For my 11 year old son, the adventure was “on” and we were somewhere between Mars and the Moon. For my sister-in-law and me, our harrowing ride up to the top of the Mauna Loa volcano, traveling on an “almost” one lane pothole filled road surrounded on all sides by lava fields as far as the eye could see, in a minivan no less, helped put into perspective what scientists the world over do every day so that the rest of us can better understand how our world works. The dribble of white paint in the middle of the road up to the Observatory, which made the road look more like two narrow bicycle paths, finally made sense as the sun went down, and the lights of our van caught the line so we could stay on the road and not wander off into the black lava fields surrounding us.
When I think about scientists, I get a visual of people working in labs, safe in some “secure university location”, wearing white coats, doing experiments that I may or may not understand. What I learned on my trip to the Mauna Loa Observatory, among many other fascinating things, is that some of these scientists must also be adventurers, explorers and often need to be incredibly brave. Our “tour guide” was Dr. John Barnes, station chief and resident Lidar (light detection and ranging) expert. Lidar is used for long term monitoring of the stratospheric aerosol layer. “This layer effects solar radiation and ozone. Stratospheric aerosols cool the earth by reflecting light back into space.” After our tour and when the sun set, Dr. Barnes was going to set up his lasers which he regularly “shoots” in the direction of the stars, to record and observe “particles” in the atmosphere. What he doesn’t want his experiments to be confused with however, are the weaponized “lasers” being tested for battle just below his Observatory by the US military. It seems common sense deems it worthwhile to check with the military to make sure that the Mauna Loa lasers were NOT set to the same frequency as the military lasers below! All in a day’s work!
There are a wide range of websites (including this one) that attempt to explain what and why the climbing levels of CO2 in our atmosphere are critical for us to pay attention to. The atmospheric data collected at sites like the Mauna Loa Observatory is of crucial international importance. But what I also hope to convey is the incredible daily lengths that the scientists collecting this data travel, figuratively and literally, so that we can have a daily record, which now spans over 50 years, of irrefutable data on CO2 levels in our atmosphere. Guess what, I found out – Indiana Jones really does exist.
On behalf of an organization called The Climate Project, I regularly give talks about Climate Change and speak often about the “Keeling Curve” and its importance in understanding global warming and climate change. On a personal note, visiting the Mauna Loa Observatory felt a bit like I was visiting the “Temple Mount” as I stood next to the “Keeling” building (Charles David Keeling initiated the first measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere on Mauna Loa) and was shown the original instruments, which worked diligently since 1958 until they were retired, around 3 years ago. The Mauna Loa CO2 readings have provided us with a daily record of CO2 levels in the atmosphere for over 50 years.
To try to understand the conditions at the Observatory, imagine travelling up a rough mountain road from sea level to over 11,000 feet, watching the temperature on the car thermometer drop from a high of 89 degrees when we left the beach, to a low of 42 degrees at the Observatory buildings. We left the Hawaii most people imagine, white sand beaches, palm trees, and rolling surf, and entered an “other world” of black lava, snow and ice. We heard how the original scientists hiked, walked and drove pick up trucks straight up the Volcano’s lava fields, making their “road” as they travelled onto an active volcano, now overdue for an eruption (since the early 1800’s when records of eruptions on Mauna Loa began being
collected, the current period is the “longest period” without an eruption). Setting up a lab on an active volcano is an interesting decision, but it was deemed “worth it” to be able to access some of the purest air in the world….never mind about a little thing like a possible volcanic eruption! The 1984 eruption, the last time Mauna Loa erupted, wiped out the Observatory’s power lines, forcing it to operate on a generator for some months. The scientists at the Observatory remain matter of fact about what will happen when the next eruption strikes, they have oxygen masks scattered around the various outlining buildings, “just in case.”
