NOAA– Atmospheric CO2 Increased by 2.77 Parts Per Million During 2016

According to NOAA, carbon dioxide — a key heat trapping gas — increased its atmospheric concentration by 2.77 parts per million during 2016. This was the third fastest rate of increase in the NOAA record following 2015 at a 3.03 ppm annual increase and 1998 at a 2.93 annual increase.

Earlier trends had indicated that 2016 might be on track to beat 2015 as a new record year (and a month by month comparison for the first 11 months of 2016 pointed toward a record rate of rise). These concerns, thankfully, did not materialize as atmospheric rates of accumulation slowed down during December of 2016 — which helped to push the overall year to year comparison lower (NOAA’s year-on-year rate of growth is based on a December to January comparison). Nonetheless, the high rate of atmospheric increase for 2016 remains a matter of concern.

co2-annual-rate-of-increase

(2015 saw a record annual rate of atmospheric CO2 increase at 3.03 parts per million. 2016’s increase at 2.77 parts per million was the 3rd fastest on record. Overall, the decade of 2011-2016 is presently showing about a 20 percent faster rate of accumulation than the decade of 2000 to 2010. This should moderate somewhat post El Nino. However, Earth System feedbacks threaten to hamper the environment’s ability to take down excess carbon as the world begins to approach 1.5 C warmer than 1880s averages. Image source: NOAA.)

Overall, the average annual rate of increase for the first six years of the decade beginning in 2011 was 2.42 parts per million. This rate is approximately 20 percent faster than during the decade of 2001 to 2010 (analysis based on this NOAA data) at around a 2.05 parts per million annual increase. Prior to the most recent decade, the 2000 to 2010 period showed the fastest rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide accumulation on record.

El Nino, through ocean warming and related land impacts such as increased droughts and wildfires, can reduce the rate of CO2 uptake by the Earth System — thus forcing a higher rate of increase due to the human emission. And the 2015 to 2016 period featured a strong El Nino. All things being equal, we should expect atmospheric rates of increase to moderate somewhat during 2017. Possibly dropping to slightly below 2 ppm in the best case.

atmospheric-co2-increase-the-keeling-curve

(Extremely rapid rates of atmospheric CO2 increase since the mid 20th Century have been driven by ramping rates of fossil fuel burning. Now we are at a point where the Earth System will have more and more difficulty taking in the carbon spewed out by smokestacks and tail pipes. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

However, global carbon emissions from fossil fuels at near record levels will continue to push a very high rate of atmospheric accumulation of this climate change driving heat-trapping gas. And the added insult due to global warming now ranging above 1 C hotter than 1880s for most years will tend to put a cap on how effective the Earth is at taking in the very large excess human emission.

By comparison, rates of CO2 increase during the last hothouse extinction event — the PETM — were about 10 to 20 times slower than they are today. And it took hundreds of years for atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to equal the same 125 parts per million increase we’ve now experienced in the 136 years since 1880. So the insult to the Earth System produced by fossil fuel burning is currently extraordinarily high and the rate of heat trapping gas accumulation is probably unprecedented for at least the last 66 million years.

(CO2 is the primary gas driving global warming. But it is not the only one. Add in methane, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gasses and you end up with a total forcing that’s equivalent to 490 parts per million CO2. Video source: Climate One.)

NOAA is now showing that global atmospheric CO2 averages are hitting near 402.5 parts per million. This level will likely increase to around 404 to 405 parts per million by the end of 2017. The forcing from this CO2 alone (not including methane and other greenhouse gasses which has pushed CO2 equivalent forcing to around 490 parts per million) is enough to push global temperatures to nearly 2 C warmer than 1880s averages this Century (prediction based on ECS model analysis). Longer term, if atmospheric CO2 concentrations remain so high, overall warming could hit 3 C to as much as 4 C hotter than 1880s values when adding in the long-term impacts of other greenhouse gas emissions (prediction based on a meta-analysis of paleoclimate temperature and atmospheric carbon proxies).

With global temperatures already driven to about 1.2 C hotter than 1880s during 2016, it’s not an understatement to say that a period of more dangerous and harmful climate change — forced upon us by the world’s extremely high rate of carbon emissions — is already upon us. And we can see that in the various severe weather and geophysical events that are currently ranging the globe. The urgency for cutting carbon emissions, therefore, could not be greater.

Links:

NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory

Ten Times Faster Than the PETM

The Keeling Curve

Climate One

Hat tip to Shawn Redmond

Hat tip to Suzanne

(UPDATED)

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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.)

It’s Looking Like We’ll Never See Another Month Below 400 ppm CO2 Again

The truth is, when I was born, atmospheric CO2 levels were around 300 ppm. Today — maybe even this week — will be the last time anyone alive experiences a level below 400 ppm, and no one born in the coming century or even longer will ever see less than 400 ppm again. That is a deep, deep observation, with ramifications for our children and for every future generation. — Peter Gleick during November of 2015

*****

nasa-model-co2-earths-atmosphere

(NASA model visualization of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere. Image source: NASA.)

I just want to take a moment to tell you something that’s pretty important. You are now an alien. You’ve been made an alien by fossil fuel burning. And you’re now living in, breathing, a heat-trapping atmosphere that’s entirely alien to your species. Sometimes races of creatures suffering such habitat changes are capable of surviving the environmental shifts that inevitably occur as a result. Sometimes they are not. But you’ve been placed in this situation now and it’s getting steadily worse.

Big August CO2 Jump Locking 400 ppm In

The August preliminary data are in. And it’s pretty grim. For with a big year-on-year CO2 jump in August, it looks like September of 2016 will be unable to achieve monthly CO2 averages below 400 parts per million. What that means is that the last month below the 400 level was probably October of 2015. So, for almost a year now, we’ve been living in the climate age of 400+, likely never to return to monthly atmospheric CO2 levels in the 300s again during the lifetimes of any of us humans now inhabiting this Earth.

