Near the moonscape summit of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii, an infrared analyser will soon make history. Sometime in the next month, it is expected to record a daily concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of more than 400 parts per million (p.p.m.), a value not reached at this key surveillance point for a few million years.
There will be no balloons or noisemakers to celebrate the event.
Researchers who monitor greenhouse gases will regard it more as a disturbing marker of humanity’s power to alter the chemistry of the atmosphere and by extension, the climate of the planet. At 400 p.p.m., nations will have a difficult time keeping global warming in check, says Corinne Le Quéré, a climate researcher at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, who says that the impact “is getting very dangerously close to reaching the 2 °C target that governments around the world have pledged not to exceed”.
It will be a while, perhaps a few years, before the global CO2 concentration averaged over an entire year, passes 400 p.p.m.. But topping that value at Mauna Loa is significant because researchers have been monitoring the gas there since 1958, longer than any other spot. “It’s a time to take stock of where we are and where we’re going,” says Ralph Keeling, a geochemist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, who oversees that centre’s CO2 monitoring efforts on Mauna Loa. That gas record, known as the Keeling curve, was started by his father, Charles Keeling.
Richard Heinberg: The economy is all about energy. Almost all of our environmental issues relate to energy in one way or another. Certainly, climate change does. War and peace, it's all about energy. Upping the energy literacy of the American people and thought leaders is a pretty high priority.
China plans to increase its goal for solar-power installations in 2015 by 67 percent to reduce reliance on fossil fuels blamed for greenhouse gases and as smog in Beijing reached record hazardous levels this month.
Are we in the first act of a mass extinction that will end in the death of millions of plant and animal species across the planet, including us? Proponents of the “sixth extinction” theory believe the answer is yes.