The Keeling Curve has measured atmospheric CO2 since 1958. With its death, climate science would lose a vital tool
By Sophie Yeo
Since the 1980s, climate scientists have been trailblazing their way through new frontiers of knowledge, weaving a terrifying tapestry of rising oceans, soaring temperatures and raging storms.
But not the Keeling family. Ralph, and his father Charles before him, have spent the last 50 years etching new numbers onto a graph – what is now known as the Keeling Curve – which traces the rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
It may seem like an almost bureaucratic labour but, in May last year, the graph made headlines with one of the most symbolic announcements about climate change to date: the amount carbon dioxide in the air hit 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in over three million years.
Branded a “grim climate landmark” by leading campaigner Bill McKibben, for scientists the news was another sign the chances of avoiding dangerous levels of global warming are steadily receding.
And now the measurement programme is in danger. Funding has dried up, as agencies come under pressure to provide the money to projects that offer a quicker return for the money, and Ralph Keeling has turned to crowdsourcing to raise some of the necessary funds.
In an interview with RTCC, Keeling says that the first challenge for the programme is just to get it through 2014, for which several hundred thousands of pounds will be required.
This, he says, is certainly more than the crowd funding model will be able to raise, although he has already received a couple of thousand since the appeal started in July.
“There are benefits to this that go way beyond the money that’s bought in,” says Keeling. “The awareness that’s spread by this may play a role in helping get other foundation money or other private money, so it’s been very positive and I’m very grateful.”
The demise of the project would be a sad day for climate science. The Keeling Curve is the longest record the world has of CO2 levels, which have been responsible for raising the global average temperature by 0.8C since preindustrial times, and also of oxygen levels.
“No other programme has measurements on quite the same scale globally or over such a long period of time and our lab’s central to this community effort, so it’s a blow to the world research on this if the programme folds,” says Keeling.
The records were initially a by-product of another project set up by Charles Keeling in 1953 at Caltech, Pasadena, as part of a post-doctoral project aimed at extracting uranium from granite rock.
This morphed into a larger project to measure the volume of CO2 in the atmosphere, with measuring stations set up across the world, with the main one at Mauna Loa in Hawaii. The first measurement was 313ppm in 1958. In May 2013 it hit 400.
When Ralph Keeling took over, he also introduced oxygen measurements – another vital tool in diagnosing the current state of the planet.
The value of the project is that it gives an indication of the health of the planet on a long term basis, upon which the most important judgments about climate change are based.
Paradoxically, he says, this has turned out to be the main challenge in maintaining funding for the project, as government agencies feel an “awkwardness” about continually tying themselves to an old job.
“The problem with adopting that as a formula for science is the most important insight we have about the planet comes from measurements that have continued over decades.
“The science that matters relates to what’s happening decade by decade, not year-on-year increments. So the mismatch between the timescale at which the agencies want to see a return on the science and the actual timescale of the phenomenon that are of interest, that’s why I find myself in this dilemma and the agencies do too.”
While the project has always faced funding dilemmas, the present difficulty lies in keeping the oxygen measurements going. This part of the programme was established by Keeling as an effective way of keeping tabs on the health of the planet.
About half of the carbon dioxide emitting through burning fossil fuels ends up being absorbed by the world’s oceans and forests, and by measuring the oxygen, scientists can tease apart the effectiveness of these vital carbon sinks, and assess how they’re changing over time.
Maintaining the measurements is a difficult task that requires bottles of air being sent back from around 10 stations at remote points across the globe, from Ellesmere Island in the Arctic right down to the South Pole. Money is crucial to maintaining these operations, from shipping the bottles to studying the data to get the final result.
But the effort is worth it: Keeling likens the moment of reaching 400ppm to reading Orwell’s novel 1984 in years post-1984.
“Before 1984, you read the Orwell book and think this is something off in the future. And suddenly you’re there. Of course, fortunately it didn’t turn out the way Orwell imagined – but it seemed like something off in the future and suddenly it’s upon us. This feels like we’re living in the future. It’s a milestone and it’s sobering.”
If the project is to survive in the long term, it needs to become more than a family heirloom. Agencies need to recognise the importance of a continuing stream of funding, rather than a project that is dependent on Keeling’s own ability to constantly rewrite new proposals.
He says that, without him to pass it on to, the Keeling Curve would have ended at his father. He has mixed feelings about the inheritance: “In ways I was happy – in other ways I also felt burdened by it, I have to be honest. I face an interesting dilemma.
“On the one hand there’s a lot of exciting science out there that could be done that would be easier to fund, but frankly none of it feels more important than this stuff that’s not easy to fund. I am committed to keep it going because it feels so important.”