Increasingly Out of the Human Context: Atmospheric CO2 Likely to Hit Monthly Peak Near 410 ppm in 2017

“The rate of CO2 growth over the last decade is 100 to 200 times faster than what the Earth experienced during the transition from the last ice age. This is a real shock to the atmosphere.” — Pieter Tans, lead scientist at NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network

*****

It wasn’t too long ago that we were talking about atmospheric CO2 crossing the key 400 parts per million threshold. That was 2014. But now, just three years later, atmospheric levels of this key heat-trapping gas are climbing to within striking distance of another, and still more dangerous, atmospheric milestone. 410 ppm.

That’s an increase in the peak atmospheric CO2 value of around 3 ppm per year or more. One that gibes with record annual rates of atmospheric accumulation of this heat trapping gas during 2015 and 2016. And as we approach a new high water mark for atmospheric carbon, we’ve left the 400 ppm level so far behind that it’s likely that we’ll never see even a single day where values at the Mauna Loa Observatory fall below that threshold.

Approaching Another Milestone for Key Heat-Trapping Gas

Instead, primarily through our rampant and incessant burning of fossil fuels, we are racing head-long into an ever-more uncertain climate future:

(The world hasn’t seen such high levels of atmospheric carbon in millions of years. And all that extra carbon is sucking a considerable amount of Earth-altering heat into its atmosphere and oceans. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

Since late February, weekly and daily CO2 values have ranged between 405 and 409 parts per million. But as CO2 typically peaks during April and May before Northern Hemisphere vegetation begins to draw down carbon in the months of June through September, it appears that we are likely to see top monthly atmospheric CO2 values hit between 409 and 410 parts per million during 2017.

Out of Context Problem

Back in 2014, we were talking about how atmospheric CO2 levels hadn’t been so high in about 3 million years. But a near 410 ppm high water mark would push those comparative timeframes back to between 5 and 15 million years when the world was about 3-4 degrees Celsius hotter than today and atmospheric CO2 ranged from 400 to 500 parts per million (to this point it’s worth noting that atmospheric CO2 equivalent gasses like methane, when added to presently high CO2 levels, will produce a combined total forcing equal to around 493 ppm CO2e by end 2017).

Back then, ocean levels were meters to tens of meters higher than today, the glacial ice of Greenland and West Antarctica was gone or greatly reduced, and even East Antarctic Ice Sheets were smaller. It’s also worth noting that back then, the great apes had just begun to appear and that the first fully developed ancestors of modern humans were still far off.

(NASA provides a new 3-D visualization of carbon dioxide accumulating in the Earth’s atmosphere. Video source: NASA and The Hindustan Times.)

Human beings, and even our furthest distant ancestors, have not experienced climates of the kind we are locking in now.

But as increasingly tough as our present climate situation may seem, there’s another wrinkle to the tale. For from 5-15 million years ago to now, billions of tons of carbon in the form of plant and animal remains has been sequestered in the world’s forests, peatlands, permafrost and oceans. And as the heat-trapping gasses that we have now placed into the atmosphere, primarily through fossil fuel burning, stresses those stores, we risk creating a further warming response coming from the Earth System. Such high atmospheric thresholds should, therefore, be viewed as in a range that produces considerable risk of crossing key climate tipping points and of locking in harmful Earth System changes for very long time periods. And we continue to add to that risk by burning more fossil fuels.

Links:

The Keeling Curve

NOAA ESRL

Following Carbon Dioxide Through the Atmosphere

Human Evolution

Climate Epochs: Miocene

Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Hits Record Levels

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48 Comments

  1. withoutfeathers

     /  March 27, 2017

    Reblogged this on things I've read or intend to.

    Reply
  2. Not only are we mining unprecedented amounts of carbon in the form of fossil fuels, we’re doing the same to the legacies of agricultural topsoil carbon, forest carbon, peatland carbon and oceanic carbon, faster and faster. There’s never been 7 billion hyperactive humans burning through this much carbon this fast. We and our domestic animals make up the majority of all vertebrate biomass on the planet now. And yet the deniers are still blindly convinced that we are only a puny factor in this rapid transformation and degradation of the Earth ecosystem.

