Carbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere have broken a critical watershed

Carbon dioxide levels are continuing to rise thanks to El Niño

Measured at the top of the Mauna Loa observatory on top of a volcano in Hawaii, CO2 levels have broken the 400 parts-per-million (ppm) boundary for the first time. Carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere have hit the highest point in human history , scientists have announced.

That means for every million molecules in the atmosphere, 400 of them are carbon dioxide. It might not sound like a lot – but experts are very worried about the implications .

They say it’s highly unlikely that levels will go back under this point in our lifetime.

Crossing the 400ppm boundary was predicted – but it serves as a reminder of the growing threat from climate change .

Nasa global warming 2100

This striking image shows the world’s predicted heatmap in 2100

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted that once we go over the 450ppm threshold, the results could be catastrophic.

It would contribute to warming the planet by two degrees and cause unpredicted shifts in weather patterns on Earth.

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The rise in CO2 levels in the atmosphere recorded at Mauna Loa in Hawaii

Current predictions are that – if humans don’t cut emissions by 40 – 70% – we’ll break the 450ppm mark in about twenty years.

Part of the reason we’ve broken through the 400ppm level this year is due to the gigantic El Niño that swept through the Pacific ocean over the course of 2015.

It caused high air pressure around the tropics that limited the ability of forests to draw in CO2 from the atmosphere. There were also vast forest fires that spit out extra carbon into the air.

NASA image by Akiko Hayashi, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
El Nino Satellite image from 2006

The combined effect of the El Niño and our continued burning of fossil fuels has resulted in breaking the 400ppm barrier sooner than expected.

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“It’s important to note that this year’s rise in CO2 is bigger than the last El Niño, in 1997/8, because human emissions have gone up by 25% since then,” said Professor Richard Betts at the Met Office.

“We could be passing above 450ppm in roughly 20 years,” Betts said.

Carbon emissions

“If we start to reduce our global emissions now, we could delay that moment but it is still looking like a challenge to stay below 450ppm.

“If we carry on as we are going, we could pass 450ppm even sooner than 20 years, according to the IPCC scenarios.”

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