For 2016 it appears that monthly concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) will hit a new peak near 408 parts per million at the Mauna Loa Observatory in April or May. Not only is this the highest concentration of this key heat-trapping gas ever recorded at Mauna Loa, but it is also the high water mark of what is likely to be the most rapid rate of annual CO2 increase ever seen.
(Atmospheric CO2 keeps being pushed into record ranges by a massive ongoing fossil fuel emission. Global hothouse gas levels are now high enough to begin resulting in various catastrophic changes such as rapid sea level rise, glacial destabilization, increasing instances of droughts, floods and wildfires, and declining ocean health. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)
By 2014, a Century and a half of global fossil fuel burning had dumped an egregious amount of carbon into the world’s airs — forcing atmospheric CO2 levels to rise from about 275 parts per million in the mid 19th Century to a peak of around 401.5 parts per million during that year. By May of 2015, atmospheric CO2 levels peaked at around 403.8 parts per million. And by April of 2016, the monthly average concentrations of this heat-trapping gas had rocketed to near 407.6 parts per million. As atmospheric CO2 readings typically peak in May, we can expect a final top monthly average this year to range between 407.6 to 408 ppm — or 3.8 to 4.2 parts per million higher than during the same time in 2015. A total overall increase of around 133 parts per million since the 19th Century. A level of atmospheric carbon that — if it is maintained — is enough to increase global temperatures by nearly 3 degrees Celsius over the coming decades and centuries.
(Atmospheric CO2 levels now approaching 410 parts per million are pushing global temperatures dangerously close to the 1.5 C threshold identified by scientists as marking a the first series of civilization-endangering climate tipping points. Maintaining CO2 levels near 410 parts per million risks 3 C warming long term. Continuing carbon emissions makes an already bad situation dramatically worse. Image source: Climate Central.)
These are now the highest atmospheric CO2 levels seen in the last 23 million years. And an annual rate of CO2 increase approaching 4 parts per million is unheard of for any time period in any geological record — even during the Permian hothouse extinction event which wiped out about 90 percent of life in the oceans and 75 percent of life on land. This very rapid rate of atmospheric CO2 increase is being spurred on by a fossil fuel based carbon emission now in the range of 13 billion tons each year (of which CO2 is the vast majority). That’s a rate of carbon addition more than ten times faster than the carbon spike that set off the Paleocene-Eocene hothouse mass extinction about 55 million years ago. A very dangerous rate of carbon accumulation that will generate increasingly severe and harmful geophysical changes over the coming years, decades and centuries. An event that, if it continues, could well be termed the mother of all carbon spikes.
New Record Rate of Increase For Hothouse Gas Concentrations as CO2 Emissions Level Off
Peak-to-peak rates of increase do not capture the full annual average accumulation, but it is an indicator. And for 2016, it appears the annual measure will jump by at least 3.5 parts per million. Previous record rises occurred last year (in 2015) and in 1998 when atmospheric carbon dioxide jumped by about 3 parts per million. Over the past decade, carbon dioxide has accumulated by about 2.2 parts per million each year. So, by any context, 2016 is looking pretty bad in that we’ll almost certainly see a new record pace of greenhouse gas accumulation.
(A recent study in Nature Geoscience found that continued fossil fuel burning and accumulation of atmospheric greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide risks the irreversible destabilization of Totten Glacier which would result in rapid sea level rise this Century. In total, the Totten Glacier covers an area the size of the southeastern US, is more than a mile thick and, if melted, would raise sea levels by 11 feet. Researchers found that the mouth of the Totten Glacier — holding back this gigantic pile of ice — is rapidly melting now. Image source: Nature Geoscience and The Washington Post.)
The causes of this amazing and dangerous jump in atmospheric CO2 rest entirely at the feet of the global fossil fuel industry — which continues to push through its various political allies and media agencies for expanded and extended burning of coal, oil, and gas. But despite numerous attempts by that destructive industry to stifle the pace of renewable energy adoption and to stymie efforts to increase energy efficiency, both efficiency and renewables have advanced and rates of carbon emission leveled off during 2014 and 2015.
What the industry has achieved, however, is continued delay of a more rapid rate of renewable energy adoption which has resulted in global carbon emissions maintaining at current record high ranges. And such a huge dump of carbon into the atmosphere and oceans would have inevitably resulted in new record rates of atmospheric CO2 increase being hit eventually.
(Global CO2 emissions leveled off in a record range near 32 billion tons per year during 2014 and 2015. Increasing rates of renewable energy adoption and improvements in energy efficiency helped to drive this trend. However, 32 billion tons of CO2 each year [approximately 8 billion tons of the total 13 billion tons of carbon hitting the air each year when the molecular weight of non-carbon atoms such as oxygen is removed] is likely the most rapid pace of atmospheric CO2 accumulation in all of the deep history of the Earth. A stark statistic that lends urgency to rapidly drawing such a high annual emission rate down. Image source: International Energy Agency — Decoupling of Global Emissions and Economic Growth Confirmed.)
This year, a strong El Nino reduced the ability of oceans to uptake such a massive volume of pollution belching from the world’s smokestack and tailpipes. A variable warming of waters that put a lid on what is an already fading ocean carbon sink. In addition, comparatively small but significant carbon contributions in the form of increasing global wildfires, ramping permafrost thaw and burning, and increasing methane seeps now provide a visible amplifying feedback to the massive and unprecedented human greenhouse gas emission. A feedback that is bound to rapidly worsen if the literally insane human fossil fuel emission does not stop soon.
Hat tip to Meteorology Meg
Hat tip to DT Lange