    Reply
    • And the top emitters, amounting to about 50 percent of global carbon emissions, are the top 10 percenters. Furthermore, the rate of emission increases with wealth. We have some among the super-wealthy that emit as much as 100,000 subsistence farmers. In other words, the 7 billion number is a bit of a misnomer. It’s a system that concentrates both resources and carbon emissions at the top.

      http://www.humanosphere.org/environment/2015/12/carbon-emissions-wealthy-responsible-for-most-of-the-problem-report-shows/

      Reply
      • Shawn Redmond

         /  March 27, 2017

        Agreed Robert but the 7 billion are subsidizing the 1 percenters. I linked to this article at the end of the last post but it plays here as well. With a lot of good links I think so far? I’ve just started and there are a good number to read through.
        “The mainstream creates carbon markets, although the evidence shows that it is the last thing we should do. The whole idea of carbon markets is nothing but a neoclassical fraud. Some push for geo-engineering, although these technologies remain unproven. If they ever become reality, they will remain politically unacceptable for many governments in the world and for good reasons. What has to happen, first and foremost, is abundantly clear – it is so simple that everyone knows it. Nothing substantially good will happen as long as we continue to subsidise fossil fuels by $ 5.3 trillion a year ($10 million a minute) – this, at least, was the estimated figure for 2014. In fact, it is even more than Stern’s obscene figure, as Stefanski calculated in a 2015 paper (using a new methodology – see here).”
        http://www.flassbeck-economics.com/the-ideology-of-resilience-co2-concentrations-and-the-methane-bomb/

        Reply
        • Of course we need to cut fossil fuel subsidies. But who decides to pay the subsidies — governments that are lobbied by fossil fuel companies and the wealthy who seek to benefit from it. I’m more of a George Monbiot frame of mind:

          “It’s no coincidence that most of those who are obsessed with population growth are post-reproductive wealthy white men: it’s about the only environmental issue for which they can’t be blamed. The brilliant Earth systems scientist James Lovelock, for instance, claimed last month that “those who fail to see that population growth and climate change are two sides of the same coin are either ignorant or hiding from the truth. These two huge environmental problems are inseparable and to discuss one while ignoring the other is irrational.” But it’s Lovelock who is being ignorant and irrational.

          A paper published yesterday in the journal Environment and Urbanization shows that the places where population has been growing fastest are those in which carbon dioxide has been growing most slowly, and vice versa. Between 1980 and 2005, for instance, sub-Saharan Africa produced 18.5% of the world’s population growth and just 2.4% of the growth in CO2. North America turned out only 4% of the extra people, but 14% of the extra emissions. Sixty-three percent of the world’s population growth happened in places with very low emissions.

          https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cif-green/2009/sep/28/population-growth-super-rich

          The whole population/climate change argument is more a distraction aimed at blaming the poor. This is not to say that population restraint isn’t helpful for sustainability overall. But hyper-focus on population basically shifts focus away from the real problem — fossil fuel burning and its related systemic harms and inequalities.

        • Shawn Redmond

           /  March 27, 2017

          What did I miss Robert. I don’t see anything in the article about population and I was referring to the fact that it’s the 99% that are paying for the 1%er’s to play.

        • Not too much. Just wanting to shift the conversation away from this notion of population growth = climate change which can lead to a few misconceptions.

        • Shawn Redmond

           /  March 27, 2017

          LoL. Fair enough you had me rereading this thing and scratching my head. Didn’t mean to imply anything other than the 1% are happily raping and pillaging all of us.

        • So the points made about fossil fuel subsidies are absolutely valid. But it’s kind of a result of this unhealthy relationship going on between fossil fuel influence and governing bodies. It’s one of the chief reasons that we are captive to fossil fuel consumption.

        • Shawn Redmond

           /  March 27, 2017

          The regular readers here know only to well, it’s the casual observer that needs this and umpteen other facts brought front and centre at every turn. It is their taxes as well as ours that are going that way also. Nothing gets peoples attention like their wallet. If more realized the amount of subsidies we may get more action.

  3. Connecticut Gordon

     /  March 27, 2017

    Hi Robert

    Thanks again for a timely reminder about CO2

    Is there a linear or other relational increase in average temperatures based upon CO2 levels? If so, is it based on Kelvin temperatures? If not what relationship is there?

    Reply
    • I posted this video earlier. It is the only mention I have found of Kelvin temps being used, Anyone else know of another reference?

      Reply
    • Erik Frederiksen

       /  March 27, 2017

      “Is there a linear or other relational increase in average temperatures based upon CO2 levels?”

      Here’s James Hansen from an interview last year in the Guardian.

      “Hansen: Some things do change gradually because of the inertia system. The global average temperature, if you average it over several years, is going up pretty smoothly, since the middle 1970s. January/February of this year, global temperature is now 1.3 degrees above the 1950-1980 average, but that was just two months. Averaged over the year, it’s going to be about 0.9 degrees Celsius, and that’s pretty much on this almost linear increase over the last four decades.

