Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Antarctic CO2 Levels Highest in 4 Million Years: Is That a Problem?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Antarctic CO2 Levels Highest in 4 Million Years: Is That a Problem?

Article excerpt

Antarctica recently witnessed an event that last took place four million years ago: Carbon dioxide levels broke through the barrier of 400 parts per million (ppm).

In fact, the frozen continent is a laggard in this respect. The announcement Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) gave the date of this milestone as May 23. But the global annual mean concentration of carbon dioxide already surpassed 400 ppm last year, the first time that has happened in human history.

While the number 400 does not hold any inherent significance, it has become something of a symbol as more of the world becomes convinced of the need to stop the ballooning levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.

"The far southern hemisphere was the last place on earth where CO2 had not yet reached this mark," said Pieter Tans, lead scientist of NOAA's Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network, in the agency's press release. "Global CO2 levels will not return to values below 400 ppm in our lifetimes, and almost certainly for much longer."

NOAA's announcement comes hot on the heels of a paper in Nature, published Monday, in which the authors described not only 2015's record-breaking global mean carbon dioxide concentration, but also predicted that 2016 would see no monthly global mean drop below the iconic 400 ppm mark.

But there is special significance in seeing this barrier breached at the south pole. While all parts of the globe are experiencing boosted levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, Antarctica's remote location and its consequent isolation from human industry have given it a certain level of insulation.

It is the final frontier to feel the effects of fossil fuel consumption, the primary driver of greenhouse gas pollution, of which carbon dioxide constitutes 65 percent.

Levels of carbon dioxide fluctuate throughout the year, as plants absorb more during the growing season, to fuel photosynthesis. But the number of plants covering the globe is inadequate to absorb all of the emissions - and the quantity of forest cover is only diminishing, destroyed at a rate equivalent to 48 football fields every minute. …

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