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April 2014 CO2 Concentrations: 401.33ppm

During April 2014, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography measured an average of 401.33 ppm CO2 concentration at their Mauna Loa, Hawai’i Observatory.

This value is important because 401.33 ppm is the largest CO2 concentration value for any April in recorded history.  This year’s April value is approximately 2.97 ppm higher than April 2013′s.  Month-to-month differences typically range between 1 and 2 ppm.  This particular year-to-year jump is outside of that range, but not extreme.  For example, February 2012’s year-over-year change was +3.37 ppm and May 2012’s change was +3.02 ppm.  Of course, the unending long-term trend toward higher concentrations with time, no matter the month or specific year-over-year value, as seen in the graphs below, is more significant.

April 2014’s mean value of 401.33 ppm also represents the first time in contemporary history that a monthly mean exceed 400 ppm.  The last time CO2 concentrations were this high was at least 800,000 years ago, and likely even longer – on the order of millions of years ago.  The implications of this measurement are in some ways subtle and in some ways overt, as I discuss below.

The yearly maximum monthly value normally occurs during May. 2013 was no different: the 399.89ppm mean concentration in May 2013 was the highest recorded value (neglecting proxy data) in 2013.  May 2013′s record held until April of this year when the annual cycle pushed a monthly value above this record.  Just like in years past, May 2014 is likely to set another new all-time monthly record (until February or March 2015 … you get the idea.)  April 2014 is the first calendar month with mean CO2 concentrations above 400 ppm, but it won’t be the last.  May 2014 will be the second.  September 2015 will likely be one of the last months with mean concentrations below 400 ppm.  After that, we probably won’t witness <400 ppm again.

 photo co2_widget_brundtland_600_graph_201404_zpsf4794b1c.gif

Figure 1 – Time series of CO2 concentrations measured at Scripp’s Mauna Loa Observatory in February from 1958 through 2014.

How do concentration measurements change in calendar years?  Let’s take a look at two charts that set that context up for us:

 photo CO2_concentration_5y_trend_NOAA_201404_zps537c4cea.png

Figure 2 – Monthly CO2 concentration values (red) from 2010 through 2014 (NOAA). Monthly CO2 concentration values with seasonal cycle removed (black). Note the yearly minimum observation occurred seven months ago (red curve) and the yearly maximum value occurred eleven months ago. CO2 concentrations will increase through May 2014, as they do every year, before falling again towards this year’s minimum value.

The data in this graph doesn’t look that threatening.  What’s the big deal about CO2 concentrations rising a couple of parts per million per year anyway?  The problem is the long-term rise in those concentrations and the increased heating they impart on our climate system.  Let’s take a longer view – say 50 years:

 photo CO2_concentration_50y_trend_NOAA_201404_zps13abf83e.png

Figure 3 – 50 year time series of CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa Observatory (NOAA).  The red curve represents the seasonal cycle based on monthly average values.  The black curve represents the data with the seasonal cycle removed to show the long-term trend (as in Figure 2).  This graph shows the relatively recent and ongoing increase in CO2 concentrations.

The big deal is, as a greenhouse gas, CO2 increases radiative forcing toward the Earth, which over time increases the amount of energy in our climate system as heat.  This excess and increasing heat has to go somewhere or do something within the climate system because the Earth can only emit so much long wave radiation every year.  The extra heat added to the climate system during the past 150 years has almost exclusively gone into the ocean; during the past 15 years into the deep ocean (>700m).  The latter is the result of low-frequency climate oscillations’ recent states (e.g., negative IPO phase).  That process cannot and will not last forever.  Within the next 5-15 years, those oscillations will switch phase and the excess energy will once again be more apparent near the Earth’s surface (where measurements are numerous and accurate).  Meanwhile, the extra oceanic heat will continue to expand the ocean’s volume, which will further increase global mean sea level.  That heat will also one day transfer to the atmosphere, causing further changes for land-based systems.

CO2 concentrations are increasing at an increasing rate – not a good trend with respect to minimizing future warming.  Natural systems are not equipped to remove CO2 emissions quickly from the atmosphere.  Indeed, natural systems will take tens of thousands of years to remove the CO2 we emitted in the course of a couple short centuries.  Moreover, human technologies do not yet exist that remove CO2 from any medium (air or water).  They are not likely to exist at a large-scale for some time.  Therefore, the general CO2 concentration rise in the figures above will continue for many years, with effects lasting tens of thousands of years.

Climate change as a result of increasing GHGs is affected cumulatively – that is, climate change effects we witness today are mostly a result of previous decades’ GHG concentrations, not today’s.  Today’s concentrations will exert climate influence in future decades, not tomorrow.  This lagged effect is one significant problem with climate action.  Theoretically, if we could reduce CO2 emissions to zero today, today’s concentrations would cause further climate change for decades.  All that said, the most obvious way to reduce additional future climate change is to reduce emissions.  That requires either economic contraction or decarbonization (reducing the amount of carbon emitted per unit of economic output).

Since we don’t want the former to happen, we have to focus on the latter.  What does that entail?  That entails directing public money to widespread science and technology research, development, and deployment.  That entails innovators trying thousands of ideas so that we implement a few successes that are really efficient.  Not every attempt will succeed – indeed, most will fail.  We have to find out what doesn’t work as part of the process to find out what does work.  That entails a sustained commitment to such efforts.  This won’t happen with three years’ funding.  It will happen with thirty and three hundred years funding.  The California-related reports I mentioned yesterday (and will write about) demonstrate just how challenging the task is.  Those challenges relate to opportunities, which is exactly how we have to frame them in order to get people to support them.  As I often write, CO2 emissions and later concentrations will decline when we as a society want them to.


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February 2014 CO2 Concentrations: 398.033ppm

During February 2014, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography measured an average of 398.03 ppm CO2 concentration at their Mauna Loa, Hawai’i Observatory.

This value is important because 398.03 ppm is the largest CO2 concentration value for any February in recorded history.  This year’s February value is approximately 1.23 ppm higher than February 2014′s.  Month-to-month differences typically range between 1 and 2 ppm.  This particular year-to-year jump is within that range, albeit smaller than some other recent months.  For example, February 2012’s year-over-year change was +3.37 ppm and May 2012’s change was +3.02 ppm.  Of course, the unending long-term trend toward higher concentrations with time, no matter the month or specific year-over-year value, as seen in the graphs below, is more significant.

The yearly maximum monthly value normally occurs during May. 2013 was no different: the 399.89ppm mean concentration in May 2013 was the highest recorded value (neglecting proxy data).  May 2013′s record will hold until the end of this month when the annual cycle pushes a monthly value above this record.  Just like in years past however, May 2014 is likely to set another new all-time monthly record (until February or March 2015 … you get the idea.)

 photo co2_widget_brundtland_600_graph_201403_zps43e6baf6.gif

Figure 1 – Time series of CO2 concentrations measured at Scripp’s Mauna Loa Observatory in February from 1959 through 2014.

How do concentration measurements change in calendar years?  Let’s take a look at two charts that set that context up for us:

 photo CO2_concentration_5y_trend_NOAA_201402_zps4a54618c.png

Figure 2 – Monthly CO2 concentration values (red) from 2010 through 2014 (NOAA). Monthly CO2 concentration values with seasonal cycle removed (black). Note the yearly minimum observation occurred five months ago (red curve) and the yearly maximum value occurred nine months ago. CO2 concentrations will increase through May 2014, as they do every year, before falling again towards this year’s minimum value.

