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Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues its relentless climb.
December 29, 2010 1:46 AM

The NY Times ran a rather powerful profile on a very important climate scientist who died a few years ago:

Two gray machines sit inside a pair of utilitarian buildings here, sniffing the fresh breezes that blow across thousands of miles of ocean.

They make no noise. But once an hour, they spit out a number, and for decades, it has been rising relentlessly.

The first machine of this type was installed on Mauna Loa in the 1950s at the behest of Charles David Keeling, a scientist from San Diego. His resulting discovery, of the increasing level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, transformed the scientific understanding of humanity's relationship with the earth. A graph of his findings is inscribed on a wall in Washington as one of the great achievements of modern science.

Keeling was the first scientist to start measuring how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere:

When Dr. Keeling, as a young researcher, became the first person in the world to develop an accurate technique for measuring carbon dioxide in the air, the amount he discovered was 310 parts per million. That means every million pints of air, for example, contained 310 pints of carbon dioxide.

Stunningly,

By 2005, the year he died, the number had risen to 380 parts per million. Sometime in the next few years it is expected to pass 400. Without stronger action to limit emissions, the number could pass 560 before the end of the century, double what it was before the Industrial Revolution.

And what would a doubling of the amount of carbon dioxide mean for our planet?

If the amount of carbon dioxide doubles, the average surface temperature of the earth is likely to increase by 5 or 6 degrees Fahrenheit, a whopping change, while Dr. Richard Alley, summarizing studies published by others, estimates the upper range as an increase of 16 degrees Fahrenheit.

The risks include melting ice sheets, rising seas, more droughts and heat waves, more flash floods, worse storms, extinction of many plants and animals, depletion of sea life and -- perhaps most important -- difficulty in producing an adequate supply of food. Many of these changes are taking place at a modest level already, the scientists say, but are expected to intensify.

But back to Dr. Keeling:

Dr. Keeling was a punctilious man. It was by no means his defining trait -- relatives and colleagues described a man who played a brilliant piano, loved hiking mountains and might settle a friendly argument at dinner by pulling an etymological dictionary off the shelf.

But the essence of his scientific legacy was his passion for doing things in a meticulous way. It explains why, even as challengers try to pick apart every other aspect of climate science, his half-century record of carbon dioxide measurements stands unchallenged.


The article is an important one
that traces one of the most influential - and least known - climate scientists of the last half of the 20th century.


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