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CO2 is Regularly Exceeding 410 Parts Per Million for First Time in Human History

During May of 2018, average monthly CO2 values will likely range between 411 and 412 parts per million. A new record for a heat-trapping gas that is causing serious damage to both the Earth’s environment and human civilizations.

(Atmospheric CO2 accumulation since 2007 as depicted by this animation of Mauna Loa Observatory CO2 measurements by Robbie Andrew, of the CICERO Center for International Climate Research.)

There’s one word that best describes this — trouble. And in the most simple terms it means that more unprecedented severe weather, ocean health impacts, and sea level rise is on the way.

Exceeding the 410 PPM Threshold

Last year, atmospheric CO2 levels peaked at around 409.7 parts per million during May of 2018. Hitting just shy of the 410 ppm threshold which will be consistently exceeded this year during the annual peak.

This peak comes during April and May following Northern Hemisphere winter due to seasonal loss of tree leaf photosynthesis that converts a large volume of CO2 into oxygen during summer and fall. As trees return to bloom across the large northern land masses, CO2 concentrations periodically drop.

However, due to human fossil fuel burning, the natural CO2 cycle has, since the 18th Century been significantly thrown out of balance. And as a result, the atmospheric concentrations of this key heat trapping gas rapidly ramped higher and are now in a range not seen in 15-17 million years.

(The CO2 measure at the Mauna Loa Observatory shows a hockey stick like spike in CO2 following a relatively stable period of glaciation and deglaciation over the last 800,000 years. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

As you can see in the image above, the present period has shown an unprecedented and dangerous rate of atmospheric CO2 increase. One that has no corollary in the past 800,000 years. One that is probably unique in its velocity.

High Levels of Heat Trapping Gases Pose Serious Consequences

Such a great accumulation of heat trapping gases results in serious consequences. Present atmospheric CO2 concentrations, if maintained over multiple Centuries are likely enough to warm the Earth by more than 3 degrees Celsius (significantly more than present warming in the range of 1 to 1.2 C). And such high levels of heat trapping gases — ranging above 410 parts per million — are likely enough to melt significant portions of the world’s ice sheets over Century to multi-Century time scales. During the last climate epoch when atmospheric CO2 exceeded 410 parts per million, the Middle Miocene, sea levels were 100 to 170 feet higher than they are today.

(Atmospheric CO2 levels are now the highest since the Middle Miocene of 15 to 17 million years ago. Image source: Skeptical Science.)

Sea level is not the only system influenced by high atmospheric CO2 levels. And everything from storms to drought intensity, to ocean health, to growing seasons, to typical seasonality, to coral bleaching, and including the Earth’s net ability to support life will ultimately be impacted.

Fossil Fuel Burning is the Primary Cause, Renewable Energy the Primary Solution

As mentioned above, record CO2 emissions brought on by fossil fuel burning is driving the unprecedented atmospheric accumulation we see today. During recent years, very rapid rates of annual accumulation near 3 parts per million (ppm) were achieved as a strong El Nino rippled through the Pacific and reduced the ocean’s ability to draw down carbon. The La Nina years of 2017 and 2018 are seeing these rates of accumulation dip back to near 2 ppm or slightly less as ocean drawdowns have periodically recovered. But more El Nino years are on the way and atmospheric CO2 levels will keep rising so long as mass fossil fuel extraction and burning continues.

(CO2 annual growth rates have proceeded in lock step with increasing rates of fossil fuel burning on decadal time scales. Shorter term fluctuations are driven by the ENSO cycle and large volcanic eruptions. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

The advance of renewable energy and the reduced use of coal has enabled the world to achieve a slower rate of atmospheric CO2 release growth that appears to be reaching a plateau near 11-12 billion tons of carbon per year. This is still an insane rate of release. However, if the world resolves itself, it can begin to rapidly reduce this severely harmful annual belching of greenhouse gasses. Emergent clean energy technologies like wind, solar, battery storage, and electrical vehicles are providing this hope for response. However, rates of adoption will need to be quite rapid if serious and ever-ramping climate harms are to be avoided. Presently high atmospheric CO2 levels exceeding 410 ppm this year represent a serious hazard. One that we fail to fully address at our peril.

