This weekend, sensors in Hawaii officially recorded the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) at values exceeding 415 parts per million (ppm) for the first time since even before the dawn of humans on Earth. This is yet another alarming milestone signifying humanity’s damaging effect on the environment towards a hot, polluted future like Earth hasn’t witnessed in millions of years.
On Saturday, the researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii recorded CO2 concentration at 415.26 ppm – crossing another climatic threshold breached by a human society unable to give up the conveniences afforded by fossil fuels.
Meteorologist Eric Holthaus tweeted, “This is the first time in human history our planet’s atmosphere has had more than 415 ppm CO2. Not just in recorded history, not just since the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago. Since before modern humans existed millions of years ago. We don’t know a planet like this.”
A few years ago carbon pollution in the atmosphere soared past 400 ppm and crossed 410 ppm in 2017. This record-breaking surge in atmospheric carbon soiling the skies and trapping Earth’s heat made hitting 415 ppm in 2019 inevitable. This month has already witnessed the breaking of a number of incremental carbon records including an erroneous reading published on the Scripps website that records the ppm data on the Keeling Curve suggesting that the 415 threshold was in fact breached on May 3. This false data was later corrected, but unfortunately, this time there appears to be no doubt.
The director of the Scripps CO2 program, Ralph Keeling said, “The average growth rate is remaining on the high end. The increase from last year will probably be around three parts per million whereas the recent average has been 2.5 ppm. Likely we’re seeing the effect of mild El Niño conditions on top of ongoing fossil fuel use.”
In 1910, the atmospheric CO2 was recorded at 300 ppm, much higher than it had been for at least the last 800,000 years but rose another 100+ ppm over the next century as pollution skyrocketed. Crossing 400 ppm was a hugely symbolic moment, and not just numerically. If carbon contamination keeps getting thicker in our atmosphere, more and more heat will get trapped on Earth, making the future of global warming similar to our planet’s distant, steamy past hundreds of millions of years ago. The last time Earth experienced such dangerous heights (and heats), there were trees in the South Pole.
But the disturbing hockey stick trajectory of current CO2 ppm increases is a cause for alarm as we basically can no longer predict how bad things could get if the problem continues at such an accelerated rate. In the worst-case CO2 scenarios, predicted far from now, Earth would probably be a broken, uninhabitable and toxic alien planet with clouds breaking apart in the sky and oceans boiling until they completely evaporate.
Keeling said last year, “We keep burning fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide keeps building up in the air. It’s essentially as simple as that.” This trajectory can be changed only if we collectively focus on changing our energy systems and economics driving it.