The data in this graph doesn’t look that threatening.  What’s the big deal about CO2 concentrations rising a couple of parts per million per year anyway?  The problem is the long-term rise in those concentrations and the increased heating they impart on our climate system.  Let’s take a longer view – say 50 years:

 photo CO2_concentration_50y_trend_NOAA_201402_zps39a12c50.png

Figure 3 – 50 year time series of CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa Observatory (NOAA).  The red curve represents the seasonal cycle based on monthly average values.  The black curve represents the data with the seasonal cycle removed to show the long-term trend (as in Figure 2).  This graph shows the relatively recent and ongoing increase in CO2 concentrations.

The big deal is, as a greenhouse gas, CO2 increases the radiative forcing toward the Earth, which over time increases the amount of energy in our climate system as heat.  This excess and increasing heat has to go somewhere or do something within the climate system because the Earth can only emit so much long wave radiation every year.  The extra heat added to the climate system within the past 15 years has almost exclusively gone into the deep ocean.  This is the result of low-frequency climate oscillations’ recent states.  That process cannot and will not last forever.  Within the next 5-15 years, those oscillations will switch phase and the excess energy will be more apparent near the Earth’s surface.  Meanwhile, the extra oceanic heat will continue to expand the ocean’s volume, which will further increase global mean sea level.

CO2 concentrations are increasing at an increasing rate – not a good trend with respect to minimizing future warming.  Natural systems are not equipped to remove CO2 emissions quickly from the atmosphere.  Indeed, natural systems will take tens of thousands of years to remove the CO2 we emitted in the course of a couple short centuries.  Moreover, human technologies do not yet exist that remove CO2 from any medium (air or water).  They are not likely to exist at a large-scale for some time.  Therefore, the general CO2 concentration rise in the figures above will continue for many years, with effects lasting tens of thousands of years.

The rise in CO2 concentrations will slow down, stop, and reverse when we decide it will.  Doing so depends primarily on the rate at which we emit CO2 into the atmosphere and secondarily how effective CO2 removal in the future is.  We can choose 400 ppm or 450 ppm or almost any other target (realistically, 350 ppm seems out of reach within the next couple hundred years).  Our concentration target value choice is dependent on the type of policies we decide to implement.  It is our current policy to burn fossil fuels because we think doing so is cheap, although current practices are massively inefficient and done without proper market signals.  We will widely deploy clean sources of energy when they are cheap; we control that timing.  We will remove CO2 from the atmosphere if we have cheap and effective technologies and mechanisms to do so, which we also control to some degree.  These future trends depend on today’s innovation and investment in research, development, and deployment.  Today’s carbon markets are not the correct mechanism, as they are aptly demonstrating.  But the bottom line remains: We will limit future warming and climate effects when we choose to do so.


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January 2014 CO2 Concentrations: 397.80ppm

During January 2014, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography measured an average of 397.80 ppm CO2 concentration at their Mauna Loa, Hawai’i Observatory.

This value is important because 397.80 ppm is the largest CO2 concentration value for any January in recorded history.  This year’s January value is approximately 2.34 ppm higher than January 2013′s.  Month-to-month differences typically range between 1 and 2 ppm.  This particular year-to-year jump is just outside of that range, but is smaller than some other recent months.  For example, February 2012’s year-over-year change was +3.37 ppm and May 2012’s change was +3.02 ppm.  Of course, the unending long-term trend toward higher concentrations with time, no matter the month or specific year-over-year value, as seen in the graphs below, is more significant.

The yearly maximum monthly value normally occurs during May. 2013 was no different: the 399.89ppm mean concentration in May 2013 was the highest recorded value (neglecting proxy data).  May 2013′s record will hold until the end of this month when the annual cycle pushes a monthly value above this record.  Just like in years past however, May 2014 is likely to set another new all-time monthly record (until February 2015 … you get the idea.)

 photo co2_widget_brundtland_600_graph_201402_zpsc9382547.gif

Figure 1 – Time series of CO2 concentrations measured at Scripp’s Mauna Loa Observatory in January from 1959 through 2014.

How do concentration measurements change in calendar years?  Let’s take a look at two charts that set that context up for us:

 photo CO2_concentration_5y_trend_NOAA_201401_zps160d767f.png

Figure 2 – Monthly CO2 concentration values (red) from 2010 through 2014 (NOAA). Monthly CO2 concentration values with seasonal cycle removed (black). Note the yearly minimum observation occurred four months ago (red curve) and the yearly maximum value occurred eight months ago. CO2 concentrations will increase through May 2014, as they do every year, before falling again towards this year’s minimum value.

This graph doesn’t look that threatening.  What’s the big deal about CO2 concentrations rising a couple of parts per million per year anyway?  The problem is the long-term rise in those concentrations and the increased heating they impart on our climate system.  Let’s take a longer view – say 50 years:

 photo CO2_concentration_50y_trend_NOAA_201401_zps00b30f9c.png

Figure 3 – 50 year time series of CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa Observatory (NOAA).  The red curve represents the seasonal cycle based on monthly average values.  The black curve represents the data with the seasonal cycle removed to show the long-term trend (as in Figure 2).  This graph shows the relatively recent and ongoing increase in CO2 concentrations.

The big deal is, as a greenhouse gas, CO2 increases the radiative forcing toward the Earth, which over time increases the amount of energy in our climate system as heat.  This excess and increasing heat has to go somewhere or do something within the climate system because the Earth can only emit so much long wave radiation every year.  The extra heat added to the climate system within the past 15 years has almost exclusively gone into the deep ocean.  This is the result of low-frequency climate oscillations’ recent states.  That process cannot and will not last forever.  Within the next 5-15 years, those oscillations will switch phase and the excess energy will be more apparent near the Earth’s surface.  Meanwhile, the extra oceanic heat will continue to expand the ocean’s volume, which will further increase global mean sea level.

CO2 concentrations are increasing at an increasing rate – not a good trend with respect to minimizing future warming.  Natural systems are not equipped to remove CO2 emissions quickly from the atmosphere.  Indeed, natural systems will take tens of thousands of years to remove the CO2 we emitted in the course of a couple short centuries.  Moreover, human technologies do not yet exist that remove CO2 from any medium (air or water).  They are not likely to exist at a large-scale for some time.  Therefore, the general CO2 concentration rise in the figures above will continue for many years, with effects lasting tens of thousands of years.

Instead of just the past 50 years, here is a 10,000 year view of CO2 concentrations from ice cores (blue and green curves) to compare to the recent Mauna Loa observations (red):

Photobucket

Figure 4 – Historical CO2 concentrations from ice core proxies (blue and green curves) and direct observations made at Mauna Loa, Hawai’i (red curve).

This longer time series demonstrates how the curves in Figures 1 and 2 look when viewed against 10,000 additional years’ data.  Clearly, concentrations are significantly higher today than they were for thousands of years in the past.  While never completely static, the climate system our species evolved in was relatively stable in this time period.  You can see this by the relatively small changes in concentration over many hundreds of years.  Recent concentrations are an obvious aberration to recent history.

