Level of Heat-Trapping CO2 Reaches New High, Growth Rate Speeds Up, Methane Levels Are Rising Again

The World Meteorological Organization reported today that:

The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new high in 2010 since pre-industrial time and the rate of increase has accelerated, according to the World Meteorological Organization’s Greenhouse Gas Bulletin….Between 1990 and 2010, according to the report, there was a 29% increase in radiative forcing — the warming effect on our climate system — from greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide accounted for 80% of this increase.

This report on record CO2 levels (analogous to the level of water in a bathtub) comes on the heels of a record surge in CO2 emissions (analogous to the water coming out of the faucet) — see Biggest Jump Ever in Global Warming Pollution in 2010.

The speed up in the growth rate of CO2 levels is obviously worrisome (although it was predicted by climate science):

Between 2009 and 2010, its atmospheric abundance increased by 2.3 parts per million – higher than the average for both the 1990s (1.5 parts per million) and the past decade (2.0 parts per million).

For about 10,000 years before the start of the industrial era in the mid-18th century, atmospheric carbon dioxide remained almost constant at around 280 parts per million.

We are disrupting at an accelerating pace what had been a very stable climate system for the entirety of human civilization.  Not very bright.

The other worrisome aspect of the surge in GHG is return of growth in methane, a highly potent GHG.  The WMO reports:


Methane (CH4) contributes about 18% to the overall global increase in radiative forcing since 1750 and is the second most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide.

Before the start of the industrial era, atmospheric methane was about 700 parts per billion (number of molecules of the gas per billion molecules of dry air) Since 1750, it has increased 158%, mostly because of activities such as cattle-rearing, rice planting, fossil fuel exploitation and landfills. Human activities now account for 60% of methane emissions, with the remaining 40% being from natural sources such as wetlands.

After a period of temporary relative stabilization from 1999 to 2006, atmospheric methane has again risen. Scientists are conducting research into the reasons for this, including the potential role of the thawing of the methane-rich Northern permafrost and increased emissions from tropical wetlands.

I don’t think the role of emissions from fracking and unconventional gas can be completely discounted (see “Leakage of methane from fracking boosts shale gas global warming impact”).

The Bulletin states:

The reasons for the renewed increase in CH4 are not fully understood and several factors, mostly biogenic, were reported to contribute to this increase.

Here is a post on the destruction of the tropical wetlands.  But the biggest worry is the permafrost permamelt, which contains a staggering “1.5 trillion tons of frozen carbon, about twice as much carbon as contained in the atmosphere, much of which would be released as methane.  Methane is 25 times as potent a heat-trapping gas as CO2 over a 100 year time horizon, but 100 times as potent over 20 years!

A study from earlier this year by National Snow and Ice Data Center projected that thawing permafrost feedback will turn Arctic from carbon sink to source in the 2020s, releasing 100 billion tons of carbon by 2100.  We just learned of the Peatlands Amplifying Feedback: Drying Wetlands and Intensifying Wildfires Boost Carbon Release Ninefold (much of which would be methane).

We need to start aggressive mitigation now as every major independent study concludes.

Related Posts:

  • Science: Vast East Siberian Arctic Shelf methane stores destabilizing and venting:  NSF issues world a wake-up call: “Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.” Methane and carbon release from the Arctic is the most dangerous amplifying feedback in the entire carbon cycle. This research finds a key “lid” on “the large sub-sea permafrost carbon reservoir” near Eastern Siberia “is clearly perforated, and sedimentary CH4 [methane] is escaping to the atmosphere.”

37 Responses to Level of Heat-Trapping CO2 Reaches New High, Growth Rate Speeds Up, Methane Levels Are Rising Again

  1. Gnobuddy says:

    The good news just keeps coming, eh?

    As Tom Lehrer wrote quite presciently (although he was thinking of the atom bomb rather than anthropogenic climate destruction):

    “We will all fry together when we fry
    We’ll be french fried potatoes bye and bye There will be no more misery
    When the world is our rotisserie
    Yes, we all will fry together when we fry”

    You can view/listen to the entire song here:


  2. Roger says:

    After a long weekend retreat, it’s nice to return to the CP world to find that all is normal–worse than expected. (Sarc. is ON.)

