Monitor Shows Carbon Monoxide Spikes to 40,000 Parts Per Billion over California on February 26 — What the Heck is Going On?

Hint: it’s a glitch.


On February 26, The Global Forecast System model recorded an (unconfirmed) intense and wide-ranging carbon monoxide (CO) spike over the US West Coast. A region stretching from British Columbia, through Washington and Oregon, and on over most of California experienced CO readings ranging from about 5,000 parts per billion over the mountains of Southwestern Canada to as high as 40,000 parts per billion over Southern California. Very high peak readings appear to have occurred from Northern California near Eureka and along a line south and eastward over much of Central California to an extreme peak zone just north and west of Los Angeles near Palmdale.

40000 ppbv

(Very large [unconfirmed] CO spike over Western North America near major geological features on February 26, 2016. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

For reference, these (unconfirmed) readings in the Nullschool Monitor were between 25 and 200 times above typical background CO levels of about 200 parts per billion and up to twelve times higher than second highest peak readings over polluted regions of China during the same period.

Major Spike Appeared in Just 3 Hours Starting February 25th

Human-based carbon monoxide sources are not generally known to produce spike readings so high and so wide-ranging over such a short interval of time. It would typically take a considerable emission many days to build up under a stagnant air mass. And, to this point, we do have a couple of dome high pressure systems which have tended to form near the California region over recent days. That said, surface winds in the region at 5-15 mph over most areas could hardly be considered stagnant. In addition, the current spike appears over an interval of three hours in the Nullschool data — going from zero coverage to covering all of California and parts of Nevada, Oregon, Washington and BC over that single short interval. It’s a very brief period for such a large and wide-ranging peak reading to appear so soon. One that would require a rather extraordinary pulse of pollution to produce the readings indicated on February 25-26.

Wildfires could produce a longer-term emissions spike under stagnant air as well. However, the wildfires now reported for California are small and isolated. They have flared, off and on, under drought conditions, for weeks without resulting in any significant large fire outbreaks or related major pollution spikes. So it appears unlikely that they are the source of the current burst. Other events related to the ongoing California drought may have had an impact (apparently, burning of desiccated trees from California’s orchards is currently quite widespread due to ongoing drought conditions remaining in place since 2012). However, such instances would have to have been very sudden and wide-ranging to produce the spike we saw on the 25th and 26th.  Canadian wildfires — of which there have been very small and low intensity hotspot events recently (noteworthy due to their anomalous appearance out of season, if not for their intensity)  — were very far from peak readings in California and did not produce even a moderate level of emissions (undetectable from the visible MODIS sensor).

The Earthquake Precursor Hypothesis

A final suspect for this preliminary observation (which has gotten much hype in social media circles over recent days) is geological. As the apparent spike in the monitor occurs over large fault lines, volcanoes, and above other active geological features along the US and Canadian West, it appears that activity within these features might have produced a brief if intense burp of this gas. Sulfur dioxide (SO2) readings — another geological gas — were also elevated in the monitor, with peak readings again appearing in Southwestern California.

It’s worth noting that no major US or Canadian geological organization has yet made any report on this particularly large CO spike. However, a piece of scientific research in Nature Asia, by K. S. Jayaraman notes that major CO and SO2 spikes may be an indication that future earthquake activity is on the way. According to Nature this kind of intense CO spike occurred prior to a 7.6 magnitude earthquake that shook Gujara in 2001 killing 20,000 people:

Singh said that CO levels were taken by an instrument onboard NASA’s Terra satellite — launched in 2009 — circling the earth in a polar orbit at a height of 705 km. The instrument measures CO concentrations at different heights and also computes the total amount of the gas in a vertical column of air above the earth surface.

Analysis of the satellite data showed a large peak in CO concentrations during January 19 and 20 — a week before the main earthquake event. On January 19, the total CO in the vertical column was also higher than usual. After the 26 January earthquake the concentration of the gas dropped.

According to the scientists, CO gas is forced out of the earth due to the build up of stress prior to the earthquake “influencing the hydrological regime around the epicentre.”

But before we tilt too far into alarmism on this particular possibility, we should consider the fact that the above paper appears to have had no confirmation or further comment in the sciences at this time. So the predictive usefulness of large CO spikes prior to earthquakes remains quite uncertain. And, as noted above, no major geological information outlet has made any warning or comment on earthquake risk.

Furthermore, there’s been no observed spike in earthquake activity along any of the major fault lines over the past week according to USGS observations. Contrary to what some irresponsible analysts have been implying, earthquake activity in the California region over the past 7 days was well within the normal range. At 161 over the past week, this small number is not indicative of any abnormal activity near the various active fault lines. Each year, Southern California alone experiences 10,000 earthquakes, most of which are so small that people don’t even feel them.