Alternatively, we could take a really, really long view:

Photobucket

Figure 5 – Historical record of CO2 concentrations from ice core proxy data (red), 2008 observed CO2 concentration value (blue circle), and 2 potential future concentration values resulting from lower (green circle) and higher (yellow circle) emissions scenarios used in the IPCC’s AR4.

Note that this graph includes values from the past 800,000 years, 2008 observed values (12ppm less than this year’s average value will be) as well as the projected concentrations for 2100 derived from a lower emissions and higher emissions scenarios used by the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment report.  It is clear that our planet’s climate existed within a range of CO2 concentrations between 200 and 300 ppm over the past 800,000 years.  Indeed, you would have go back millions of years into the geologic history of the planet to find the last time CO2 concentrations were near 400 ppm.  And let me be clear, the global climate then was much different from today: the globe was much warmer, there were no polar ice caps, and ecosystems were radically different from today’s.  That’s not to say today’s climate is “better” or “worse” than a paleoclimate.  It is to say that today’s ecosystems do not exist in the climate humans are forcing on the planet.

If our current emissions rate continues unabated, it looks like a tripling of average pre-industrial (prior to 1850) concentrations will be our future reality: 278ppm * 3 = 834ppm.  This graph also clearly shows how significant projected emission pathways could be when we compare them to the past 800,000 years.  It is important to realize that we are currently on the higher emissions pathway (towards 800+ppm; yellow dot), not the lower emissions pathway.

The rise in CO2 concentrations will slow down, stop, and reverse when we decide it will.  Doing so depends primarily on the rate at which we emit CO2 into the atmosphere and secondarily how effective CO2 removal in the future is.  We can choose 400 ppm or 450 ppm or almost any other target (realistically, 350 ppm seems out of reach within the next couple hundred years).  Our concentration target value choice is dependent on the type of policies we decide to implement.  It is our current policy to burn fossil fuels because we think doing so is cheap, although current practices are massively inefficient and done without proper market signals.  We will widely deploy clean sources of energy when they are cheap; we control that timing.  We will remove CO2 from the atmosphere if we have cheap and effective technologies and mechanisms to do so, which we also control to some degree.  These future trends depend on today’s innovation and investment in research, development, and deployment.  Today’s carbon markets are not the correct mechanism, as they are aptly demonstrating.  But the bottom line remains: We will limit future warming and climate effects when we choose to do so.


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December 2013 CO2 Concentrations: 396.81ppm

During December 2013, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography measured an average of 395.10 ppm CO2 concentration at their Mauna Loa, Hawai’i Observatory.

This value is important because 395.10 ppm is the largest CO2 concentration value for any December in recorded history.  This year’s December value is approximately 2 ppm higher than December 2012′s.  Month-to-month differences typically range between 1 and 2 ppm.  This particular year-to-year jump is just outside of that range, but is smaller than some other recent months.  For example, February 2012’s year-over-year change was +3.37 ppm and May 2012’s change was +3.02 ppm.  Of course, the unending long-term trend toward higher concentrations with time, no matter the month or specific year-over-year value, as seen in the graphs below, is more significant.

The yearly maximum monthly value normally occurs during May. 2013 was no different: the 399.89ppm mean concentration in May 2013 was the highest value reported last year (neglecting proxy data).  May 2013’s record will hold until the end of February 2014 when the annual cycle pushes a monthly value above the record.  Just like in years past however, May 2014 is likely to set another new all-time monthly record (until February 2015 … you get the idea.)

How do concentration measurements change in calendar years?  Let’s take a look at two charts that set that context up for us:

 photo CO2_concentration_5y_trend_NOAA_201312_zpse6bb2b3c.png

Figure 1 – Monthly CO2 concentration values (red) from 2009 through 2014 (NOAA). Monthly CO2 concentration values with seasonal cycle removed (black). Note the yearly minimum observation occurred three months ago (red curve) and the yearly maximum value occurred seven months ago. CO2 concentrations will increase through May 2014, as they do every year, before falling again towards this year’s minimum value.

This graph doesn’t look that threatening.  What’s the big deal about CO2 concentrations rising a couple of parts per million per year anyway?  The problem is the long-term rise in those concentrations and the increased heating they impart on our climate system.  Let’s take a longer view – say 50 years: photo CO2_concentration_50y_trend_NOAA_201312_zpscc6d916c.png

Figure 2 – 50 year time series of CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa Observatory (NOAA).  The red curve represents the seasonal cycle based on monthly average values.  The black curve represents the data with the seasonal cycle removed to show the long-term trend (as in Figure 1).  This graph shows the relatively recent and ongoing increase in CO2 concentrations.

The big deal is, as a greenhouse gas, CO2 increases the radiative forcing toward the Earth, which over time increases the amount of energy in our climate system as heat.  This excess and increasing heat has to go somewhere or do something within the climate system because the Earth can only emit so much long wave radiation every year.  Additional figures below show where most of the heat has gone recently.

CO2 concentrations are increasing at an increasing rate – not a good trend with respect to minimizing future warming.  Natural systems are not equipped to remove CO2 emissions quickly from the atmosphere.  Indeed, natural systems will take tens of thousands of years to remove the CO2 we emitted in the course of a couple short centuries.  Moreover, human technologies do not yet exist that remove CO2 from any medium (air or water).  They are not likely to exist at a large-scale for some time.  Therefore, the general CO2 concentration rise in the figures above will continue for many years, with effects lasting tens of thousands of years.

This month, I will once again present some graphs that provide additional context for CO2 concentration.  Here is a 10,000 year view of CO2 concentrations from ice cores to compare to the recent Mauna Loa observations:

Photobucket

Figure 3 – Historical CO2 concentrations from ice core proxies (blue and green curves) and direct observations made at Mauna Loa, Hawai’i (red curve).

This longer time series demonstrates how the curves in Figures 1 and 2 look when viewed against 10,000 additional years’ data.  Clearly, concentrations are significantly higher today than they were for thousands of years in the past.  While never completely static, the climate system our species evolved in was relatively stable in this time period.  You can see this by the relatively small changes in concentration over many hundreds of years.  Recent concentrations are an obvious aberration to recent history.

Alternatively, we could take a really, really long view:

Photobucket

Figure 4 – Historical record of CO2 concentrations from ice core proxy data (red), 2008 observed CO2 concentration value (blue circle), and 2 potential future concentration values resulting from lower (green circle) and higher (yellow circle) emissions scenarios used in the IPCC’s AR4.

Note that this graph includes values from the past 800,000 years, 2008 observed values (10ppm less than this year’s average value will be) as well as the projected concentrations for 2100 derived from a lower emissions and higher emissions scenarios used by the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment report.  It is clear that our planet’s climate existed within a range of CO2 concentrations between 200 and 300 ppm over the past 800,000 years.  Indeed, you would have go back millions of years into the geologic history of the planet to find the last time CO2 concentrations were near 400 ppm.  And let me be clear, the global climate then was much different from today: the globe was much warmer, there were no polar ice caps, and ecosystems were radically different from today’s.  That’s not to say today’s climate is “better” or “worse” than a paleoclimate.  It is to say that today’s ecosystems do not exist in the climate humans are forcing on the planet.