      Locally and regionally you get abrupt events, which are the ones that have the biggest impact on people. The frequency and severity of extreme events increase as the planet continues to get warmer. Sea level and ice-sheet disintegration is also a very nonlinear process. It’s going to lead to rapid change within the next several decades.”

      https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/12/climate-scientist-james-hansen-i-dont-think-im-an-alarmist

      Reply
      • Connecticut Gordon

         /  March 27, 2017

        Thanks for this info also. As I have a Physics orientated background from a British University, then I always expect percent or linear changes to be based on Kelvin rather than Celsius per se. It is just that I have never seen a graph with CO2 and Kelvin together.

        Reply
  4. Greg

     /  March 27, 2017

    Well done as always. You didn’t include CO2 equivalents in this piece, which I wonder about, as it adds to the concern, considerably.

    The Post, in its increasingly better coverage, has its take on Michael Mann’s new paper regarding the theory that the melting arctic is impacting the jet stream and mid-latitude weather. “One of the most troubling ideas about climate change just found new evidence in its favor”

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/03/27/one-of-the-most-troubling-ideas-about-climate-change-just-found-new-evidence-in-its-favor

    Reply
    • Thanks, for the kind words, Greg.

      It does seem like the Washington Post has managed to get its act together nicely after a bit of nudging here and there 😉

      Reply
    • RE your last email. Thank you for your earnest response. I’m still researching this a bit. I should have a response for you by later this week.

      Reply
    • Suzanne

       /  March 27, 2017

      Greg..The Real News has a segment on this very paper today with an interview with Michael Mann.
      As I mentioned on the earlier post…The Real News has really stepped up their segments on Climate Change…would love to see their videos go viral.

      Reply
  5. Ridley

     /  March 27, 2017

    420 ppm by 2020?

    Reply
  6. Magma

     /  March 27, 2017

    And coming up fast is 420 ppm, 50% higher than preindustrial levels.

    But considering methane, N2O, and synthetic GHGs, the 50% higher than preindustrial level CO2eq was passed several years ago.

    Reply
  7. Erik Frederiksen

     /  March 27, 2017

    This graph of the last 400,000 years of global temperature, CO2 and sea level derived from ice cores doesn’t look like it was created randomly, but rather by a clock mechanism.

    Fifty years before we knew how to create such a graph a scientist named Milankovich said that when we got our act together we would see Earth’s orbital cycles, which operate on time scales of tens to hundreds of thousands of years, in the record.

    It takes time for temperature and sea level rise to equilibrate with just our current forcing and we could blow much further off the graph. Sea level rise which historically goes with the current +400ppm atmospheric CO2 would force 10 percent of the world’s population to move.

    It would behoove us to educate the public on the risks and to not cut funding to climate science because we still don’t know if multimeter sea level rise will occur within centuries or decades.

    Reply
    • Bill Everett

       /  March 28, 2017

      Erik, you might be interested in going a bit beyond the last 400,000 years of CO2 and temperature data derived from ice cores. A while back, there was a paper with analysis of 780,000 years of Antarctic ice core data: A. V. Byalko, “Relaxation theory of climate,” Physics-Uspekhi, 2012, Volume 55, Number 1, Pages 103–108 (http://dx.doi.org/10.3367/UFNe.0182.201201h.0111). The author has a pdf on academia (https://www.academia.edu/4084067/Relaxation_theory_of_climate_Phys._Usp._55_1_103-108_2012_).

      You mentioned “it takes time for temperature and sea level rise to equilibrate.” In addition to deriving a first-order CO2-temperature equilibrium curve, Byalko established limits on the relaxation time to equilbrium: “It seems that the possible relaxation time is limited to the range from 0.5 ky to 1.5 ky.” (page 106 in the paper)

      This paper does not discuss sea level or possible changes in the Great Conveyor (thermohaline circulation). Changes in the Great Conveyor would afffect the relaxation time to the CO2-temperature equilibrium. The Antarctic ice core data is insufficient to establish a second-order correction to the linear relation between the atmospheric CO2 concentration and surface temperature at equlibrium.

      Personally, I wish people would be more careful about distinguishing the global heating due to the greenhouse effect from the global warming that is happening. The current global heating is manifested partly as a temperature increase (global warming) and partly as old ice and snow melting (annual freezing and melting of water has only a seasonal effect). The melting of old ice and snow as a result of global heating affects the sea level but not the temperature (no “warming” from melting). If there were no melting, then nearly all the global heating would result in global warming.

      Reply
  8. Erik Frederiksen

     /  March 27, 2017

    Thanks Robert, I have a question. I know that the El Nino reduced the uptake of CO2 that we produce, but still to see several years of accelerating increase in atmospheric CO2 while reported human emissions have plateaued makes me wonder how much our carbon sinks are weakening.

    Reply
  9. coloradobob

     /  March 27, 2017

    Reply
  10. coloradobob

     /  March 27, 2017

    Well here we are all are.

