Carbon dioxide in atmosphere reaches highest levels in millions of years, NOAA warns

“We have known about this for half a century, and have failed to do anything meaningful about it. What’s it going to take for us to wake up?”


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is warning that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is reaching levels not experienced by humans before. Carbon dioxide levels are 50% higher than pre-industrial levels, and the amount of carbon dioxide is higher than it has been in millions of years.

On June 3, the Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observator in Hawaii measured a peak carbon dioxide level of 421 parts per million in May, the highest level for 2022 and reaching levels not seen in millions of years.

“The science is irrefutable: humans are altering our climate in ways that our economy and our infrastructure must adapt to,” NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said in a press release. “We can see the impacts of climate change around us every day. The relentless increase of carbon dioxide measured at Mauna Loa is a stark reminder that we need to take urgent, serious steps to become a more Climate Ready Nation.” 

NOAA warns that human activities, like the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, agriculture, and cement manufacturing, are contributing to heightened levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide along with other greenhouse gases. Together, these emissions trap heat that would otherwise escape Earth, leading to extreme heat and weather events like flooding, hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts.

“It’s depressing that we’ve lacked the collective willpower to slow the relentless rise in CO2,” said Charles David Keeling, a scientist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “Fossil-fuel use may no longer be accelerating, but we are still racing at top speed towards a global catastrophe.”

Aside from land impact, NOAA explains that excess emissions can also lead to warming oceans, rising sea levels, and more carbon being absorbed in waters. This causes the oceans to become more acidic and increases deoxygenation, causing many marine organisms to die off.

Pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide remained around 200 parts per million during the existence of humanity. But now, NOAA notes that the current levels are more in line with the Pliocene Climatic Optimum, which was about 4.1 to 4.5 million years ago. During this time, carbon dioxide levels were around 400 parts per million, and sea levels were up to 25 meters higher — high enough to drown out some of the most populated cities of our time.

“Carbon dioxide is at levels our species has never experienced before — this is not new,” said Pieter Tans, senior scientist with the Global Monitoring Laboratory. “We have known about this for half a century, and have failed to do anything meaningful about it. What’s it going to take for us to wake up?” 


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