An Icon of Climate Change Research Turns 50


American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting 2007

The Keeling Curve, the measurement of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels that launched the modern era of climate change research, continues to play a crucial role in climate science nearly 50 years after its first point was plotted. Today researchers continue to detect new information about climate trends and feedbacks from this valuable CO2 data set.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego geochemist Ralph Keeling has maintained the carbon dioxide record that his father, Charles David Keeling, began in March 1958 atop Hawaii's Mauna Loa.

The younger Keeling will describe the increasing value the Keeling Curve has provided in a presentation included in one of two AGU Union sessions commemorating the carbon dioxide record: "Global Earth Observations: Looking 50 Years Back and 50 Years Forward," and "Climate Effects on Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Over the Last Century."

"These measurements, even though repetitive, are terribly exciting at a time when the earth is rapidly changing," said Ralph Keeling.

Keeling will recount the history of the Mauna Loa carbon dioxide record, which has since been augmented by measurements taken at other stations around the world. The Keeling Curve's history includes several near-brushes with termination, the most threatening only six years after its inception when the government agency then known as the National Weather Bureau nearly closed the Mauna Loa Observatory, almost ending the program entirely because of budget cuts. Charles David Keeling, who died in 2005, cobbled together enough funds from a variety of sources to keep the curve going. The CO2 record continues to face funding threats to this day, said Ralph Keeling.

The Keeling Curve's duration and consistency, however, make it a valuable asset for assessing the probability of future climate trends and to discover trends taking place now. Related to Keeling's lecture, Scripps graduate student Lauren Rafelski will report on the possibility that rises in air temperatures over land may have accelerated the recent rise in CO2.

Sign Up For
Explorations Now

explorations now is the free award-winning digital science magazine from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Join subscribers from around the world and keep up on our cutting-edge research.