By analyzing air particles trapped in ancient ice sheets, scientists have been able to record atmospheric carbon levels going back an astonishing 800,000 years. Over these countless millennia, the levels of carbon in the earth’s atmosphere followed a fairly reliable pattern.
In roughly 100,000-year intervals, carbon levels would build to a peak and then recede toward a trough. At the high end of this cycle, carbon levels would hit an average of 280-300 parts per million, and on the low end, they would bottom out around 180 ppm. This cycle repeated itself for nearly 800,000 years, never once exceeding 300 ppm, a fact that is very important to note.
But this reliable cycle abruptly changed at the beginning of the 20th century and has since skyrocketed upward reaching higher and higher levels every decade since.
Around the time the Titanic sunk, atmospheric carbon levels rose above 300 ppm for the first time ever. Today, we’re at over 411 ppm.
Think about that for a moment. For 800,000 years carbon levels never breached 300 ppm, and within the last 100 years – coinciding directly with fossil fuel use and the human population boom – we’ve increased 111 ppm past anything the world had ever seen before.
Why have carbon levels gone up so dramatically in the last 100 years? Human activity, put simply. But mankind alone could never have released anywhere near this much carbon without the help of fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels are perhaps the greatest double-edged sword in history. They have paved the way for the high quality of life we all live today, but on the flip side, they have allowed the human population to increase at such a rapid pace that we’ve created a feedback loop that has resulted in enough carbon release that heat radiation is getting trapped at an alarming rate – yes, the process otherwise known as global warming.
World population levels could never have reached the level they are at today without help. And perhaps the biggest way in which fossil fuels has helped spur this population increase is because of the Haber-Bosch method, invented in the early 1900s. Pioneered by German chemist Fritz Haber, and scaled-up by colleague Carl Bosch, the Haber-Bosch method allowed mankind to create nitrogen fertilizer (by using fossil fuels), which lifted the limit on how much food mankind could grow. Prior to synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, humanity was limited in their food production to how much naturally occurring nitrogen was available - manure and mined potassium nitrate deposits. But with the advent of the Haber Bosch method, which supplied us with seemingly infinite nitrogen fertilizer, the human population began the astonishing trajectory it continues on to this day. And more people results in more carbon release.
When the earth’s atmosphere passed 300 ppm carbon dioxide for the first time around 1914, there were roughly 1.6 billion people on the planet. When levels passed 400 ppm in 2016, the world population was over 7 billion.
While climate change seems to be a concept that has been unable to sway Americans toward any significant change in their habits, better understanding the rise of atmospheric carbon levels might be something that can be more easily grasped.
There are two graphs that are widely available on the internet. One, which can be viewed on the NASA website at tinyurl.com/y2hlcuqd, shows the cycles of carbon levels for the last 800,000 years. The other shows the correlation of rising carbon levels and rising population levels over the past 100 years. Carbon and population have gone hand in hand, showing a clear link to human activity and increased atmospheric carbon dioxide.
We’ve already passed many points of no return with regards to carbon levels and rising sea levels, but there are many ways that we can reduce our carbon emissions and even many ways that we can actually begin sequestering carbon back out of the atmosphere and begin putting it back in our soils and forests.
Andre LaSalle is a Messenger contributer.