According to NOAA, August CO2 measurements at the Mauna Loa Observatory averaged 402.25 parts per million, which is a big 3.32 parts per million jump over 2015 August readings. Adding this number to previous months, we find that 2016, so far, has seen an average rate of rise of 3.495 parts per million during its first 8 months — significantly ahead of previous annual record rates of rise during 2015 and 1998 (3.05 and 2.93 ppm respectively).

co2-the-keeling-curve

(Two year Keeling Curve trend seems to indicate that it’s unlikely monthly values will fall below 400 parts per million during 2016 and, for all practical purposes, ever again unless some kind of unprecedented change is made to global carbon emissions policies. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

Such a big August jump makes it highly unlikely that September will average below 400 parts per million due to the fact that monthly drops leading into September typically average around 1.8 ppm CO2. If this trend holds true for 2016, then September will average around 400.5 ppm CO2. And since September typically sees the lowest atmospheric CO2 levels during any given year, the current month is basically the world’s last chance to see a 30 day period that averages below 400 ppm.

Conditions Not Seen in Millions of Years

Atmospheric CO2 levels are now so high that you have to go back about 3 million years into the Pliocene to find similar ranges. During that time, the world was between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius warmer than 1880s temperatures. Oceans were 25 to 75 feet higher and the world was a dramatically different place.

400-ppm-co2-you-are-here

(The age of 400 parts per million CO2 is here. It’s something not seen in about 3 million years. In other words, you’re breathing air right now composed of properties that no homo sapiens sapiens has ever breathed before. Image source: Climate Central.)

But adding in all greenhouse gasses like Nitrogen compounds and Methane resulting from fossil fuel burning (and other human activities) and you end up with a CO2 equivalent in the atmosphere close to 490 parts per million. Such a level of forcing correlates more closely to an even more ancient climate period called the Middle Miocene of about 15 million years ago when global temperatures were between 3 and 4 C warmer than they are today.

As such, crossing the 400 ppm CO2 threshold is not merely symbolic. It is a sign of the increasing likelihood of climate harms to come. And it appears now that we crossed that pass back during October of 2015 — unaware that we’d already entered a tough new climate age.

Links:

NOAA CO2 Trends

The Keeling Curve

Pliocene Climate

Miocene Climate

What Passing Key CO2 Mark Means to Climate Scientists

A Year in the Life of CO2

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

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

(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.

mlo_co2_hour

(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.

Links:

NOAA ESRL

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

 

Rapid Acceleration in Sea Level Rise — From 2009 Through October 2015, Global Oceans Have Risen by 5 Millimeters Per Year

The evidence that a human-forced warming of the globe is hitting a much higher gear in terms of both added heat and ramping impacts just keeps streaming on in. Today, an update in the satellite monitor tracking global sea level rise provides yet one more ominous marker. The world’s oceans are rising at an unprecedented rate not seen since the end of the last Ice Age. A rate that appears to be rapidly accelerating.

Greenland Melt Zachariae Isstrom

(Surface melt visible across the Zachariae Isstrom Glacier in Greenland on July 20th of 2015. Melt like that occurring on this glacier has become more and more widespread over Antarctica and Greenland. It’s an ongoing heat accumulation in the world’s great ice mountains that is contributing to increasing melt water outflows into the rising world ocean system. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

It’s a tough bit of evidence that the world is swiftly accumulating heat. For aside from atmospheric temperature readings, the rate of sea level rise is probably the best marker for how fast the world is warming. It’s a sign of heat build-up that’s thermally expanding the ocean. And, far more ominously, it’s a sign that the great glaciers of the world are starting to accumulate enough heat to go into a more and more widespread melt and destabilization.

Ocean Rise Begins with Ramp-up in CO2 Emissions

Ever since the Holocene climate era began about 10,000 years ago, ocean levels and shorelines have remained remarkably stable. At the close of the 19th Century, and in conjunction with a build-up of heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere through the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, sea levels began a rise that would start to mark a departure from the stable coastlines human civilizations had enjoyed for so long.

hansen-sea-level-rise

(Global sea level rise has ramped higher and higher — an upward curve that follows increasing volumes of CO2 in the atmosphere and rising global temperatures. Image source: Dr. James Hansen.)

At first the rise in global waters, driven by a then slow accumulation of heat in the world ocean system, was slight and gradual. Beginning in 1870, and continuing on through 1925, sea levels across the world increased by about 0.8 millimeters per year. The increase was likely driven by heat accumulating in the atmosphere and then transferring to the surface waters of the oceans. From 1870 through 1925, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels had increased from around 280 parts per million to 305 parts per million — into a range about 25 parts per million above the typical interglacial peak CO2 level of the last 2 million years. A volume of heat trapping gasses that began to slowly upset the Holocene’s relative stability.

If scientists and researchers at the time were paying closer attention, they would have noted this mild but consistent increase in the height of global surface waters as the first hint that the human emission of greenhouse gasses was starting to alter the Earth environment. Sadly, it took many more decades to begin to understand the profound changes that were starting to take place.

The First Acceleration — 1925 to 1992

While climate science was still in its infancy during 1925, a human forced warming of the globe was starting to kick into higher gear. A signal of atmospheric warming since the 1880s was beginning to develop. Though unclear, it was becoming apparent that the airs of the world were building up heat. But the waters of the world were providing a strong signal that the Earth was accumulating that heat more and more rapidly.

Sea level rise, at that time driven by thermal expansion and by a later small but growing contribution from glacial melt, took its first leap higher. And from 1925 through 1992, the average rate of sea level rise more than doubled to 1.9 millimeters per year. It was a sign that the Earth was warming more and more rapidly and that the heat was showing up in still more thermal expansion of the world’s waters.

