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Stop The War to Silence Science, End Egregious Cuts To Greenhouse Gas Monitoring Now

Here we stand at the cusp. At the brink. At the precipice of the crisis that will certainly define this century. An extraordinarily dangerous human alteration of the climate that, at its end, could be far more destructive and deadly than any war. A growing and emerging monstrosity created by us. One which, should we continue to feed it, would plunge us into the heart of one of the blackest climatological eras ever experienced on this planet.

We know there is danger. And we have known it for some time due to the clarity and accuracy of our vision. A vision provided to us by a scientific understanding of our world that is the pinnacle of human progress. For if there is one thing that we should be proud of, that we could all share in as a great victory for our race, it would be the knowledge and understanding that we have gained in our long and tempestuous rise from darkness.

Global CO2 levels since 1700

Global temperatures since 1880

(Upper graph: Global CO2 concentrations since 1700. Lower graph: Global temperatures since 1880 as measured at the world’s meteorological stations. Image sources: The Keeling Curve and NASA GISS.)

And yet now, at the brink of crisis, we are at risk of having the new senses provided to us by science, senses we depend upon so much for that knowledge, that vision we need most desperately, begin to fade, to dim, to wink out. For the monitors we use to track the crisis are steadily being de-funded and are at risk of going dark.

Just this past Christmas Eve, Dr. Ralph Keeling, son of the renowned Dr. Charles David Keeling, made a public appeal for increased funding of the critical Mauna Loa Observatory’s CO2 Monitor. The funds, you see, after more than 40 years of cuts to critical scientific research, research often labeled by political opponents to be ‘wasteful government spending,’ were at risk of short-fall. So Dr. Keeling, a scientist in the crucial and much-needed field of atmospheric monitoring, was forced, by the most greedy and heartless among us, who only see the gift beyond price that is human science as a tax burden equivalent to ‘wasteful government spending,’ to pan handle for the continued funding of his, all-too-necessary and growing ever more important with each passing day, mission.

Dr Keeling’s appeal was the very modicum of dignity and candor. And it contained hardly a jot of the outrage which he, and the rest of us, should justifiably feel. Instead, he simply and candidly reminded us of the importance of his ongoing mission:

Friends,

I am writing as the director of the Scripps CO2 and O2 programs, which keep track of how these vital gases are changing in the atmosphere over time.  The CO2 measurements include the iconic Mauna Loa record, now commonly known as the “Keeling Curve”, which was started by my father in the late 1950s.

The O2 measurements, carried out on samples from Mauna Loa and many other stations, also provide critical information about how the planet is changing.  The measurements show that the world’s O2 supply is slowly decreasing, and have helped prove that the CO2 increase is caused by fossil fuel burning, but offset by natural sinks of CO2 in the land and oceans.

The need to continue these measurements has not diminished. The planet is undergoing dramatic changes, unprecedented for millions of years.  This past year, our group reported that CO2 topped 400 parts per million at Mauna Loa for the first time…

The Scripps CO2 and O2 measurements now face severe funding challenges.  The situation is most urgent for the O2 measurements.  These measurements have been supported for decades through proposals submitted every few years to the federal agencies.  The value of these measurements is not questioned, but federal funding for these programs has never been so tenuous.  This is the basis for this unusual to the public at large…

I have struggled throughout my career to cope with [funding challenges], and I will continue the struggle.  The quest for continued federal support will not end.

For now, I ask for your support so that we can keep up these activities and sustain our watch on the planet in this time of unprecedented global change.

Sincerely,

Ralph F. Keeling

(I’ve abbreviated Dr. Keeling’s appeal for this post. That said, I fully urge you to read the entire appeal at his blog The Keeling Curve, to help spread word of his appeal far and wide, and to donate generously.)

Now, as Dr. Keeling knows all too well, 400 ppm CO2 is a big deal. If the world were to remain at this level for an extended period, global temperatures would eventually stabilize between 2-3 degrees hotter than the 20th Century Average. Analysis of the dramatic changes, including a 15-75 foot sea level rise, massive expansion of deserts, a reduced productivity of lands and oceans, and dangerous changes to the world’s weather as it undergoes this temperature transition would put most if not all human civilizations at risk of collapse. Failure to heed this warning and rapidly stabilize and then reduce CO2 levels would risk these and far worse consequences. Yet despite this danger, we are rapidly heading on toward 450, 550, 650 ppm CO2 or more.

NASA has rightly labeled atmospheric CO2 concentration ‘the global thermostat’ and if you want to get a good idea of where the temperature is heading, you need to keep an eye on the thermostat needle. Dr. Keeling’s research gives us that needle. And without the measure his research provides, we are flying blindly into a world of worsening and ever more dangerous weather.

Methane Monitoring Cut as Well

Sadly, Dr. Keeling’s essential monitoring is not the only measure at risk of funding cuts. According to a recent report in Live Science, monitoring of another essential greenhouse gas, methane, has fallen by 25% due to ongoing cuts and is now at serious risk of collapsing. Ed Dlugokencky, an atmospheric chemist with NOAA’s Earth Sciences Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado noted:

“We’ve had about a 25 percent decrease in the number of air samples measured from the global cooperative network. If we want to understand what is happening [with methane], we’re going in the wrong direction to do that.”

While CO2 is the primary driver of current warming, methane is, increasingly, an indicator of one of the worst amplifying feedbacks due to human caused change. Massive volumes of methane lay stored in tundra and on the sea bed. Should these stores, which are sensitive to heating, be released into the atmosphere, they could add substantial additional warming on top of the warming already set in play by CO2 increases.

methane-concentration

(Global Methane Distribution Indicative of Large Arctic Emissions. Image source: NASA)

Recent reports and studies have found evidence of an increasing Arctic emission of methane, one that has possibly exceeded 90 megatons annually. Though not yet catastrophic, this increasing emission is a serious concern and we would be very unwise to stop taking measures of this very volatile and potentially dangerous atmospheric gas.

