Climate change, the Keeling Curve, and why you need to be your own scientist.

Look at it.
Just look at it.

We’ll get to this in a little bit.

Global climate change (more specifically called global warming). Words so often uttered that, to the lay-person, they have almost lost their meaning. It’s unfortunate that words of such importance should fall victim to semantic satiation in a time wherein important decisions are being made (in an almost… executive fashion you could say) that will negatively impact efforts to reverse global climate change’s effects and prevent its increasingly inevitable outcomes.

So what I want to do is try to brush off some of the ambivalence and malaise associated with global climate change (GCC) as a result of its platitudinous usage. Despite being a student of biochemistry and molecular and cell biology (the tiny biosciences), I believe that environmental science, more so than any other, should be understood by every single person. As humans, we are dependent on the world around us. We are not self-sustaining, perpetually operating automatons. We require the nutrients from the food and drink that we consume. We require oxygen from the air that we breathe. We require shelter and clothing to keep warm, dry, and healthy. Could we build homes without lumber? Could we clothe ourselves without fibers from cotton?

We are literally products of our environment. Damage to the environment around us only damages ourselves. And so far, as a species and historically speaking, we have been doing a lousy job of protecting the environment in which we live. Educating ourselves in and becoming observant of climate science will aid in protecting ourselves from the consequences of further damage to our environment. GCC is a multifactorial, important, and dangerous reality. The sooner we can all familiarize ourselves with the problem, the sooner we can find a common solution.

The Basics: Why?

Greenhouse Effect

Imagine it’s a sunny, late-winter day. The outdoor temperature is still quite cool, but your car has been sitting in direct sunlight all day. You get in your car and find that it’s exceptionally warm. That’s the greenhouse effect.

Earth’s atmosphere is primarily made up of the gases Nitrogen (~78%), Oxygen (~21%), and Argon (~0.9%). The remaining 0.1% is composed of a combination of the gases CO2, water vapor, methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), ozone (O3), and various chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons [KLOR-o-FLOR-o-CAR-bun] (CFCs). These gases are categorized as ‘greenhouse gases’ due to the warming effect they have on Earth.

In the atmosphere, these gases act quite like the windshield of a car. Light from the sun passes through the layer of greenhouse gases on the way to Earth and warms up the surface, water, and the lower levels of the atmosphere. In this way, the light from the sun is converted from light energy to heat (infrared energy). Greenhouse gases act as a barrier against infrared energy, thus trapping the heat in.

This mechanism of trapping heat is one factor in why life has been able to thrive on Earth, but the increasing concentration of heat-reflecting greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is giving rise to a dangerous level of global heat retention among other unhealthy outcomes.


Take another look at the graph above. This is an extension of the Keeling Curve (horizontal=time, vertical=atmospheric CO2 concentration) which includes data taken from ancient air bubbles frozen in time within ice cores that allow us to extrapolate past atmospheric gas levels. The original (below) has been kept since 1958 and was started at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory by Charles David Keeling of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

Combining the two records, we have a record of atmospheric carbon levels that goes back 800,000 years, revealing normal and… abnormal global trends. One can clearly see the effect that human industrialization has had on our Earth’s atmosphere.

Keeling used a nondispersive infrared sensor, which uses light to detect specific gases, to measure atmospheric levels of CO2. What he originally found was that atmospheric carbon levels were increasing steadily at just over 1 ppm per year. Imagine a bowl filled with 1 million M&Ms. If one of these M&Ms was blue and the other 999,999 were red, the concentration of blue M&Ms in the bowl is one part per million. 1 ppm.

This doesn’t seem like much, but given enough time and the increasing demand for fossil fuels as the world’s populations develop further, this rate of carbon deposition in Earth’s atmosphere will spell disaster for us resident Earthlings. Already the current rate of change is dancing around 2 ppm/year (NOAA).

Estimates of ice-age or otherwise preindustrial atmospheric carbon levels range from 250-290 ppm1. At the time of Keeling’s first measurements, it was at about 310 ppm2. As I am writing this article, the current measurement is 410.14 ppm. Though it helps, you don’t really need the graph below to see a trend. If these aren’t convincing data, I don’t know what is.

