Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego today announced that Wendy and Eric Schmidt have provided a grant that will support continued operation of the renowned Keeling Curve measurement of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. The grant provides $500,000 over five years to support the operations of the Scripps CO2 Group, which maintains the Keeling Curve.
CO2 Group Director Ralph Keeling said the grant will make it possible for his team to restore atmospheric measurements that had been discontinued because of a lack of funding, address a three-year backlog of samples that have been collected but not analyzed, and enhance outreach efforts that educate the public about the role carbon dioxide plays in climate.
"I'm very grateful to be able to return to doing science and being attentive to these records. When it comes to tracking the rise in carbon dioxide, every year is a new milestone. We are still learning what the rise really means for humanity and the rest of the planet,” said Keeling.
Wendy Schmidt, co-founder with her husband of The Schmidt Family Foundation and The Schmidt Ocean Institute, said “The Scripps CO2 Project is critical to documenting the atmospheric changes on our planet and the Keeling Curve is an essential part of that tracking process. As government funding for science in general is decreasing, Eric and I are delighted to work with Scripps to help it continue its benchmark CO2 Project.”
The Schmidt Family Foundation advances the development of renewable energy and the wiser use of natural resources and houses its grant-making operation in The 11th Hour Project, which supports more than 150 nonprofit organizations in program areas including climate and energy, ecological agriculture, human rights, and our maritime connection.
In 2009, the Schmidts created the Schmidt Ocean Institute (SOI), and in 2012 launched the research vessel Falkor as a mobile platform to advance ocean exploration, discovery, and knowledge, and catalyze sharing of information about the oceans.
In keeping with the couple’s commitment to ocean health issues, Wendy Schmidt has partnered with XPRIZE to sponsor the $1.4 million Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup XCHALLENGE, awarded in 2011, and the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE, a prize that will respond to the global need for better information about the process of ocean acidification. It will be awarded in 2015.
The Keeling Curve has made measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at a flagship station on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa since 1958. In addition, the Scripps CO2 Group measures carbon dioxide levels at several other locations around the world from Antarctica to Alaska. The measurement series established that global levels of CO2, a heat-trapping gas that raises atmospheric and ocean temperatures as it accumulates, have risen substantially in the past century. From a concentration that had never risen above 280 parts per million (ppm) before the Industrial Revolution, CO2 concentrations had risen to 315 ppm when the first Keeling Curve measurements were made. In 2013, concentrations at Mauna Loa rose above 400 ppm for the first time in human history and likely for the first time in 3-5 million years. Multiple lines of scientific research have attributed the rise to the use of fossil fuels in everyday activities.
The measurement series has become an icon of science with its steadily rising seasonal sawtooth representation of CO2 levels now a familiar image alongside Watson and Crick’s double helix representation of DNA and Charles Darwin’s finch sketches. Keeling Curve creator Charles David Keeling, Ralph Keeling’s father, received several honors for his work before his death in 2005, including the National Medal of Science from then-President George W. Bush.
The value of the Keeling Curve has increased over time, making possible discoveries about Earth processes that would have been extremely difficult to observe over short time periods or with only sporadic measurements. For instance, in 2013, researchers discovered that the annual range of CO2 levels is increasing. This finding may point to an increase in photosynthetic activity in response to a greater availability of a key nutrient for plant life.
Nuances in Keeling Curve measurements have similarly identified the global effects of events like volcanic eruptions, influences that would have been difficult to discern if measurements were made infrequently or periodically suspended. In addition, the Keeling Curve helps researchers understand the proportion of carbon dioxide being absorbed by the oceans, which in turn helps them estimate the pace of phenomena such as ocean acidification. In the past decade, scientists have come to widely study the ecological effects of acidification, which happens as carbon dioxide reacts chemically with seawater.
The Keeling Curve could eventually serve as a bellwether revealing the progress of efforts to diminish fossil fuel use. Save for seasonal variations, the measurement has not trended downward at any point in its history.
- Robert Monroe