If our current emissions rate continues unabated, it looks like a tripling of average pre-industrial (prior to 1850) concentrations will be our future reality: 278ppm * 3 = 834ppm.  This graph also clearly shows how significant projected emission pathways could be when we compare them to the past 800,000 years.  It is important to realize that we are currently on the higher emissions pathway (towards 800+ppm; yellow dot), not the lower emissions pathway.

The rise in CO2 concentrations will slow down, stop, and reverse when we decide it will.  Doing so depends primarily on the rate at which we emit CO2 into the atmosphere and secondarily how effective CO2 removal in the future is.  We can choose 400 ppm or 450 ppm or almost any other target (realistically, 350 ppm seems out of reach within the next couple hundred years).  Our concentration target value choice is dependent on the type of policies we decide to implement.  It is our current policy to burn fossil fuels because we think doing so is cheap, although current practices are massively inefficient and done without proper market signals.  We will widely deploy clean sources of energy when they are cheap; we control that timing.  We will remove CO2 from the atmosphere if we have cheap and effective technologies and mechanisms to do so, which we also control to some degree.  These future trends depend on today’s innovation and investment in research, development, and deployment.  Today’s carbon markets are not the correct mechanism, as they are aptly demonstrating.  But the bottom line remains: We will limit future warming and climate effects when we choose to do so.


1 Comment

September 2013 CO2 Concentrations: 393.31ppm

During September 2013, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography measured an average of 393.31 ppm CO2 concentration at their Mauna Loa, Hawai’i Observatory.

This value is important because 393.31 ppm is the largest CO2 concentration value for any September in recorded history.  This year’s September value is 2.17 ppm higher than September 2012′s.  Month-to-month differences typically range between 1 and 2 ppm.  This particular year-to-year jump is just outside of that range.  This year-to-year change is smaller than some other months this year.  For example, February’s year-over-year change was +3.37 ppm and May’s change was +3.02 ppm.  Of course, the unending trend toward higher concentrations with time, no matter the month or specific year-over-year value, as seen in the graphs below, is more significant.

The yearly maximum monthly value normally occurs during May. This year was no different: the 399.89ppm mean concentration in May 2013 was the highest value reported this year and, prior to the last six months, in recorded history (neglecting proxy data).  I expected May of this year to produce another all-time record value and it clearly did that.  May 2013′s value will hold onto first place all-time until February 2014, due to the annual CO2 oscillation that Figure 2 displays.

 photo co2_widget_brundtland_600_graph_201309_zpsa98224c9.gif

Figure 1 – Time series of CO2 concentrations measured at Scripp’s Mauna Loa Observatory in September from 1958 through 2013.

CO2Now.org added the `350s` to the past few month’s graphics.  I suppose they’re meant to imply concentrations shattered 350 ppm back in the 1980s.  Interestingly, they removed the `400s` from this month’s graph.  So concentrations within 5ppm of a threshold are added to CO2now.org’s graphic.

How do concentration measurements change in calendar years?  Normally, I insert two NOAA graphs here showing 5-year and 50-year raw monthly values and monthly values with the annual trend removed.  Unfortunately, due to the government shutdown, NOAA is not updating their graphics.  As a side note, I also cannot retrieve NOAA and NASA data for my own research.

As a greenhouse gas, CO2 increases the radiative forcing of the Earth, which increases the amount of energy in our climate system as heat.  This excess and increasing heat has to go somewhere or do something within the climate system because the Earth can only emit so much long wave radiation every year.  Additional figures below show where most of the heat has gone recently.

CO2 concentrations are increasing at an increasing rate – not a good trend with respect to minimizing future warming.  Natural systems are not equipped to remove CO2 emissions quickly from the atmosphere.  Indeed, natural systems will take tens of thousands of years to remove the CO2 we emitted in the course of a couple short centuries.  Moreover, human technologies do not yet exist that remove CO2 from any medium (air or water).  They are not likely to exist for some time.  Therefore, the general CO2 concentration rise in Figure 1 will continue for many years, with effects lasting tens of thousands of years.

This month, I will once again present some graphs that provide additional context for CO2 concentration.  Here is a 10,000 year view of CO2 concentrations from ice cores to compare to the recent Mauna Loa observations:

Photobucket

Figure 4 – Historical CO2 concentrations from ice core proxies (blue and green curves) and direct observations made at Mauna Loa, Hawai’i (red curve).

Clearly, concentrations are significantly higher today than they were for thousands of years in the past.  While never completely static, the climate system our species evolved in was relatively stable in this time period.

Alternatively, we could take a really, really long view:

Photobucket

Figure 5 – Historical record of CO2 concentrations from ice core proxy data (red), 2008 observed CO2 concentration value (blue circle), and 2 potential future concentration values resulting from lower (green circle) and higher (yellow circle) emissions scenarios used in the IPCC’s AR4.

Note that this graph includes values from the past 800,000 years, 2008 observed values (10ppm less than this year’s average value will be) as well as the projected concentrations for 2100 derived from a lower emissions and higher emissions scenarios used by the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment report.  If our current emissions rate continues unabated, it looks like a tripling of average pre-industrial (prior to 1850) concentrations will be our future reality: 278ppm * 3 = 834ppm.  This graph also clearly demonstrates how anomalous today’s CO2 concentration values are in the context of paleoclimate.  It further shows how significant projected emission pathways could be when we compare them to the past 800,000 years.  It is important to realize that we are currently on the higher emissions pathway (towards 800+ppm; yellow dot).  The last time atmospheric CO2 concentrations were that high, the globe was much warmer, there were no polar ice caps, and ecosystems were radically different from today’s.

The rise in CO2 concentrations will slow down, stop, and reverse when we decide it will.  Doing so depends primarily on the rate at which we emit CO2 into the atmosphere.  We can choose 400 ppm or 450 ppm or almost any other target (realistically, 350 ppm seems out of reach within the next couple hundred years).  Our concentration target value choice is dependent on the type of policies we decide to implement.  It is our current policy to burn fossil fuels because we think doing so is cheap, although current practices are massively inefficient and done without proper market signals.  We will widely deploy clean sources of energy when they are cheap; we control that timing.  We will remove CO2 from the atmosphere if we have cheap and effective technologies and mechanisms to do so, which we also control to some degree.  These future trends depend on today’s innovation and investment in research, development, and deployment.  Today’s carbon markets are not the correct mechanism, as they are aptly demonstrating.  But the bottom line remains: We will limit future warming and climate effects when we choose to do so.


2 Comments

On the global surface warming “pause”

I read a Mother Jones article by Chris Mooney this morning.  Chris is typically cited by climate activists as trustworthy and comprehensive.  Overall, his work is good.  Based on my recent social science experience, I now tend to view Chris’ work as scientifically comprehensive but lacking in some important social science details.  Be that as it may, his recent piece is worth a read.

His piece dealt with climate change skeptic’s recent handling of what’s been termed the global warming “pause” or “hiatus”.  Skeptics, scientists, and activists penned a growing number of pieces on this topic in recent months, which is the latest phase in a multi-year trend.  Chris’ piece addressed this by way of a Climate Desk Google Trend graph.  “Global warming pause” skyrocketed in Google searches prior to the IPCC’s Summary for Policymakers official late-September 201 release, following an August draft leak.  Unsurprisingly to anyone who follows climate related news, the IPCC tried to respond to this growing skeptic’s argument and did so poorly.