You may be wondering: why do the CO2 levels oscillate every year? The oscillations coincide with the northern hemisphere’s seasonal changes. Because the northern hemisphere holds the vast majority of the Earth’s landmass, it also holds the majority of the Earth’s vegetation. The oscillations are a manifestation of vegetative carbon consumption cycles. If only there were some way we could reduce carbon emission and deforestation and just leave Earth’s wisest biological kingdom to stabilize the atmosphere.

There is a great and harrowing simulation that shows the emission of fossil fuels between 2011-2012 using open-source economic data here.

Solar Output Variation

USGCRP (2009)

Of course there are non-human factors that affect our climate. The amount of solar
energy the sun puts
out is not constant. Its variable energy output is subject to change and this change does affect climate here on Earth. The data show that the sun undergoes 11 year cycles of oscillating energy output that can affect Earth’s surface temperature, but there is no evidence of an overall increase in solar energy output across cycles, meaning that the Earth’s warming trend is not attributable to this phenomenon (right).

The Basics: What Has Been Affected & Implications?

Alright so atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations are rising and us humans are at fault, but how does that actually translate into something as sinister as global climate change? Here is where we encounter the various reasons why global climate change and global warming are two separate, albeit interconnected concepts.

Global Surface Temperature

Let’s start with the most ubiquitous association: the link between increasing anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentration and global warming. What is really causing the warming effect?

Simple diagram I drew up to illustrate how atmospheric gases can trap solar energy as heat. Edit: “Reflected from surface” should read “Radiated from surface.”

The sun emits a wide range of wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, from x-rays (high energy) to radio waves (low energy) and everything in between. The vast majority of this emitted energy is in the visible and near-visible wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum.

As I mentioned before, when visible and ultraviolet light is absorbed in the atmosphere on the Earth’s surface, it emits infrared (heat) energy that is trapped the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, the result being a warm Earth. This phenomenon allows for a thriving Earth as opposed to one that is cold and desolate.

However, the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases, namely carbon dioxide, gives rise to the increasing trend of global average and anomalous temperatures.

Annual Temperature Anomoly
NASA: Earth Observatory
Annual Temperature vs Average
NASA: Earth Observatory

The most obvious effect of these rising temperatures is the accelerating melting of the polar ice caps. According to NASA, global sea ice is melting away at a rate of 13.3% per decade. The amount of land-bound ice is disappearing quickly as well.

While not many humans reside (relative to other areas of the world), there is a preponderance of animal life that call areas of land and sea ice home. Most familiarly, polar bear populations have been damaged by the reduction in ice in the Arctic. Being that polar bears are an important keystone species, a designation given to species that play an important role in regulating ecosystems, the melting of their habitats holds considerable potential for ecological damage.

In addition to damaging ecosystems, the melting of land-bound ice poses another problem: Rising sea levels.

While the melting of sea ice does not contribute to rising sea levels as it is already displacing water as it floats (picture ice melting in a glass of ice water), melting land-bound ice has been contributing to rising sea levels for some time.

data graph

Researchers have found that the sea level has risen approximately 200mm (8 inches) over the past 130 years, an average rate of 1.5 mm per year, and is currently rising at a rate of 3.4mm per year (NASA).

Models of global sea level changes indicate that by the end of the 21<sup>st</sup> century, sea levels will rise between 0.2 and 2.0 meters, or about 8 inches to 6.5 feet. This is admittedly a broad range, but the result at either end of the scale is drastically increasing flood frequencies in the heavily populated coastal regions around the globe.

Ocean Temperature & Acidification

Heat sinks are objects that are more capable of absorbing heat energy than other objects in their environment. Common elements of computers, heat sinks protect the fragile machinery within a computer from the heat it produces by absorbing and dissipating it safely.

Color-coded map of the world showing changes in average sea surface temperature from 1901 to 2015.
Trend of increasing ocean surface temperatures. (1901-2015; IPCC)3

The oceans that cover about 70% of Earth’s surface act as a global heat sink, absorbing some of the heat energy in the atmosphere. In the years since industrialization, the surface temperature of the Earth’s oceans has increased drastically – as much as 4oF in some local areas.