    Life for a climate-aware person could well be described by the spy book/tv show title, “I Lead Three Lives.” Namely, life as it was before being aware; life as an activist, doing what one can to change the course we’re on; and life as a possible ‘DNA survivior,’ preparing for the ugly place where we all seem to be headed.

    Why can’t Obama just go on prime-time TV and give a climate speech to clarify that AGW is real, serious, and a huge opportunity for US? Please promote and ‘like’ this idea at

    Better yet, suggest this idea as a climate-saving project to other members of your family and environmental groups. Let’s all focus on getting Obama to introduce climate change as a campaign issue. Just think…

    Now that all the main GOP candidates are on record as being either liars, or just plain too-dumb-to-be-president, with regard to their understanding of basic climate science, they should be sitting ducks for a science-saavy US chief executive.

    Call the friendly White House Comment Line volunteers, 9-5, M-F, at 202-456-1111 to express this opinion to President Obama. (That he should speak and lead on climate.)

    Act now. Your few-minutes investment of time to do this could be the most cost-effective climate saving minutes of your life.

    Kind regards,

  3. prokaryotes says:

    All the greenhouse gases use up oxygen when reacting-break-down in the atmosphere, thus explaining why the oxygen content of the atmosphere is on steady decline.

  4. Chas says:

    The saddest part of all this is that the website will have to change its name. There’s no way we’ll ever hit that number again!

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Lehrer is a freaking genius, the mordant minstrel of mindful merry-making. Does he still greet the dawn? I do hope so. Make him President!

  6. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Respiration is over-rated.

  7. prokaryotes says:

    The less people know about important complex issues such as the economy, energy consumption and the environment, the more they want to avoid becoming well-informed

  8. prokaryotes says:

    Another two studies found that participants who received complex information about energy sources trusted the government more than those who received simple information. For these studies, researchers questioned 93 (49 men and 44 women) Canadian undergraduate students in two separate groups.

  9. Raul M. says:

    A 29% increase in the warming effect!!!
    Complex or simple that much warming has the potential to cause an even greater warming effect.
    Those who don’t want hole in the ground to be the option should try to look again.
    Fed’s determined hole in the ground to be the best option with their new improvements to their hole in the ground solution.

  10. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    But none-the-less, rated.

  11. Barry says:

    “All the greenhouse gases use up oxygen when reacting-break-down in the atmosphere, thus explaining why the oxygen content of the atmosphere is on steady decline.”

    I was unaware that CO2 ‘broke down’ in the atmosphere.

  12. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    On a related front, a new poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University finds that people who watch Fox News are less informed that people who watch no news at all.

  13. BBHY says:

    No, keep the name. It is important that even when the climate veers wildly out of control people it will be evident that some of us did have a sane, reasonable goal to prevent catastrophe.

    There is a value in passing down a message of “if only people had listened” to succeeding generations. They need to know exactly who tried to help, and who stood in the way.

  14. Mike Roddy says:

    No, he’s retro, from the 50’s and 60’s. Here’s another one from him:

    “It’s sobering to realize that when Mozart was my age, he’d been dead for two years”.

  15. Mike Roddy says:

    It’s a good idea, Roger, but Obama is the wrong man to do it. Remember, he has expended drilling all over the Western Hemisphere. Temperamentally he’s wrong, too.

    We don’t have much time to wait, but I fear we’ll have to.

  16. Raindog says:


    Do we know why methane levels have not been increasing steadily? Why they were actually steady or decreasing for a while before the recent increase?

  17. Raindog says:

    Some methane is released from natural gas drilling, fracking and production, but most of it is flared and released as CO2. Howarth et al. were apparently not aware of this when they wrote their paper which is one of the reasons that their life cycle analysis of shale gas is such an outlier. Groups with more knowledge about industry practices (the US DOE, Carnegie Mellon, University of Maryland, the Worldwatch Institute, etc) come up with gas emitting around 55% of the GHGs per unit of energy of coal. The companies really don’t want to waste the gas because it is worth money so they have an economic incentive to minimize these sorts of losses. Venting the gas as methane is dangerous and could lead to explosions so they really try to capture it and flare it.

