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Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are dangerously high5 min read

April 11, 2021 4 min read


Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are dangerously high5 min read

Reading Time: 4 minutes

We’ve got some unpleasant news for you all today. For the first time in recorded history, the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere was measured at more than 420 parts per million (PPM) at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.

This chart illustrates how carbon dioxide levels have gone up over the decades.

This research station started collecting CO2 measurements in the late 1950s, when the concentration was around 315 PPM. With this spike, the CO2 concentration in the air is the highest it has been in human history.

Atmospheric CO2 levels fluctuate slightly through the year – it tends to drops in the spring and summer months, and rises again in the colder months. However, these fluctuations are negligible.

What are CO2 emissions and why are they bad?

Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is a greenhouse gas: a gas that absorbs and radiates heat. CO2 emissions are a product of electricity production, transportation and industry. The United States alone emits more than 5 billion metric tons of CO2 annually!

About half of emitted CO2 remains in the atmosphere, while more than a quarter is absorbed into the oceans, where it acidifies the water and negatively affects life under water, or marine ecosystems.

CO2 that is trapped in our atmosphere leads to global warming, which causes climate change. This leads to harmful events such as melting of the polar ice caps, rising of sea levels, disturbance of animals’ natural habitats, extreme weather events, and much more. So, an increase in CO2 is terrible for the Earth’s climate, causing changes in weather patterns.

The Mauna Loa Observatory is at an elevation of 11,135 feet, on the summit of a picturesque volcano. Its location allows it to sample some of the purest air available. This gives scientist is a very clear picture of just how much damage human activity is doing to the planet.  

Why is this research worrying?

There is cause for concern with this spike in atmospheric CO2. It means we’ve passed the midpoint between preindustrial CO2 levels, around 278 parts per million, and a doubling of that figure, or 556 parts per million.

This chart illustrates the dip in CO2 emissions when lockdowns were implemented across the globe last year

“Although ‘halfway to doubled CO2’ is not of any physical significance, it can nevertheless be considered a milestone that highlights how much humans have already altered the composition of the global atmosphere and increased the amount of a gas that warms the global climate,”  said the UK Met Office.

Experts noted that despite a brief but significant reduction in the global emissions thanks to the pandemic, levels have now gone back to what they were before Covid came to haunt us.

The World Meteorological Organization recently said that there is at least a 1 in 5 chance of global average warming temporarily exceeding 2.4 degrees (1.5 Celsius) by 2024!

France leads the way!

Here’s some positive news for countries making efforts to reduce their CO2 emissions. France moved one step closer to banning short-haul flights in an attempt to fight climate change. A short-haul flight lasts anywhere between 30 minutes and three hours. A bill prohibiting regional flights that could be replaced with an existing train journey of less than two-and-a-half hours was passed recently. “We know that aviation is a contributor of carbon dioxide, and that because of climate change, we must reduce emissions,” Industry Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher was quoted as saying.

Let’s talk gas

Apart from CO2, there is also an increase in the levels of another dangerous gas, Methane. Methane is also a significant contributor to global warming. Experts from the British Antarctic Survey say agriculture, specifically the raising of livestock (cows, sheep, goats, etc.) is a primary source of methane in the United States, followed by petroleum and natural gas production, as well as coal mining and landfills.

While CO2 is found more abundantly in the Earth’s atmosphere,  methane is more effective at heating the atmosphere.

Sulfur hexafluoride, a greenhouse gas that results from the production of insulators used on electrical grids, also reached all-time records of 10 parts per trillion. Sulfur hexafluoride is thousands of times more potent — a single molecule can cause 23,900 times more warming than a molecule of CO2. And a single molecule of sulfur hexafluoride can stick around in the atmosphere for more than three millennia!

Since we’re talking gases and harmful chemicals, why don’t we test our knowledge on basic chemistry? Solve the quiz below, and let us know how you did in the comments!

Sources: Washington Post, Science Daily,