Environmental Laboratory

Antarctic Carbon Dioxide Concentration Hits 440PPM for First Time in Four Million Years

Jul 29 2016 Comments 0

Due to the ever-increasing industrialisation of the world, the amount of carbon in our atmosphere has been steadily accumulating over the last couple of centuries. Indeed, in 2013 the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, USA, observed the first time that a region of the Earth reached above 400 parts per million (PPM) of carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the history of the human race.

In the intervening three years, the rest of the world has slowly caught up to that northern hemispherical spike, and last year, the average global CO2 concentration crept above 400PPM for one month. However, the further and more remote reaches of the planet had escaped such contamination – until now.

Antarctic joins the PPM party late

On May 23rd, the continent of Antarctica finally surpassed the 400PPM mark, making it the last region on Earth to succumb to our relentless pollution of the atmosphere. It’s the first time that the continent has witnessed such high levels of CO2 in at least four million years.

Not only is Antarctica remote in terms of geographical placement on the globe and the logistical practicalities of human inhabitation, it’s also pretty much as far away from the northern hemisphere as you can get. Since the majority of the human population lives in the northern hemisphere, this is also where the larger part of industry takes place and where a significant proportion of pollution originates.

“The increase of carbon dioxide is everywhere, even as far away as you can get from civilization,” explained Pieter Tans, a researcher specialising in carbon monitoring at the Environmental Science Research Laboratory. “If you emit carbon dioxide in New York, some fraction of it will be in the South Pole next year.”

Due to its location at the furthest corner of the world and the extreme climatic conditions there, the Antarctic can in fact act as a sort of frozen diary for manmade pollution on Earth. By searching for heavy metal traces in the snow, scientists can analyse how our emissions have evolved over the years, decades and centuries.

What does this mean for the future of planet Earth?

Experts surmise that it’s highly unlikely that Antarctic levels of CO2 concentration will ever dip beneath the 400PPM again, largely due to the absence of CO2 seasonal cycle. Once the gas is there, it’s not expected to move anywhere – but rather will accumulate as we continue to emit the harmful substance into our atmosphere through energy generation and consumption.

Meanwhile, other recent research suggests that global averages are unlikely to return to sub-400PPM levels, at least in our lifetimes. As such, the passing of the threshold in the world’s most remote corner represents a foreboding milestone for the future of planet Earth.

How our negligent behaviour will impact the ecosystems and animals which call the region home remains an area open to conjecture, but scientists have been developing and pursuing a number of techniques (including tabletop electron microscopy) to try and determine the ultimate effect climate change will have on the South Pole. One thing’s for sure – there’s no going back.

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