This means that these ocean surface temperatures, in many areas, are increasing even more quickly than land surface temperatures. But why should we care if the ocean is slightly warmer? Does it really make a difference? Short answer – Yup.

In reality, these temperature increases are not just “small differences”. The amount of energy that is required to warm the unfathomably large volume of water at the ocean’s surfaces is astronomical, and while a century may seem like a long time, the fact that these changes are caused by anthropogenic factors is foreboding. We have done a lot of damage in a short amount of time.

Only a few months ago it was reported that the large spans of the Great Barrier Reef are now dead, with the rest dying rapidly.

Coral reefs are beautiful, dynamic, and LIVING ecosystems, the foundation of which are

Healthy Coral
Bleached Coral

marine invertebrates that sequester calcium carbonate (CaCO3) to excrete hard exoskeletons on which colorful species of algae grow. These algae (zooxanthellae) form symbiotic relationships with the coral as the coral give them a place to grow and, in return, they provide the coral with energy to grow.

Zooxanthellae grow under specific temperature conditions and, when stressed, will abandon the coral, cutting off the corals energy source. When this happens the coral take on a sickly pale color and often die.

Given that the Great Barrier Reef is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a hotspot of biodiversity contributing to overall marine health, its death is a reality that nobody should be comfortable with.

The temperature of the ocean is not all that is affected by global climate change. We have also observed dramatic shifts in oceanic pH (acidity) attributable to the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide. According to the EPA, the ocean absorbs about 1/3 of human-produced carbon dioxide. Not only is the ocean a heat sink, but it’s a carbon sink as well.

Acidity is a measurement of the concentration of free hydrogen (H+) molecules in a solution. Acidity is often measured in terms of pH, a mathematic formulation that allows for acidity to be easily represented as a number between 0 and 14, 0 being very acidic and 14 being just the opposite.

File:PH scale 2.png

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, average ocean pH was about 8.2. Today, average ocean pH is about 8.1. This might not seem like much of a difference, but the relationship between pH and acidity is not direct. Each decrease of one pH unit is a ten-fold increase in acidity. This means that the acidity of the ocean today, on average, is about 25% higher than it was during preindustrial times. –

But how does carbon dioxide, something we think of as typically being an atmospheric gas, contribute to ocean acidification?

Atmospheric, or gaseous, carbon dioxide readily diffuses into water, dissolving just as salt or sugar. This dissolved or aqueous carbon dioxide reacts with the water in the ocean, to form carbonic acid (H2CO3 by stripping away hydrogen molecules from the H2O. Carbonic acid can then release these hydrogen molecules, increasing overall H+ concentration and forming carbonate (CO3).

Diagram depicting the process by which CO2 diffuses into the ocean and reacts with water to form carbonic acid.

So how is ocean acidification harmful? Higher than average acidity has been found to negatively affect metabolism, growth, and reproduction in marine life. Additionally, carbonic acid reacts with carbonate ions to form bicarbonate (HCO3), thus reducing oceanic carbonate levels.4

Calcium carbonate (CaCO3) is important in the development of a large number of marine organisms. It’s used in the production of coral exoskeletons, sea urchin teeth, shells used by many marine invertebrates such as clams and mussels, and internal structures of some cephalopods (octopi, squid, and cuttlefish). Carbonate deficient environments that ocean acidification is capable of producing hinders the developement of these organisms.

National Environmental Education Foundation

Human Health

The potential for global climate change impacting human health is substantial and complex. Human health outcomes are affected by, and often results of, our environment. As our Earth’s climate changes, our ability to adapt to the effects of these changes will dictate the fate of our wellbeing.


As global atmospheric temperature increases, so too does the duration and frequency of intense heat waves. Extreme heat can be deadly, especially for older and younger populations who are less able to efficiently regulate body temperature and are thus more susceptible to the negative respiratory and cardiovascular effects it can have on their health. Additionally, people in lower socioeconomic status populations may not have access to air conditioning and consistent and reliable shelter from the elements.

