The Rise of Carbon Dioxide in a Single Video

by Shannon Hall on May 6, 2014

I’m always amazed by the power of data visualization. In this case a video shrinks the rising levels of carbon dioxide over the course of 800,000 years to just under two minutes.

The motivation is simple: April set a carbon dioxide milestone by averaging 400 parts per million for the entire month. That’s uncharted territory over the course of human history.

Screenshot from the video showing the variations in the amount of CO2 in Earth atmosphere for the last 800,000 years.

Screenshot from the video showing the variations in the amount of CO2 in Earth atmosphere for the last 800,000 years.

The levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are monitored from a site atop Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano, where they have been measured continuously since 1958. Previous to this date scientists measure ice cores, which contain air bubbles and therefore snapshots of carbon dioxide levels.

This animation from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences makes clear that while there have been some variations over time, the current rise is unparalleled by geological scales.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution CO2 levels stayed roughly around 280 ppm. But then with the kickstart of carbon emissions, levels were driven exponentially higher. They soared past 350 ppm — the level scientist James Hansen said was the safe upper limit of CO2 — in October 1989.

The first measurement in excess of 400 ppm was made on May 9, 2013. This year, the level rose above that mark two months earlier, and has remained above 400 ppm steadily since the beginning of April. Levels will peak in May and then drop back down throughout the summer months as trees and plants soak up some CO2.

Once the northern hemisphere spins into fall, the instrument on Mauna Loa will again read higher CO2 levels. Next year will probably see an even earlier onset of levels above 400 ppm. It likely won’t be long before levels never drop lower than 400 ppm, even throughout the summer months.

Also, today the U.S. Global Change Research Program released a report that has been five years in the making, providing an overview of observed and projected climate change. It’s a lengthy document, but you can see an overview here. In sum, the report shows how the world is already experiencing the effects of climate change and the impacts are playing out before our eyes.

“We’ve seen a lot in the last five years,” said Andrew Rosenberg of the Union of Concerned Scientists, one of the lead authors on the report’s oceans chapter, in a press release from The Daily Climate. “So what we’ve tried to do is be quite comprehensive on what our observations have been, as opposed to just modeling projections.”

“Five years ago, ocean acidification and species movement was already happening, but the observational record wasn’t as clear,” Rosenberg said. “Now it really is quite clear. It’s not theory-based or model-based.”

Global temperatures measured by decades since the 1880's. The period from 2001-2012 was the warmest on record globally. Every year was warmer than the 1990s average. Credit: U.S. Global Change Research Program.

Global temperatures measured by decades since the 1880’s. The period from 2001-2012 was the warmest on record globally. Every year was warmer than the 1990s average. Credit: U.S. Global Change Research Program.

This report is unique in that it not only includes data from scientists, but also has input from local groups and industries facing climate impacts. Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington, and maple syrup producers in Vermont are all experiencing climate-related issues. So, too, are coastal planners in Florida, water managers in the Southwest, and Native Peoples on tribal lands from Louisiana to Alaska.

Human beings are already being impacted by climate change.

About 

Shannon Hall is a freelance science journalist. She holds two B.A.'s from Whitman College in physics-astronomy and philosophy, and an M.S. in astronomy from the University of Wyoming. Currently, she is working toward a second M.S. from NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program.

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