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The eruption of a Hawaiian volcano blew a month-long hole in Earth’s longest record of human activity affecting the atmosphere.
A sizeable gap is visible in the Keeling Curve’s December carbon dioxide concentration record taken at Mauna Loa Observatory. And it’s data that record will likely never recover, despite the federal government launching helicopters to collect back-up air samples and the construction of a secondary sample site on an even taller, neighboring volcano.
“We don’t have samples of air that passed over the island at that period of time,” said Theo Stein, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, on Monday. “But in context of a 60-year record, we don’t think that’s going to be too problematic. Remember, NOAA has a global greenhouse gas collection network.”
NOAA began taking its own parallel carbon dioxide measurements in 1974. Similar greenhouse gas-measuring instruments live in three other remote areas spanning the planet’s poles between Barrow, Alaska and Antarctica.
Scientists have a hard time finding land on Earth with a surrounding atmosphere untainted by car emissions or humans breathing. That’s why the top of the Hawaiian Mauna Loa volcano made a prime location for collecting key measurements that demonstrate the burning of fossil fuels is indeed warming the planet faster than nature intends.
That is, until Mauna Loa erupted in November for the first time in 40 years, blasting a large hole in the carbon dioxide record first established in 1958 by Charles Keeling of University of California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Thirty feet of cooling lava now covers the lone road leading to Mauna Loa research station. The flow of molten new earth swallowed whole powerlines which fed electricity to the Mauna Loa Observatory. The station also houses instruments maintained by the NOAA that track other greenhouse gasses of note like methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur and ozone.
The agency plans to install solar panels and batteries, so these instruments won’t be dependent on power lines among other upgrades at the Mauna Loa site. But for now, those instruments are still down and likely will be for several months as work begins to restore power. Scripps scientists are relying on a back-up atmospheric sampling site at the neighboring Maunakea volcano.
NOAA contracted with a local helicopter company to grab portable air samples from the air around the Mauna Loa site weekly. Those air samples are shipped for analysis to NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado.
Around Our Environment
- Here’s the New York Times’ version of the Mauna Loa record collapse with pretty epic photos. (New York Times)
- January was San Diego’s wettest month in almost 20 years. (Union-Tribune)
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- California stands apart from the six other basin states who all signed onto a plan to cut water use on the Colorado River. But California says that plan is outside the law and would have slashed the state’s allotted water tremendously. (Voice of San Diego)
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