The Keeling Curve

(Globally, CO2 began to increase in the atmosphere starting with the widespread burning of coal in England during the 17th and 18th Century. As new fossil fuels like natural gas and oil were added to the mix and as fossil fuel based burning greatly expanded during the 19th, 20th, and 21st Centuries, concentrations of this key greenhouse gas sky-rocketed. By the decade of the 2010s, the rate of atmospheric greenhouse gas accumulation was about 6 times faster than at any time in the geological record. A human emission that, if it continues for just a blink in geological timescales, is the equivalent to multiple clathrate guns firing off at the same time. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

During the same period, atmospheric greenhouse gasses increased from 305 parts per million in 1925 to around 350 parts per million (entering the bottom range of the Pliocene 2-5 million years ago) by 1992. This jump by 45 parts per million in just 67 years pushed the Earth’s climate well outside the range of past interglacials — exceeding the previous peak of 280 parts per million CO2 by more than 70 parts per million overall. Atmospheric temperatures, by 1992, had also increased into a range about 0.5 C above 1880s values.

We had started to enter a period where the context of the human-driven warming (primarily enforced by a monopolization of energy markets by fossil fuels) was being pushed far outside the range of the Holocene and into time periods tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years in the geological past. The Earth System, in other words, was entering a period of increasingly dangerous imbalance.

The Second Acceleration 1992 to 2009

During the 17 years from 1992 through 2009, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rose by 40 parts per million to about 390 parts per million in total. That’s a rate of accumulation nearly four times faster than the entire period from 1925 through 1992. An accumulation that by 2009 had pushed the world into a climate context more similar to the warmest periods of the Pliocene of 2-5 million years ago, than of the geological epoch in which human civilization emerged and thrived. For the Holocene was then starting to look like some fond memory fading off into an increasingly murky and smoke-filled far horizon.

Rate of ocean heat uptake has doubled since 1997

(The amount of heat contained in the world ocean system has doubled since 1997. This raging ocean heat uptake has been fueled by a heat accumulation at the top of the atmosphere that is now equivalent to lighting off 5 hiroshima type bombs on the surface of the Earth every single second of every single day. 90-95 percent of this heat goes into the world ocean system. Image source: Dr PJ Gleckler — Industrial Era Ocean Heat Uptake Doubles. See Also: Skeptical Science.)

Rates of sea level rise again increased — hitting a ramp up to around 3 millimeters per year. More ominously, scientific studies were beginning to indicate that the Greenland Ice Sheet and West Antarctica were starting to significantly contribute to the rising waters. The great glaciers were showing their first signs of a mass seaward movement called a Heinrich Event. And with the world hitting 0.8 degrees Celsius above 1880s temperature values and rising, such an event was starting to look more and more likely.

Sea Level Rise at 5 Millimeters Per Year Since 2009

Now, by early 2016, with the world at 1.1 C warmer than 1880s averages and with CO2 levels likely to peak at around 407 parts per million this year, it appears that rates of sea level rise have again jumped markedly higher. For according to satellite altimetry data from AVISO, global sea levels rose by 36 millimeters from the end of 2009 through October of 2015. That’s an annual rate of around 5 millimeters per year and one far above the longer term range of 3.1 mm per year established from 1992 through 2012.

Sea level rise AVISO

(Global sea level rise as measured by satellite altimetry hits a noticeably higher ramp from 2009 through late 2015. Image source: AVISO.)

We can clearly see the departure from the trend line starting post 2011 in the above graph. And if we were to cherry pick that particular departure zone, the rate from trough-to-peak would be 7 millimeters per year. However, since a La Nina occurred during 2011-2012 and a record strong El Nino is occurring now, that particular trend line is probably a bit exaggerated. The reason being that La Nina tends to dampen rates of sea level rise through variable cooling and El Nino tends to spike rates of sea level rise as world surface waters warm during such events.

However, even when correcting for La Nina and El Nino variation, it appears that sea level rise since 2009 is tracking in a range of 4 to 5 millimeters each year — which is yet another significant departure from the trend. A rate that, if it were to further solidify, would be 5 to 6 times faster than initial rates of sea level rise at the start of the 20th Century or two and a half times faster than the sea level rise rates from 1925 through 1992.

Open water and no snow in south Greenland on February 2, 2016

(Open water and no snow in Southern Greenland on February 2 of 2016. Zero sea ice and no snow in southern Greenland during Winter is a strong sign that the island is falling deeper and deeper into the grips of a severe warming event. Image source: Greenland Today.)

Spiking rates of heat accumulation and related thermal expansion of the world’s oceans is likely playing a part in the current increase. But, all-too-likely, the numerous destabilized glaciers now rushing seaward — which in total contain at least enough water to raise seas by 15-20 feet — are also starting to add greater and great contributions. And, unfortunately, with global temperatures now pushing into a very dangerous range between 1 and 2 degrees Celsius above 1880s averages, we are likely to see more and more of these glaciers go into a rapid seaward plunge. It looks like we’ve already locked in a ramping rate of sea level rise for decades to come and at least 15-20 feet long term. But that pales in comparison to what happens if we keep burning fossil fuels.

Links:

AVISO Sea Level Rise

Climate Monsters We Want to Keep in the Closet

Greenland Glacier Rapidly Losing Mass

Dr PJ Gleckler — Industrial Era Ocean Heat Uptake Doubles

Skeptical Science

Collapsing Greenland Glacier Could Raise Seas by 1/2 Meter

Dr. James Hansen

Contribution of the Cryosphere To Changes in Sea Level

The Keeling Curve

LANCE MODIS

Greenland Today

Hat Tip to Catherine Simpson

Hat Tip to Wili

 

Humankind’s Last Days Below 400 PPM CO2?

Another ominous milestone fades away in the smog behind us…

By mid November of 2015, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory had again risen above 400 parts per million. Over the past two weeks, these levels maintained. And even though we may see a few days during which CO2 levels drop below that key threshold during late November and, perhaps, early December, those days could well be the last.

