May 13, 2019

Earth's carbon dioxide level slips past another ominous milestone

Smoke and steam rise from a coal-fired power plant in Germany. Photo: Oliver Berg/picture alliance via Getty Images

The concentration of carbon dioxide, the main, long-lived greenhouse gas causing global climate change, in Earth's atmosphere has reached new heights, according to scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Why it matters: The new reading of 415.26 parts per million (ppm) on May 11 was the first daily baseline at Hawaii's Mauna Loa Observatory to eclipse 415 ppm. That observatory has kept long-term record of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since 1958. That data, known as the Keeling Curve, traces the continuous increase in the amount of this greenhouse gas in the Earth's atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.

  • Other observatories around the world also track this increase, which mainly results from burning fossil fuels, deforestation and other human activities. Studies of so-called proxy records detailing the composition of the atmosphere throughout Earth's history show that carbon dioxide levels are now at their highest point in at least 800,000 — and possibly as many as 3 million — years.

Details: The daily carbon dioxide milestone is largely symbolic, as peaks tend to occur in the Northern Hemisphere each spring. Scientists pay more attention to longer-term trends, rather than the daily data.

  • "The average growth rate is remaining on the high end," says Ralph Keeling, director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography's CO2 program, via Twitter. Keeling's father, Charles, began the original CO2 observations in Hawaii.
  • "The increase from last year will probably be around three parts per million whereas the recent average has been 2.5 ppm," Keeling said.

The big picture: Scientists have warned that if the world is to limit global warming to 1.5°C, or 2.7°F, above pre-industrial levels, then sharp emissions cuts have to begin in the next few years, with the world headed for negative emissions — meaning more carbon dioxide is removed by the planet's oceans, forests and other systems — than is emitted by the end of the century.

  • Otherwise Earth will see carbon dioxide concentrations exceeding 450 ppm, which will yield larger increases in global sea levels than we've seen so far, along with increasingly severe extreme weather events, such as heat waves and heavy precipitation events.

What's next: Scientists from Scripps and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will likely announce a new carbon dioxide monthly record in early June. A new annual figure will come out in early 2020.

Go deeper: Global carbon dioxide emissions reached record high in 2018

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Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 7 p.m. ET: 932,605 — Total deaths: 46,809 — Total recoveries: 193,177Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 7 p.m. ET: 213,372 — Total deaths: 4,757 — Total recoveries: 8,474Map.
  3. Business updates: Very small businesses are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus job crisis.
  4. World update: Spain’s confirmed cases surpassed 100,000, and the nation saw its biggest daily death toll so far. More than 500 people were reported dead within the last 24 hours in the U.K., per Johns Hopkins.
  5. State updates: Florida and Pennsylvania are the latest states to issue stay-at-home orders — Michigan has more than 9,000 confirmed cases, an increase of 1,200 and 78 new deaths in 24 hours.
  6. Stock market updates: Stocks closed more than 4% lower on Wednesday, continuing a volatile stretch for the stock market amid the coronavirus outbreak.
  7. What should I do? Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk.
  8. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

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World coronavirus updates: Spain's health care system overloaded

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens and confirmed plus presumptive cases from the CDC

Two planes with protective equipment arrived to restock Spain’s overloaded public health system on Wednesday as confirmed cases surpassed 100,000 and the nation saw its biggest death toll so far, Reuters reports.

The big picture: COVID-19 cases surged past 900,000 and the global death toll surpassed 45,000 early Wednesday, per Johns Hopkins data. Italy has reported more than 12,000 deaths.

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FBI sees record number of gun background checks amid coronavirus

Guns on display at a store in Manassas, Va. Photo: Yasin Ozturk / Anadolu Agency via Getty

The FBI processed a record 3.7 million gun background checks in March — more than any month previously reported, according to the agency's latest data.

Driving the news: The spike's timing suggests it may be driven at least in part by the coronavirus.