    A worse contributor from the oil and gas industry is when a company finds a major oil discovery in a remote area (offshore Africa or in a desert far from civilization) and they have no market for any associated gas. In this case they flare all the associated gas. Again, this would be CO2 not methane. But it could be a large amount. Hundreds of billions of cubic feet or perhaps trillions of cubic feet of gas have been flared over the years. As the world gets smaller and LNG projects get going this should decrease.

  18. prokaryotes says:

    Correct :)

    Co2 does not break down in the atmosphere, but other greenhouse gases do (Co2 equivalent) and use up oxygen in the process, ie. methane.

    Irreversibility and uniqueness of carbon dioxide
    Carbon dioxide has unique long-term effects on climate change that are largely “irreversible” for one thousand years after emissions stop (zero further emissions) even though carbon dioxide tends toward equilibrium with the ocean on a scale of 100 years. The greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide do not persist over time in the same way as carbon dioxide. Even if carbon emissions were to completely cease, atmospheric temperatures are not expected to decrease significantly

    Oxygen did not become a major part of the atmosphere until photosynthetic organisms evolved later in Earth’s history. With no oxygen, methane stayed in the atmosphere longer and at higher concentrations than it does today.

    In present times, due to the increase in oxygen, the amount of methane has decreased. The average mole fraction of methane at the Earth’s surface in 1998 was 1,745 nmol/mol.[1] Its concentration is higher in the northern hemisphere as most sources (both natural and human) are larger. The concentrations vary seasonally with a minimum in the late summer mainly due to removal by the hydroxyl radical.

    Ragsdale and his associates succeeded in using an enzyme-modified titanium oxide to get carbon dioxide’s electrons excited and willing to jump to the enzyme, which then catalyzes the reduction of carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide. A photosensitizer that binds to the titanium allows the use of visible light for the process. The enzyme is more robust than other catalysts, willing to facilitate the conversion again and again. The trick: It can’t come near oxygen.

    The direct product — carbon monoxide — is a desirable chemical that can be used in other processes to produce electricity or hydrogen. Carbon monoxide also has significant fuel value and readily can be converted by known catalysts into hydrocarbons or into methanol for use as a liquid fuel. Although carbon monoxide serves as a source of energy and biomass for microbes, it is toxic for animals and this risk needs to be managed when it is generated or used in chemical reactions.

  19. Joan Savage says:

    I totally agree with holding onto 350 ppm on principle.

    When my grandfather was born in the late 1800s, the CO2 concentration was around 285 ppm. Now we have 389 ppm, an increase of 104 ppm over 135 years.

    It shocks me that I personally knew someone who lived in a 285 ppm world.

    The numbers are based on NOAAESRL’s interactive chart

  20. Joan Savage says:

    The good news is that many news outlets carried the information.
    AFP, AP, Bloomberg, Xinhua and Reuters pieces were picked up by hundreds of other news media. PBS News Hour included it. Influential specialty media like US News, Business Week and International Business Times wrote their own.

    Even so, did any of them mention what is in the ORNL release?

    “Much of the 5.9% global increase from 2009 to 2010 is due to increased emissions from the world’s largest fossil-fuel emitter, the People’s Republic of China, where emissions rose 10% to 2.247 Tg-C.”

  21. Spike says:

    The one positive aspect of this story, which applies also to aviation emmissions, is that the warming due to methane is front-end loaded due to its dramatically more powerful short term effects. I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that man will only act on climate when warming is clearly apparent and deleterious to most societies on Earth especially the rich ones. If the powerful short term effects get a climate action plan agreed then it might give us a few more decades to really get a grip on CO2. i don’t like saying this but that is how dumb we seem to be.

  22. Ed Hummel says:


  23. BA says:

    We really, really need to get it across to folks that this tipping point (for methane hydrates/co2 locked in soils, bogs, and sea floor) is not some off in the future problem. It is a bomb we are sitting on and every indication is that the fuse is burning. We kid ourselves if we think this is going to remain a slow process. Every indication is that it is speeding up like a truck with no brakes. Here is a quick inventory:

    Permafrost: melting.

    Peat bogs: burning in numerous locations.

    Arctic shelf methane hydrates: Eastern Siberia “is clearly perforated, and sedimentary CH4 [methane] is escaping to the atmosphere.”