The last days of below 400 parts per million CO2 may then be behind us. It’s likely that none of us now living will ever see such ‘low’ levels of this critical atmospheric greenhouse gas. And it’s possible that humankind itself will never again see a day in which CO2 levels fall into this range (please see Is This the Last Year Below 400 PPM CO2?).

mlo_one_month

(By November 13 of 2015, atmospheric CO2 levels at the Mauna Loa Observatory had risen above the 400 ppm CO2 threshold. During 2015, just four months of the year have been below that level. For 2016, it’s possible that no month will average below 400 ppm CO2. And after that time, we’ll likely never see below 400 ppm CO2 levels again. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

Dr. Ralph Keeling, in a blog over at the Keeling Curve site back in October clearly explained why 2015 may be the last year with monthly readings below 400 ppm CO2. In short, the added global heat from El Nino tends to squeeze more carbon out of the Earth’s lands and oceans. As a result, strong El Nino years have tended to show higher rates of atmospheric CO2 increase when these Earth System feedbacks are added in to the carbon coming from an insane global rate of fossil fuel burning. The last time a strong El Nino emerged during 1998, global CO2 levels rose by 3.7 parts per million during a single year. Since the rate of human fossil fuel burning has substantially increased over the 1998 to 2015 period and as the current El Nino is peaking at or above 1997-1998 intensities, it’s possible that the annual increase in CO2 could match or exceed that seen during 1998. We could see annual CO2 levels rise by 3.5, 3.75, or even 4 parts per million or more during the 2015 to 2016 interval.

If CO2 levels rise so rapidly, 2015 will be the last year seeing any significant period below 400 ppm.

mlo_two_years

(During 2016, CO2 levels as measured at Mauna Loa will peak at between 405 and 408 parts per million CO2. These levels are the highest seen at any time during the last 3-15 million years and are more typical to the early Pliocene or Middle Miocene climate epochs. Such amazingly high levels of CO2 beg equally amazing and harmful geophysical changes to follow. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

Unfortunately, due to CO2’s long residence time in the atmosphere and also due to the fact that the added heat provided by that CO2 tends to generate long-lasting carbon feedbacks from the global environment, it is likely that this period of above 400 parts per million CO2 will last for a very, very long time. With a single molecule of CO2 having a warming impact period of at least 500 years so long as the oceans can eventually draw the net carbon increase down (a dubious proposition in the context of warming world), even if human fossil fuel emissions halted after just one or two additional decades, it would mean that above 400 parts per million CO2 levels last for centuries to come. On the other hand, if human fossil fuel burning and related carbon emissions continue even into the middle of this Century, then it’s possible that such heightened CO2 levels could last for millennia — possibly outlasting the human race itself. In such an event, the only hope for bringing CO2 back to levels below 400 parts per million is a very significant change in land use, farming, and technological practices to directly draw carbon out of the atmosphere.

Atmospheric CO2 levels remaining at 400 parts per million for any significant period will push the Earth climate to warm by between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius. It will push for sea levels to rise by at least 75 feet. In other words, a world at 400 parts per million is a world radically changed. A world that human beings have never seen before. And as a cautionary note, the total forcing from all greenhouse gasses currently emitted by humans is now in the range of 485 parts per million of CO2 equivalent. A level well beyond the current 400 parts per million threshold and one that likely equates to around 4 degrees Celsius worth of long term warming.

These are the stark consequences of fossil fuel burning. A burning, that if it continues, will almost certainly ensure that human beings living after 2015 or 2016 never again see CO2 levels below 400 parts per million.

Links:

The Keeling Curve

Is This the Last Year Below 400?

Pliocene Climate

Miocene Climate

Skeptical Science on CO2 Residence Times

 

 

 

 

 

“Standing on the Shores of Disaster” Global Average CO2 Exceeds 400 PPM In March

“This may not be our climate rubicon, but we’re certainly standing on the shores of disaster, 400 ppm is well past the point of safety which many scientists put at 350 ppm.” Jamie Henn, co-founder and communications director of 350.org in an interview to Huffington Post on May 6.

*  *  *  *

New reports out from NOAA today showed that in March of this year global average CO2 levels broke the 400 parts per million monthly average for the first time in the climate record. These levels, which include a measure of all global readings, are the highest seen by the inhabitants of Earth in at least three million years.

NOAA CO2

(Global average CO2 levels exceed 400 parts per million for the first time in March. Image source: NOAA.)

The Mauna Loa measure, which we’ve been using for record keeping here, first exceeded the 400 ppm threshold back in 2013, with monthly averages hitting 401.8 ppm in May of 2014. This year, Mauna Loa daily measures began exceeding 400 parts per million in January and have hit as high as 404.8 parts per million in recent weeks.

Southern Hemisphere averages lag those in the Northern Hemisphere, which accounts for the global average delay.

This inauspicious milestone comes with a massive burning of fossil fuels that now dumps more than 10 billion tons of carbon (37 billion tons of CO2 equivalent) into the atmosphere every year. It’s a ridiculous rate of burning — likely one that is six times faster than at any time in the deep history of Earth.

“This marks the fact that humans burning fossil fuels have caused global carbon dioxide concentrations to rise more than 120ppm since pre-industrial times,” Pieter Tans, lead scientist of NOAA’s greenhouse gas network, said in an interview to  The Guardian Wednesday. “Half of that rise has occurred since 1980.”

This is a level far exceeding the 350 parts per million safe limit recommended by scientists. A level that, if maintained, is enough to warm the world by 2-3 degrees Celsius long term and cause enough ice to destabilize and slide into the ocean to raise sea levels by 60 feet or more. And if you add in all the other greenhouse gasses, the problem looks even worse — with about 484 parts per million of CO2 equivalent gasses circulating and trapping heat in the Earth atmosphere.

