World’s Oldest Direct Measure Of Atmospheric CO2 May Lose Its Funding

CREDIT: AP Photo / Chris Stewart

The Mauna Loa Observatory atmospheric research facility on the island of Hawaii.

The oldest and most well-known direct measurement of atmospheric carbon dioxide is in danger of losing its funding, according to USA Today.

The Keeling Curve is run by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, and was started by scientist Charles David Keeling in 1958. Since then it’s grown from a single measurement taken near the top of Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii to 13 different measuring sites spread across the globe. It’s the longest-running record of direct instrumental readings of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Other records trace back hundreds of thousands of years, but rely on indirect measurements using data from ice cores and the like.

Keeling died in 2005, after which his son Ralph Keeling, also a physicist, took over the job of running the measurements.

Nor is budget trouble a new thing for the program. It’s had to deal with losses of funding from the National Science Foundation before, for example, and has had to cut to staff to maintain operations on smaller budgets.

“The programs have been supported over the years almost entirely through a bundle of federal grants, typically each lasting three years or so, with several grants running at one time,” Keeling said on the Scripps blog, adding that the process is “haphazard.”

“This past year was especially difficult, as several grants came to the end of their funding cycles and the landscape for support within the federal agencies, for a variety of complex reasons, was especially problematic.”

According to USA Today, the program requires about $1 million a year in total to keep going. A recent crowd funding effort brought in some new money, and some new private sources have stepped up as awareness of the program’s trouble spread. But private donors are often skittish without long-term commitments from the government to provide stability, and “the immediate funding situation is still very urgent” Keeling said.

The program at the Scripps Institution is no longer the only one measuring carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Some time after Charles Keeling began his efforts, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stepped in with its own, much wider network of measurements. So the “Keeling Curve” now refers to the measurement itself, as opposed to any specific program.

But there’s good reason to keep multiple teams measuring the same phenomenon: it allows them to compare notes to make sure their measurements are correct, and NOAA’s own budget often faces pinches of its own.

Ralph Keeling also pioneered measurements of atmospheric oxygen alongside the carbon dioxide data in 1989. That’s allowed scientists to nail down how much carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean or by oxygen-releasing plants, versus how much stays in the atmosphere. NOAA has no equivalent program, and it’s not clear the agency would have the room in its budget to take over the measurements should the Scripps Institution operation shut down.

Last year, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere crossed 400 parts per million (PPM) for the first time. That level goes through a yearly cycle, so it dropped back below 400 PPM until last week, when the measurements at Mauna Loa once again crossed the threshold.

Since the overall trend is upward, it will only be two or three years before even the low point of the yearly cycle gets above that mark as well. “It’s just a matter of time before it stays over 400 forever,” Keeling said.

At no point in human history have atmospheric carbon dioxide levels consistently been that high.