    Amazon rainforest (not up north but still a huge store of carbon): Drying and increasingly subject to forest fires.

    So, what is our plan? Off shore drilling in the arctic as the ice cap recedes. Further exploitation of tar sands. Fracking our water supply to extract natural gas at the risk of releasing yet more methane. Extract and export more coal to China. In a word: Suicide.

    We need a Values revolution. We need some healthy fear in the form of Great Respect for the enormous force that has been stored away in the earth by millions of years of life on this planet.

  24. SecularAnimist says:

    Tom Lehrer is alive & well and living in Santa Cruz, CA. He retired from the University of California, where he had taught mathematics and musical theater since 1972, in 2001.

  25. SecularAnimist says:

    I agree with holding on to 350 as a practical matter, because that’s what it is going to take to get back to a stable and sustainable climate.

    Which means that not only do we urgently need to end GHG emissions — we also need to draw down the already dangerous anthropogenic excess of CO2 in the atmosphere.

    I believe this can be done by (1) a rapid global transition to organic agriculture and (2) equally large-scale forest preservation and massive reforestation projects, both of which can effectively sequester huge amounts of CO2 in soils and biomass, and which have numerous other ecological, public health, and economic benefits as well.

  26. SecularAnimist says:

    Spike wrote: “If the powerful short term effects get a climate action plan agreed then it might give us a few more decades to really get a grip on CO2.”

    Or, the powerful short term effects of methane could cause short term rapid and extreme warming sufficient to trigger irreversible feedbacks and eliminate any possibility of avoiding catastrophic outcomes.

    I think we are balancing on the knife’s edge here.

  27. EDpeak says:

    ************link needs fixing*****************

    The link at

    We just learned of the Peatlands Amplifying Feedback: Drying Wetlands and Intensifying Wildfires Boost Carbon Release Ninefold

    is linking back to this article [linked to “Level of Heat-Trapping CO2 Reaches New High, Growth Rate Speeds Up, Methane Levels Are Rising Again”] instead of to a different one

    ************link needs fixing**************

  28. Bob Doublin says:

    I was born in 1953.My maternal grandparents were born in 1886 and 1887.My paternal grandparents were born in 1878 and 1886.

  29. Joe Romm says:


  30. Roger says:

    Mike, Thanks for your comment about Obama being the wrong man, but I didn’t suggest this approach (asking Obama to speak out on climate) because of Obama’s temperament.
    I suggested it because we are at hell’s gate; Obama is our leader; leaders have a tacit, if not explicit obligation to protect their people; and, as you acknowledge, our time is very short.

    As Jeff Huggins has expressed elsewhere in today’s comments, it’s not that hard to get the feeling that the many members of the CP ‘family’ will happily post and comment, or simply read CP(without doing anything else) all the way to the bitter end.

    Isn’t there a time when the human spirit lifts us from simply being observers of mankind’s rapid decline, to being men and women of action–working hard to find a way out of our dilemma?

    If Obama isn’t the man, then who is? I don’t see anyone better on the horizon. It is a time for extreme measures. By extreme, I mean in the sense of asking–no demanding–that the president of the United States, backed by ~97 percent of the world’s climate scientists, explain to the American people the gist of the choice they face: 1) sticking with our fossil fuel use until we certainly face ~1,000 years of hell and high water, or 2) creating jobs as we transition to alternative energy sources, allowing our progeny to avoid such a dire future.

    I know this is a highly condensed summary of the choice, but I’m sure you and other CP readers get the idea. It’s the 99 percent of Americans who don’t get what’s at stake that I’m concerned about. Only Obama has a bully pulpit powerul enough to get the word out quickly enough to allow us to survive.

  31. Roger says:

    Would it help motivate folks to act if they were told that our use of fossil fuels is not only endangering a livable climate, but also removing oxygen from our atmosphere?

  32. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    A considerable number of those who watch Fox News have no pulse.

  33. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    My values need no revolution. I’ll live like a monk to protect future generations. But there are those whose values are revolting, already. Those who see no higher good than greedy self-service, and who are totally indifferent to the fate of others or of life on this planet. Until we realise and admit to ourselves that many human beings are simply wicked, and beyond salvation, we are just deluding ourselves. Some might come around as things get dire, but the majority, I am certain, will simply grow worse and more desperately dangerous.

