Tuesday, December 3, 2013

What's Really Happening with CO2 Emissions

Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii
Today is Tuesday, December 3, 2013.

The other day, Adam Mordecai, a regular contributor to a site called Upworthy, shared some more information about CO2 emissions using graphs.  I already knew that CO2 emissions were increasing, so guys like Mordecai are preaching to the choir as far as I'm concerned.  As well, graphs are not always the most effective way to generate interest in a topic, and I was pretty sure I already knew what the graphs would show.  How many different ways are there to show "going up"? 

In the past couple of days, you may have noticed that I've posted some information about excessive consumerism and how it affects our environment.  It was while I was researching facts for yesterday's post that I came upon Mordecai's post, which was shared sometime after May 2013.  Since I was on a quest for facts, rather than entertainment, I decided to check out the post, anyway, and I'm glad I did.  I was shocked at what I learned.

Site of Mauna Loa Observatory on earth,
marked by a green star.
A bit of background, first.  Mordecai mentions the Keeling Curve.  If you've been following the whole discussion on Climate Change and Global Warming, you probably already know that CO2 emissions are monitored for the planet at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.  These measurements were first taken under the supervision of Charles David Keeling (1928 - 2005), a scientist who specialized in geochemistry.  While studying geochemistry at Caltech, Keeling developed the first device to measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and was thus the first to discover that the amount of CO2 was rising.  The graph that plots the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is accordingly called the Keeling Curve, and it was this graph that first alerted people to the increasing amounts of CO2 in our atmosphere.  Keeling began to take measurements at the Mauna Loa Observatory in 1958.

The Mauna Loa Observatory is a perfect place to take these measurements, since it is located right at the top of the Mauna Loa volcano on the "big island" of Hawaii, a fairly remote location, where the air is mostly undisturbed, and influences of vegetation and human activity are at a minimum.  The observatory is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) - Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) - Global Monitoring Division (GMD).  

If you look at the data from 1958 to the present, it doesn't look that bad, and that's what a lot of people said when they saw it, because as we all know, earth is a very old planet, and we know that there are various cycles that have been going on for millennia.  However, within the last three decades, scientists have been able to take ice core samples in Antarctica from depths that allow us to measure the level of carbon dioxide in the air up to 800,000 years ago.  The ice core samples, taken at 0.55 m intervals, are crushed and measured under vacuum conditions.  The data from these ice core samples has been merged with modern data from the Mauna Loa Observatory to give us a longer-term view of what is happening now. 

As of October 2013, the amount of CO2 in the air has been pegged at 393.66 parts per million (ppm).  Data from the ice core samples shows that for the last 800,000 years, the levels of CO2 in the air have generally fluctuated between a low of 170 ppm, which occurred sometime between 660,000 and 670,000 years ago, and a high of 298.6 ppm around 330,000 years ago.  The levels were always at or below 260 ppm, otherwise.  

It has only been since industrial times that the CO2 level has risen so markedly.  Measurements in 2010 at Cape Grim in Tasmania (island off the southern coast of Australia) and at the South Pole both indicated values of 386 ppm.  It was estimated that the level of CO2 would increase about 2 ppm per year.  If the level was 386 ppm in 2010 and it only increased by 2 ppm per year, the level should only be 392 ppm now, but it's 393.66, which doesn't sound like much, but all indications are that the speed at which CO2 levels are rising is increasing.  That's not a good thing.  

Now let's look at the graphs.

In his post on Upworthy, Mordecai first showed a section of the Keeling Curve that covered only the past two years.  

There are both weekly averages (solid dots) and monthly averages (circles) plotted.  I should remind you, here, of what the term average means.  It means it's somewhere in the middle, between low temperatures and high temperatures collected from hundreds of locations around the globe.  There will always be low and high temperatures on earth. Places like Antarctica and Siberia will always be cold.  Places like Death Valley and the Amazon Rain Forest will always be hot.  The term "Global Warming" is misleading, because what's actually happening is that the average temperature around the globe is increasing.  This does not mean that cold places will suddenly become hot, nor does it mean that places that currently experience four distinct seasons will have an endless summer.  As you can see the average does go up and down with the seasons, but it continues to increase, with the average for May 2013 much higher than the average for May 2012, for example.  

OK, now let's take a look at the next graph.

Here's the trend over the last 55 years.  Pretty steady upward trend, you have to agree, with the expected ups and downs along the way.  This is what the Mauna Loa data shows, using the Keeling Curve, as measured between 1958 and the present time.

Now let's take a look at the merged data when you add in the information obtained from the ice core samples in Antarctica.  The data from the ice tell us that the lag-time between actual average temperature increases is only about 200 years.  Here's a graph of the CO2 data for the last 300 years. 

You have to realize, also that in this period of time, the Industrial Revolution occurred between about 1760 and 1840.  This was a period of transition from manufacturing things by hand to manufacturing them by machine.  In the years between 1840 and 1870, manufacturing gained momentum and machine tools were made on a large scale.  The Second Industrial Revolution occurred between 1870 and 1914.  In the United States, this was a time of unprecedented urbanization and a revolution in the transportation sector with the completion of the transcontinental railroad.  As we all know, 1914 marked the start of World War I, which kicked manufacturing into high gear.  With the 1940s came World War II, which was another boon to manufacturing.  In the graph above, you can see that carbon emissions seem to level off slightly after the war years, but look at what happens after the Mauna Loa data kicks in: a substantial increase.  

OK, let's look at the last 800,000 years to put modern times into perspective.  Although hominins (*not hominids - I'll explain in a minute) have existed for 6 0r 7 million years, "modern" humans have only existed within the last 200,000 years.  Specifically, one of the oldest human skulls ever found can be dated back 195,000 years, using dating of the surrounding volcanic ash to corroborate. Previous to this particular skull, the farthest back we could date human remains was about 150,000.  Since we have only one skull to go on, we could say that modern human beings have existed for approximately 150,000 years. 

(*The term hominids has recently been broadened within the scientific community to include not only humans both modern and extinct, but als0 chimanzees, gorillas, orang-utans and all their immediate ancestors.  If you want to refer to humans only, the term to use is "hominin.")  

As you can see from this last graph, there have been some really substantial periods of warming, in the last 800,000 years, but only one within our human existence. In pre-industrial times, the level was about 280 ppm, a little lower than the previous high of 298.6 ppm 330,000 years ago. 

The truly shocking thing is the exponential rise in CO2 emissions in the last 50,000 years or so.  There's been nothing even close to our present levels in 800,000 years!  

It's been estimated that in order to allow the earth's natural cycles to be able to cleanse the carbon from the atmosphere, the amount of CO2 in the air should not exceed 360 ppm.  At present, we are at an average of nearly 400 ppm, and daily readings of over 400 ppm were reached in May 2013, so the next average figure will be higher.

The actual average temperatures have gone up very slightly.  The problem is that an increase of only 2˚C or about 5.4˚F can be felt in the form of the superstorms that we are now experiencing, as well as overall warmer temperatures.  Think of your own body.  When your temperature is 98.6˚F, you are healthy.  If your body temp increases by only 2˚F, you have 100.6˚F, and you have a fever.  If it increases by just one more degree, you need to go to the hospital, pronto.  What makes you think the earth is any different?  :-(
chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans plus all their immediate ancestors) - See more at: http://australianmuseum.net.au/Hominid-and-hominin-whats-the-difference#sthash.6KC2eKsx.dpuf
chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans plus all their immediate ancestors) - See more at: http://australianmuseum.net.au/Hominid-and-hominin-whats-the-difference#sthash.6KC2eKsx.dpuf

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