Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Carbon Dioxide Levels in the Atmosphere Hit Highest Level in 3 Million Years

Climate
Carbon Dioxide Levels in the Atmosphere Hit Highest Level in 3 Million Years
A coal-fired power station blocks out a sunrise in the UK. sturti / E+ / Getty Images

According to a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report, the last time carbon dioxide levels were this high was 3 million years ago "when temperature was 2°–3°C (3.6°–5.4°F) higher than during the pre-industrial era, and sea level was 15–25 meters (50–80 feet) higher than today."


That period, the Pilocene Era, is unrecognizable from today. Giant camels walked around on the ice-free land above the Arctic Circle, as NBC News reported.

Earth first passed the 400 million parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere in 2013. Rather than take it as a dire warning, we have become inured to that level of concentration and have seen it rise slightly in subsequent years. In 2018, the concentration was 407.4 parts per million (ppm), according to NOAA. This year, CO2 concentrations are predicted to peak at 417 ppm, according to NBC News.

That level will put humans in new, unfamiliar territory. "For millions of years, we haven't had an atmosphere with a chemical composition as it is right now," said Martin Siegert, co-director of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, to NBC News.

In fact, just two weeks ago, on Feb. 10, NOAA's Mauna Loa Observatory, an atmospheric baseline station in Hawaii, recorded the daily average of CO2 levels on as 416.08 parts per million, according to Common Dreams.

Carbon Dioxide concentrations are an effective measure of how many fossil fuels we are burning. Coal and crude oil contain carbon that plants have pulled out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis over millions of years. However, in short order, human activity has returned that trapped carbon back into the atmosphere, as NOAA reported.

"We've done in a little more than 50 years what the earth naturally took 10,000 years to do," said Siegert to NBC News.

Elevated concentrations of carbon dioxide are a hallmark of the climate crisis since they are associated with higher temperatures, melting ice and sea level rise, among other effects.

University of Exeter geography professor Richard Betts, head of the climate impacts division at the UK's national weather service, expects this year's CO2 concentrations to be 10 percent higher than normal, with one or two percent of that carbon rise attributed to the Australia wildfires, as NBC News reported. The fires, which raged for nearly five months, released about 900 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The Pliocene Era from 5 to 2.6 million years ago provides a window of what a world with such high carbon dioxide concentrations can look like. It was a period well before humans evolved. Temperatures at the poles then were likely about 15 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they are now, according to Siegert, who spoke to NBC News.

"There would have been a lot less ice on the planet — there probably wasn't a Greenland Ice Sheet, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet had probably melted, and big chunks of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet had probably de-glaciated, as well," he said to NBC News.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is also notable for its contribution to ocean acidification. According to NOAA, when CO2 reacts with water molecules, it produces carbonic acid and lowers the ocean's pH. Already, the ocean's surface pH has dropped from 8.21 in pre-industrial times to 8.10.

"The rate of rise in the last decade has been faster than previous decades," said Betts, as NBC News reported. "We're just tracking ever onwards, and 400 ppm is now a distant memory."

The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York, a polluted nearly 2 mile-long waterway that is an EPA Superfund site. Jonathan Macagba / Moment / Getty Images

Thousands of Superfund sites exist around the U.S., with toxic substances left open, mismanaged and dumped. Despite the high levels of toxicity at these sites, nearly 21 million people live within a mile of one of them, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Read More Show Less
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
The National Weather Service station in Chatham, Massachusetts, near the edge of a cliff at the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. Bryce Williams / National Weather Service in Boston / Norton

A weather research station on a bluff overlooking the sea is closing down because of the climate crisis.

Read More Show Less
Trending
Amsterdam is one of the Netherlands' cities which already has "milieuzones," where some types of vehicles are banned. Unsplash / jennieramida

By Douglas Broom

  • If online deliveries continue with fossil-fuel trucks, emissions will increase by a third.
  • So cities in the Netherlands will allow only emission-free delivery vehicles after 2025.
  • The government is giving delivery firms cash help to buy or lease electric vehicles.
  • The bans will save 1 megaton of CO2 every year by 2030.

Cities in the Netherlands want to make their air cleaner by banning fossil fuel delivery vehicles from urban areas from 2025.

Read More Show Less
Protestors stage a demonstration against fracking in California on May 30, 2013 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

A bill that would have banned fracking in California died in committee Tuesday.

Read More Show Less
EXTREME-PHOTOGRAPHER / E+ / Getty Images

By Brett Wilkins

As world leaders prepare for this November's United Nations Climate Conference in Scotland, a new report from the Cambridge Sustainability Commission reveals that the world's wealthiest 5% were responsible for well over a third of all global emissions growth between 1990 and 2015.

Read More Show Less