The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has been coordinating the CO2 experiments at Mauna Loa since the 70’s and also collects greenhouse gas data at other sites around the world including data collected by planes and ships! It maintains 4 observatories in addition to the Mauna Loa site: Barrow, Alaska, Cape Matatula in America Samoa, the South Pole, and Trinidad Head Observatory in Northern California. At the South Pole, 2 scientists spend 8 months “shut in” during the winter months, as daily temperatures drop below 50 degrees and flying supplies in and out is impossible. In Alaska, the two NOAA scientists have had polar bears take up residence outside their door, making trips for data collection extra “exciting”. The September 29, 2009 earthquake and tsunami which devastated American Samoa, almost washed the NOAA Station Chief out to sea in his truck, luckily, instead depositing him against a concrete shelter, allowing him to ultimately help in the rescue of many not so lucky residents of the village just below the Observatory. Again, all in a day’s work!
NOAA is working with scientists from around the world who are doing their own atmospheric testing using data collected from these sites, including the Japanese, the Canadians and the United Nations. The main “laboratory” for all the raw data collected by these 5 sites is in Bolder, Colorado, where the canisters of “air” collected at these locations are sent for analysis. The data from Mauna Loa shows us that by removing all externalities, we can see that human caused greenhouse gases have increased by 21.4% between 1990 and 2005. The UN Kyoto Protocol uses 1990 as the base year for emissions reductions. Many scientists feel this is the base year all governments should use for any new binding emissions reduction agreements, in terms of being able to stabilize CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will prevent dangerous changes in our climate. According to our guide, we are on track for “doubling of CO2” levels in the atmosphere, every 32 years.
The day we visited Mauna Loa, the instruments showed a daily reading of 391ppm of CO2, last year CO2 levels averaged at 387 ppm. The 2009 annual average from Mauna Loa should be available in a few months we would expect it to rise from last year and be close to 390 ppm. Pre-industrial levels of CO2 were at 280ppm.
A few points to leave you with:
1. Given all the ruckus the last few months raised by “Climate Gate” where hackers stole e-mails on climate change studies from scientists at a prestigious English University; you’ve gotta know, that if there was ANY way to disprove or to put into question this 50 year long record on CO2 data, it would have happened!
2. We know that over the 4.5 billion year history of our Earth, CO2 levels in our atmosphere have been higher than current levels, but these high levels of CO2 were during the time our earth was forming. An example would be in the age of the dinosaurs, when there were active volcanoes all over and the world was a very different place from today. Science now allows us to have an accurate look back at CO2 data dating back 800,000 years using ice cores drilled from glaciers around the world. In this period CO2 levels have never been higher than preindustrial levels (280ppm) nor, perhaps more importantly, has the rate and pace of change of rising CO2 levels been as fast as it is now.
3. We know that as CO2 and other greenhouse gases increase in the atmosphere, they work as heat trapping gases, trapping solar radiation and warming our planet, causing temperatures to rise. Scientists are watching as temperatures are rising at an incredibly rapid pace around the globe, but in particular in places like the Arctic and Antarctica. While the consequences of unchecked climate change remain unclear, what is clear is that our world is on course for dramatic changes.
4. Scientists warned us in the late 1980s about a dangerous hole in the ozone layer due to a build up of certain greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. An international meeting was convened and the Montreal Protocol was established to resolve the problem. The hole is slowly disappearing. Countries worked together, from information scientists gave to them, to solve an international environmental problem. The world succeeded.
5. We should be worried about rising CO2 levels.
6. We should do something about what is going on.
Wherever you call home in 2010, and particularly if it is the USA, we all need to actively challenge our government representatives to do something about climate change. We need to demand from them, binding legislation that will stop our unchecked increases of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. WE need to provide our planet with time to recover from the damages we have wrought. Later in January, we will be showcasing some of the information sites that make it easy for you to contact your government representatives. The push is on for early 2010 to have the US government enact legislation on climate change, many people are hoping for a target date of Earth Day (April 22) 2010!
For more information on the Mauna Loa Observatory and the work of NOAA on atmospheric testing, visit http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/obop/mlo/ . For more detailed information specifically on the Mauna Loa observatory, stay tuned in 2010 for a book by Forrest M. Mimms III titled: Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory: Fifty Years of Monitoring the Atmosphere .