The problem is that once the CO2 is in the atmosphere and oceans, it takes a long time to become sequestered. It generates extra heat for decades, centuries and millennia. Tackling this issue not only involves rapidly moving to a zero carbon civilization. It involves changing the way we do business in a manner that is less disruptive to Earth systems. In a way that allows for the carbon sinks to vitalize and take up a portion of the massive volumes of carbon we’ve emitted.

But we’re nowhere near achieving that goal. Though carbon emissions stabilized in 2014 due to rapid adoption of renewable energy sources, continuing to emit at current rates is a recipe for disaster. What we need is a very rapid draw down to zero emissions.

Links:

Global Carbon Dioxide Levels Topped 400 Parts Per Million in March

Carbon Dioxide Levels Break 400 Part Per Million Milestone

NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory

350.org

A Faustian Bargain on the Short Road to Hell

Hat Tip to Greg

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

Entering the Middle Miocene — CO2 Likely to Hit 404 Parts Per Million by May

The Pliocene. A period of time 2-5 million years ago hosting carbon dioxide levels ranging from 350 to 405 parts per million and global average temperatures that were 2-3 degrees Celsius hotter than 1880s levels. The great ice sheets of Greenland and West Antarctica were feeble, if they existed at all. And seas were about 25-80 feet higher than today.

mlo_two_years

(CO2 hit above 401.84 parts per million on March 9, 2015, and above 403 parts per million on March 10 — levels that test the upper boundary of CO2 last seen during the Pliocene and entering a range more similar to the Miocene. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

In the context of human warming, the amount of heat forcing we’ve added to the global atmosphere from carbon dioxide emissions alone has been hovering in the range of the Pliocene for the past two decades. A heat forcing that, if it remained steady over a substantial period of time, would almost certainly revert the world to a climate state last seen during that time.

But by 2015, the global human heat forcing from carbon dioxide emissions had begun to exit the period of the Pliocene. Now we are entering a period in which atmospheres are more similar to those seen during the Middle Miocene Climate Optimum — the last time CO2 measures exceeded a threshold of roughly 405 parts per million (see here and here)

The Middle Miocene Climate Optimum occurred between about 15 and 17 million years ago. It hosted an atmosphere in which carbon dioxide levels varied wildly from 300 parts per million to 500 parts per million. Temperatures were between 3 to 5 degrees Celsius hotter than the 19th Century. And sea levels were about 120 to 190 feet higher. During this period, the world was still cooling down from the heat of the Paleocene and Eocene epocs. Carbon was being sequestered. And it was the first time the world broke significantly below a 500 part per million CO2 plateau that had been established during the Oligocene 24 to 33 million years ago.

The great glaciers in East Antarctica were mostly well established, even though their scope was a mere shadow of what we see today. The Greenland and West Antarctic glaciers did not exist. They would have to wait for about another 5-10 million years for the Earth to cool further.

glaciation-since-petm

(Glaciation since PETM. Image source: Dr James Hansen.)

As of March 9, 2015, atmospheric CO2 levels had reached 401.84 parts per million. Already a level testing the Pliocene-Miocene boundary, this measure will continue to increase through the rest of March, on into April, and keep rising until middle or late May. At that point, global CO2 levels will have reached around 404 parts per million. At least the highest levels seen in the last 3 million years and possibly the highest levels seen in 15 to 18 million years.

If the greater portion of this range is correct, then we are now breathing air that none among our species or even our hominid relatives have ever breathed since their setting foot on this world.

But CO2 alone doesn’t tell the whole story. Equivalent CO2 levels (CO2e) including all human emitted greenhouse gasses — methane and a host of industrial gasses — will reach about 484 ppm CO2e this year (see here and here). And that forcing puts us easily within the range of the warmest periods of the Miocene. A brew of heat trapping gasses including exotic chemicals that no creature has likely ever breathed while living on the Earth.

Links:

The Pliocene

Middle Miocene Climate Instability Associated With CO2 Variability

CO2 and Climate Closely Linked During Middle Miocene

Sea Level and Ice Volume Variations

IPCC 2007 Chapter 6 — Paleoclimate

Dr James Hansen

The Keeling Curve

NOAA ESRL CO2 Measure

CO2 Levels for February Eclipsed Prehistoric Highs

A Faustian Bargain on the Short Road to Hell — Living in a world at 480 CO2e

400 PPM CO2? Add in All other Gasses and it’s 478 CO2e

Hat tip to Aldous

Unsettling CO2 Spike: Hourly Levels Hit Near 404 PPM on January 13, 2015

CO2 Spike

Yesterday, at about the same time I was penning this article describing how CO2 levels were likely to exceed 400 PPM for most of 2015, a rather significant and abrupt CO2 spike was taking place at the Mauna Loa Observatory.

For on the evening of January 13, 2015, CO2 levels suddenly rocketed to nearly 404 parts per million.

The sudden upswing was certainly unexpected and rather significant — mimicking only the highest levels during 2014. These spikes came fully four months ahead of typical atmospheric CO2 peaks and seem rather ominous in the graph.

CO2 levels can be variable in the hourly measure. But this inflection was particularly strong — following a very high daily reading of 401.23 PPM on the 12th. Somewhat odd and rather early CO2 increases for 2015. A trend we will have to continue to watch.

Links:

The Keeling Curve

Dangerously Beyond 350: CO2 to Remain Above 400 PPM For Most of 2015

For 2015, CO2 levels will remain above the dangerous 400 parts per million level for almost 2/3 of the year. A perilous new record for a human-warmed world.

The last time global CO2 levels averaged above 400 parts per million was more than 3 million years ago during the Pliocene. A period that was just beginning to see the dawn of humankind (Australopithecus emerged about 2.5 million years ago). It was a world of 25-75 foot higher seas. A world where much of Greenland and West Antarctica was ice free. A world that took hundreds of thousands of years to settle into its climate patterns.

