Since 1958, this Big Island outpost has told the story of a warming planet

Since 1958, this Big Island outpost has told the story of a warming planet
An observatory atop Mauna Loa has recorded carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere since 1958. (Source: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - At 11,100 feet on the northern slopes of Mauna Loa, a small NOAA facility records the story of man’s warming impact on the planet, year after year after year.

Since 1958, it’s been collecting data on carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

And the data it’s now collecting is alarming — and unprecedented.

Greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, are those responsible for trapping heat from the sun and warming the planet. They’re the emissions from our power stations, transportation and modern lives.

Aidan Colton helps operate the Mauna Loa observatory, the premier facility of its kind on the planet.
Aidan Colton helps operate the Mauna Loa observatory, the premier facility of its kind on the planet. (Source: Hawaii News Now)

In May 2019, the facility recorded an alarming new baseline for carbon dioxide levels: 415 parts per million of carbon dioxide.

This story is presented as part of HNN’s new three-part documentary series, “A Climate for Change.” To watch the first episode and see more coverage on the impacts of climate change in Hawaii, click here.

Earth’s atmosphere hasn’t contained that much carbon dioxide in more than three million years. Back then, the average temperature of the globe was much higher ― and Antarctica had forests.

James Butler, director of the Global Monitoring Division at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, said he’s often approached by people who ask, “What’s the big deal?”

The Mauna Loa observatory that's been tracking carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere has helped tell the story of the warming planet.
The Mauna Loa observatory that's been tracking carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere has helped tell the story of the warming planet. (Source: Hawaii News Now)

Hasn’t the Earth always seen rises and declines of carbon dioxide levels?

To answer that, he points to the last 800,000 years of ice flow records. Over that period, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere fluctuated from 180 to 220 parts per million.

In 100 years, humans have pushed that number to an average of 410 parts per million.

“When carbon dioxide was 180 parts per million, you got a huge ice age,” he said. “When it’s at 410, you’re going to see something different that you have during the entirety of human civilization.”

And while the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down industries around the globe, drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions around the world, the decline hasn’t yet been recorded in Mauna Loa’s data.

In fact, in early April, the observatory recorded an all-time daily record of 416 parts per million.

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