2016 on Track for Record Rate of Atmospheric CO2 Increase

During 2016, the annual rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide increase will have hit a record 3.2 to 3.55 parts per million (ppm). By 2017, the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere will be roughly equivalent to concentrations last seen during the Middle Miocene climate epoch (404 to 410 ppm average). In other words, atmospheric CO2 is rising at a record rate and we are hitting levels of this heat-trapping gas that have not been seen in about 15 million years.

Record Rates of CO2 Increase

The world is struggling to make the necessary turn toward reducing fossil fuel-based carbon emissions. Global emissions have plateaued at or near new record highs during the past three years. Conflicts over fossil fuel cuts and transitioning to renewable energy embroil numerous countries. Climate change deniers hold significant power in places like the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. And facing off against those who would defend the harmful interests of what could well be called the most destructive industry to ever inhabit the planet, are a broad group of environmentalists, scientists, concerned citizens, and renewable energy advocates.

carbon-dioxide-october-2016-global

(Global carbon dioxide is approaching a level not seen since the Middle Miocene period around 15 million years ago when atmospheric concentrations typically averaged above 405 ppm and global temperatures were 3-4 degrees Celsius hotter than 19th-century averages. Record annual rates of CO2 increase in excess of 3 ppm each year for 2015 and 2016 are swiftly propelling us into a climate state that is more similar to this ancient epoch — a shift that is producing increasingly harmful global consequences. Image source: The Copernicus Observatory.)

As the political turmoil ramps up, it appears that the Earth’s oceans and biosphere are straining to draw in the massive volumes of these gasses that we’ve been pumping out. Annual atmospheric CO2 growth rates for 2015 were a record 3.05 ppm. 2016 appears to be on track to beat that high mark, being likely to see a new annual increase of between 3.2 and 3.55 ppm.

Hot Lands and Oceans Tend to Produce a Carbon Feedback

The previous most rapid annual rate of atmospheric CO2 increase was 2.93 ppm during the strong El Niño year of 1998. Back then, high ocean surface temperatures combined with warming-related wildfires and droughts which spanned the globe to reduce the Earth’s capacity to take in carbon. More carbon was squeezed out of hot soils, burning forests, and warming oceans. Less was drawn down. New record rates of atmospheric CO2 increase were breached.

the-keeling-curve-2-years

(Except for a couple of days, all of 2016 saw atmospheric CO2 levels above 400 ppm. Peak values as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in May were 407.7 ppm. By May 2017, atmospheric CO2 levels are likely to hit near 410 ppm — a level not seen in about 15 million years. Image source: The Keeling Curve/Scripps Institution of Oceanography.)

Even during the period of heightened heat stress that occurred in 1998, we did not see a year in which annual rates of CO2 increase exceeded 3 ppm. We have never, until 2015-2016, seen a time when there were two back-to-back years of such rapid rates of increase. Similar but worsening heat stress impacts have likely flagged what at first appeared to be an increased rate of carbon uptake from the biosphere during the late 2000s. Ocean heat content is now dramatically greater than during 1998 and this significant warming is likely having at least a periodic impact on the ocean’s rate of carbon uptake. Wildfires are now far more prolific, generating more atmospheric carbon. Droughts are more widespread and these tend to squeeze carbon from the soil. The Arctic is the warmest it’s been in 115,000 years and, as a result, some new Earth system carbon sources are starting to pop up.

Record High Rates of Fossil Fuel Emissions Hitting a Plateau

In the intervening years since 1998, global carbon emissions from fossil fuels have also jumped dramatically. During 1998, yearly CO2 emissions were in the range of 26 billion tons per year. By 2014-2015, these greenhouse gas releases had soared to around 35.8 billion tons per year. Through this period, average annual rates of CO2 increase continued to climb during the 2000s and 2010s.

global-carbon-project-emissions-2015

(Global carbon emission increases stalled during 2013, 2014, and 2015 according to The Global Carbon Project. But despite this recent pause, atmospheric rates of carbon dioxide increase have continued to ramp up. Due to a number of factors, including atmospheric and ocean inertia as well as temperature and saturation stress to global carbon stores, it is likely that significant reductions in carbon emissions from fossil fuels will be necessary to have a marked impact on annual rates of atmospheric CO2 increase.)

