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Greenhouse Gas Index Continues to Climb

Insights + Opinion
Greenhouse Gas Index Continues to Climb

This week I'm reviewing the year’s social, environmental and economic events that have impacted human health and the environment. Today, I am reviewing the updated National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Annual Greenhouse Gas Index (AGGI).

In November, NOAA's AGGI, which measures the direct climate influence of many greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, showed a continued steady upward trend that began with the Industrial Revolution of the 1880s.

According to NOAA, the AGGI reached 1.29 in 2010, meaning that the combined heating effect of long-lived greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere by human activities has increased by 29 percent since 1990, the “index” year used as a baseline for comparison. This is slightly higher than the 2009 AGGI, which was 1.27.

Global average abundances of the major, well-mixed, long-lived greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, CFC-12 and CFC-11 - from the NOAA global air sampling network are plotted since the beginning of 1979. These gases account for about 96% of the direct radiative forcing by long-lived greenhouse gases since 1750. The remaining 4% is contributed by an assortment of 15 minor halogenated gases (see text). Methane data before 1983 are annual averages from Etheridge et al. (1998), adjusted to the NOAA calibration scale [Dlugokencky et al., 2005.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 “The increasing amounts of long-lived greenhouse gases in our atmosphere indicate that climate change is an issue society will be dealing with for a long time,” said Jim Butler, director of the Global Monitoring Division of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. “Climate warming has the potential to affect most aspects of society, including water supplies, agriculture, ecosystems and economies.”

Here's a YouTube video of Butler explaining the annual AGGI. He shares his concerns about the steady emissions of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere by human activities and explains that in records that reach back 800 thousand years, we have never seen carbon dioxide levels anywhere near what they are today—more than 390 parts per million (ppm). In fact, it's only in the last 100 years that we have seen CO2 exceed 290 ppm.

If you're familiar with the organization 350.org, founded by author and activist Bill McKibben, you understand the significance of exceeding 350 ppm. 350.org's mission is based on reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 392 ppm to below 350 ppm, the number scientists say we need to achieve to preserve our planet.

According to Butler, the AGGI is analogous to the dial on an electric blanket—that dial does not tell you exactly how hot you will get, nor does the AGGI predict a specific temperature. Yet just as turning the dial up increases the heat of an electric blanket, a rise in the AGGI means greater greenhouse warming.

NOAA scientists created the AGGI recognizing that carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas affecting the balance of heat in the atmosphere. Many other long-lived gases also contribute to warming, although not currently as much as carbon dioxide.

The AGGI includes methane and nitrous oxide, for example, greenhouse gases that are emitted by human activities and also have natural sources and sinks. It also includes several chemicals known to deplete Earth’s protective ozone layer, which are also active as greenhouse gases. The 2010 AGGI reflects several changes in the concentration of these gases, including:

  • A continued steady increase in carbon dioxide: Global carbon dioxide levels rose to an average of 389 parts per million in 2010, compared with 386 ppm in 2009, and 354 in the index or comparison year of 1990. Before the Industrial Revolution of the 1880s, carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere was about 280 ppm. Carbon dioxide levels swing up and down in natural seasonal cycles, but human activities—primarily the burning of coal, oil, and gas for transportation and power—have driven a consistent upward trend in concentration. 

  • A continued recent increase in methane: Methane levels rose in 2010 for the fourth consecutive year after remaining nearly constant for the preceding 10 years, up to 1799 parts per billion. Methane measured 1794 ppb in 2009, and 1714 ppb in 1990. Pound for pound, methane is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but there’s less of it in the atmosphere.

  • NOAA's Annual Greenhouse Gas Index is a gauge of the climate warming influence of greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere by human activities and compared with the "index" year of 1990. The AGGI shows a steady upward trend, reaching 1.29 in 2010. This means that the heating effect of additional greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has increased by 29 percent since 1990.

  • A continued steady increase in nitrous oxide: Best known as laughing gas in dentistry, nitrous oxide is also a greenhouse gas emitted from natural sources and as a byproduct of agricultural fertilization, livestock manure, sewage treatment and some industrial processes.

  • A continued recent drop in two chlorofluorocarbons, CFC11 and CFC12: Levels of these two compounds—which are ozone-depleting chemicals in addition to greenhouse gases—have been dropping at about one percent per year since the late 1990s, because of an international agreement, the Montreal Protocol, to protect the ozone layer.

 

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Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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