The Story of Co2: NYT Feature of Charles Keeling


Justin Gillis, writing in yesterday's NY Times has a captivating profile of Charles David Keeling, the American scientist who first designed methods for measuring atmospheric Co2. It's a fascinating glimpse of the meticulous man whose observatory -- perched high up on the edge of a Hawaiian volcano -- has made our understanding of the earth's changing climate possible.

Gillis uses Keeling's personal and professional life as the foundation for a larger review of the science and politics of climate change. There are also brief moments of insight and sadness that put the dry numbers of atmospheric Co2 levels (currently at 390ppm) back into their broader context. What emerges is a picture of a man with a passion for precision - not for precision's sake -- but because he understood what those rising numbers said about our relationship to the ecosystems that make our lives here possible. 

The full article is here, I've posted some of my favorite excerpts after the jump.

Perhaps the biggest reason the world learned of the risk of global warming was the unusual personality of a single American scientist. Charles David Keeling’s son Ralph remembers that when he was a child, his family bought a new home in Del Mar, Calif., north of San Diego. His father assigned him the task of edging the lawn. Dr. Keeling insisted that Ralph copy the habits of the previous owner, an Englishman who had taken pride in his garden, cutting a precise two-inch strip between the sidewalk and the grass.

...

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.

Some of the most important data came from an analyzer he placed in a government geophysical observatory that had been set up a few years earlier in a remote location: near the top of Mauna Loa, one of the volcanoes that loom over the Big Island of Hawaii.

He quickly made profound discoveries. One was that carbon dioxide oscillated slightly according to the seasons. Dr. Keeling realized the reason: most of the world’s land is in the Northern Hemisphere, and plants there were taking up carbon dioxide as they sprouted leaves and grew over the summer, then shedding it as the leaves died and decayed in the winter.

He had discovered that the earth itself was breathing.

A more ominous finding was that each year, the peak level was a little higher than the year before. Carbon dioxide was indeed rising, and quickly. That finding electrified the small community of scientists who understood its implications. Later chemical tests, by Dr. Keeling and others, proved that the increase was due to the combustion of fossil fuels.

Throughout much of his career, Dr. Keeling was cautious about interpreting his own measurements. He left that to other people while he concentrated on creating a record that would withstand scrutiny.
...
In later years, as the scientific evidence about climate change grew, Dr. Keeling’s interpretations became bolder, and he began to issue warnings. In an essay in 1998, he replied to claims that global warming was a myth, declaring that the real myth was that “natural resources and the ability of the earth’s habitable regions to absorb the impacts of human activities are limitless.”

In an interview in La Jolla, Dr. Keeling’s widow, Louise, said that if her husband had lived to see the hardening of the political battle lines over climate change, he would have been dismayed.

“He was a registered Republican,” she said. “He just didn’t think of it as a political issue at all.”

Many countries have, in principle, embraced the idea of trying to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, feeling that any greater warming would pose unacceptable risks. As best scientists can calculate, that means about one trillion tons of carbon can be burned and the gases released into the atmosphere before emissions need to fall to nearly zero.

“It took 250 years to burn the first half-trillion tons,” Myles R. Allen, a leading British climate scientist, said in a briefing. “On current trends, we’ll burn the next half-trillion in less than 40.”

Unless more serious efforts to convert to a new energy system begin soon, scientists argue, it will be impossible to hit the 3.6-degree target, and the risk will increase that global warming could spiral out of control by century’s end.

As he watches these difficulties, Ralph Keeling [an atmospheric scientist himself, managing the Co2 measurement program] contemplates the unbending math of carbon dioxide emissions first documented by his father more than a half-century ago and wonders about the future effects of that increase.

“When I go see things with my children, I let them know they might not be around when they’re older,” he said. “ ‘Go enjoy these beautiful forests before they disappear. Go enjoy the glaciers in these parks because they won’t be around.’ It’s basically taking note of what we have, and appreciating it, and saying goodbye to it.”

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

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