What is the argument?  That global warming has stopped, or slowed, or paused, or is in hiatus.  Any number of time series graphs that compare the continued and accelerating rise of CO2 concentrations with annual mean global surface temperatures motivate this argument.  And here I raise an important first point: activists did themselves a disservice by exclusively focusing on those very same global surface temperature trends.  Granted, the easiest detectable climate change trend is probably global surface temperatures, but dominant focus on this single variable picked from a complex, non-linear, interrelated system wasn’t the best idea.  That said, the aforementioned comparison graphs show the following: CO2 concentrations, after removing the annual cycle, increase year after year.  Global mean surface temperatures however show a recent slower rate of increase in recent years than they did in the 1970s-1990s.

Doesn’t CO2 directly cause a temperature rise?  Citing the climate system’s inherent complexity, the answer is not a simple one.  Many factors influence global mean temperature.  The skeptic’s however employ a well-worn and incorrect strategy: examine the temperature trend since 1998.  1998 was a very warm year globally due to a very strong El Nino.  When you calculate a short-term trend and start with an anomalously high value, the trend will be smaller than if you start with an average year.  Similarly, if you calculate a trend starting with an anomalously cool value, the trend will be larger.  If we’re interested in climatic trends, the time period used has to be greater than 30 years.  This is primarily due to natural, short-term effects that are present even while the entire system is gradually warming over the long-term.  If you want to measure the long-term warming, you have to measure over a long-term.  It sounds like common sense, but people who don’t perform analyses typically don’t examine the details.  If skeptics knowingly abuse the methods and present information to the public, they misinform the public.

Is the recent short-term trend real?  Yes it is.  The short-term global surface temperature trend is a little smaller than the long-term trend.  I have written about the reasons why.  Scientists currently hypothesize the primary reason is efficient heat transfer to the deep ocean:

 photo GlobalOceanHeatContentAbraham_2013_zpse685fc5c.png

Figure 1 – 3-month running mean of Global Oceanic Heat Content (OHC) from 1980 to current.

Oceans absorbed heat in the top 700m of the ocean at about the same rate as the top 2000m through the year 2000.  Since then, the bottom 1300m of the top 2000m continued to absorb heat while the top 700m absorption rose more slowly.  Physically this means deeper parts of the ocean are absorbing heat.  Climate observations are unfortunately spatially limited: we don’t observe the top 2000m as well as we do the top 700m.  Furthermore, we don’t observe the bottom 2000 to 3000m as well as the top 2000m.

This science is relatively new but fairly robust.  Research will uncover additional details of this phenomenon in the future.  Which leads me to my next big point: the big-picture science behind climate change is settled.  It has been settled for a long time.  Disagreements over the exact forcing of aerosols or oceanic heat uptake, to name just two, will not change the big picture.  Humans are now the dominant change of Earth’s climate.  We will be so long as we change the chemical make-up of the atmosphere and ocean.  The long-term, climatic global surface temperature trend (>= 30y) is unequivocal: it is rising.  If the hiatus lasts an additional 20 years, it will become a noteworthy 30-year trend, but it still won’t eclipse the 100y+ trend.

A comment regarding CBS’ incredibly poor reporting on this topic based on this quote: “Another inconvenient truth has emerged on the way to the apocalypse.”  This is one problem with apocalyptic language employed by climate activists.  When the apocalypse doesn’t occur on very short time frames, people can cast legitimate doubt on your claims.  The bigger problem is this: activists’ use of catastrophe language shuts recipient’s response centers down.  What the activists are missing in their communication is any glimmer of hope or discussion of solutions.

But CBS only (unsurprisingly) reported on part of the weather system.  They didn’t report on the climate: they focused on a short time period of just surface temperatures.  There are many more components of the climate system.

A comment regarding Chris Mooney’s language.  CBS didn’t interview a climate skeptic.  They interviewed someone who feels, as many others do, that doomsday scenarios and catastrophic apocalyptic language (see above) harm climate discussions.  I feel this way.  And it’s not because I’m a skeptic.  Instead, I have studied more than just physical science climate journal papers.  I have studied social science climate journal papers.  Climate activists are as tribal as anyone else: they like to claim that skeptics don’t “believe or know the [physical] science”.  Well, they should spend some time in front of a mirror.  Social science results are, I would argue, just as important as physical science results.  And social science results back up my contention that catastrophic language use is detrimental to the ultimate goal: doing something.  Psychology results demonstrate that this language precludes people from taking action or discussing policies – which is exactly the opposite of what climate activists claim they want to do.  But I would go further than Mooney: physical scientists bear most of the blame for allowing hijacked messages.  By ignoring social science, physical scientists undercut their own efforts.  They want to absolve themselves of culpability, so they blame the media and skeptics.  This will not change until scientists realize there are different lenses through which they can operate.

You don’t have to take my word for it.  What is the US’s climate change policy?  Despite decades of physical science research and climate activism, we still don’t have one.  Many other countries, including China, do.  What is the international policy?  Again, despite four previous Assessment Reports, there isn’t one.  It boils down to this: our current approach (in use for more than 30 years) doesn’t work.  It will not work.  Nothing will change with a Fifth Assessment Report that shows many of the same things as the previous four.

The IPCC is not the best entity to handle international climate change policy.  Its strategies have not and will not work.  Issuing a big report every six or seven years is the wrong approach.  As others have noted, why not issue much more nimble and focused assessments much more regularly?  Change communication strategies.  Current efforts work more for skeptics than activists (i.e., you’re hurting your own cause).  Top-down governance of this issue is not feasible.  The IPCC should spend more effort on facilitating bilateral and multilateral agreements.  Identify and codify common ground wherever it exists.  Set up some small measures that are easily successful and initiate some inertia.  Larger efforts will flow from smaller.  I can hear activists’ response already: we’re almost out of time and we need to implement a big effort now.  This ignores historical failures and their causal factors.  It is time to do something different.  We can mitigate some amount of future climate change starting with small efforts, then more change with larger efforts.  Or we can continue to mitigate no future climate change by repeating mistakes and failures.


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August 2013 CO2 Concentrations: 395.15 ppm

During August 2013, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography measured an average of 395.15 ppm CO2 concentration at their Mauna Loa, Hawai’i Observatory.

This value is important because 395.15 ppm is the largest CO2 concentration value for any August in recorded history.  This year’s July value is 2.74 ppm higher than August 2012′s!  Month-to-month differences typically range between 1 and 2 ppm.  This particular year-to-year jump is clearly well outside of that range.  This change is in line with other months this year: February’s year-over-year change was +3.37 ppm and May’s change was +3.02 ppm.  Of course, the unending trend toward higher concentrations with time, no matter the month or specific year-over-year value, as seen in the graphs below, is more significant.