2014 Begins at 400 ppm +

(A bad start of 2015 — CO2 levels on January 1st exceeded 400 PPM. Most of the year will see levels in excess of this dangerously high atmospheric value. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

But the current human tool-using species that is now warming the Earth so drastically would have to wait for about 2.8 million more years and for far cooler climes to develop. And that species would set conditions for a rapid shift to climate states not seen for 3 million years in just decades through a hellish pace of fossil fuel burning.  For in just one century we’ve propelled ourselves back to that deep time. Back to a world climate state that is entirely alien to what we, and so many other animals, are accustomed to.

For this year, human fossil fuel emissions will push 2015 to reach or exceed those 400 ppm levels for around 7-8 months running. By 2016, it’s possible that 300 part per million levels — the ones that dominated our environment for most of the 20th Century — will be little more than a melancholy memory as humans face off against a series of increasingly dangerous  geophysical changes.

All set off by the inexorable burning of fossil fuels. A malpractice that simply must stop.

An All Too Steep Ramp-up Toward The Hothouse

Current human fossil fuel burning coupled with a few, still somewhat contained, environmental carbon feedbacks are enough to push an annual atmospheric CO2 increase of 2.2 parts per million each year. It’s a pace of initial greenhouse gas heat forcing never before seen in all of Earth’s geological past — even during the greatest global hothouse extinction events. The fruits of dumping 36 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each and every year.

petm_vs_modern_emissions

(Rate of carbon emission at more than 30 billion tons of CO2 each year vs the PETM [Note that WeatherUnderground has erroneously labeled CO2 as Carbon in the graph]– which was the most recent hothouse extinction 55 million years ago. It’s enough to push an atmospheric temperature rise on the scale of a mass extinction over the course of decades rather than millenia. It’s also worth noting that with CO2 emissions at 36 gigatons in 2013 [vs the above graph results from 2010] and CO2e emissions just shy of 50 gigatons this trajectory is even steeper than the graph depicts. Image source: WeatherUnderground.)

As a result, if current rates of burning continue or increase, we will see 450 parts per million levels well exceeded within about two decades. And that threshold will undeniably lock in at least 2 C worth of warming together with a growing carbon feedback from the Earth System itself.

484 PPM CO2e For 2015

But this drastic pace of atmospheric greenhouse gas additions doesn’t tell the whole story. For if you add up all the other gasses humans have dumped into the atmosphere, all the methane and HCFs, all the industrial chemicals, you end up with a CO2 equivalent number (CO2e) far greater than the present CO2 measure. And that CO2e measure is set to hit 484 parts per million this year (With a nearly 50 gigaton annual increase in CO2e gasses each year). A level that, if it correlates with past climates, will push warming by 1.9 C this century and 3.8 C after the entire Earth System responds. A level not seen in at least 13 million years.

A rather terrible situation to say the least. For at these levels, even the great ice sheets of Antarctica proper were much reduced and sea levels were 85-120 feet higher than they are today. And continuing to burn begs the very worst hothouse extinction consequences that come from wrecking the world’s oceans.

Very Hard Work to Get Back to 350 PPM

Near the end of the first decade of the 21st Century Dr. James Hansen, former head of GISS at NASA advised the world community that the likely safe level of global CO2 was below 350 parts per million. This assertion flew in the face of some in the international community who were pushing for an established ‘safe’ level of 450 parts per million and below. A level, of course, which would allow for the burning of quite a bit more of the world’s fossil fuel reserves.

But Hansen wouldn’t compromise. He felt it would be a betrayal to future generations. To his grandchildren. To all our grandchildren. So he set the safe limit at 350 parts per million with the caveat that we may need to reduce it further.

In 2008, during the year Hansen set the 350 parts per million level, CO2 levels peaked at around 386 parts per million. For 2015, just 7 years later, levels will peak at around 404 parts per million. A rampant increase directly in the wrong direction.

In order for rates of CO2 increase to begin to taper off, the world simply must stop burning so much in the way of fossil fuels. And even a full cessation of fossil fuel use would still result in some emissions unless both farming and construction were altered to reduce carbon emissions. Beyond this, atmospheric carbon capture through various methods to include fixing carbon capture and storage facilities to biomass generation and other land use and chemical based techniques are the most likely to be effective.

Such a transition and change is as difficult as it is necessary. For the world as we know it simply cannot continue along its current path. Hansen was right and we should have listened 7 years ago. We should have listened in 1988 at his first major climate hearing. But we didn’t. And so valuable time was wasted.

Let’s not make the same mistake in 2015.

Links:

The Keeling Curve

2015 Begins With CO2 Above the 400 PPM Mark

WeatherUnderground

2013 CO2 Emissions Will Set Record High

A Faustian Bargain on the Short Road to Hell: Living in a World at 480 PPM CO2e

Scientific Hat Tip to Dr. James Hansen and Dr. Ralph Keeling

World CO2 Averages Touch 402.2 PPM Daily Values in Early April, 102 PPM Higher Than at Any Time in Last 800,000 Years

There’s a tale in the ice. A record of past atmospheres locked away as snowfall trapped air bubbles and then compressed them into thin layers age after age over tens of thousands of years. Over the last few decades, scientists have been drilling holes in the great ice packs of Greenland and Antarctica. Their quest? To unlock this tale and reveal a direct record of global greenhouse gas levels through the deep past.

What their drilling uncovered was both quite informative and rather chilling. First, it showed that, for more than 800,000 years, global CO2 levels had been relatively stable in a range of 180 to 300 parts per million. As the levels of heat trapping CO2 rose, temperatures peaked during brief interglacials. And as levels fell, temperatures plunged back into ice age conditions.

Global temperature flux during these swings from ice age to interglacial were just 4 degrees Celsius. A 100 ppm CO2 rise correlated roughly to a 250 foot rise in sea level and much warmer average conditions globally. A corresponding fall of about the same amount brought temperatures back down and piled ice two miles high over today’s temperate regions such as New York.

