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.


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


Hothouse Gas Spikes to Extreme 409.3 Parts Per Million on April 10 — Record Rate of Atmospheric CO2 Increase Likely for 2016

Simply put, a rapid atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gasses is swiftly pushing the Earth well outside of any climate context that human beings are used to. The influence of an extreme El Nino on the world ocean system’s ability to take down a massive human carbon emission together with signs of what appears to be a significantly smaller but growing emission from global carbon stores looks to be setting the world up for another record jump in atmospheric CO2 levels during 2016.

409 ppm CO2 April 10 2016

(See the little dot well above the blue trend line on the upper right hand portion of the above graph? That mark’s no accident. It represents daily atmospheric CO2 readings of around 409.3 parts per million CO2 at the Mauna Loa Observatory on April 10 of 2016. It’s an insanely high reading. But over the next two months we may see daily values continue to peak in this range or hit even higher levels. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

Already, as we near the annual peak during late April through early May, major CO2 spikes are starting to show up. On Sunday, April 10 the Mauna Loa Observatory recorded a daily CO2 reading in the extraordinary range of 409.3 parts per million. These readings follow March monthly averages near 405 parts per million and precede an annual monthly peak in May that’s likely to hit above 407 parts per million and may strike as high as 409 parts per million. These are levels about 135 to 235 parts per million above the average interglacial to ice age range for CO2 levels during the relatively stable climate period of the last 2 million years.

In other words — atmospheric CO2 levels continue to climb into unprecedented ranges. Levels that are increasingly out-of-context scary. For we haven’t seen readings of this heat trapping gas hit so high in any time during at least the past 15 million years.

2016 Could See Atmospheric CO2 Increase by 3.1 to 5.1 Parts Per Million Above 2015

During a ‘normal’ year, if this period of reckless human fossil fuel burning can be rationally compared to anything ‘normal,’ we’d expect CO2 levels to rise by around 2 parts per million. Such a jump in the 2015 to 2016 period would result in monthly averages peaking around 406 parts per million by May. However, with a record El Nino and other influences producing large areas of abnormally warm sea surfaces, the world ocean’s ability to draw down both the massive human emission and the apparently much smaller, but seemingly growing, global carbon feedback has been hampered.


(Annual mean CO2 growth rate for 2016 is likely to hit even higher than records seen during 2015 due to the influence of a record El Nino on the world ocean system’s ability to draw down excess atmospheric carbon and due to the fact that global CO2 emission remain near record high levels set in 2014. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

In 1998, during a then record El Nino and at a time when global carbon emissions from human sources were significantly lower than they are today and during a period when the global carbon stores appeared to be mostly dormant, atmospheric CO2 levels rose by a then record 2.9 parts per million. During 2015, as a record El Nino ramped up and as the global carbon stores continued their ominous rumbling, annual average increases hit a new high of 3.05 parts per million. But with the strongest El Nino impacts hampering ocean carbon draw-down extending on into the current year, it appears that 2016 average rates of atmospheric CO2 increase are likely to be even higher. Due to this, hopefully temporary, reduction in the ocean’s ability to take in atmospheric carbon, we’re likely to see May 2016 CO2 levels at Mauna Loa hit a range of 3.1 to 5.1 parts per million (407 to 409 ppm in total) above previous record high levels of around 403.9 parts per million for the same month during 2015.

The Last Time CO2 Values Were So High Was During the Middle Miocene — 15 Million Years in the Earth’s Deep Past

By any yardstick, these are extreme annual rates of atmospheric CO2 increase. Rates that are likely at least an order of magnitude faster than during the last hothouse extinction — the PETM — 55 million years ago. Just a few years ago, the scientific bodies of the world voiced serious concern about atmospheric CO2 levels equaling those seen during the Pliocene period — a geological epoch 3-5 million years ago when Earth temperatures were 2-3 C warmer than they are today and atmospheric CO2 levels ranged between 390 and 405 parts per million. But in just a brief interval, we’ve blown past that potential paleoclimate context and into another, more difficult, much warmer, world. A period further back into the great long ago when human civilization as it is today couldn’t have been imagined and a species called homo sapiens had millions of years yet to even begin to exist.


(For the week ending April 10, it appears that atmospheric CO2 levels have already averaged above 407 parts per million. Over the next two months, global atmospheric levels will reach new record highs likely in the range of 407 to 409 parts per million in the monthly values representing an extreme jump in readings of this key heat trapping gas. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

For it’s been about 15 million years since we’ve seen atmospheric values of this critical greenhouse gas hit levels so high. Back then, the Earth was about 3-5 degrees Celsius hotter than the 19th Century and oceans were about 120 to 190 feet higher. Maintaining current greenhouse gas levels in this range for any extended period will risk reverting to climate states similar to those of the Middle Miocene past — or potentially warmer if global carbon stores laid down during the period of the last 15 million years of cooling are again released into the Earth’s ocean and atmosphere.

At current annual rates of atmospheric CO2 increase, it will take between 20 and 50 years to exceed the Miocene and Ogliocene range of 405 to 520 parts per million CO2. At that point, we would be hitting CO2 levels high enough to wipe out most or all of the glacial ice on Earth. That’s basically what happens if we keep burning fossil fuels as we are now for another few decades.

In any case, it’s worth noting that 2016’s potential annual atmospheric CO2 increase of between 3.1 and 5.1 parts per million is extraordinarily bad. Something we shouldn’t be doing to the Earth’s climate system. There really is no other way to say it. Such rates of hothouse gas increases are absolutely terrible.



The Keeling Curve

Ten Times Faster Than a Hothouse Extinction

Atmospheric CO2 Rocketed to 405.6 PPM Yesterday — A Level Not Seen in 15 Million Years

Hat Tip to June

Hat Tip to Kevin Jones


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.


(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.)


The Keeling Curve

Doubling Down on Our Faustian Bargain

Modeling The Atmospheric Airborne Fraction in a Simple Carbon Cycle Model


Scientific Hat tip to Dr. James Hansen

Hat tip to Wili

Hat tip to Kevin Jones

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