The US geological survey also maintains that:

There is no scientifically plausible way of predicting the occurrence of a particular earthquake. The USGS can and does make statements about earthquake rates, describing the places most likely to produce earthquakes in the long term. It is important to note that prediction, as people expect it, requires predicting the magnitude, timing, and location of the future earthquake, which is not currently possible.

Thus the apparent, current very large West Coast CO spike near major fault lines (and over regions suffering from what is now a very severe five-year drought) in this particular monitor remains a bit of a mystery.

Or is it all Just a Glitch?

Considering that all the wildfire and human potential sources for the CO pulse are unlikely to produce the spike in the Nullschool data, that we have no warning of potential impending geological activity from the major agencies, and that we have had no other reports from related agencies to confirm the spike, we should also consider that there may well be something wrong with the monitor. Artifacts can appear in the satellite model data and it’s not unheard of to get a spike reading due to other signals impacting how physical models interpret sensor data.

Carbon Monoxide Hourly Observations San Bernandino

(Hourly carbon monoxide observations in Central San Bernardino do not match high surface CO measures recorded by the GEOS 5 model. Similar lower atmospheric readings come from station observations throughout Southern and Central California. Image source: California AMQD.)

To this point, lack of confirmation at ground reporting stations for high CO readings appearing in the GEOS 5 monitor increase the likelihood that these high peak readings were a glitch or an artifact in the physical data. A cursory view of local warnings shows no local CO air quality alerts for the areas indicated in the Nullschool data set (You can view a list of the local monitors here). Analysis of this data also shows much lower CO readings from these stations in the range of 400 to 1200 parts per billion — quite a bit lower than what the GEOS 5 monitor is showing.

So what we have is one model showing a very high CO spike, but none of the related ground monitors picking it up. Since there are hundreds of ground stations in this region, it seems quite a bit less likely that there is something wrong with each of the readings coming from these stations than from the GEOS 5 model itself.

This begs the question — was there some kind of false positive that confused GEOS 5? Was there some other signal that tripped the model to show such a high reading? But to these points, a general lack of overall confirmation from the hundreds of ground sensors scattered across the region seems to point to the likelihood that such elevated readings in the GEOS 5 monitor were a glitch, an artifact, or a false reading for this atmospheric level.

UPDATED: Final Confirmation — It’s A Model Algorithm Error

Dr. Gavin Schmidt, head of GISS NASA, has confirmed the glitch in his twitter feed which you can read here. He notes:

The Elevated Carbon Monoxide concentrations in the GEOS 5 products since February 25 of 2016 are incorrect. They are the consequence of unrealistic CO emissions computed by our biomass burning algorithm, which is based on satellite observation of fires… GMAO is working to correct this problem.

An excellent further explanation has been given by Bryan, a blogger over at Of Tech and Learning. His explanation is as follows:

“It’s pure coincidence that at MOPITT resumed data collection over western North America while its operating temperature was still stabilizing. Had the instrument’s temperature remained unstable for a few days, it would have looked like the whole globe was erupting gas. If MOPITT has started collecting data over the south pole, open ocean, or some other obscure location, I doubt anyone would have noticed and made a big fuss. MOPITT uses light collected in the infrared part of the spectrum. Based on Terra’s system status, the CO, CO2 and SO2 data collected by MOPITT on the 25th and 26th of February should be highly suspect. On the Earth map, the CO, CO2, and SO2 levels spike sometime between 1pm and 4pm Pacific time on Feb. 25th, which is between 2100 UTC on the 25th and 0000 UTC on the 26th. This is precisely during the time window when MOPITT’s operating temperature is still unstable.”

So a glitch does appear to be the cause of the current CO spike in the Nullschool data.


Earth Nullschool


Dr Gavin Schmidt’s Twitter Feed

Active Fire Maps

Canadian Fire Maps

Cascadia Subduction Zone

The San Andreas Fault Line

Carbon Monoxide May Signal Earthquake

Paradise Burning

Copernicus Monitoring System

An Explanation of Carbon Monoxide Concentrations on US West Coast

Hat tip to Mike

Hat tip to MlParrish

Hat tip to WeHappyFew

Hat tip to Coopgeek

Hat tip to Greg

Hat tip to Bryan

Hat tip to FishOutofWater

Hat tip to Jim Benison


Nature: Human-Destabilized Antarctica Capable of Glacial Outbursts Contributing to Sea Level Rise of 14+ Feet Per Century

“Our new results suggest that the Antarctic Ice Sheet is more unstable than previously considered…” — Peter Clark, Paleoclimatologist at Oregon State University

*    *    *    *    *

Massive glacial destabilization and irreversible collapse caused by human warming. That’s what a flurry of recent studies issued by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory found is now happening to vast sections of Antarctica’s towering glaciers.