Notes:

  1. Human emissions of heat trapping gases is not limited to CO2. Methane and other greenhouse gasses produced by industry have resulted in a net CO2 equivalent forcing near 491 parts per million (CO2e). Though CO2 gain is the primary driver of human forced warming, these other gases have an accumulative impact.
  2. I have used the Middle Miocene as a corollary in this analysis due to the fact that present CO2 levels at 410 parts per million and CO2e levels at 491 parts per million (end 2017) generate a rough boundary for both the top and bottom ranges for this climate epoch. It is worth noting that the human forcing is probably more dangerous than that which occurred during the Middle Miocene due to the velocity at which heat trapping gases are accumulating.
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42 Comments

  1. redskylite

     /  April 25, 2018

    So as we watch the atmospheric CO2 concentration steadily rise, what once seemed like a problem we could bury in the back of our minds and leave for our children’s children to sort out suddenly and shockingly is arriving: how will we deal with this reality, a test of modern mankind, people displaced, not by war this time, but by our industries and nature combined.

    A big test approaches, please let us not screw up.

    “Sea level
    Climate change to drive migration from island homes sooner than thought
    Low-lying atolls around the world will be overtaken by sea-level rises within a few decades, according to a new study”

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/apr/25/climate-change-to-drive-migration-from-island-homes-sooner-than-thought

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • redskylite

       /  April 25, 2018

      The military paid for a study on sea level rise. The results were scary.
      More than a thousand low-lying tropical islands risk becoming “uninhabitable” by the middle of the century — or possibly sooner — because of rising sea levels, upending the populations of some island nations and endangering key U.S. military assets, according to new research published Wednesday.

      https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2018/04/25/climate-change-could-make-thousands-of-tropical-islands-uninhabitable-in-coming-decades-new-study-says/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.a191f6acf1b7

      Liked by 2 people

      Reply
    • redskylite

       /  April 25, 2018

      According to a new study published in Science Advances, scientists found that such flooding not only will impact terrestrial infrastructure and habitats, but, more importantly, it will also make the limited freshwater resources non-potable and, therefore, directly threaten the sustainability of human populations.

      https://www.usgs.gov/news/many-low-lying-atoll-islands-will-be-uninhabitable-mid-21st-century

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
      • rhymeswithgoalie

         /  April 26, 2018

        “…more importantly, it will also make the limited freshwater resources non-potable…”

        Well-designed reservoirs (say, with partial anti-evaporation covers) can help in a lot of places where rain is less frequent but sometimes very heavy. Here in Texas we have to Lower Colorado River Authority for both water supply and flood control.

        Lake Travis, Austin’s water supply, got low enough a few years ago to warrant Stage 2 water restrictions, which includes limiting residential watering at most 1 day a week on scheduled day. (Stage 3 would be shorter watering times and higher fines. Stage 4 I think they’d just up and shoot you if you water on the wrong day.) A couple of years of erratic rain bombs has brought the reservoirs back up, but meanwhile the local population has grown a lot.

        Liked by 1 person

        Reply
    • Paul

       /  April 26, 2018

      Our biggest challenge as individuals, and collectively, is can we live with much lower levels of available energy?
      We can, of course, but are we willing?
      Running this global system on anything other than fossil fuels isn’t an option. We are going to have to do things differently if we are serious about doing something to mitigate our problems.
      Even then we are going to have to stop using up ever more finite resources such as soil, water, land and other species.
      There’s a lot to do.

      Like

      Reply
      • kassy

         /  April 26, 2018

        Today, the average rate of energy capture by photosynthesis globally is approximately 130 terawatts,[8][9][10] which is about three times the current power consumption of human civilization.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photosynthesis

        Lots of free (and non-lethal) energy around (also wind).

