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Mauna Loa greenhouse gas levels hit 2-million-year milestone

By Seth Borenstein

AP Science Writer

LAST UPDATED: 11:48 a.m. HST, May 10, 2013

WASHINGTON » Worldwide levels of the chief greenhouse gas that causes global warming have hit a milestone, reaching an amount never before encountered by humans, federal scientists said today.

Carbon dioxide was measured at 400 parts per million at the oldest monitoring station on Mauna Loa on Hawaii island, setting the global benchmark. The last time the worldwide carbon level was probably that high was about 2 million years ago, said Pieter Tans of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

That was during the Pleistocene Era. "It was much warmer than it is today," Tans said. "There were forests in Greenland. Sea level was higher, between 10 and 20 meters (33 to 66 feet)."  

Other scientists say it may have been 10 million years ago that Earth last encountered this level of carbon dioxide. 

The measurement was recorded Thursday. The number 400 has been anticipated by climate scientists and environmental activists for years as a notable indicator, in part because it's a round number — not because any changes in man-made global warming happen by reaching it.

When measurements of this chief greenhouse gas were first taken in 1958, carbon dioxide was measured at 315. Levels are now growing about 2 parts per million per year. That's 100 times faster than at the end of the Ice Age.

Before the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide levels were around 280 ppm, and they were closer to 200 during the Ice Age. There are natural ups and downs of this greenhouse gas, which comes from volcanoes and decomposing plants and animals. But that's not what has driven current levels so high, Tans said. He said the amount should be even higher, but the world's oceans are absorbing quite a bit, keeping it out of the air.

"What we see today is 100 percent due to human activity," said Tans, a NOAA senior scientist. The burning of fossil fuels, such as coal for electricity and oil for gasoline, has caused the overwhelming bulk of the man-made increase in carbon in the air, scientists say. 

At the end of the Ice Age it took 7,000 years for carbon dioxide levels to rise by 80 parts per million, Tans said. Because of burning of fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, carbon dioxide levels have gone up by the same amount in just 55 years.

Carbon dioxide traps heat just like in a greenhouse and most of it stays in the air for a century, some lasts for thousands of years scientists say.

The speed of the change is the big worry, said Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann. If carbon dioxide levels go up 100 parts per million over thousands or millions of years, plants and animals can adapt. But that can't be done at the speed it is now happening.

Last year, regional monitors briefly hit 400 ppm in the Arctic. But those monitoring stations aren't seen as a world mark like the one at Mauna Loa.

Generally carbon levels peak in May then fall slightly, so the yearly average is usually a few parts per million lower than May levels.


NOAA monitoring at Mauna Loa: http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/weekly.html 

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OldDiver wrote:
It will be interesting to read comments from those who reject science in the name of the Tea Party and Fox News in response to this article on climate change.
on May 10,2013 | 11:05AM
lynnh wrote:
So i guess 2 million years ago when the planet had that much carbon it mush have been caused by man, and not by nature. What the article does not state is that the Earth has had repeated natural cycles like this roughly between every 1.2 to 3 million years. The Earth has had multitudes of increased and decreased levels of carbon throughout its history, along with warming and cooling cycles. Read a book sometime! This is nothing new. It is only liberal arrogance that believes this in not a natural thing and is only caused by man. History does not lie. Do you know anything about Maui Nui? Of how Molokai, Lanai, Maui, have at several times throughout the island's life's they were joined as one Island, then separated again when oceans levels raised again. Do you know that several times throughout history the ocean lapped against the mountain bases that we see today as several hundred feet above see level? It is a natural cycle of the planet. Every ethical scientist knows this and states this. The only scientists that say it is not natural are the ones who have an agenda for receiving federal funding. Have you noticed that the majority of scientists who say it is a man made problem are from the United States. I am so sick of people that are so single minded that they will not look at facts and history and just try to push their agenda.
on May 11,2013 | 12:10AM
MizuInOz wrote:
I am neither a Tea Party Kool-aid Drinker or a Fox Gnuz reader/viewer. I am a concerned scientist who has a driving passion for the truth - no matter the avenue it takes me. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to change my findings 180 degrees many times because of validated evidence that reverses my opinion. I have also seen work from my peers that was skewed to suit their current thesis. I cannot subscribe to such drivel. The "global warming" or current moniker of "climate change" is using mixed opposing data to come to politically comfortable and taxable solutions. I have yet to read an article here on the StarAdvertiser website or in print that has reported the findings of a UN panel of scientists that found that the primary and major causes of the current warming trend (the correct name for what is going on - no matter the symptoms) are global volcanic activity (which of course Mauna Loa is no where near) and the big bright thing in the sky that seems to hide its face each night and then come back each morning. The conclusion also presented that this is not the only time warming trends have been a part of the ecosystem. During what is now historically referred to as "the Renascence", the climate in Europe was such that there were Vineyards in Northern England and in Scandinavia. Growing seasons were extended, people were living longer, communities thrived, great edifices were constructed - all because of "climate change" of unequalled proportions. I do agree that we have been presented with a pernicious problem that political pundits profess to profligate as climate change. However, I am also aware that climate change has been a natural cycle of the planet since it was but a wee ball of star dust and hot gases. (So to speak.) It's called summer, autumn, winter and spring. And what may surprise some of you is that when it is winter in NYC it is summer in Sydney. Fancy that. The earth really is in a serious state. By the way, could someone please introduce me to the scientist who took actual readings on top of Mauna Loa two million years ago to correlate these findings. Testing methodologies change and we find that our research of even 20 years ago is not valid based upon these tests. Two million years ago is a bit of a dramatic political stretch. Go Mr. Gore!
on May 10,2013 | 12:28PM
DowntownGreen wrote:
Thank you Professor MizuInOZ. We must believe you because this is the internet and you would have to be credible in order to post that.
on May 10,2013 | 12:34PM
MizuInOz wrote:
Do some research, and get back to me. I gave you enough to give you a good start. Or do you need to be spoon feed?
on May 10,2013 | 08:54PM
DowntownGreen wrote:
I don't like the taste of the sacharine that climate change deniers dish out, so please, keep your spoon to yourself. I've done the real research and I'm very comfortable with the knowledge of your game.
on May 10,2013 | 09:39PM
lynnh wrote:
Reading liberal Websites is not research. I tell you what, you go take a geology, meteorology, oceanography and maybe a logic course or two. Nobody is denying that the climate changes, but this liberal bull that is going on to push a political agenda it so far beyond wrong it is criminal.
on May 11,2013 | 12:16AM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
I don't know. There was a time 1,347,926 years ago when I distinctly remember having a worse day.
on May 10,2013 | 01:17PM
hokumakakilo wrote:
I would give this more credence if the readings weren't taken next to active volcanoes, which spew high volumes of CO2... this is not an indicator of global warming. It is just telling us our volcanoes are more active than usual!
on May 10,2013 | 01:52PM
DowntownGreen wrote:
Yup, keep telling yourself that if it makes you feel better.
on May 10,2013 | 02:11PM
MizuInOz wrote:
What credible evidence can you share with us?
on May 10,2013 | 08:53PM
DowntownGreen wrote:
You shared none, just opinion and regurgitated talking points, yet you expect something more in return? What a joke.
on May 10,2013 | 09:37PM
lynnh wrote:
Get an education before you open your mouth. Stop drooling every time Obama or other liberals say something. Wake up. Listen to the news. What's going on right now with the Benghazi hearings should open your eyes to how much liberals lie to get your vote.
on May 11,2013 | 12:20AM
lynnh wrote:
Now that is funny! And so, so true.
on May 11,2013 | 12:17AM
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