According to NOAA, the 1980s and 1990s saw yearly jumps in CO2 at the rate of about 1.5 ppm each year. By the 2000s, this average rate of increase had leaped to about 2 ppm per year. For the first six years of the 2010s, the average rate will likely be around 2.5 ppm per year.

New Records Provide Urgency For Rapid Emissions Cuts

This rate of increase roughly matches the overall rate of increase in emissions. As yet, there is no major global trend sign in the atmospheric CO2 data showing that carbon uptake from the oceans and the biosphere has been significantly curtailed, at least not to the point that it has shown up in the long term global trend. There are, however, widespread signs of stress to the Earth’s carbon storage system, and two years of 3 ppm-plus increase back-to-back is a warning blip on the climate radar.

In other words, these new record rates of CO2 increase are disturbing. If the annual increases do not fall back into the low 2-ppm per year range in 2017 and 2018, it will be an indication that some of the Earth’s ability to draw down carbon has been significantly hampered. If that is the case, then the urgency to draw down emissions is considerably greater.

Links:

NOAA ESRL

Middle Miocene

The Global Carbon Project

The Copernicus Observatory

The Keeling Curve

Doubling Down on Our Faustian Bargain

Hat tip to SmallblueMike

(Note: This post focuses primarily on CO2 as an indicator. Overall CO2e levels will be covered in a separate exploration.)

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Key Hothouse Gas to Rise at Record Rate, Hit Near 408 Parts Per Million in 2016

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 407-408 ppm

(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.

On the Edge of 1.5 C

(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.

Totten Glacier Plug in Antarctic Bathtub

(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.

IEA global carbon emissions

(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.

Links:

The Keeling Curve

Entering the Middle Miocene

Ten Times Faster Than a Hothouse Extinction

Decoupling of Global Emissions and Economic Growth Confirmed

Climate Central

Hat tip to Meteorology Meg

Hat tip to DT Lange

A Fearful Glance at the Global Carbon Stores — Weekly CO2 Values Hit 404 Parts Per Million a Little Too Soon

mlo two years April 15

(Big jump in weekly CO2 averages during second week of April bring 2015 concentrations into the range of 404 parts per million a month earlier than expected. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

Over the past decade, annual rates of atmospheric CO2 increase have remained in a range of around 2.2 parts per million (ppm) each year. It’s a geologically blinding pace of increase driven by a human carbon emission on the order of around 11 billion tons each and every year. Primarily driven by fossil fuel burning, this massive dumping of carbon into the atmosphere is steadily filling up a number of the world’s key carbon stores.

The oceans are brimming full with carbon — as we see in a rapidly rising rate of acidification.  The oceans are warming, steadily losing their ability to keep a higher fraction of greenhouse gasses stored in solution. The trees are lagging in their ability to draw carbon from the atmosphere — a symptom of a combined deforestation, wildfire proliferation, and endemic outbreaks of invasive species that prey on key trees. And the carbon store in the Arctic is showing signs that it may be actively venting higher volumes of greenhouse gasses back into the atmosphere and oceans.

As a leading indicator that some of these carbon stores are starting to fill up, or worse, dump a significant portion of their sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere, we would expect to see spiking levels of CO2 and CH4 in the global measures. Which is why when, starting on April 5 of 2015, Mauna Loa CO2 values shot up to around 404 to 405 parts per million in some of the hourly records, a few eyebrows were raised.