        Liked by 2 people

        Reply
      • Jim

         /  April 26, 2018

        Paul,

        I have to respectfully disagree with the assertion that running the world on anything but fossil fuels out of question. To be sure, mankind has built a massive network of producing electricity and powering transportation solely around fossil fuels, and the fossil fuel majors love to perpetuate the myth that options are not feasible or they are uneconomic or that we need natural gas as a “bridge fuel”, all of which can easily be shown to be false.

        Globally, we are already seeing 2/3 of new electricity generation being produced by wind and solar, and impressively it’s happening because wind and solar are cheaper and getting cheaper by the day. On the transportation side, we’re at the beginning of a massive transition to electric propulsion across a staggering range of vehicles from personal cars to Class 8 semis, from barges to ferries. Take for example the huge interest in electric semi’s, with Tesla racking up over 600 reservations, and Telsa competitor, Nikola, announcing $8B in reservations for their trucks. Why the interest? Partially for image and performance no doubt, but again it’s cheaper to haul freight with electricity than diesel and the price of batteries continues to drop as massive plants around the world come online.

        The transition won’t happen overnight, but it is feasible, it is economical, and it is the right thing to do.

        ~

        Jim

        Liked by 2 people

        Reply
        • Well said, Jim. The myth of fossil fuel dependence needs to go. The truth is that the fossil fuel industry has been very effective at capturing consumers in artificial cycles of dependency. We will need to break these if we are to deal with the climate crisis.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Abel Adamski

           /  April 27, 2018

          An interesting addendum re electricity transmission and conduction.
          From my advisory service keeping up with tech trends
          Which brings me to the recent MIT discovery. (Written up in a recent paper in Nature)

          The physicists claim in their paper that a sandwich of two graphene layers, twisted at a ‘magic angle’ can conduct electrons without resistance.
          ***************************************************************
          The finding could prove to be a significant step in the decades-long search for room-temperature superconductors.
          A material that displayed superconductivity at room temperature — eliminating the need for expensive cooling — could revolutionise energy transmission, medical scanners, and transport.
          And it’s not just the possible new applications getting scientists excited.
          Crucially, it could expand our understanding of how superconductivity actually works, a 100-year puzzle in need of a solution.
          If confirmed, this discovery could be ‘very important’ to the understanding of high-temperature superconductivity, says Elena Bascones, a physicist at the Institute of Materials Science of Madrid.
          ‘We can expect a frenzy of experimental activity over the next few months to fill in the missing parts of the picture,’ says Robert Laughlin, a physicist and Nobel laureate at Stanford University in California.

          Like Onnes original discovery, this one was also a bit by chance.

          Physicist Pablo Jarillo-Herrero at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge and his team weren’t looking for superconductivity when they set up their experiment.
          Instead, they were exploring how layering at the magic angle might affect graphene.
          Theorists have predicted that offsetting the atoms between layers of 2D materials at this particular angle might induce the electrons that zip through the sheets to interact in interesting ways — although they didn’t know exactly how.
          It’s thought that more experiments with graphene will shed light on the underlying physics in a way other superconductors struggle to.
          It’s yet another string to the ever-growing bow that is the wonder material graphene.

          Magic part 2 in following post (maybe time to shift investment from the small companies producing graphene the old way for Super caps and battery anodes)

          Like

        • Abel Adamski

           /  April 27, 2018

          Now, this is all well and good. Sure, graphene is a wonder material, but making it isn’t so wonderful…

          Producing graphene is a meticulous process. The conditions have to be perfect, and it can be a very time consuming job. The production process just hasn’t been able to scale effectively.

          At least, that was the case up until now…

          Engineers at MIT may have just cracked the graphene production code. They say that they’ve now developed a process that can make tailored graphene sheets. Long, high-quality strips of the material as well.

          If their process is as amazing as they say, it could make graphene production far more efficient. Delivering massive batches of the material, compared to current methods that yield only smaller amounts.

          As MIT News quotes John Hart, associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity at MIT.

