May 11, 2018

Credit: AP Photo / R S Iyer

For thousands of years, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere fluctuated relatively consistently (air bubbles trapped in Antarctic ice provide a record of the past). But, since around the 19th century, CO2 levels have been rising and haven’t really stopped. We know this partly because of the work of Charles Keeling. Keeling developed the first technique for accurately measuring CO2 in the air. He set-up a continuous measurement of CO2 on a volcano in Hawaii in 1958. 

When you plot out the data collected over years of CO2 observations, you can see a steady upward curve. It became known as the “Keeling Curve” and was an easy-to-understand piece of evidence for global warming. Ralph Keeling, Charles’ son, has now taken over his father’s work and serves as the Principal Investigator for the Atmospheric Oxygen Research Group at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. He spoke to us on the 60th anniversary of his father’s CO2 measurements. 

Three Takeaways: 

  • When Charles Keeling wanted to regularly test CO2 levels in the atmosphere, he decided to take his work to Hawaii. A weather station atop the Mauna Loa volcano provided the perfect remote setting. It allowed measurements to be taken without interference from trees (which use carbon dioxide) or pollution. 
  • Since the 1970s, politicians have formally discussed the effects of rising CO2. Al Gore, who was a representative from Tennessee in the 1970s, held hearings about the impending impact of climate change. 
  • As Ralph Keeling has watched the debate over climate change play out in the political sphere, he’s disappointed that more hasn’t been done to curb the use of fossil fuels. One particularly concerning potential impact, he says, lies with climate refugees. In all, he says, hundreds of millions of people could be displaced as a result of climate change.  

More Reading and Watching: 

  • In its recent film, Decoding the Weather Machine, NOVA travelled to the Mauna Loa Observatory and talked with Ralph Keeling about the Keeling Curve. 
  • Check out the Keeling Curve for yourself, from the past week to the past 800,000 years, at Scripps’ website
  • The Washington Post wrote about a recent study that looked into which areas of the world would be most affected by climate change. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s those which have done the least to cause it.
  • The New York Times takes a look at Keeling's work, and there's some great pictures in the piece.

global warming, climate change, Green, carbon dioxide, Charles Keeling, CO2, Ralph Keeling

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