What the ice cores also revealed was that human CO2 emissions had pushed global levels of this potent greenhouse gas far out of any climate reckoning comparable to the context of human beings, who have only existed in current form for about 200,000 years.

In fact, what scientists found was that atmospheric CO2 levels were pushing more than 100 parts per million higher than at any time during this vast epochal span:

Ice Core CO2 record 800,000 years

(Antarctic ice core CO2 record and comparable temperature swings. Note that the difference between ice age and interglacial is about 8 C of local temperature and about 100 ppm of CO2. It is worth considering that, due to polar amplification, Antarctic temperature changes were about double the global average. Current CO2 levels are more than 100 parts per million higher than even the peak value over this 800,000 year period. If an average peak interglacial CO2 average of 275 ppm is considered, then current values are around 127 parts per million higher. Image credit: Havard/Jeremy Shakun.)

This record was a key contribution to climate science. One, it revealed how past CO2 levels compared to past temperatures. And since the data was directly derived from air bubbles trapped beneath hundreds of feet of ice, it also provided us with an exact measure for past atmospheres.

Secondly, and perhaps much more ominously, it showed us how very far beyond any climate comparable to that great span of time we’d already come.

102 ppm higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years

Humans have now pushed the CO2 boundary 102 parts per million higher than the context provided by the last 800,000 years. It’s kind of a big deal when you consider that a mere fluctuation of about 100 parts per million CO2 was enough, when combined with changes in orbital forcing, to set off feedbacks resulting in a 4 C temperature change globally (8 C change for the Antarctic environment) as ice age proceeded to interglacial and back.

Current human forcings through CO2 and other emissions have now entirely over-ridden the natural cycle, eliminating the possibility for future ice ages and putting us on a trajectory for catastrophe. With annual global carbon emissions now exceeding 12 gigatons, not only have we forced ourselves well outside of any past bounds to which we can easily relate, we have also generated an unprecedented velocity of change. For the current human carbon emission now exceeds, by at least six times, the most rapid past level of natural carbon emission.

No vast flood basalt could ever rival the volume and pace at which humans currently emit greenhouse gasses.

This enormous emission continues to have severe effect through an ever-higher ratcheting of global CO2 levels.

As of the past week, global daily CO2 values had rocketed to 402.2 parts per million, well outside anything seen in the ice core record:

aprmlo_six_months

(Mauna Loa Observatory CO2 measure for the last six months. Note that daily and weekly values have been mostly above 400 ppm since early March. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

This an extraordinary measure. One that has no context in direct records such as those available to us through ice core data. But paleoclimate proxy data does provide some corollary. According to isotopic carbon measures found through seabed samples, we can determine that the last time CO2 levels were above 400 parts per million was during the mid-Plieocene between 3 and 3.3 million years ago.

And during that time global average temperatures were 2 to 3 degrees Celsius warmer than they are today (with Antarctic values at least twice that). Both Greenland and West Antarctica were mostly ice free and sea levels were between 15-75 feet higher. These are, likely, the potential low end of the changes we’ve locked in due to human global greenhouse gas forcing long term, even if, somehow, global CO2 levels are brought to a plateau.

Mid-Pliocene Antarctica

(An graphic extrapolation of Antarctica’s ice cover and elevation based on paleoclimate data. Note that the Antarctic ice sheet is greatly diminished at a time when CO2 values remained constant around 400 ppm. Image source: Commons.)

480 CO2e…

Unfortunately, the global CO2 measure doesn’t tell quite the entire story. For atmospheric levels of gasses like methane, nitrous oxide, and a host of less common industrial chemicals have also all been on the rise in Earth’s atmosphere due to human emissions. As a result, according to research by the Advanced Global Atmospheric Gasses Center at MIT, total heat forcing equal to CO2 when all the other gasses were added in was about 478 ppm CO2e during the spring of 2013. Adding in the high-velocity human greenhouse gas contributions since that time gets us to around 480 ppm CO2e value. In the context of past climates and of near and long term climate changes due to human interference, 480 ppm CO2e is nothing short of fearsome.

The last time the world saw such a measure of comparable atmospheric greenhouse gas heat forcing was during the Miocene around 15-20 million years ago. At that time, global temperatures were 3-4 C warmer, the Antarctic ice sheet was even further diminished, and sea levels were 80-120 higher than today.

This combined forcing is enough to result in a state of current climate emergency. In just a few years, according to the recent work of climate scientist Michael Mann, we will likely lock in a 2 C short term warming this century and a probable 4 C warming long-term. If the current, high-velocity pace of emission continues, we will likely hit 2 C warming by 2036, setting off extraordinary and severe global changes over a very short period.

These are very dangerous and, likely, catastrophic levels. In such a context, the inexorably rising rate of atmospheric CO2 and other greenhouse gas forcings simply adds further insult to a very high risk situation.

Links:

Havard/Jeremy Shakun

The Keeling Curve

Advanced Global Atmospheric Gasses Center at MIT

Far Worse Than Being Beaten With a Hockey Stick: Michael Mann, Our Terrifying Greenhouse Gas Overburden, and 2 C Warming by 2036

Commons

Pliocene Climate

Miocene Climate and CO2 Flux With Related Ecosystem Impacts

 

CO2 Continues Dangerous Rise, Hits 400.2 Parts Per Million in Late February

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(Daily and hourly CO2 readings at the Mauna Loa Observatory from February 20 to 26. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

More than two months before typical annual maximum in late May or early June, global average CO2 levels have again breached the dangerous 400 part per million threshold.

On February 26th, Mauna Loa’s CO2 observatory recorded three hourly readings at or above 400 parts per million with a peak value of 400.2 ppm. The reading comes just ten months after weekly CO2 values exceeded 400 parts per million during May of 2013, the first time in more than 3 million years that atmospheric levels have been so high.