          ‘“We know that for industrialization, it would need to be a continuous process,” Hart says. “You would never be able to make enough by making just pieces. And membranes that are used commercially need to be fairly big ­— some so big that you would have to send a poster-wide sheet of foil into a furnace to make a membrane.’”

          The team isn’t done just yet though. They’re still testing their process and exploring new avenues for the production method.

          Once it becomes available to commercial production, we imagine it will be a game changer.

          Like

      • Will just add here that fossil-fuel centric worldview is a myth. We can run present systems on renewable energy without the kinds of harmful externalities, without the carbon emission, that fossil fuels produce.

        Like

        Reply
        • Spike

           /  April 27, 2018

          There are also a number of people out there who have a nuclear centric viewpoint, seeing it as THE answer, who occasionally join with the FF brigade to diss renewables. Peter Gleick fortunately seems capable of looking at things pragmatically and recognising the current reality: https://twitter.com/PeterGleick/status/989400684536594438

          Like

    • To effectively deal with this crisis the governments, corporations, and people of the world will need to work together. We will need to set aside zero sum game thinking and think more about how to save human and animal lives. We will need to fully transition to renewable energy, learn to draw down carbon, learn to harbor displaced millions, learn to farm and grow more sustainably, learn to rejuvenate ecosystems. We will need to listen to our better angels and learn to be more benevolent, more cooperative, less fearful of others, less out for just ourselves. In the present age, this is a survival trait.

      Like

      Reply
      • Paul

         /  April 27, 2018

        I fully agree Robert. That is a long list of extremely difficult things for us to accomplish as a global collective.
        Even assuming we can solve our energy problems.
        To clarify my earlier comment I believe we need to transition to renewable energy, of course, but a large part of that transition is reducing our total energy use. And that means reduced global production and economics.

        Like

        Reply
  2. rhymeswithgoalie

     /  April 26, 2018

    Here’s the 2017 version of the CO2 pump handle (view at full screen to get most info):

    This is a magnificent way to depict the data.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  3. Donald Campbell

     /  April 26, 2018

    Excellent discussion of our predicament. Your last line sums it up–our failure to act at our peril. The subject of Resilience becomes paramount.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  4. Andy_in_SD

     /  April 26, 2018

    OT

    The risk of sea level rise is chipping away at Miami home values, new research shows.

    http://www.miamiherald.com/real-estate/article209611439.html?google_editors_picks=true

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
  5. Andy_in_SD

     /  April 26, 2018

    An interesting read.

    Flooding Hot Spots: Why Seas Are Rising Faster on the U.S. East Coast

    Scientists are unraveling the reasons why some parts of the world are experiencing sea level increases far beyond the global average. A prime example is the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, which has been experiencing “sunny day flooding” that had not been expected for decades.

    https://e360.yale.edu/features/flooding-hot-spots-why-seas-are-rising-faster-on-the-u.s.-east-coast

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  6. Andy_in_SD

     /  April 26, 2018

    Kelp forests — luxuriant coastal ecosystems that are home to a wide variety of marine biodiversity — are being wiped out from Tasmania to California, replaced by sea urchin barrens that are nearly devoid of life.

    https://e360.yale.edu/features/as-oceans-warm-the-worlds-giant-kelp-forests-begin-to-disappear

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
    • rhymeswithgoalie

       /  April 27, 2018

      “Kelp forests …are being wiped out from Tasmania to California, replaced by sea urchin barrens that are nearly devoid of life.”

      Are the sea urchins *contributing* to the problem? If so, we should send in our crack team of sea otters!

      http://www.listal.com/viewimage/7242214

      Like

      Reply
  7. Spike

     /  April 26, 2018

    Para 5 Robert – think you mean loss of leaf photosynthesis not respiration.

    Like

    Reply
  8. Reblogged this on biblebeltsite.

    Like

    Reply
  9. kassy

     /  April 26, 2018

    I really like that first graph (presentationwise).

    The missing maths: the human cost of fossil fuels

    We should account for the costs of disease and death from fossil fuel pollution in climate change policies

    While the climate policy world is littered with numbers, three of them have dominated recent discourse: 2, 1000, and 66.

