

There is “abundant and conclusive evidence” that the acceleration is caused by increased emissions, according to Pieter Tans, senior scientist with NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division.

Very Long-Term Records

Detailed records of trapped air bubbles in ice core samples from 800,000 yrs ago show the atmospheric levels have never been this high. Our modern age driven by fossil fuel use is the culprit.

(Graphs by Robert Simmon, using data from Lüthi et al., 2008, and Jouzel et al., 2007.)

Uneven Distribution

The non-uniform global distribution of vegetation and the seasonal cycles of plants causes the levels of CO2 to be patchy around the globe. In the northern hemisphere, springtime gives us the highest concentration peaking in May. The photosynthesis by plants draws down the levels for several months before it begins to rise again. Continued fossil fuel use keeps pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere than the vegetation and oceans can process. Hence the increase over time.

Mixing Does Occur Seasonally

Oceans Play a Significant Role

Oceans are also sinks for CO2. Phytoplankton convert it to O2. But, the process operates on a longer time scale than the atmosphere. Early research suggests the oceans might slow down their absorption of CO2 over time leading to greater acidification and impact on marine organisms. More CO2 would be left in the atmosphere. A lengthy article outlining studies on this topic is available at this link.

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25 thoughts on “Carbon Dioxide | Record Level Again

  1. It is a race to the cliff, isn’t it? Will we, like lemmings, plunge over the edge? Or will we convert our energy use to solar and wind, and curb our appetite for endless growth and consumerism, in time?
    I was talking with my car mechanic last week and he said he is going to create a niche for himself, converting cars to electric. People are wanting to hang onto their cars longer, and there is an increasing demand for making them sustainable. Around here, I see increasing numbers of solar panels on roofs and mini wind turbines in yards. With our cars and homes powered by the sun, we’ll be making a good step toward sustaining life on our beautiful planet. I also take it as promising that retail is dying. To me that suggests people are realizing that experiences, not stuff, are what make a life.
    On NPR, out of Chicago, yesterday, there was a story of how cities are addressing the heat island phenomena, with green roofs and urban gardens and trees.

    • There are many ways each of us can help. Changes in attitude about waste and consumption by producers and consumers is a tough one. Strict laws don’t seem likely to come from this congress or admin. Technology break-throughs in energy storage and efficiency can happen with research support. It is hard to be optimistic about those things. But, we shouldn’t give up.

      • I just learned that two states have banned styrofoam! I was badgering my local sandwich shop about the styrofoam they used for everything, and to my amazement, they listened. They have introduced glass ware for their drinks, and for takeaway, they have cardboard from recycled materials. 🙂

  2. And the Brazilian predatory capitalists are mowing down the Amazon rain forest at an ever increasing rate. The ultra rich and fossil fuel industries have waged a decades long campaign to deny science just so they can make more money. Greed is good, right?

  3. I’m not as sanguine as Melissa about Earth’s chances, although I love her optimism. I found this:

    A 2014 study in Science concludes that the global population will reach 11 billion by 2100, with a 70% chance of continued growth into the 22nd century.

    Not only more people are coming but, thanks to technology and global trade, more people than ever before are able to aspire to a middle-class lifestyle. That in turn means more energy and more CO2. Makes me have a weird thought: If Trump succeeds in quashing global trade, will he ironically help reduce CO2? Never mind, though, that would promote war and war powers manufacture and that increases energy use. Sure is complicated.

    • Hellishly complicated on so many levels. Even so, I believe there is much that can be done to slow down the trends. It will take a lot of attitude adjustment, some strict laws, and some break-throughs in technology.

  4. Nice summary. While CO2 isn’t everything regarding global warming it is eminently controllable if we gain the political will to do so. Thanks for posting this.

    • Thanks Paul. It is at least the 4th time I’ve written about this topic.
      ‘Political will’ … That sure seems a pipe dream today, doesn’t it? Yet, we must keep trying to sway opinion. It is like turning a huge ocean vessel. It happens slowly with steady firm forcing. But, it happens.

    • I’m glad you visited. This has been a topic high on my list for a long time. For decades, I taught about it in lessons to my students. I hope they heard me.

      • I watched a documentary about how they are taking the deep core samples in glaciers and the bottom of the ocean. They came to the conclusion that carbon rises as the heat rises and not the other way around. I think those scientists were trying to prove climate change was not because of pollution and just a natural occurance even though the temperatures are arctic are rising.

        • One of the charts in my post showed two graphs. One was CO2 and the other temperature of the atmosphere. They rose and fell together over several hundred thousand years of data. It is a natural process. What isn’t natural is today’s abnormal amount of warming caused by fossil fuels used by we humans.

        • That’s an app. You can customize it by type of car, gasoline price and distance. I actually regretted deeply I didn’t get a hybrid. I don’t know what came over me. Motor vehicles collectively cause 75 percent of carbon monoxide pollution in the U.S., and hybrids can alleviate this situation. I guess one of the biggest fears with them are the large expensive batteries.

          I ended up getting the regular fueled Toyota Camry with up to 29- 41 MPG, but it just doesn’t pair up with Prius for example. The problem with me also was that I was interested in the Prius v, which is the largest of the Prius models and features more of a wagon design with an enlarged cargo area. It is no longer sold in the U.S., but in Canada.

        • We rented a Prius in April for a 3 week stay in Tacoma WA. It was the first time I had driven one. I got used to it quickly and thought it was a good car.

          I’ve dreamed of setting up solar panels with a charging station in the garage. Then, I could buy an electric vehicle and never have to buy gas again. Other things have claimed my $$. That will have to wait.

        • I really like the idea so much. However, now I have the regular fueled Camry. The hybrid will have to wait, I just can’t believe I overlooked the idea of owning one when I did have the chance… Oh well.

    • I’m still driving a 15 yr old Toyota. It gets 30-36 mpg. Not buying a newer one also means resources weren’t used to make it.

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