The amount of warming triggering carbon dioxide in the air reaches a new peak, growing at a near-record pace

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The cause of global warming it shows no signs of slowing down as heat-trapping carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere rose to record highs in its annual spring peak, leaping at one of the fastest rates on record, officials announced Monday.

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Carbon dioxide levels in the air are now at their highest in over 4 million years due to the burning of oil, coal and gas. The last time air had such amounts was during a less hospitable greenhouse on Earth before human civilization took root, scientists said.

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration has announced that the level of carbon dioxide measured in Hawaii in May averaged 424 parts per million.. That’s 3 parts per million higher than the May average of last year and 51% higher than pre-industrial levels of 280ppm. It’s one of the largest May-to-May annual increases on record in carbon dioxide levels, trailing only 2016 and 2019, which had jumps of 3.7 and 3.4 parts per million.

For me as an atmospheric scientist, this trend is very concerning, said Arlyn Andrews, leader of NOAA’s greenhouse gas monitoring group. Not only is CO2 continuing to rise despite efforts to start cutting emissions, but it’s rising faster than it was 10 or 20 years ago.

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Emissions used to be rising by perhaps 1 part per million a year, but now they’re rising at double or even triple the rate, depending on whether or not there is an El Nino, Andrews said.

The relentless rise in atmospheric CO2 is incredibly worrying if not entirely predictable, said Brown University climate scientist Kim Cobb, who was not part of the research.

Carbon dioxide levels are rising so that each year is higher than the last. However, there is a seasonal cycle with carbon dioxide so that it reaches its maximum saturation point in May. That’s because two-thirds of the globes are in the Northern Hemisphere and plants suck in carbon dioxide from the air, so during late spring and summer carbon dioxide levels drop until they start to rise again in November, he said Andrews.

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Carbon dioxide levels rise the most during El Nino climate cycles because it is driest in the Northern Hemisphere. An El Nino is brewing. That 3.0 increase could be a sign of an El Nino bump, she said.

There are two main ways to monitor greenhouse gases. One is to monitor what comes out of smokestacks and sewage pipes, but about half is absorbed by oceans and land, Andrews said.

The other way is to measure the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. NOAA and partner agencies measure worldwide. Hawaii has the longest history of direct measurements and is home to the Scripps Institution of Oceanographys Keeling Curve, which has been tracking carbon in the air since 1958, when the May reading peaked at 317.5. Emissions have increased by about 33% since then.

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Current emissions will linger in the atmosphere for thousands of years and continue to trap heat energy near the Earth’s surface for thousands of years, Andrews said.

Because of that, we’re still dealing with the CO2 in the atmosphere that was emitted in the first half of the 20th century, University of Oklahoma meteorology professor Jason Furtado said in an email, who was not part of of monitoring teams. This is why we need to see emissions DECREASE to have a chance to reverse climate change. And even if/when we reverse the rate of CO2 emissions, it will take some time for the climate system to respond.

NOAA had a complication in its reading this year.

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NOAA and Scripps Institution have two distinct monitors that have slightly different measurements. Scripps measured 423.8 parts per million and is often slightly lower than NOAA. Both have been at the remote Mauna Loa volcano for decades, but last November’s eruption cut the power to the NOAA monitor and hasn’t been able to use it since. NOAA established another at Mauna Kea volcano, 21 miles away.

Scripps got its Mauna Loa site up and running and put one on Mauna Kea and their data shows Mauna Kea is an accurate substation for Mauna Loa, Andrews said.

Many activists and scientists advocate a return to levels of 350 parts per million.

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CO2 is now higher than ever in the last 4 to 4.5 million years, when the atmosphere was about 7 degrees Fahrenheit (3.9 degrees Celsius) warmer and sea levels were 5 to 25 meters (16 to 80 feet) ( 16 to 82 feet) taller, Andrews said.

Temperatures were higher with a similar amount of carbon dioxide in the air because carbon dioxide traps heat for so long, and millions of years ago the buildup of carbon dioxide was much more gradual, allowing heat to build up and the ice to melt to raise seas, scientists said.

We are absolutely at levels never seen in human civilization, Furtado said. Humans are conducting a massive carbon-burning experiment on Earth’s climate system, and the results aren’t proving to be impressive for many people on this planet.

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Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter at @borenbears

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The Associated Press’s climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. Learn more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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