The yearly maximum monthly value normally occurs during May. This year was no different: the 399.89ppm mean concentration in May 2013 was the highest value reported this year and, prior to the last six months, in recorded history (neglecting proxy data).  I expected May of this year to produce another all-time record value and it clearly did that.  May 2013′s value will hold onto first place all-time until February 2014, due to the annual CO2 oscillation that Figure 2 displays.

 photo co2_widget_brundtland_600_graph_201308_zpsf4c5a266.gif

Figure 1 – Time series of CO2 concentrations measured at Scripp’s Mauna Loa Observatory in August from 1958 through 2013.

CO2Now.org added the `350s` and `400s` to the past few month’s graphics.  I suppose they’re meant to imply concentrations shattered 350 ppm back in the 1980s and are pushing up against 400 ppm now in the 2010s.  I’m not sure that they add much value to this graph, but perhaps they make an impact on most people’s perception of milestones within the trend.

How do concentration measurements change in calendar years?  The following two graphs demonstrate this.

 photo CO2_concentration_5y_trend_NOAA_201309_zps94520ee9.png

Figure 2 – Monthly CO2 concentration values (red) from 2009 through 2013 (NOAA). Monthly CO2 concentration values with seasonal cycle removed (black). Note the yearly minimum observation occurred ten months ago and the yearly maximum value occurred three months ago. CO2 concentrations will decrease through October 2013, as they do every year after May, before rebounding towards next year’s maximum value.  The red points and line demonstrate the annual CO2 oscillation that exists on top of the year-over-year increase, which the black dots and line represents.

This graph doesn’t look that threatening.  What’s the big deal about CO2 concentrations rising a couple of parts per million per year anyway?  The problem is the long-term rise in those concentrations and the increased heating they impart on our climate system.  Let’s take a longer view – say 50 years:

 photo CO2_concentration_50y_trend_NOAA_201309_zps7649367a.png

Figure 3 – 50 year time series of CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa Observatory (NOAA).  The red curve represents the seasonal cycle based on monthly average values.  The black curve represents the data with the seasonal cycle removed to show the long-term trend (as in Figure 2).  This graph shows the relatively recent and ongoing increase in CO2 concentrations.

As a greenhouse gas, CO2 increases the radiative forcing of the Earth, which increases the amount of energy in our climate system as heat.  This excess and increasing heat has to go somewhere or do something within the climate system because the Earth can only emit so much longwave radiation every year.  Additional figures below show where most of the heat has gone.

CO2 concentrations are increasing at an increasing rate – not a good trend with respect to minimizing future warming.  Natural systems are not equipped to remove CO2 emissions quickly from the atmosphere.  Indeed, natural systems will take tens of thousands of years to remove the CO2 we emitted in the course of a couple short centuries.  Human technologies do not yet exist that remove CO2 from any medium (air or water).  They are not likely to exist for some time.  Therefore, the general CO2 concentration rise in Figures 2 and 3 will continue for many years.

This month, I will once again present some graphs that provide additional context for CO2 concentration.  Here is a 10,000 year view of CO2 concentrations from ice cores to compare to the recent Mauna Loa observations:

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Figure 4 – Historical CO2 concentrations from ice core proxies (blue and green curves) and direct observations made at Mauna Loa, Hawai’i (red curve).

Clearly, concentrations are significantly higher today than they were for thousands of years in the past.  While never completely static, the climate system our species evolved in was relatively stable in this time period.

Or we could take a really, really long view:

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Figure 5 – Historical record of CO2 concentrations from ice core proxy data, 2008 observed CO2 concentration value, and 2 potential future concentration values resulting from lower and higher emissions scenarios used in the IPCC’s AR4.

Note that this graph includes values from the past 800,000 years, 2008 observed values (10ppm less than this year’s average value will be) as well as the projected concentrations for 2100 derived from a lower emissions and higher emissions scenarios used by the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment report.  If our current emissions rate continues unabated, it looks like a tripling of average pre-industrial (prior to 1850) concentrations will be our future reality: 278 * 3 = 834.  This graph also clearly demonstrates how anomalous today’s CO2 concentration values are in the context of paleoclimate.  It further shows how significant projected emission pathways could be when we compare them to the past 800,000 years.  It is important to realize that we are currently on the higher emissions pathway (towards 800+ppm; yellow dot).

The rise in CO2 concentrations will slow down, stop, and reverse when we decide it will.  It depends primarily on the rate at which we emit CO2 into the atmosphere.  We can choose 400 ppm or 450 ppm or almost any other target (realistically, 350 ppm seems out of reach within the next couple hundred years).  That choice is dependent on the type of policies we decide to implement.  It is our current policy to burn fossil fuels because we think doing so is cheap, although current practices are massively inefficient and done without proper market signals.  We will widely deploy clean sources of energy when they are cheap; we control that timing.  We will remove CO2 from the atmosphere if we have cheap and effective technologies and mechanisms to do so, which we also control to some degree.  These future trends depend on today’s innovation and investment in research, development, and deployment.  Today’s carbon markets are not the correct mechanism, as they are aptly demonstrating.  But the bottom line remains: We will limit future warming and climate effects when we choose to do so.

I mentioned above that CO2 is a greenhouse gas.  If CO2 concentrations were very low, the average temperature of the planet would be 50°F cooler.  Ice would cover much more of the planet’s surface than it does today.  So some CO2 is a good thing.  The problem with additional CO2 in the atmosphere is that it throws off the radiative balance of the past 10,000 years.  This sets in motion a set of consequences, most of which we cannot anticipate simply because our species has never experienced them.  The excess heat absorbed by the climate system went to the most efficient heat sink on our planet, the oceans:

 photo Total-Heat-Content.gif

Figure 6 – Heat content anomaly from 1950 to 2004 from Murphy et al., 2009 (subs. req’d).

20th century global surface temperature rise measured +0.8°F.  That relatively small increase, which is already causing widespread effects today, is a result of the tiny heat content anomaly shown in red in Figure 6.  This situation continued since Murphy’s 2009 publication

 photo Ocean_heat_content_balmaseda_et_al_zps23184297.jpg

Figure 7 – Oceanic heat content by depth since 19

This figure shows where most of the excess heat went since 2000: the deep ocean (>700m depth).  The heat content change of the upper 300m increased by 5 * 10^22 Joules/year in that time (and most of that in the 2000-2003 time span) while the 300-700m layer’s heat increased by an additional 5 * 10^22 J/y and the >700m ocean’s heat increased by a further 8 * 10^22 J/y.  That’s a lot of energy.  How much energy is it?  In 2008 alone, the oceans absorbed as much energy as 6.6 trillion Americans used in the same year.  Since there is only 7 billion people on the planet, the magnitude of this energy surplus is staggering.

More to the point, deep water heat content continued to surge with time while heat content stabilized in the ocean’s top layers.   Surface temperature measurements largely reflect the top layer of the ocean.  If heat content doesn’t change with time in those layers, neither will sea surface temperatures.  The heat is instead going where we cannot easily measure it.  Does that mean “global warming has stopped” as some skeptics recently claimed?  No, it means the climate system is transferring the heat where and when it can.  If the deep ocean can more easily absorb the heat than other media, then the heat will go there.

The deep ocean will not permanently store this heat however.  The globe’s oceans turn over on long time scales.  The absorbed heat will come back to the surface where it can transfer to the atmosphere, at which point we will be able to easily detect it again.  So at some point in the future, perhaps decades or a century from now, a temperature surge could occur.  We have been afforded time that many scientists did not think we had to mitigate and adapt to the changing climate.  That time is not limitless.