The NASA climate scientists found that rapid human warming of the deep ocean was resulting in hotter than usual water upwelling beneath the ocean-fronting glaciers of Antarctica. The warmer waters ate away at the great glaciers from underneath, making them less stable and propelling them with ever-higher velocity toward the world’s oceans. The studies, led by Eric Rignot, concluded that large sections of Antarctica were now destabilized and that six key glaciers representing what could well be termed the entire flank of West Antarctica were now locked in an unstoppable plunge into the ocean.

These glaciers in irreversible collapse combined with a growing number of destabilized and destabilizing glaciers all around Antarctica and northward to Greenland to represent an extreme risk for a much more rapid than expected sea level rise this century.

Now a new study published this week in the prestigious science journal Nature adds to what has become an extraordinary torrent of evidence for heightening risks to speeding human-spurred sea level rise.

Antarctica glacial velocity map

(Antarctica glacial velocity map composed by Eric Rignot in 2011. Blue = fast. Brown = slow. Note the numerous high-speed glacial flows plunging deep into Antarctica. By the 2010s, Antarctica was losing between 1,300 and 2,000 gigatons of ice each year. Image credit:

A Glimpse into Earth’s Past Provides Stark Evidence For a Human-Warmed Future

The study, entitled Millennial-Scale Variability in Antarctic Ice Sheet Discharge During the Last Deglaciation, and published in Nature, took a closer look at Antarctic ice sheet instability and its contribution to sea level rise during the end of the last ice age by taking sediment cores from iceberg rafted debris (IBRD) fields around the frozen continent. These fields contained minerals left by melting glaciers discharged into the Southern Ocean during the major glacial melt events at the end of the last ice age and provide a good proxy for the rate of glacial discharge from Antarctica.

Analysis of these sediment cores resulted in the finding that Antarctica experienced 8 separate large glacial outburst events during the end of the last ice age. These events began about 20,000 years ago and ended 9,000 years ago. This is directly counter to conventional thinking that had assumed Antarctic melt started late and ended early during the last glacial melt period. It also hints that the Antarctic ice sheet is far less stable that previously assumed, making it much more vulnerable to current, human-caused heat forcings.

Each large outburst event contributed significantly to global sea level rise. The largest and most violent event was found to have occurred around 14,900 years ago. Lasting 350 years, this single episode, known as meltwater pulse 1A, resulted in a 50 foot sea level rise, pushing global oceans higher by 14.2 feet per century. It was previously unknown that Antarctica contributed in any way to this rapid sea rise event. But large deposits of iceberg sediment during this time of surging oceans provides strong evidence that Antarctica was a major contributor.


(Pace of post glacial sea level rise since the end of the last ice age. Note the steep rise in sea levels occurring in conjunction with meltwater pulse 1A, a pulse that scientists now know included a major contribution from Antarctic melt. Image source: Commons.)

Professor Clark of Oregon State’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences who contributed to the paper noted:

“During that time, the sea level on a global basis rose about 50 feet in just 350 years – or about 20 times faster than sea level rise over the last century. We don’t yet know what triggered these eight episodes or pulses, but it appears that once the melting of the ice sheet began it was amplified by physical processes.”

Implications for Current-Day Human Warming

At first blush, the findings of this study may seem innocuous. But upon reflection, one quickly comes to the conclusion that they are rather stark.

In total, about 200 feet of potential sea level rise is currently locked in all of Antarctica’s ice. This compares to Greenland which, if it completely melted, would contribute about 24 feet to sea level rise. Until recently, it was assumed that this large store of ice in Antarctica was relatively stable and responded only slowly to climate perturbations.

The first challenge to the notion of Antarctic ice sheet stability came in 1968 when glaciologists began issuing warnings that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet was unstable. But, until recent years, this instability lacked an observed physical mechanism to explain what appeared to be an ongoing and increasingly rapid glacial rush toward the sea. By the mid 2000s, scientific reports began to emerge showing that warm water upwelling along the coasts of Antarctica was eating away larger and larger chunks of the great glaciers’ bases and speeding their flow to the sea. This year, a flurry of reports sounded a death knell for entire sections of West Antarctic ice, locking in many feet of sea level rise with more likely to come.

Temperature increase over last 22,000 years

(Temperature and CO2 increase from 22,000 YBP through 6,000 YBP. Note that major glacial outburst events in Antarctica began after only .2 C of atmospheric warming and 10 ppm of CO2 increase around 20,000 years ago. Such a response shows a very high degree of glacial and Earth Systems climate sensitivity. Also note that total warming over a 12,000 year timeframe was 3.7 C. Warming of 4, 6 and even 9 C is possible by the end of this Century under BAU human greenhouse gas forcing. Image source: Nature via Skeptical Science.)

