A new monthly record for atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations has been recorded in February 2019, at 411.66 parts per million. Although this new record, observed at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory, isn’t much higher than the previous record of 411.31 ppm, the fact that this new record happened nearly three months earlier than the usual annual peak—typically occurring in May—is raising concerns amongst researchers.
“In most years, the previous maximum is surpassed in March or April,” explains Ralph Keeling, the director of the carbon dioxide program at the Scripps Institution of Oceangraphy. Keeling adds that “the February record breaking is a measure of just how fast carbon dioxide has been rising in the past months.”
Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations fluctuate over the course of the year for the northern and southern hemispheres, with CO2 levels being built up during the winter in each hemisphere, and dropping as plants and other organisms that rely on photosynthesis become active during the warmer months. Human-based carbon emissions have long since surpassed nature’s ability to process this amount of greenhouse gas, causing CO2 concentrations to rapidly build up over the past few decades.
And scientists are warning that the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere is accelerating: annual increases were only at 1.6 ppm per year in the 1980s, and 1.5 ppm in the 1990s, but this rate increased to 2.2 ppm over the past decade.
“Carbon dioxide levels are continuing to grow at an all-time record rate because emissions from coal, oil, and natural gas are also at record high levels,” says Pieter Tans, lead scientist of NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network, in a post on the Scripps lab website last year. Tans predicts that if the current rate of increase continues over the next 20 years, global CO2 levels could easily surpass 450 parts per million by 2038, the threshold that would see the planet’s average temperature warm by 2°C (3.6°F).
“Today’s emissions will still be trapping heat in the atmosphere thousands of years from now,” Tans warns.
- Climate and Energy: Combatting Global Climate Change via obamawhitehouse.archives.gov
- Scripps Institution of Oceanography
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