Carbon dioxide in atmosphere reaches landmark level

At 400 parts per million, greenhouse gas concentration is now higher than it has been for millions of years

On May 9, the atmosphere above Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano reached a milestone: For the first time since record keeping began there in 1958, the daily mean carbon dioxide concentration reached 400 parts per million.

The Mauna Loa Observatory the world’s oldest continuous monitoring station for carbon dioxide.

In spring of 2012, Alaska, Canada and several other Arctic locations surpassed the 400 ppm benchmark. Parts of the Southern Hemisphere should top 400 ppm within the next few years. And by 2016, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expect global average concentrations of the greenhouse gas to hit 400 ppm.

The last time Earth’s global CO2 concentrations were that high was during the Pliocene epoch, 5.3 million to 2.6 million years ago, when summers in the Arctic were 8 degrees Celsius warmer than they are today (SN Online: 5/9/13). CO2 levels have been rising sharply with the increase in fossil-fuel burning since the Industrial Revolution, when the global average was 280 ppm.

The rise of CO2 has accelerated in recent decades. In the late 1950s, CO2 concentrations increased about 0.7 ppm per year. In the last 10 years, that rate jumped to 2.1 ppm per year.

Erin Wayman is the managing editor for print and longform content at Science News. She has a master’s degree in biological anthropology from the University of California, Davis and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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