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Broken record: Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels jump again

June 5th, 2023
Broken record: Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels jump again
This graph shows the full record of monthly mean carbon dioxide measured at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii. The carbon dioxide data on Mauna Loa constitute the longest record of direct measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere. They were started by C. David Keeling of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in March of 1958 at the NOAA Weather Station on Mauna Loa volcano. NOAA started its own CO2 measurements in May of 1974, and they have run in parallel with those made by Scripps since then. Credit: NOAA Global Monitoring Laboratory

Carbon dioxide levels measured at NOAA's Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory peaked at 423 parts per million in May, continuing a steady climb further into territory not seen for millions of years, scientists from NOAA and Scripps Institution of Oceanographyoffsite link at the University of California San Diego announced today.

Measurements of carbon dioxide (CO2) obtained by NOAA's Global Monitoring Laboratory averaged 424.0 parts per million (ppm) in May, the month when CO2 peaks in the Northern Hemisphere. That is an increase of 3.0 ppm over May 2022, and represents the fourth-largest annual increases in the peak of the Keeling Curve in NOAA's record. Scientists at Scripps, which maintains an independent record, calculated a May monthly average of 423.78 ppm, also a 3.0 ppm increase over their May 2022 average.

Carbon dioxide levels are now more than 50% higher than they were before the onset of the industrial era.

"Every year we see carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere increase as a direct result of human activity," said NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad, Ph.D. "Every year, we see the impacts of climate change in the heat waves, droughts, flooding, wildfires and storms happening all around us. While we will have to adapt to the climate impacts we cannot avoid, we must expend every effort to slash carbon pollution and safeguard this planet and the life that calls it home."

Carbon dioxide pollution is generated by burning fossil fuels for transportation and electrical generation, by cement manufacturing, deforestation, agriculture and many other practices. Like other greenhouse gases, CO2 traps heat radiating from the planet's surface that would otherwise escape into space, amplifying extreme weather events, such as heat waves, drought and wildfires, as well as precipitation and flooding.

Rising CO2 levels also pose a threat to the world's ocean, which absorbs both CO2 gas and excess heat from the atmosphere. Impacts include increasing surface and subsurface ocean temperatures and the disruption of marine ecosystems, rising sea levels and ocean acidification, which changes the chemistry of seawater, leading to lower dissolved oxygen, and interferes with the growth of some marine organisms.

This year, NOAA's measurements were obtained from a temporary sampling site atop the nearby Mauna Kea volcano, which was established after lava flows cut off access to the Mauna Loa observatory in November 2022. Scripps's May measurements were taken at Mauna Loa, after NOAA staff successfully repowered a Scripps instrument with a solar and battery system in March.—

The Mauna Loa data, together with measurements from sampling stations around the world, are incorporated by NOAA's Global Monitoring Laboratory into the Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network, a foundational research dataset for international climate scientists and a benchmark for policymakers attempting to address the causes and impacts of climate change.

How were Mauna Loa observatory operations impacted by the eruption?

Widely considered the premier global sampling location for monitoring atmospheric CO2, NOAA and Scripps observatory operations were abruptly suspended on November 29, 2022 when lava flows from the eruption of Mauna Loa volcano buried over a mile of access road and destroyed transmission lines delivering power to the observatory campus.

After a 10-day interruption, NOAA restarted greenhouse gas observations on December 8 from a temporary instrument installation on the deck of the University of Hawaii observatory, located near the summit of Mauna Kea volcano. Scripps initiated air sampling at Mauna Kea on December 14, 2022 and resumed sampling at Mauna Loa on March 9, while maintaining their Mauna Kea observations.

Continuous daily samples were obtained from both Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea by Scripps during May, the month when CO2levels in the Northern Hemisphere reach their maximum levels for the year. Scripps recorded a May CO2 reading from Mauna Kea of 423.83 ppm, which is very close to the reading of 423.78 ppm from the Mauna Loa observatory.

The Mauna Loa observatory is situated at an elevation of 11,141 feet above sea level, while the Mauna Kea sampling location is slightly higher, at an elevation of 13,600 feet. Scientists are able to sample air undisturbed by the influence of local pollution or vegetation, and produce measurements that represent the average state of the atmosphere in the Northern Hemisphere from both locations.

A longstanding scientific partnership

Scripps Oceanography geoscientist Charles David Keeling initiated on-site measurements of CO2 at NOAA's Mauna Loa weather station in 1958. Keeling was the first to recognize that CO2 levels in the Northern Hemisphere fell during the growing season, and rose as plants died back in the fall. He documented these CO2fluctuations in a record that came to be known as the Keeling Curveoffsite link. He was also the first to recognize that, despite the seasonal fluctuation, CO2 levels rose every year.

NOAA began measurements in 1974, and the two research institutions have made complementary, independent observations ever since. Keeling's son, geochemist Ralph Keeling, runs the Scripps program, including the sampling at Mauna Loa.

"What we'd like to see is the curve plateauing and even falling because carbon dioxide as high as 420 or 425 parts per million is not good," Keeling said. "It shows that as much as we've done to mitigate and reduce emissions, we still have a long way to go."

Provided by NOAA Headquarters

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