As is the case with Dr. Keeling, cuts in funding to scientific monitoring of these gases are as egregious as they are short sighted. The scientists and the research efforts they provide go to benefit us all. They work diligently to serve our interest and to give us the best information along with the means to make sound decisions, should we choose to. They are not wealthy and could have probably earned far more using their considerable intellects to game the stock market, for example, or to aid CEOs in determining how best to off shore US jobs to cheap, easily exploitable foreign labor.

There is no tax cut for the top 1 percent, no foreign oil war, no subsidy to the fossil fuel industry that is more important than funding this scientific effort and these selfless public servants who work so diligently on our behalf. So we should do everything necessary — increase taxes on the wealthy, stop fighting wasteful wars, and stop subsidizing dirty and dangerous industries — in order to provide the support needed to continue this vital service to humankind.

And as for those dark political and social forces that, as they did in Canada with the dismemberment, looting, and dissolution of scientific libraries, seek to suppress the accumulation of knowledge about how our world operates and, yes, responds to the harm we’ve inflicted upon it — they should be banished back to the dark ages from which they arose. They have no place here. Not at this time of clear and present danger. They are traitors to human progress, to our civilizations and, ultimately, to the vitality of life on this world. And they should be swept aside lest, one by one, we all, and not just the scientists, be silenced.

Links:

The Keeling Curve

NASA GISS

NASA’s Earth Observatory

NASA: CO2 Acts as Global Thermostat

Live Science

In Book-buring Like Episode, Conservatives in Canada Destroy Scientific Libraries

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

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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

 

Mauna Loa Hourly Averages Above 400 PPM CO2 For First Time in 4.5 Million Years

mlo_one_monthmar-apr2013

Over the past two weeks, hourly CO2 averages measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory have exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time. Over the next month, daily averages will likely exceed the 400 ppm milestone. By 2014, one or two months will show an excess of 400 ppm CO2 and by 2016 yearly averages will likely reach or exceed that extraordinarily high level.

To find comparable CO2 levels in Earth’s geological past, one has to venture back in time 2.2 to 4.5 million years to the Pliocene climate epoc. So long ago, humankind, as we know it, was merely a glimmer in Earth’s eye. And the world was filled with strange animals and plants, many of whom do not survive today. The grasses and grains which would become the basis for world agriculture were just beginning to emerge. But they were not as plentiful nor as prosperous as they are today.

During that time, sea levels averaged 75 feet higher than today, temperatures averaged 3-4 degrees Celsius warmer globally and 8-10 degrees hotter at the poles. Ellesmere Island, covered by glaciers today, hosted a forest. If CO2 remains above 400 ppm for any significant period, we can expect an eventual return to these conditions through a chaotic transition of glacial ice melt, major weather changes, major ocean changes, increasing air and ocean temperatures, and other dangerous and disruptive climate feedbacks as the Earth system seeks a new equilibrium. And this begs the question, will those same grasses and grains that developed into such abundance over this time survive and prosper through such a transition? The fate of human civilizations may well hang on the answer to this question.

*    *    *    *    *    *

In the past 150 years, worldwide CO2 has increased by about 120 parts per million. At the current rate of increase, it will take a little more than two decades to reach 450 parts per million. In the context of geological history, this pace of increase is blindingly fast. Usually, an increase of 10 parts per million CO2 may occur over the course of 1000 years. Even the most rapid increases estimated in the last 60 million years were half as fast as those ongoing today.

co2_800k

To get an idea of the immensity and rapidity of this pace of change, one need only look at the above graph. The graph starts 800,000 years ago. And, as you can see, CO2 concentrations regularly range between 300 ppm during interglacials and 175 ppm during ice ages. This progression continues unabated until we reach the present day when, at the very end of the graph, levels shoot like a rocket toward 400 ppm. In short, humans have pushed the Earth rapidly and radically toward a different climate. And we have yet to fully witness how this extremely radical pace of change will alter our world.

Even worse, the pace of change is increasing. Humans added about 1 ppm CO2 to the atmosphere during the 1950s. We are now adding more than twice that level each and every year. 2011, the most recent year of recorded carbon emissions, showed the highest amounts ever dumped into the atmosphere. This is a pace that can no longer be sustained without serious and severe consequences.

If fossil fuel emissions continue unabated over the next few decades, the changes due for 400+ ppm CO2 will be locked in for millenia. Even worse, if emissions continue to increase as they have and if climate feedbacks such as biosphere carbon and methane release begin to emerge, the world falls very rapidly onto the path of 600-1000 ppm CO2 by or before the end of this century. Following such a path would result in extraordinarily harmful and powerful changes to the Earth’s environment. Such changes would be so powerful and unprecedented that it is doubtful humans could effectively adapt to them.

Some have said that 400 ppm CO2 is an arbitrary number. And that may well be the case. However, it marks a threshold of increasing danger and risk of harm. It is a sign-post showing that we are running out of time to reign in the worst impacts of climate change. It is a clear signal that we need to seriously address, reduce and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions over the course of the next few decades and that we must do so with a resolve not yet seen in the current crop of world leaders.

This is both our challenge and our peril. We simply must respond. We simply must reduce and eliminate carbon emissions. Otherwise we are headed for a very, very dangerous world climate. One which may well be impossible to adapt to.

Links:

The Keeling Curve

Understanding Climate Change is Simple. Want to Stop Temperature Increases? Halt Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

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