Implications of Hitting Expected Peak Values a Bit too Soon

Typically, atmospheric CO2 peaks around mid-May. And, for this year, following the 2.2 ppm increase trajectory, we would expect a May monthly value of around 404 parts per million. So readings in the range of 404 to 405 parts per million in early April are a significant jump well ahead of the expected marks. If this increase remained consistent and showed continued seasonal rise on through mid-May, it could skew April and May readings upward — well beyond a 2.2 ppm annual increase at peak.

mlo_one_month

(Consistently High CO2 values show up at the end of the monthly measure. Note the frequent hourly departures above 405 ppm. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

Typically, the difference between April and May monthly values is in the range of 0.5 to 1 ppm CO2. So an April Average near 404 ppm could yield a May average of 404.5 to 405 ppm or a 2.7 to 3.2 ppm increase over 2014 peak values. A significant high departure that could be a leading indicator of a bad response from the global carbon stores. This possibility was raised as daily Mauna Loa CO2 values ranged from 403.2 ppm through 404.9 ppm from April 5 to 14 and as weekly values for April 8-14 hit 403.9 ppm.

Signal or Noise?

Of course, these admittedly worrisome spikes could well be noise in the overall carbon system. CO2 values have tended to vary more wildly in the Mauna Loa measure recently. And average rates of increase from peak to peak could still fall into the standard range.

It is also worth noting that any major disruption in the global carbon system as it relates to CO2 would also show up as a trailing indicator in the CO2 airborne fraction measure. A higher level of emitted CO2 would remain in the atmosphere as sinks began to fail and as stores became sources. Such a carbon sink failure would eventually show up as a higher airborne CO2 fraction.

Overall, the airborne fraction measure is an indicator of how much of the carbon human beings emit into the atmosphere is being taken up by the global environment:

CO2 Airborne Fraction

(Airborne CO2 fraction showing global carbon dioxide emissions [as gigatons of carbon without oxygen molecular weight added] since 1960 through 2012 and amount of emitted CO2 that has remained in the atmosphere. Image source: James Hansen and The University of Columbia.)

Currently, the amount of carbon from CO2 remaining in the atmosphere is in the range of 45% of the human emission — or around 5 gigatons.

If carbon sinks are retaining their ability to uptake CO2, then the fraction will remain relatively low. If carbon sinks are over-topping and bleeding substantial volumes of their carbon back into the atmosphere, then the airborne fraction measure will tend to rise as a trailing indicator.

During recent decades, the airborne fraction has actually fallen as emissions ramped up — probably due to a combined increase in ocean surface exposure to CO2 and to an initial bump in the rate of CO2 respiratory uptake by photosynthetic life. But considering the very high volume of carbon being dumped into the global system coordinate with a wide variety of stresses to carbon stores resulting from both added heat and chemistry changes, these carbon sinks are under ever-increasing stress. A number of scientific studies have indicated a likely rise in CO2 airborne fraction, under business as usual fossil fuel emissions, to as much as 80 percent through 2100 — with start of carbon store failures during the current decade.

If carbon stores do begin to fail, we would first see atmospheric spikes in the global CO2 and CH4 measures. Then, as a trailing indicator, the CO2 airborne fraction measure would begin to ramp up. In this context, weekly CO2 spikes at Mauna Loa are some cause for concern, but we can’t make any strong calls of a larger carbon system response without a more consistent spike and, eventually, a jump in the airborne fraction.

To this final point, I’ll leave you with the somewhat related Mauna Loa CH4 measure which has, lately, also been showing an increasing rate of accumulation for that greenhouse gas:

Mauna Loa Methane Measure 2004 to 2015

(Mauna Loa Methane measure shows ramping up of atmospheric CH4 readings at that station. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

Links:

The Keeling Curve

Doubling Down on Our Faustian Bargain

Modeling The Atmospheric Airborne Fraction in a Simple Carbon Cycle Model

NOAA ESRL

Scientific Hat tip to Dr. James Hansen

Hat tip to Wili

Hat tip to Kevin Jones

Worldwide CO2 Levels at 394.4 ppm in Early November, Likely to Hit 402 ppm by May, 2014

CO2 November 2013, Six Month

(Global CO2 measurements over the past six months. Small dots – daily values. Large dots – weekly values. Blue line – smoothed trend. Image source: The Keeling Curve)

After hitting a new record high above 400 ppm during the latter weeks of May, 2013, CO2 followed seasonal trends by falling to a new record high low of around 393.5 ppm in early October. By early November of 2013, CO2 had rocketed back to 394.4 ppm and, if current trends continue, will likely touch 402 ppm or higher by May of 2014.

