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Carbon Dioxide Levels In Atmosphere Keep Rapidly Rising

It shouldn't be a surprise to read that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are surging and accumulating faster than ever. In May, it surged to 427 parts per million (426.90 ppm) - while in 1960 it was about 320 ppm.  It's depressing, and it doesn't bode well for our future.

These high levels of carbon dioxide are a major driver of the record-setting heat we've been experiencing in recent years. Carbon dioxide is the gas that accounts for the majority of global warming (yes, climate change) and is caused by human activities. The human activities are burning of fossil fuels, such as gas and oil - in vehicles, coal-fired plants, large industrial operations, ships, airplanes, rockets.

Graph of carbon dioxide levels increasing Credit: NOAA

Excerpts from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): During a year of extremes, carbon dioxide levels surge faster than ever

Carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere faster than ever — accelerating on a steep rise to levels far above any experienced during human existence, scientists from NOAA and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography offsite link at the University of California San Diego announced today.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide measured at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory peaked in May 2024 at a monthly average of 426.9 parts per million, establishing another high mark in the 66-year record of observations on the Hawaiian volcano, according to scientists from NOAA and Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.

Levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) measured at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory by NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory surged to a seasonal peak of just under 427 parts per million (426.90 ppm) in May, when CO2 reaches its highest level in the Northern Hemisphere. That’s an increase of 2.9 ppm over May 2023 and the 5th-largest annual growth in NOAA’s 50-year record. When combined with 2023’s increase of 3.0 ppm, the period from 2022 to 2024 has seen the largest two-year jump in the May peak in the NOAA record.

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.  (Image credit: NOAA Global Monitoring Laboratory)
CO2 measurements sending ominous signs

Scientists at Scripps, the organization that initiated CO2 monitoring at Mauna Loa in 1958 and maintains an independent record, calculated a May monthly average of 426.7 ppm for 2024, an increase of 2.92 ppm over May 2023’s measurement of 423.78 ppm. For Scripps, the two-year jump tied a previous record set in 2020.

“Over the past year, we’ve experienced the hottest year on record, the hottest ocean temperatures on record and a seemingly endless string of heat waves, droughts, floods, wildfires and storms,” said NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad, Ph.D. “Now we are finding that atmospheric CO2 levels are increasing faster than ever. We must recognize that these are clear signals of the damage carbon dioxide pollution is doing to the climate system, and take rapid action to cut fossil fuel use as quickly as we can.” 

“Not only is CO2 now at the highest level in millions of years, it is also rising faster than ever,” said Keeling. “Each year achieves a higher maximum due to fossil-fuel burning, which releases pollution in the form of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Fossil fuel pollution just keeps building up, much like trash in a landfill.” 

Like a giant heat-trapping blanket

Like other greenhouse gases, COacts like a blanket in the atmosphere, preventing heat radiating off of the planet’s surface from escaping into space. The warming atmosphere fuels extreme weather events, such as heat waves, drought and wildfires, as well as heavier precipitation and flooding. About half of the carbon dioxide humans release into the air stays in the atmosphere. The other half is absorbed at Earth’s surface, split roughly equally between land and ocean.

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