  34. dick smith says:

    Roger, I completely (if belatedly) agree. I’ll make that call, and I hope others will take a minute or two to do so as well. It’s time for people to follow James Hansen’s example…to get off the computer and out the door.

  35. James Newberry says:

    With corrupted western-paradigm capitalist economies around the world entrenched with production of carbonic acid gas (carbon dioxide), it appears, based on recent observations, that carbon dioxide radiative forcing is feeding back toward higher water vapor forcing. This may proceed to much higher global warming when fossil methane is automatically released from warming permafrost and seabed clathrates.

    In other words, methane may come to be a stronger cause of abrupt climate change than direct forcing from carbonic acid gas alone. In addition, carbonic acid gas plus water vapor or liquid produces the carbonic acid which is causing the seas to acidify.

    Of course, pay no attention to the hundreds of billions of dollars of annual nation-state subsidies for this fossilized insanity (toward an exactly wrong economic direction).

  36. EDpeak says:

    Mulga, I agree with most of your posts that I have seen, but must respond regarding:

    “Until we realise and admit to ourselves that many human beings are simply wicked, and beyond salvation, we are just deluding ourselves. Some might come around as things get dire, but the majority, I am certain, will simply grow worse…”

    I think we have to be careful not to fall into a mode of thinking that characterizes the hardline rightwing end of the spectrum, all in the name of protection the environment…For starters, what does it meant o call people “wicked”? What we usually mean is that their actions are (or have consequences which are) wicked. Ok, that’s important, but calling it “wicked” tells us nothing about why they are acting the way they act. Saying “it’s just the way they ARE, they are wicked” does not really answer the question of “why?” it rather instead, gives a name or label and calls that an explanation.

    I’m not saying the above to “avoid turning off those members of the public who are in the middle” but for a practical reason: if we want a better world, we need explanatory analyses of why things are the way they are.

    Doing so does not make one “soft” on the “wickedness”. Relatives of mine were murdered in WWII by group A and in no small part because group B stood by in silence and inaction. We are talking about the equivalent today of group B, I take it, given the language above including the phrase “the majority” above.

    Well we can try to predict the future and be grim or we can try to influence the future. We should be realistic and in that I agree with MM that it’s not likely that the majority will radically change their ways..but it’s not a given that they will not make any changes, either. Instead of saying people are “wicked” or “act wickedly” we need to say something more specific, the following is just one example, you can modify or create your own:

    “Given a media landscape dominated by huge for-profit multi-national corporations dependent on advertising and a government landscape in which those forces have huge leverage over government, the majority is likely to have a world picture, including values, paradigms, etc, along with what they think the ‘facts’ are, such that the majority is not likely to make a huge radical change, e.g. not likely to demand extremely rapid change of energy systems, and the whole economy, …” etc

    This more nuanced and more precise type of statement is not just to avoid us getting depressed (“it’s not our species per se but our species under the given condition”) but more importantly it tells us where to focus our efforts: what needs to change (while not deluding ourselves that it will accomplish everything we want, or even that it will prevent catastrophes; the moral imperative is to do what one can, during one’s time alive on Earth, to minimize such catastrophes, and if such minimization is all one accomplish with one’s actions, that does not argue against taking such actions)

  37. EDpeak says:

    There was also a point in human history, and in U.S. history specifically, when “the majority” was going to not only go along with slavery, but even “get worse” and defend it. Focusing on how “wicked” the majority was does not help activism. It is understandable and right for one’s heart and feelings to feel that wickedness, and to rebel against it. But as an analytical construct, it doesn’t help to just say, “oh well, the majority is wicked, and most will just grow worse”

    I feel like making such predictions too, sometimes, I will admit..then I realize it’s time to take a deep breath or better, a walk in nature…then (without any delusions about the prospects being super wonderful) we can return to analyzing what the conditions are which keep the momentum in the direction it’s going, look at the machine(s) in the face and start dismantling the machine, or better, start also building its replacements, piece by decentralized, democratized, ecologicalized (is that a word?) piece :-)