Climate Change

Since the first Earth Day, the planet’s CO2 levels have gone off the rails

"Scary times ahead."
By Mark Kaufman  on 
Earth's atmosphere as viewed from space.
Earth's atmosphere as viewed from space. Credit: NASA

Update April 21, 2023: Earth's atmospheric carbon dioxide levels averaged over 417 ppm in 2022(opens in a new tab), and even recently reached a daily reading of over 424 ppm(opens in a new tab). When this story first published in 2019, CO2 levels hovered around 412 ppm. They keep rising, relentlessly.

When Americans celebrated the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, the planet's atmosphere was markedly different than it is today. Fifty years ago, scientists measured(opens in a new tab) Earth's levels of carbon dioxide — the planet's most important greenhouse gas — at around 325 parts per million, or ppm.

Now, five decades later, that number has shot up to around 412 ppm, nearly 90 ppm higher. It's a change atmospheric researchers, geologists, and climate scientists call unparalleled in at least 800,000 years, though it's likely carbon dioxide levels haven't been this high in millions of years.

"The rate of CO2 increase since the first Earth Day is unprecedented in the geologic record," said Dan Breecker, a paleoclimatologist at The University of Texas at Austin.

"No matter how you look at this it’s totally unprecedented," agreed Kris Karnauskas, an associate professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.

"It’s totally unprecedented"

"The last time CO2 levels were this high, the sea level was many feet higher than it is today," added Matthew Lachniet, a climate scientist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. This was a warmer geologic period on Earth called the Pliocene, spanning some 2.5 to 5 million years ago. Earth's oceans were some 30 feet higher then, noted Lachniet, after the planet's ice sheets melted into the sea.

Just how unprecedented are today's CO2 levels?

Over the last million years, Earth's CO2 levels have certainly fluctuated, but they've naturally wavered between 180 and 280 ppm, explained Jason Briner, a paleoclimatologist at the University at Buffalo.

CO2 levels over the last 800,000 years.
CO2 levels over the last 800,000 years Credit: Scripps Institution of oceanography

But on Earth Day today we've "now exceeded" even the highest ceiling of natural CO2 swings by some 130 ppm. In short, it's not normal. Especially over the last 49 years, since the first Earth Day.

"Dang," said Briner. "87 ppm in 49 years."

The CO2 rate isn't just really high — it's picking up steam

In the 1970s, after the first Earth Day, CO2 levels were going up by about 1 ppm per year. But in recent years the rate has increased to, on average, more than 2 ppm, said Karnauskas. That rate is unheard of over the last 800,000 years (Scientists have direct proof of Earth's CO2 levels from as far as 800,000 years ago from air bubbles trapped in ancient ice(opens in a new tab).)

Previous rises in carbon dioxide levels have simply been more gradual events. "Past climate changes pale in comparison," said Karnauskas.

Earth can't keep up with these changes

We're pumping colossal amounts of CO2 into the planet's skies.

Normally, Earth can deal with this excess carbon. Over longer periods of time the planet absorbs the carbon into the oceans and the rocky ground. But today these changes are simply happening too rapidly. The planet just can't consume the CO2 deluge.

When the rate of CO2 release is fast, like it is now, this carbon is gulped up by the oceans, explained Breecker. Today, about 31 percent of human-generated CO2 is absorbed into the seas. But at such a fast rate (especially since the first Earth Day), the ocean surface can only soak up so much carbon dioxide at once, while the rest stays in the air and heats the planet.

When Earth has more time to deal with CO2 increases — say on the order of hundreds of thousands of years — this carbon is also stored away in rocks(opens in a new tab), in a well-understood process called "silicate weathering."

Rising CO2 ppm since around 2005.
Rising CO2 ppm since around 2005 Credit: NASA / NOAA

But today, there's no time for these slow-moving natural processes to deal with historically high greenhouse gas emissions.

"The rate of CO2 emissions is very important," said Breecker. "It affects how much of the CO2 that is emitted stays in the atmosphere and thus contributes to warming."

Where we're headed

Without significant and ambitious efforts to slash carbon emissions this century, we might blow through 500 ppm.

How much warming is in store as more heat-trapping carbon amasses in the atmosphere? Fortunately, climate scientists now say we're not on the worst "business-as-usual" warming track(opens in a new tab) (the red line below) anymore, because nations have made efforts and pledges to cut emissions. But considerable warming can still occur.

"Implementation of the current pledges will only reduce this to a 2.4-2.6°C temperature rise by the end of the century, for conditional and unconditional pledges respectively," according to a 2022 UN report(opens in a new tab). Important note: 2.4 C equates to 4.3 F. And 4.3 F is a huge amount of warming. Already, at some 2 F(opens in a new tab), massive Antarctic glaciers have destabilized and the U.S. is in for around another foot of sea level rise by just 2050.

This 4.3 F of warming is more in line with an "intermediate" emissions scenario(opens in a new tab) (yellow line below) wherein global carbon emissions start really falling by around 2045. With fast cuts, the line will fall sooner.

The red line shows a high carbon emissions scenario.
The red line shows a high carbon emissions scenario. Credit: BOB KOPP / ECONOMIC RISKS OF CLIMATE CHANGE: AN AMERICAN PROSPECTUS

The UN has made clear that society must radically decarbonize to spare the future from the worst consequences of climate change. "The next few years are probably the most important in our history,” Debra Roberts, an environmental scientist and a lead author of the UN's latest climate report, said in a statement(opens in a new tab)

Yet with well over 400 ppm and counting, we're already locked in for significant future warming. "The Earth will continue to warm for centuries in the future," said Lachniet. "It takes the planet a while to catch up."

"Scary times ahead."

More heat promises more severe drought and extreme, pummeling weather. But limiting the planet's carbon load — say, to under 500 ppm — will be a boon to children today, and to humanity beyond.

"The decisions we make or don’t make today will have an influence on climate 1,000 years from now," said Lachniet. As things now look on Earth Day, the trends and magnitude of the CO2 increase since 1970 don't bode well.

"Scary times ahead," said Briner

Mark is the Science Editor at Mashable.

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