But until this recent Nature paper, such a rapid destabilization of Antarctica’s massive glaciers was without a paleoclimate context. For few studies had challenged an assumed but sparsely supported perception of past Antarctic ice sheet stability. To the contrary, the paper found an Antarctic ice sheet that was very sensitive to warming. The ice sheet issued its first major glacial outburst 20,000 years ago as the world showed its first hint of thaw from a great ice age. The giant glaciers continued their lashing out in 8 major events until warming stopped with the advent of the Holocene around 9,000 years ago. At that point, Earth’s climate had begun to settle into a new equilibrium and Antarctica quieted its grumbling.

Now that humans are warming the atmosphere and oceans at a pace at least 30 times that of the last ice age, we are discovering that Antarctica in the deep past showed a major destabilization response to even the slightest hint of warming.

A Warming Ocean is Likely Antarctica’s Soft Underbelly

Rapidly accumulating evidence that ocean warming is providing a powerful blow to the world’s glaciers combines with the recent study to provide a stark implication — any addition to atmospheric heat is rapidly transferred to the world’s oceans which, in turn, goes to work melting ocean-contacting glaciers. Furthermore, glacial destabilization is likely to remain in play so long as the global energy imbalance toward continued warming remains in force and destabilized glaciers haven’t yet hit the ocean. As such, we should consider that start time for glacial destabilization and increasing rates of sea level rise to be now and not in some distant, far off, future.

Glacial systems may well present considerable atmospheric inertia. But when presented with warming waters, the glaciers must yield. This makes sense as water’s heat capacity is four times greater than that of air. So the melting force of water just one degree C above freezing is about four times that of the same volume of air at the same temperature. Glaciers in constant contact with the potent heat capacity of warming oceans essentially don’t stand a chance. And with many of Antarctica’s glaciers directly in the firing line of waters warmed by human greenhouse gas forcing rising from the deep ocean, it would appear, at this time, that the great frozen continent may well have a very soft underbelly.

Antarctic Waterfall

(Waterfall spilling from the heart of a melting Antarctic glacier and into the Southern Ocean. Image source:

Inertia Not So Strong as the Forcing; Stark Implications For Sea Level Rise

Since so much has happened over the past year, it is useful to put the current state of science into an overall context. In doing so we should consider these scientific findings:

  1. Large portions of Antarctica are already undergoing destabilization or irreversible collapse.
  2. In the deep past, Antarctica responded very rapidly to even a small global temperature change and remained unstable so long as warming continued.
  3. This rapid glacial response and destabilization was likely due to a broad basal exposure to warming oceans.
  4. The current pace of human warming is now 30 times faster than at the end of the last ice age.
  5. The deep ocean is accumulating heat faster than any other Earth System.
  6. At peak, the most violent glacial outburst flood events included glacial discharges from Antarctica and pushed sea levels higher by 14.2 feet each century during the end of the last ice age.
  7. Current human CO2 heat forcing at 400 ppm + is enough to raise sea levels by 75 feet according to paleoclimate estimates.
  8. Current human CO2e heat forcing at 481 ppm + is enough to raise sea levels by 120 feet according to paleoclimate estimates.

Considered together, these points would seem to indicate that glacial inertia to heat forcing is not so great as previously hoped. More likely, the energy balance of the Earth System more rapidly responds to total heat content, energy imbalance, and pace of heat accumulation than previous sensitivity estimates assumed. If this meta-analysis is true, and it seems to be based on a growing pile of evidence, sea level rise for the current century is likely to be far greater than previously anticipated by scientific assessments. The top range of a 3 foot sea level rise for this century under IPCC modeling is likely, given current realities, to instead be a low estimate. A more realistic range, given a greatly reduced true glacial inertia, is probably 3-9 feet through 2100 with higher outside potentials during large glacial outburst flood events.

Given changing ocean and atmospheric conditions together with the rising potential of large rainfalls over certain glacial zones during summer as the 21rst century progresses, climate analysts should consider such large glacial outburst floods to be a potential high risk event under current extreme human warming. It is also worth noting that these glacial systems have probably never experienced a set of forces so powerful or rapid as they are likely to face as the 21rst century progresses. Recent scientific assessments are essentially playing catch-up to these new and emerging realities.


Grim News From NASA: West Antarctic’s Entire Flank is Collapsing into the Southern Ocean

Millennial-Scale Variability in Antarctic Ice Sheet Discharge During the Last Deglaciation



Skeptical Science

Antarctic Ice Sheet Unstable at End of Last Ice Age

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