Over the past few years, worldwide CO2 values have risen by an average of around 2 parts per million each year. But in 2013, the trend line steepened, with values increasing by about 3 ppm between 2012 and 2013. Should the new, more rapid, pace hold through 2014, maximum CO2 values for that year will reach between 402 and 403 parts per million by late May.

In context with the known geological record, the current pace of CO2 increase is far faster than anything previously observed. Past major warming events, at most, hosted a yearly CO2 increase of around .35 ppm. The most recent rate of 2 ppm per year, on average, is about six times as fast. A yearly increase of 3 ppm is nearly eight times this total.

It’s worth considering this amazing fact: human emissions are more rapid now than anytime in the geological past. Nothing, not the PETM, not the great flood basalts of the Permian, exceeded the current rate of human burning. And those great past events, many coinciding with the worst mass extinctions, were 1/6th to 1/8th the pace of what humans are doing now. Our CO2 injection machinery is more powerful, by far, than even the most terrible forces ever produced by nature.

This screaming pace of CO2 increase is leading to a series of unprecedented and damaging climate, weather, and Earth systems changes. Changes we are just beginning to understand. At the very least, we have projected ourselves into climate territory not seen in the last 3.6 million years — the last time CO2 levels were as high as they are bound to be over the next ten years. And that’s if we are somehow able to halt global CO2 emissions soon. If human emissions continue to increase as they have over the past decades, by mid century, we could be looking at atmospheric CO2 levels not seen in the past 15 to 30 million years. By the end of this century, we could achieve an atmospheric state not seen in at least 55 million years.

A Little Heat Age Every Six Years

It is not just the scale of the change, creating levels of CO2 not seen since ages in the Earth’s deep past, it is the pace of this change which is so immense and dangerous. According to the most recent IPCC draft report, the current increase in CO2 levels is causing an increased heat forcing of .16 watts per meter squared at the top of the atmosphere every six years. By comparison, the grand solar minimum experienced during the Little Ice Age had a negative forcing of around .15 watts per meter squared. So we now have the equivalent to a Little Ice Age, but on the side of hot, being pumped into the Earth’s atmosphere every six years. And should the sun cool to another grand minimum, it would take only about six years of current human emissions to overwhelm its cooling effect.

Should we hope to see a continued progress of human civilizations this extraordinarily rapid and dangerous pace of human CO2 emissions is an issue that must be addressed immediately. We have likely already created a serious and devastating string of events that will continue to unfold and worsen over the coming decades and centuries. Some, we have already seen, but these are the earlier, more mild, outliers, the events we locked in 20, 30, 50 years ago. So the force of events 20 years, 30 years, 50 years from now will be proportionately worse.

Continued emissions and further increases, under such a scenario, is not a survivable option. If we are to continue, to have any hope for future progress, we need to halt this mad pace of emissions as soon as possible.

Links:

The Keeling Curve

IPCC Working Group 1 Draft Report

 

US Energy Experiences Natural Gas to Coal Whiplash; Natural Gas ‘Bridge to Sustainability’ Collapses Yet Again

Ugly Coal

(A Coal Plant Dumping its Toxic Brew into the Atmosphere. Image source: Climate Crocks)

Natural gas was supposed to act as a bridge to sustainability. Fracking and increased drilling were supposed to reduce US reliance on high-carbon coal. But in 2013, coal consumption is again rising. So what the hell happened?

In short, history repeated itself and energy markets have experienced yet another natural gas to coal whiplash….

