Carbon in Atmosphere Is Rising, Even as Emissions Stabilize
By JUSTIN GILLIS
Jun 26 2017
CAPE GRIM, Tasmania — On the best days, the wind howling across this rugged promontory has not touched land for thousands of miles, and the arriving air seems as if it should be the cleanest in the world.
But on a cliff above the sea, inside a low-slung government building, a bank of sophisticated machines sniffs that air day and night, revealing telltale indicators of the way human activity is altering the planet on a major scale.
For more than two years, the monitoring station here, along with its counterparts across the world, has been flashing a warning: The excess carbon dioxide scorching the planet rose at the highest rate on record in 2015 and 2016. A slightly slower but still unusual rate of increase has continued into 2017.
Scientists are concerned about the cause of the rapid rises because, in one of the most hopeful signs since the global climate crisis became widely understood in the 1980s, the amount of carbon dioxide that people are pumping into the air seems to have stabilized in recent years, at least judging from the data that countries compile on their own emissions.
That raises a conundrum: If the amount of the gas that people are putting out has stopped rising, how can the amount that stays in the air be going up faster than ever? Does it mean the natural sponges that have been absorbing carbon dioxide are now changing?
“To me, it’s a warning,” said Josep G. Canadell, an Australian climate scientist who runs the Global Carbon Project, a collaboration among several countries to monitor emissions trends.
Scientists have spent decades measuring what was happening to all of the carbon dioxide that was produced when people burned coal, oil and natural gas. They established that less than half of the gas was remaining in the atmosphere and warming the planet. The rest was being absorbed by the ocean and the land surface, in roughly equal amounts.
In essence, these natural sponges were doing humanity a huge service by disposing of much of its gaseous waste. But as emissions have risen higher and higher, it has been unclear how much longer the natural sponges will be able to keep up.
Should they weaken, the result would be something akin to garbage workers going on strike, but on a grand scale: The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would rise faster, speeding global warming even beyond its present rate. It is already fast enough to destabilize the weather, cause the seas to rise and threaten the polar ice sheets.
The record increases of airborne carbon dioxide in 2015 and 2016 thus raise the question of whether this has now come to pass. Scientists are worried, but they are not ready to draw that conclusion, saying more time is needed to get a clear picture.
Many of them suspect an El Niño climate pattern that spanned those two years, one of the strongest on record, may have caused the faster-than-usual rise in carbon dioxide, by drying out large parts of the tropics. The drying contributed to huge fires in Indonesia in late 2015 that sent a pulse of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Past El Niños have also produced rapid increases in the gas, though not as large as the recent ones.
Yet scientists are not entirely certain that the El Niño was the main culprit; the idea cannot explain why a high rate of increase in carbon dioxide has continued into 2017, even though the El Niño ended early last year.