CO2 Levels Hit New Record

  • Kelly Shen ’23, image from

For the first time, CO2 levels in the atmosphere have surpassed 420 parts per million (ppm = 1 particle of CO2 per 1 million particles of air). Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii has been monitoring weather and climate since the 1950’s and reported the news on April 5th, after recording a daily average of  421.21 ppm, a new record. For comparison, the daily average was 315 ppm only sixty years ago. 

Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at Nasa, is “more certain CO2 causes global heating than smoking causes cancer.” The evidence is strong, as Earth is two degrees warmer than it was before the Industrial Revolution. A warmer atmosphere can mean more frequent droughts, flooding, and storms, leading to dangerous weather.

A product of electricity production, industry, and transportation, the US emits five billion metric tons of CO2 each year. Half of it stays in the atmosphere and heats our planet, while a quarter is absorbed into the sea, leading to ocean acidification. 

The significance of surpassing 420 ppm lies with it being a halfway mark between CO2 levels in the pre-industrial Revolution and doubling that level. Here’s a drawing to help you visualize:

Essentially, CO2 levels now are 1.5 times more than they were before the Industrial Revolution, and we are on track to reach 2 times more by 2060. Though this isn’t the most rewarding of milestones, it highlights how much our planet has changed is such a short time span, due to human activity. 

A double of pre-industrial CO2 levels signifies that the Earth will have a predicted three degree increase in temperature. Studies show that doubling CO2 levels are going to raise temperatures between 4 and 8 degrees, which is more extreme than previous models have assumed. Because CO2 accumulates, it will build-up from previous years’ emissions.

On the bright side, a dramatic reduction in CO2 emissions was reported from last year’s pandemic. While we can’t turn around emissions in a single day, we can always opt to bike instead of drive, or switch to LEDs instead of bulbs.

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