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."

A deadly tornado touched down near the city of Fultondale, Alabama on Jan. 25, 2021. Justin1569 / Wikipedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

A tornado tore through a city north of Birmingham, Alabama, Monday night, killing one person and injuring at least 30.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

An empty school bus by a field of chemical plants in "Cancer Alley," one of the most polluted areas of the U.S. that stretches from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, where oil refineries and petrochemical plants reside alongside suburban homes. Giles Clarke / Getty Images

By David Konisky

On his first day in office President Joe Biden started signing executive orders to reverse Trump administration policies. One sweeping directive calls for stronger action to protect public health and the environment and hold polluters accountable, including those who "disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities."

Read More Show Less

Trending

Pixabay

By Katherine Kornei

Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.

Read More Show Less
Icebergs near Ilulissat, Greenland on Oct. 13, 2020. Climate change is having a profound effect with glaciers and the Greenland ice cap retreating. Ulrik Pedersen / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Earth's ice is melting 57 percent faster than in the 1990s and the world has lost more than 28 trillion tons of ice since 1994, research published Monday in The Cryosphere shows.

Read More Show Less
Caribbean islands such as Trinidad have plenty of water for swimming, but locals face water shortages for basic needs. Marc Guitard / Getty Images

By Jewel Fraser

Noreen Nunez lives in a middle-class neighborhood that rises up a hillside in Trinidad's Tunapuna-Piarco region.

Read More Show Less