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Climate & Energy Links – Sep. 12, 2013

Here are some stories I found interesting this week:

California’s GHG emissions are already lower than the 2015 threshold established as part of California’s cap-and-trade policy.  The reasons emissions fell more than expected include the slow economy and relative widespread renewable energy deployment.  The problem with this is the lack of innovation.  We have seen what companies do with no incentive to innovate their operations: nothing that gets in the way of profit, which is the way companies should operate.  That’s why we need regulations – to incentivize companies to act in the public interest.  Should CA adjust future cap thresholds in light of this news?

No surprise here: Alter Net had a story detailing the US Department of Energy’s International Energy Outlook and the picture isn’t pretty (and I’m not talking about the stock photo they attached to the story – that’s not helpful).  Experts expect fossil fuels to dominate the world’s energy portfolio through 2040 – which I wrote about last month.  This projection will stand until people push their governments to change.

Scientific American’s latest microgrid article got to the point: “self-sufficient microgrids undermine utilities’ traditional economic model” and “utility rates for backup power [need to be] fair and equitable to microgrid customers.”  To the first point, current utility models will have to change in 21st century America.  Too much depends on reliable and safe energy systems.  The profit part of the equation will take a back seat.  Whatever form utilities take in the future, customers will demand equitable pricing schemes.  That said, there is currently widespread unfair pricing in today’s energy paradigm.  For example, utilities continue to build coal power plants that customers don’t want.  Customers go so far as to voluntarily pay extra for non-coal energy sources.  In the end, I support microgrids and distributed generation for many reasons.

A Science article (subs. req’d) shared results of an investigation into increasing amplitude of CO2 oscillations in the Northern Hemisphere in the past 50 years.  This increase is greater for higher latitudes than middle latitudes.  The increase’s reason could be longer annual times of decomposition due to a warming climate (which is occurring faster at higher latitudes).  Additional microbial decomposition generates additional CO2 and aids new plant growth at increasing latitudes (which scientists have observed).  New plant growth compounds the uptake and release of CO2 from microbes.  The biosphere is changing in ways that were not predicted, as I’ve written before.  These changes will interact and generate other changes that will impact human and ecosystems through the 21st century and beyond.

And the EPA has adjusted new power plant emissions rules: “The average U.S. natural gas plant emits 800 to 850 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt, and coal plants emit an average of 1,768 pounds. According to those familiar with the new EPA proposal, the agency will keep the carbon limit for large natural gas plants at 1,000 pounds but relax it slightly for smaller gas plants. The standard for coal plants will be as high as 1,300 or 1,400 pounds per megawatt-hour, the individuals said Wednesday, but that still means the utilities will have to capture some of the carbon dioxide they emit.”  This is but one climate policy that we need to revisit in the future.  This policy is good, but does not go far enough.  One way or another, we face increasing costs; some we can afford and others we can’t.  We can proactively increase regulations on fossil fuels which will result in an equitable cost comparison between energy sources.  Or we can continue to prevent an energy free market from working by keeping fossil fuel costs artificially lower than they really are and end up paying reactive climate costs, which will be orders of magnitude higher than energy costs.


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July 2013 CO2 Concentrations: 397.23 ppm

During July 2013, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography measured an average of 397.23 ppm CO2 concentration at their Mauna Loa, Hawai’i Observatory.

This value is important because 397.23 ppm is the largest CO2 concentration value for any July in recorded history.  This year’s July value is 2.90 ppm higher than July 2012′s!  Month-to-month differences typically range between 1 and 2 ppm.  This year-to-year jump is clearly well outside of that range.  This change is in line with other months this year: February’s year-over-year change was +3.37 ppm and May’s change was +3.02 ppm.  Of course, the unending trend toward higher concentrations with time, no matter the month or specific year-over-year value, as seen in the graphs below, is more significant.

The yearly maximum monthly value normally occurs during May. This year was no different: the 399.89ppm concentration in May 2013 was the highest value reported this year and, prior to the last five months, in recorded history (neglecting proxy data).  I expected May of this year to produce another all-time record value and it clearly did that.  May 2013′s value will hold onto first place all-time until February 2014.

 photo co2_widget_brundtland_600_graph_201307_zpsd45c57a3.gif

Figure 1 – Time series of CO2 concentrations measured at Scripp’s Mauna Loa Observatory in July from 1958 through 2013.

CO2Now.org added the `350s` and `400s` to the past few month’s graphics.  I suppose they’re meant to imply concentrations shattered 350 ppm back in the 1980s and are pushing up against 400 ppm now in the 2010s.  I’m not sure that they add much value to this graph, but perhaps they make an impact on most people’s perception of milestones within the trend.

How do concentration measurements change in calendar years?  The following two graphs demonstrate this.

 photo CO2_concentration_5y_trend_NOAA_201308_zpsbad76774.png

Figure 2 – Monthly CO2 concentration values (red) from 2009 through 2013 (NOAA). Monthly CO2 concentration values with seasonal cycle removed (black). Note the yearly minimum observation occurred nine months ago and the yearly maximum value occurred two months ago. CO2 concentrations will decrease through October 2013, as they do every year after May.

 photo CO2_concentration_50y_trend_NOAA_201308_zps7d6fee6b.png

Figure 3 – 50 year time series of CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa Observatory (NOAA).  The red curve represents the seasonal cycle based on monthly average values.  The black curve represents the data with the seasonal cycle removed to show the long-term trend.  This graph shows the recent and ongoing increase in CO2 concentrations.  Remember that as a greenhouse gas, CO2 increases the radiative forcing of the Earth, which increases the amount of energy in our climate system.

CO2 concentrations are increasing at an increasing rate – not a good trend with respect to minimizing future warming.  Natural systems are not equipped to remove CO2 emissions quickly from the atmosphere.  Indeed, natural systems will take tens of thousands of years to remove the CO2 we emitted in the course of a couple short centuries.  Human systems do not yet exist that remove CO2 from any medium (air or water).  They are not likely to exist for some time.  So NOAA will extend the right side of the above graphs for years and decades to come.

This month, I will return to some graphs I’ve presented before.  Here is a 10,000 year view of CO2 concentrations from ice cores to compare to the recent Mauna Loa observations:

Photobucket

Figure 4 – Historical CO2 concentrations from ice core proxies (blue and green curves) and direct observations made at Mauna Loa, Hawai’i (red curve).

Or we could take a really, really long view:

Photobucket

Figure 5 – Historical record of CO2 concentrations from ice core proxy data, 2008 observed CO2 concentration value, and 2 potential future concentration values resulting from lower and higher emissions scenarios used in the IPCC’s AR4.

Note that this graph includes values from the past 800,000 years, 2008 observed values (8-10ppm less than this year’s average value will be) as well as the projected concentrations for 2100 derived from a lower emissions and higher emissions scenarios used by the 2007 IPCC report.  If our current emissions rate continues unabated, it looks like a tripling of average pre-industrial concentrations will be our future reality (278 *3 = 834).  This graph also clearly demonstrates how anomalous today’s CO2 concentration values are.  It further shows how significant projected emission pathways are when we compare them to the past 800,000 years.  It is important to realize that we are currently on the higher emissions pathway (towards 800+ppm).