At the current annual rate of increase, we can expect CO2 levels to peak around 401.5 to 403 parts per million sometime in late May of this year. Last year’s average annual rate of increase was 2.6 parts per million over 2012. If 2014 were to match this, abnormally rapid, pace, daily and hourly measures could exceed peak values of 403 parts per million over the next two months.

A Steepening Rise of Concentration

From the early 1960s the pace of atmospheric CO2 increase was about 1 part per million each year. As human population, fossil fuel consumption, and industrialized agriculture expanded, annual rates of CO2 increase up-ticked to about 1.5 parts per million from 1980 to 2000 and again to slightly above 2 parts per million each year from 2000 to the present. Due to a number of factors including an expected continued increase in fossil fuel burning, the exhaustion of various carbon sinks around the globe, expected changes to ocean and land based photosynthetic life, and the release of various global carbon stores due to amplifying feedbacks related to human-caused warming, rates of CO2 increase are expected to be as much as 7 parts per million or more each year by the middle of this century.

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(An ever-steepening curve. CO2 levels from 1700 to the present. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

Current Pace of Emission Without Precedent

The current pace of emission has no corollary in the geological record. Based on best observations, the fastest CO2 increases in the past were during either the PETM extinction event of 55 million years ago or the Permian Extinction, or Great Dying, of 250 million years ago. During these periods, rapid rates of CO2 increase were observed at about .35 parts per million each year. The current pace is now six or seven times that seen during these dangerous geological epochs and expected rates of CO2 increase during this century could exceed 20 times that seen in the record.

It is worth noting that more than 32 billion tons of CO2 now go into the atmosphere each year and that this rate of emission alone is about 160 times that of volcanic emissions the world over. Total human carbon emissions in CO2 equivalence for all greenhouse gasses is now over 50 billion tons, or more than 200 times global volcanic emissions. Even an epic flood basalt on the order of that which appeared during the Permian Extinction couldn’t match the current pace of human emission.

CO2 emissions sks

(CO2 emissions through 2012 with related IPCC scenarios overlaid. Image source: The Conversation.)

The very rapid pace of increase also drives an exceedingly rapid pace of climate and geophysical change. Among the impacts include very rapidly rising temperatures, potentially very rapid ice melt and global sea level rise, potentially very rapid pace of ocean stratification and anoxia, rapid and chaotic reordering of climate and ecological zones, and a pace of ocean acidification that has no corollary during any past geological age. This combination of rapid-fire impacts presents very severe hazards to all life and ecological systems that are likely to result in stresses never before seen on Earth over the next century under business as usual fossil fuel emissions.

What Does the World Look Like at 400 Parts Per Million CO2, Long-Term?

Considering that we are already passing the dangerous 400 ppm CO2 threshold, it is important to think about what a world with a near constant level of CO2 in this range looks like over the long haul. This is important because, in the current political climate, it appears highly unlikely that fossil fuel emissions will ever be brought into a range that results in a potential for atmospheric CO2 decline (approaching zero fossil fuel emissions). In addition, a number of heat-driven amplifying feedbacks are already in place that are pushing some of Earth’s large carbon stores to release. These include, but are not limited to, major Arctic carbon store releases and major tropical forest carbon store releases that are now likely on the order of human CO2 emissions during the middle of the 20th Century.

In addition, the human and feedback methane release, human nitrous oxide release, and other human greenhouse gas release counters all the global cooling resulting from human aerosol release (sulfur dioxide etc). And while the human aerosol release will eventually draw down with the cessation of coal use (either through laissez faire depletion or through an attempt at rational political action), these other greenhouse gasses will remain in the atmosphere for years, decades and centuries.

The result of these combined factors is that the world is likely to remain in the range of 390-405 parts per million CO2 even if rapid mitigation were to begin today. And so it is worthwhile to think about what such a world looks like, considering that to be our rational, best case scenario, and not to put too much faith in the entirely too conservative equilibrium-based scenarios posed by the IPCC.

For a corollary to our absolute best case, we should therefore look to the Pliocene climate of 3.0 to 3.3 million years ago when CO2 levels stabilized at around the current range of 390 to 405 ppm CO2. And Pliocene during this time was 2 to 3 degrees warmer than the 1880s average. It was a climate in which sea levels were at least 15 to 75 feet higher than today (some studies show up to 110 feet higher). And it was a climate in which the Greenland and West Antarctica were entirely bereft of glaciers.

This climate vision of the past if probably the absolute best we can hope for under current systems and a very rapid mitigation. Wait just a few more years and we push above the 405 parts per million threshold as we begin entering a rough corollary to the Miocene climate of 15 million years ago. Wait another few decades and we get to the 500-600 part per million threshold that puts all ice on Earth at risk of melt and sets in place conditions, according to paleoclimate, where a 4-6 C temperature increase is locked in.

Rapidly Moving Into an Ever More Dangerous Future

WD_tarsands_emissions

(Alberta Tar Sands. Just one major unconventional fuels project rapidly pushing the world toward climate change game over. Image source: Water Defense.)

That the current pace of change in unprecedented is probably an understatement. Human beings and governments need to come to grips with the ever-more-dangerous world they are creating for themselves, their children and grandchildren. Focus should now be put on preventing as much harm as possible. And all government action should be aimed at that result.

There is no greater threat presented by another nation or set of circumstances that supersedes what we are now brazenly doing to our environment and the Earth System as a whole. And the rate at which we are causing the end level of damage to increase is practically unthinkable. Each further year of inaction pushes us deeper into that dangerous future.

Links:

The Keeling Curve

Tropics Found to Release Two Gigatons of Carbon Each Year

Arctic Sea Ice Melt, Methane Release Shows Amplifying Feedbacks to Human Caused Climate Change

What Does a World at 400 Parts Per Million CO2 Look Like Long Term?

The Emissions Gap Report

The Conversation

Water Defense

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