Nov 30, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Mauna Loa volcano eruption halts recording of key climate data

Average monthly atmospheric CO2 levels at Mauna Loa Observatory
Data: NOAA; Chart: Thomas Oide/Axios

The famous Keeling Curve may soon have a rare data gap.

Driving the news: The Mauna Loa eruption on Monday cut power to the observatory where atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are measured, according to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Why it matters: The Keeling Curve, which shows the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since 1958, provides vivid evidence of the effects of burning fossil fuels.

  • The measurements, taken nearly continuously since 1958, show that CO2 levels are higher now than at any time in at least 3 million years.

The big picture: Mauna Loa's spectacular eruption is forcing Ralph Keeling, the son of Charles David Keeling, who began carbon dioxide measurements on the peak in 1958, to find a similar location to take CO2 readings in the meantime.

  • Such observations would then be used as a proxy to help account for the period of missing Mauna Loa data.
  • The observatory, which NOAA operates, is ideal for taking CO2 readings because it stands at 11,315 feet, well above the higher, transient pollution levels present below, and is free of vegetation.
  • It is also remote and representative of the global atmosphere.

Between the lines: In an interview, Keeling told Axios there is an "all-hands-on-deck" effort to find a nearby, suitable location to gather CO2 measurements.

  • "In the long run, but I don't know how long, the station will be up again. So the record will continue as before, and we'll have some kind of gap where the data is slightly different or missing," Keeling said.

Context: This is not the first time an interruption occurred, but they have been rare. A three-month gap took place due to budget cuts in 1964, according to Keeling, while a break (though not a gap in the chart, which shows monthly readings) occurred during an eruption in 1984.

  • Keeling says this eruption's impacts may be worse than in 1964 because lava cut off road access to the summit and power. Both need to be repaired.
  • The observatory itself is not threatened, he said.

The bottom line: While other observatories around the world will continue to take CO2 measurements, Keeling said unique insights can be gained from Mauna Loa's continuous record.

  • "The ability to detect some subtle change is better if you have a really good baseline, and Mauna Loa is our best baseline."

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