The rise in CO2 concentrations will slow down, stop, and reverse when we decide it will.  It depends primarily on the rate at which we emit CO2 into the atmosphere.  We can choose 400 ppm or 450 ppm or almost any other target (realistically, 350 ppm seems out of reach within the next couple hundred years).  That choice is dependent on the type of policies we decide to implement.  It is our current policy to burn fossil fuels because we think doing so is cheap, although current practices are massively inefficient and done without proper market signals.  We will widely deploy clean sources of energy when they are cheap; we control that timing.  We will remove CO2 from the atmosphere if we have cheap and effective technologies and mechanisms to do so, which we also control to some degree.  These future trends depend on today’s innovation and investment in research, development, and deployment.  Today’s carbon markets are not the correct mechanism, as they are aptly demonstrating.  But the bottom line remains: We will limit future warming and climate effects when we choose to do so.


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June 2013 CO2 Concentrations: 398.58 ppm

During June 2013, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography measured an average of 398.58 ppm CO2 concentration at their Mauna Loa, Hawai’i Observatory.

This value is important because 398.58 ppm the largest CO2 concentration value for any June in recorded history.  This year’s June  value is 2.81 ppm higher than June 2012′s!  Month-to-month differences typically range between 1 and 2 ppm.  This year-to-year jump is clearly well outside of that range.  This is more in line with February’s year-over-year change of 3.37 ppm and May’s change of 3.02 ppm.  Of course, the unending trend toward higher concentrations with time, no matter the month or specific year-over-year value, as seen in the graphs below, is more significant.

The yearly maximum monthly value normally occurs during May. This year was no different: the 399.89ppm concentration in May 2013 was the highest value reported this year and, prior to the last five months, in recorded history (neglecting proxy data).  I expected May of this year to produce another all-time record value and it clearly did that.  May 2013′s value will hold onto first place all-time until February 2014.

 photo co2_widget_brundtland_600_graph_201306_zpsc81fcd45.gif

Figure 1 – Time series of CO2 concentrations measured at Scripp’s Mauna Loa Observatory in June from 1958 through 2013.

CO2Now.org added the `350s` and `400s` to the past few month’s graphics.  I suppose they’re meant to imply concentrations shattered 350 ppm back in the 1980s and are pushing up against 400 ppm now in the 2010s.  I’m not sure that they add much value to this graph, but perhaps they make an impact on most people’s perception of milestones within the trend.

How do concentration measurements change in calendar years?  The following two graphs demonstrate this.

 photo CO2_concentration_5y_trend_NOAA_201307_zpsfceaf70f.png

Figure 2 – Monthly CO2 concentration values (red) from 2009 through 2013 (NOAA). Monthly CO2 concentration values with seasonal cycle removed (black). Note the yearly minimum observation occurred eight months ago and the yearly maximum value occurred last month. CO2 concentrations will decrease through October 2013, as they do every year after May.

 photo CO2_concentration_50y_trend_NOAA_201307_zps11bdf547.png

Figure 3 – 50 year time series of CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa Observatory (NOAA).  The red curve represents the seasonal cycle based on monthly average values.  The black curve represents the data with the seasonal cycle removed to show the long-term trend.  This graph shows the recent and ongoing increase in CO2 concentrations.  Remember that as a greenhouse gas, CO2 increases the radiative forcing of the Earth, which increases the amount of energy in our climate system.

CO2 concentrations are increasing at an increasing rate – not a good trend with respect to minimizing future warming.  Natural systems are not equipped to remove CO2 emissions quickly from the atmosphere.  Indeed, natural systems will take tens of thousands of years to remove the CO2 we emitted in the course of a couple short centuries.  Human systems do not yet exist that remove CO2 from any medium (air or water).  They are not likely to exist for some time.  So NOAA will extend the right side of the above graphs for years and decades to come.

This month, I want to spend some more time on this focus: CO2 concentration values.  Given our species’ penchant for round numbers, it came as little surprise that the corporate media placed an uncommon amount of attention on a value that really has relatively low meaning: daily CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa surpassed 400 ppm for a day during the month of May.  In fact, both the media and many climate activists made a very big deal about this development (news articles and my twitter feed “blew up” with this news).  I think that was largely a waste of time.  Again, the daily value itself didn’t represent any large difference once reached.  The climate system did not automatically kick into a different setting once concentrations passed 400 ppm for a day.  Nothing substantially new occurred that didn’t when concentration were “only” 399 ppm (or 390 ppm or 380 ppm for that matter).  Indeed, where are the articles this month with daily values in the 398-399 ppm range?  They’re nonexistent.  So what is important: psychologically significant thresholds or the unending acceleration of concentrations across years and decades?

As I state in this series every month, the trend makes much more of a difference than any daily, monthly, or even yearly average value.  And that trend is accelerating upwards at a rate that many experts didn’t think was possible even 10 years ago.  The effects from last year’s average CO2 concentrations won’t manifest in real-world terms until 30-50 years from now.  I didn’t see anybody else in May pointing out that important detail.  Similarly, I didn’t see any explanation that today’s mean temperatures are largely a result of CO2 concentrations from 30+ years ago.  Perhaps most importantly, climate activists didn’t mention that CO2 concentrations are rising at a rising rate despite decades of their “activism”.  That fact creates a rather uncomfortable situation because most activists are proponents of doing tomorrow what they did yesterday.  If those actions haven’t had any effect up until now, why the advocacy for the status quo when those same activists try to claim that the status quo is untenable.  If they really believed in their catastrophic climate change claims, shouldn’t they honestly evaluate the effects their actions have had?  And if those actions produced far less meaningful progress than they state is absolutely required for the survival of our species and the planet (grandiose language, I know), why do their strategies and tactics remain largely unchanged?

I write these posts for people who are curious or interested in the state of a key climate variable.  Almost two years ago now, I realized that doomsday language turns a significant portion of my potential audience off from the get-go.  If we are to do something meaningful about climate change, we cannot afford the disengagement and hostility of one-third or more of our fellow global citizens towards climate activism.  I don’t want to simply treat people as empty vessels into which I can pour knowledge.  I want to engage them on ground that is similar between us precisely because I want to do something.  Screaming about a 400 ppm mean CO2 concentration for one day and then walking away from the variable until we pass the next perceived meaningful threshold doesn’t strike me as engagement.

The rise in CO2 concentrations will slow down, stop, and reverse when we decide it will.  It depends primarily on the rate at which we emit CO2 into the atmosphere.  We can choose 400 ppm or 450 ppm or almost any other target (realistically, 350 ppm seems out of reach within the next couple hundred years).  That choice is dependent on the type of policies we decide to implement.  It is our current policy to burn fossil fuels because we think doing so is cheap, although current practices are massively inefficient and done without proper market signals.  We will widely deploy clean sources of energy when they are cheap; we control that timing.  We will remove CO2 from the atmosphere if we have cheap and effective technologies and mechanisms to do so, which we also control to some degree.  These future trends depend on today’s innovation and investment in research, development, and deployment.  Today’s carbon markets are not the correct mechanism, as they are aptly demonstrating.  But the bottom line remains: We will limit future warming and climate effects when we choose to do so.

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