Natural gas is an inherently volatile energy source. As prices rise, new sources are sought out, new technologies applied to its extraction and, if depletion barriers are overcome, a surge of new supplies are brought to market. Then, as the wave of new supplies comes to dominate, prices crash. Rushing in to take advantage of the falling prices, the utility companies engage in a generational shift to natural gas electricity production. This increasing consumption of natural gas has two effects. It puts a bottom on natural gas prices and it reduces coal-fired power generation by becoming more competitive on the basis of price. A result of these changes is that US CO2 emissions fall. But, due to the market whip-lash effect of natural gas, these reductions are only temporary.

On the supply side, as natural gas prices fall, less and less producers are able to make a profit. The rate of drilling that drove both the boom and the glut slows to a trickle. This happens even as utilities and other natural gas users demand more of the low cost substance. As a result, prices begin to rise. But since drilling rigs are now allocated elsewhere and natural gas producers are cautious to return to aggressive drilling, supply doesn’t keep pace with demand. Eventually prices rise to the point where natural gas is again, less competitive with coal. Utilities, to preserve their balance sheets, shift back to black rock fuel and carbon emissions again rise.

The 2013 Whiplash

In 2013, US energy markets and related CO2 emissions are now experiencing just this kind of whiplash. After falling to a low price of around $2.60 per million btu, natural gas has been trading in a range between $3.60 and $4.25 since May of this year. And the effect on energy markets has been profound. The result, as Joe Romm implied in his allegorical article ‘Bridge Out’ is that the entirely ephemeral natural gas bridge to sustainability has again disappeared. According to Romm’s excellent article:

Coal’s share of total domestic power generation in the first four months of 2013 averaged 39.5%, compared with 35.4% during the same period last year, according to the Energy Information Administration [EIA]…. By contrast, natural gas generation averaged about 25.8% this year, compared with 29.5% a year earlier.

In the words of another brand of popular fiction: what the frack?

The long touted bridge to sustainability has, yet again, failed. And we find ourselves increasing consumption, yet again, of the worst emitting fuel source — coal. As a result, US carbon emissions are, after about four years of decline, expected to rise in 2013. The US Energy Information Agency projects that the US will emit 2.4% more CO2 than it did last year. But, should the coal surge continue through end of year, this carbon emissions backslide could be even worse than predicted.

Natural Gas: Unreliable Bridge, Bad Help

Sadly, even the reduced CO2 emissions that came, in part, as a result of a temporary shift to natural gas generation also brought with it a terrible cost. Fracked wells drove the most recent boom and bust whip-lash cycle. They were a rapidly depleting, temporary measure to increase production, and these costly wells emit far more methane than their contemporary counter parts. Some studies have even noted that methane leaks via the fracking process make natural gas a more harmful than coal when net carbon emissions are taken into account.

Perhaps worse, the fracked wells also threaten underground and surface water sources from both cracks in the casing pipes and toxic effluent at the numerous and proliferating drill sites. Further, water use in fracking is voracious and, in many cases, adds another burden to fresh water supplies.

Water stress is rising across the United States with fossil water in the Ogallala rapidly depleting even as the US West suffers year after year from a widening climate-change induced drought. With fracking threatening the purity and safety of dwindling supplies, numerous cities and one New Mexico county have banned the enhanced extraction process in an effort to protect municipal water.

In the end, high cost natural gas fracking efforts have managed a temporary reduction in US CO2 emissions at the cost of rising methane emission and harm to water supplies. The flood of new gas also likely delayed or replaced some efforts to transition to the more effective pollution reducing sources of wind and solar. Finally, the price whip lash inherent to natural gas production has returned markets, yet again, to rising coal use.

The term for this is bad help. Very bad help. In short, no fossil fuels represent a solution to climate change or enhance sustainability. They are all dirty, dangerous, and depleting.

To this point, I’ll leave you with the trailer to the must-seem Gasland II:

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