Also increasing frequency of dangerous wildfires. Do I have to say any more about that?

Furthermore, increasing air temperature may be contributing to increasing incidence of crop failure5. Many of us are fortunate enough to be able to buy grocers at supermarkets that source their tomatoes (for example) from multiple sources. If one region is having trouble growing a crop, a supermarket might get their tomatoes from a different distributor, thus we never have to go without our salsa or homemade pasta sauce. However, not all people have access to the incredible variety a supermarket provides. Many people rely on crops produced from their own farms or other local providers.

If global climate change is left unbridled, and crop failure incidence increases, those who do not have access to imported foods may suffer food shortages as a result.

Air Quality

I think we can all agree that air is important. Characteristics of global climate change, like changing weather patterns and warming temperatures, have the potential to increase the formation of ground-level ozone, an atmospheric gas that can have cause respiratory complications, like inflammation and asthma, in high concentrations.

Extreme Weather Events

The increase in heat waves and dry spells are not the only weather-related impacts of global climate change. It has also given rise to events of extreme levels of precipitation, causing flooding which often results in property damage, injury, and death. Additionally, the increasing frequency of extreme storm events is linked to global climate change and has the potential to be extremely harmful.

While storms certainly can be harmful, oftentimes the greatest impacts on human health are due to the conditions the storms leave behind. Bridges and roads can be washed out, limiting access to medical services and electrical power can be lost and homes damaged, limiting the effectiveness of their shelter.

Water and Vector-Borne Disease

The geographical distribution of disease is very much a function of local climate. Many pathogens that cause disease only thrive under certain environmental conditions. This is why people that live in Scandinavian countries do not typically have to worry about contracting tropical diseases like Chagas Disease, as the insect that carries the disease-causing parasite cannot survive the cold environment.

But as local climates shift and temperatures increase, the environments that previously would not have been suitable for harmful pathogens suddenly become quite cozy.

Suddenly, water that was otherwise relatively safe to drink because it was too cold to harbor Giardia, becomes a breeding ground for the harmful microbes that cause severe diarrhea.

Suddenly, environments that were too cold to host certain insect vectors (carriers of disease-causing pathogens), allow for their migration, introducing a cavalcade of new diseases never before experienced by the region.

Look up specific health impacts by state. (U.S. only). 

We Should All Be Science Advocates

In giving the commencement speech at Cal Tech in June of 2016, renowned surgeon and author, Atul Gawande, said “Science is not a major or a career. It is a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, an allegiance to a way of building knowledge and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation.”

The results found and the data collected in empirically conducted science are truths of the reality in which we live. Reality does not have an agenda, nor does it play favorites. Reality applies to all things equally. As residents of reality, we do ourselves and our future a disservice by ignoring or denying scientific findings beyond the threshold over which it becomes unreasonable, whether it’s for pride or personal gain.

As Gawande mentions, being a scientist does not have to be a career, but a mindset. By opening ourselves up to the reality in which we live and the truths that have been found, while remaining skeptical of the anecdotal and unproven, we all contribute to our collective human knowledge as well as a more positive future.


Scripps Institute of Oceanography Daily Atmospheric CO2 Concentration Update

Environmental Protection Agency (All references to global climate change scrubbed by the Trump administration.)

Environmental Protection Agency (Helpful Archived Version)

  1. Neftel, A.; Moor, E.; Oeschger, H.; Stauffer, B. (1985). “Evidence from polar ice cores for the increase in atmospheric CO2 in the past two centuries”. Nature. 315 (6014): 45–47
  2. Keeling, Charles D. “The Concentration and Isotopic Abundances of Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere.” Tellus 12.2 (1960): 200-03.
  3. IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). 2013. Climate change 2013: The physical science basis. Working Group I contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
  4. IAP (June 2009). “Interacademy Panel (IAP) Member Academies Statement on Ocean Acidification”., Secretariat: TWAS (the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World), Trieste, Italy.
  5. Challinor, Andrew J., et al. “Increased crop failure due to climate change: assessing adaptation options using models and socio-economic data for wheat in China.” Environmental Research Letters 5.3 (2010): 034012.


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