Sci-Tech

Earth sweats as carbon levels approach threshold

John Vidal

The concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has reached 399.72 parts per million (ppm).

Nations continue haggling over climate change and the burning of fossil fuels goes on. (AFP)

And is likely to pass the symbolically important 400ppm level for the first time in the next few days.

Readings at the United States government’s Earth Systems Research laboratory in Hawaii are not expected to reach their 2013 peak until mid-May, but were recorded at 399.72ppm on April 25. The weekly mean average stood at 398.5 on Monday.

Hourly daily readings above 400ppm have been recorded six times in the past week, and on occasion, at observatories in the high Arctic. But the Mauna Loa station, sited at 3400m and far away from major pollution sources in the Pacific Ocean, has been monitoring levels for more than 50 years and is considered the gold standard.

“I wish it weren’t true but it looks like the world is going to blow through the 400ppm level without losing a beat. At this pace, we’ll hit 450ppm within a few decades,” said Ralph Keeling, a geologist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography which operates the Hawaiian observatory.

“Each year, the concentration of CO2 at Mauna Loa rises and falls in a sawtooth fashion, with the next year higher than the year before. The peak of the sawtooth typically comes in May. If CO2 levels don’t top 400ppm in May 2013, they almost certainly will next year,” Keeling said.

The increase in the global burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of the increase and the approaching record level comes as countries resumed deadlocked United Nations climate talks in Bonn. No global agreement to reduce emissions is expected to be reached until 2015.

“The 400ppm threshold is a sobering milestone, and should serve as a wake-up call for all of us to support clean energy technology and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases before it’s too late for our children and grandchildren,” said Tim Lueker, an oceanographer and carbon cycle researcher with Scripps CO2 Group.

The last time CO2 levels were so high was probably in the Pliocene epoch, between 3.2-million and five million years ago, when Earth’s climate was much warmer than today. – © Guardian News & Media 2013

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