MAUNA LOA, Hawaii — Aiden Colton takes a deep breath, holds it and extends a globelike glass flask away from his body. He counts to 10 and then quickly caps it before exhaling.

The air is thin up here at 11,000 feet. It’s also pure, situated in the center of the Pacific. And that’s exactly what Colton wants to collect.

Scientists have sampled the air at Mauna Loa Observatory since 1958. As Hawaii was about to become a state, Charles Keeling was laying the foundation of modern climate change research.

He detected seasonal cycles of carbon dioxide concentrations as plants grew in the summer and died in the winter. The Earth essentially takes one deep breath in and one deep breath out every year.

Scientists at Mauna Loa Observatory, about 11,000 feet up on Hawaii’s second-highest volcano, have collected air samples since the 1950s to measure CO2 in the atmosphere. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2019

But Keeling’s greatest discovery was the link he found between the global increase in fossil fuel emissions and CO2 levels. His chart showing this upward trend became known as the Keeling Curve.

In May, a new record was set on Mauna Loa. Carbon dioxide levels reached 415 parts per million, the highest point in human history.

That’s a steep increase from the levels Keeling was recording in the 1960s when it was about 315 parts per million. It’s more than double the levels recorded during the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s and early 1800s and it’s well above even the highest fluctuations in CO2 from hundreds of thousands of years ago, as ice core samples have shown from under Greenland and Antarctica.

“We’re seeing increases that are a hundred times faster than anything we’ve seen looking back at ice core data,” says Colton, one of several technicians at the station.

Scientist Charles Keeling started recording carbon dioxide levels from Mauna Loa Observatory in 1958. He linked the rise in CO2 levels in the Earth’s atmosphere to the increase in fossil fuel emissions worldwide. 

The atmosphere is primarily oxygen and nitrogen. Less than 1% of it are trace gases like carbon dioxide but those are what make life possible on this planet.

“We’re living in a delicate balance,” Colton says. “It’s not that greenhouse gases are bad. It’s that we are affecting the equilibrium.”

Mauna Loa Weather Aidean Colton NOAA Mauna Loa Observatory Technician and Outreach Manager at work inside with tanks of gases.
Aiden Colton, a NOAA technician at Mauna Loa Observatory, collects air samples and works with the equipment at the station. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Three of the last four years saw the highest CO2 levels in the Mauna Loa site’s 60-year history.

“It’s critically important to have these accurate, long-term measurements of CO2 in order to understand how quickly fossil fuel pollution is changing our climate,” Pieter Tans, senior scientist with NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division, said in a statement this summer after the new record was set.

“These are measurements of the real atmosphere,” he said. “They do not depend on any models, but they help us verify climate model projections, which if anything, have underestimated the rapid pace of climate change being observed.”

Mauna Loa Observatory is now part of a worldwide network run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Scientists are also taking daily air samples at stations in American Samoa, the South Pole and the northernmost point of Alaska.

The American Samoa Observatory, located in the middle of the South Pacific, was built in 1974. It monitors CO2 levels in the air much like the stations at Mauna Loa, the South Pole and Alaska.

‘A Little Sobering’

NOAA Lt. j.g. Marisa Gedney, the station chief in American Samoa, runs a bare bones operation. It’s often just her and maybe a groundskeeper at the site on the U.S. island territory’s eastern end.

She spends much of her work day in MacGyver mode. Unlike atop Mauna Loa, she’s much closer to sea level and battling the effects of humidity on the electronics and instrumentation. Geckos have gotten trapped in pumps. Crabs have climbed into some of the inlets.

“It requires a little bit of creative thinking or a lot of patience,” Gedney says during an interview there this summer.

NOAA Lt. j.g. Marisa Gedney explains a Keeling Curve chart at her station in American Samoa. It shows the rise of CO2 levels from samples taken since the 1970s in American Samoa, Hawaii, Alaska and the South Pole. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2019

But the data she’s collecting is telling the same story as the data from Mauna Loa, the South Pole and Alaska. Humans are increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and it’s happening at a faster rate every year.

“It’s a little sobering but also just kind of fascinating to be here and actually see on a day by day and week by week and month by month basis,” she says. “That trend is real.”

The data is left to scientists throughout the world to analyze and interpret, which they have done for decades and continue to do. But it’s up to the public, governments and corporations to do anything with those findings.

“I keep an open mind about everything,” Colton says. “But in a time when we’re talking about trying to reduce our carbon footprint, we’re spewing more emissions into the atmosphere than ever before.”

The Keeling Curve has been cited thousands of times in peer-reviewed studies. Sometimes the papers sit on shelves gathering dust. But they have also formed the basis of global pacts like the Paris accord in which the world’s nations agreed to keep global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mauna Loa Weather NOAA Darryl Kuniyuki Station Chief NOAA Mauna Loa Observatory3.
Hilo native Darryl Kuniyuki has worked at Mauna Loa Observatory since the 1980s. He’s now its station chief. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hilo native Darryl Kuniyuki started working at the Mauna Loa Observatory before Colton was born. In his 37 years at the site, he’s watched the Keeling Curve continue to climb as politicians and activists talk about how to combat climate change.

“I just hope that they come to their senses,” he says while explaining one of the pieces of equipment he maintains at the site. “If you talk to some of our scientists, they think it’s passed the point already.”

Mauna Loa Weather Aidean Colton NOAA Mauna Loa Observatory Technician and Outreach Mgr samples of Gobi Desert and diesel and coal soot collected in the air at Mauna Loa.
Scientists have collected dust at the Mauna Loa station that came from the Gobi Dessert in northern China. They explain that anything put in the atmosphere eventually makes its way around the globe and ends up in your backyard. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Even if everyone in the world capped their fossil fuel emissions at last year’s values, Colton says CO2 levels would still increase by almost 3 parts per million per year. They were increasing less than 1 part per million in the 1960s.

That makes reducing fossil fuel emissions critical to lowering CO2 levels and ultimately slowing the planet’s warming, which scientists have shown is causing sea level rise, stronger storms, more intense wildfires, coral bleaching, extinction, disease and more.

A United Nations report released Tuesday says the world’s wealthiest nations have not stopped the increase in greenhouse gas emissions despite the Paris deal four years ago.

The United States, which is the biggest polluter along with China, has started to pull out of the accord. And both countries polluted more last year, the UN report says.

Colton says people probably won’t change their habits until these long-projected effects of climate change start happening more frequently.

“It’s like a lot of smokers who don’t quit until they get lung cancer,” he says. “Climate change is the same. If it’s not affecting you personally, it’s a lot harder to stop doing the things in your life that you’ve become accustomed to do.

“Because if it was the data itself, you would see a lot more change happening.”

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