    I’m going to need some really bright ideas.

    Reply
  11. coloradobob

     /  March 27, 2017

    Reply
    • Suzanne

       /  March 27, 2017

      22,444 days of being a stranger in a strange land..
      Again, Bob…thanks for posting one of my favorite songs from my teenage heart throb. 🙂

      Reply
  12. coloradobob

     /  March 27, 2017

    Erik Frederiksen welcome to my turnip truck. I am the fool at the of the foot of the pile.

    We post songs , they issue death warrants.

    Reply
  13. coloradobob

     /  March 27, 2017

    We are lost.

    Reply
  14. coloradobob

     /  March 27, 2017

    Get ready for the fools rules, .

    Reply
  15. coloradobob

     /  March 27, 2017

    Colorado Bob , why ain’t he dead yet ?

    Piss and vinegar. .

    Reply
  16. Erik Frederiksen

     /  March 27, 2017

    When CO2 goes up we know that temperature and sea level does too.

    I recently watched a presentation by professor Jonathan Bamber (1), from April 2016. Bamber is professor of physical geography and director of the Bristol Glaciology Centre, University of Bristol, and president-elect of the European GeoSciences Union. In it he addresses current ice sheet science such as recent work on ice sheet models published by DeConto and Pollard. (2)

    He noted that previously we thought that the total 20th century sea level rise (SLR) was around 20 cm, but recently that has been revised down to 12-15 cm. If that’s the case then the recent acceleration in SLR is higher than previously thought.

    This would mean that the rate that occurred in the last 25 years was more than double that of the 20th century.

    We hear about polar amplification often in the North with the melting of the Arctic Ice Cap and permafrost. But there’s another pole and the Antarctic Peninsula, where the Larsen C ice shelf is currently starting to break up, experienced the fastest warming observed anywhere on the planet. Half a degree per decade for the last 50 years and 8-10 ice shelves there broke up over the last 25-30 years. But there’s not much ice there.

    Most worrying is the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), which is inherently unstable because it’s grounded up to 2.5km below sea level where it is bathed in warming waters.

    According to Bamber the last IPCC report estimated that during the 21st century that thermal expansion would be the largest single contributor to sea level rise, as in the 20th century. He noted that that’s a little problematic since ice mass loss is already the single largest contributor. So projections may not be capturing all the physics of ice dynamics.

    Regarding ice dynamics, it’s been observed at Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland that marine terminating ice cliffs over 100m in height collapse. The Thwaites Glacier in the WAIS can expose ice cliffs higher than El Capitan (1000m) to warming oceans and entrain the retreat of the entire ice sheet. When a calving front opens up at Thwaites Glacier the ocean can follow that front all the way to the Trans Antarctic Mountains.

    The thickest part of the much larger East Antarctic ice Sheet (4.8km) rests on ground as much as 1500m below sea level. The Totten Glacier there drains as much ice as the entire WAIS and its ice shelf is experiencing basal melt from warming circumpolar water at grounding depths of glaciers.

    Also regarding ice dynamics, when you remove ice shelves, the glaciers behind speed up. When the Larsen B ice shelf broke up on the Peninsula the glaciers behind sped up by a factor of eight.

    If we sped up all of Antarctica’s glaciers by a factor of eight the rate of sea level rise would reach several cms per year.

    1 https://www.antarcticreport.com/articles/jonathan-bamber-university-of-bristol-on-ice-sheets-and-sea-level-rise

    2 http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v531/n7596/full/nature17145.html

    Reply
  17. Tigertown

     /  March 27, 2017

    This chart shows how CO2 effects, at varying latitudes, the ability of heat in the form of long wave radiation to escape to space, thus cooling the surface. Chart is based on a doubling of CO2 .
    http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v4/n11/fig_tab/ngeo1285_F3.html

    Reply
  18. Hatrack

     /  March 28, 2017

    Robert, do you have the most recent CO2E numbers? Better yet, if there’s a site that does, just point me that way. Great posts – you’re working like a dog! Thanks again!

    Reply
    • The last official NOAA CO2e number for 2015 was 485 ppm. In 2016, the number I used was 490 ppm approximate. For 2017, I’m using 493 approximate (subject to modification pending the next NOAA ESRL update).

      Reply
  19. June

     /  March 28, 2017

    As a commenter to the article says, this is the 21st century version of book-burning. First Harper in Canada, then Turnbull et al in Australia, now Trump. Ignorance must rule in order for the FF criminals to continue to profit from destroying the planet.

    “I am an Arctic researcher. Donald Trump is deleting my citations”

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/28/arctic-researcher-donald-trump-deleting-my-citations

    Reply

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