    At the 2015 U.N. climate summit in Paris, world leaders agreed to limit global warming below 2°C to avoid catastrophic impacts of human-caused climate change. The science consequently dictates that, for a 50% chance of staying below 2°C, around 1,000 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (or 300 billion tonnes of carbon) can be emitted between now and 2050, and close to zero thereafter. We’re currently emitting 36 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. However, the potential greenhouse gas emissions contained in known, extractable fossil fuel reserves are around three times higher than this carbon budget, meaning that 66% must be kept in the ground.

    However, a crucial number has been neglected in this mainstream calculation: 6.1 million.

    Each year, 6.1 million lives are lost prematurely due to air pollution. Though most acutely and visibly hampering megacities of the developing world, air pollution is a growing public health emergency that affects almost all of us in our daily lives, whether or not we are aware of it. The Health Effects Institute estimates that only 5% of the global population are lucky enough to live in areas with air pollution levels below safe guidelines.

    Why is this number relevant to climate policy? Because one common culprit is responsible for the majority of both climate change and air pollution: fuel combustion. Burning coal, oil, natural gas, and biomass – for everyday uses ranging from electricity, heating, cooking, to transportation – releases hundreds of gases and particles, some of which disrupt the climate system or are harmful to human health, or both.

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2018/apr/26/the-missing-maths-the-human-cost-of-fossil-fuels

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
    • Pasander

       /  April 26, 2018

      “The missing maths: the human cost of fossil fuels”

      These days, it could be very well argued that the value of a single human life is, on average, actually negative. In other and often heard words: there are too many of us.

      Like

      Reply
      • Mike S

         /  April 26, 2018

        I would not say that human life has a negative value. But, it should be noted that global human population is still climbing by 83 million people per year, and slowing this increase would be beneficial to reducing our CO2 output. Its very important that those of us here now switch to renewable energy ASAP, and all possible steps should be taken toward that goal. But stabilizing global population can’t possibly hurt the cause of reducing carbon emissions.

        Liked by 2 people

        Reply
      • Fossil fuel burning, not human life, is the driver of the climate crisis.

        Like

        Reply
  10. Abel Adamski

     /  April 26, 2018

    https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-04874-y
    US government considers charging for popular Earth-observing data
    Images from Landsat satellites and agricultural-survey programme are freely available to scientists — but for how long?

    Like

    Reply
  11. You also have to take into account rising methane, CFCs, etc. that add to the CO2.

    Like

    Reply
  12. Spike

     /  April 27, 2018

    More paleo evidence of potential for enhanced seasonality in W Europe as AMOC declines
    https://blogs.agu.org/geospace/2018/04/26/new-study-finds-glacial-evidence-for-abrupt-climate-change/

    Like

    Reply
  13. Gaius Publius: Our Communities Are Scaled and Built for a Climate That No Longer Exists.

    Rather a confused article in which he says both:

    People who want to fix this problem will have to use force. That’s just a fact.

    and

    Now Is the Time. Non-Violence Is the Way.

    He expects that when we realize that Global Warming’s effects are happening now, there will be a global abandonment of complacency in favor of anger and conflict.

    Now consider what happens when the generation affected is global, encompassing everyone alive today? Expect a battle that will enter the books as the greatest global war ever fought.

    Interesting times, yes indeedie.

    Like

    Reply
  14. A leading manufacturer of sensors introduced their latest CO2 sensor to us this week, the lowest value it will measure is 400ppm – as though there is no longer any need to measure values below that !

    Like

    Reply
  1. CO2 is Regularly Exceeding 410 Parts Per Million for First Time in Human History — robertscribbler « Antinuclear
  2. To 27 April – Nuclear and Climate News | Nuclear Australia
  3. Merging threats – nuclear and climate news « nuclear-news
  4. Climate and nuclear threats merge – news to 27 April « Antinuclear
  5. CO2 is Regularly Exceeding 410 Parts Per Million for First Time in Human History | robertscribbler – Enjeux énergies et environnement

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