A Letter of Appeal from Ralph Keeling

A note on the current financial status of the Keeling Curve program and Scripps O2 program

                      Dec. 24, 2013


I am writing as the director of the Scripps CO2 and O2 programs, which keep track of how these vital gases are changing in the atmosphere over time.  The CO2 measurements include the iconic Mauna Loa record, now commonly known as the “Keeling Curve”, which was started by my father in the late 1950s.

The O2 measurements, carried out on samples from Mauna Loa and many other stations, also provide critical information about how the planet is changing.  The measurements show that the world’s O2 supply is slowly decreasing, and have helped prove that the CO2 increase is caused by fossil fuel burning, but offset by natural sinks of CO2 in the land and oceans.

The need to continue these measurements has not diminished. The planet is undergoing dramatic changes, unprecedented for millions of years.  This past year, our group reported that CO2 topped 400 parts per million at Mauna Loa for the first time. We also reported a shockingly large and unexpected increase in the seasonal swings in CO2 between summer and winter at high latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere.  The boreal forests are evidently behaving very differently than 50 years ago.  Meanwhile, the oceans are acidifying, ice is melting, sea level is rising, the frequency of extreme storms seems to be increasing.  Scientists from around the world are scrambling to figure out what is going on and what the future holds, as CO2 continues to rise.  Others are working on ideas for adapting to these changes or mitigating their impacts on society.  While we urgently need solutions to cope with these challenges, we also can’t afford to take our eyes off the planet.

The Scripps CO2 and O2 measurements now face severe funding challenges.  The situation is most urgent for the O2 measurements.  These measurements have been supported for decades through proposals submitted every few years to the federal agencies.  The value of these measurements is not questioned, but federal funding for these programs has never been so tenuous.  This is the basis for this unusual appeal to the public at large.

So why is adequate federal support not available?   You might think that funding cutbacks are the main problem.  Actually, there are other factors that are probably more important.

One is that measurements with global scope tend to fall between the cracks of the different federal agencies. Our measurements provide insight into land and ocean processes, and into changes in the Arctic, Antarctic, tropics, and temperate latitudes.  Ironically, it’s less challenging at present to support smaller-scale observations, such as of a forest, coral reef, or city, than to support observations with holistic planetary importance.  In reality, of course, we need both kinds of measurements.

Another reason is that long-term observations of the environment continue to be viewed as outside the scope of normal scientific research.  After 20 or 30 years of proposals, the science agencies take the view that continued support ought to be someone else’s concern.   While the measurements gain importance with time, their longevity actually makes them harder, not easier, to support.

I have struggled throughout my career to cope with these challenges, and I will continue the struggle.  The quest for continued federal support will not end.

For now, I ask for your support so that we can keep up these activities and sustain our watch on the planet in this time of unprecedented global change.


Ralph F. Keeling

17 thoughts on “A Letter of Appeal from Ralph Keeling”

  1. Dr. Keeling,

    I find that adequate funding to your entirely necessary endeavor is in question deplorable. The Mauna Loa recording is the longest running measure of the critical trace gas CO2 and current events have rendered the tracking of that gas, along with numerous other trace gases, crucial to tracking the scale of what appears to be a global crisis.

    In short, I believe we should be expanding tracking to other gases, including hydrogen sulfide levels in the world ocean system, while also sharpening interest in world CO2 impacts as levels continue past the critical 400 ppm threshold.

    I must admit, my opinion as to why federal funding is not forthcoming is far less gracious than your own. I have observed a politically motivated suppression of science at almost all levels of government continuously brought forward by politicians (primarily conservative) pandering to wealthy and powerful fossil fuel interests. If such pandering continues to gum up the political system, there can be little hope that an adequate monitoring or response to a growing greenhouse gas crisis will be put into force. Under such ill conceived and greed motivated regimes, we can expect world CO2 levels to rocket on past dangerous 400, 450, and 500 parts per million thresholds on to extraordinarily deadly levels of 800 ppm or more by the end of this century.

    The work you do is critical, not only as observation, but as an early warning. I sincerely hope that political interests will reconsider their morally tenuous position of failure to find adequate funds and continue to provide for your good and necessary work.

    When I return home from the holidays, I fully intend to extend your appeal through my blog network.

    Warmest regards and best wishes for the continued support of your vital and much needed venture,


  2. Dear Dr. Keeling,

    You face a deplorable state of affairs.

    From the experience of Australia’s Climate Council, you should find popular financial support is not hard to come by.

    In case it hasn’t already occurred to you, I would suggest two things:
    1. A kickstarter campaign to raise awareness and initial funding.
    2. Set up a means of allowing regular public donations.

    Regards, arf.

  3. Cloud sourcing appears to be working surprisingly well for the Australian Climate Council. I wonder if it can work on this financial and time scale?

  4. “The oceans are acidifying”. That is an amazing assertion. I assume you have some evidence for this?
    Please also remind us what happens to CO2 dissolved in sea water when the sea water warms up.

    1. Please do read some science before coming with silly comments about ocean acidification, which is the term we normally use when oceans pH value is getting lower due to its CO2 uptake which has risen greatly since we started burning fossil fuels.

      “Current rates of ocean acidification have been compared with the greenhouse event at the Paleocene–Eocene boundary (about 55 million years ago) when surface ocean temperatures rose by 5–6 degrees Celsius. No catastrophe was seen in surface ecosystems, yet bottom-dwelling organisms in the deep ocean experienced a major extinction. The current acidification is on a path to reach levels higher than any seen in the last 65 million years,[34] and the rate of increase is about ten times the rate that preceded the Paleocene–Eocene mass extinction. The current and projected acidification has been described as an almost unprecedented geological event.”


  5. It is only by capturing and maintaining records using standard methods at standard sites that we can hope to quantify changes and attempt to explain them. This applies to meteorology, oceanography and climate.

    Past data, often derived from descriptions or from indicators such as pollen, suggest that present changes are within the range experienced in the last few hundred years but it was not until quite recently that we have been able to collect standardised data that allow accurate comparisons to be made.

    The question of whether or not anthropogenic carbon dioxide is responsible for current climate change, can be resolved only if we can compare data over one or more full cycles of change.

    This will only be possible if we maintain the collection of data. It is vital for the world that the series should not be interrupted.

  6. Dear Dr Keeling,
    I find your measurements really interesting. The air volume is enourmous. Therefore, I guess it should take time for the CO2 to get evenly distributed. Do you think there is a time constant of the oxygene level decrease? I got a feeling that the oxygene level could continue to decrease for a rather long time even after the CO2 level stopped increasing. Or are the measurements conservative in that perspective that the oxygen level would rise close to Earth when the CO2 level stabilise and CO2 get evenly distributed? How large would the decrease/increase then be?
    I hope you find funding for your research. Maybe the European Community could support it if you cooperate with an European university?
    Best wishes,

    1. CO2 is spread and mixed in the air very quickly so you get similar CO2 measurements all over the planet, this isn’t a local Mauna Loa phenomenon. You can even measure the “background CO2” in a big city, as when the wind blows it removes the elevated local CO2 and goes towards the average mean globally for the planet, which is now close to 400ppm, about 40% higher than pre-industrial times. According to the paleoclimate record of CO2 its at least over 3 million years ago since Earth had this high CO2 levels and sea levels were 30 feet higher as there were less land ice as well.

      Also the air volume might look enormous for a human being looking at the sky, but its really just a very thin layer around the planet. Many astronauts talk about the “overview effect” when they get into space and can observe Earth from a distance, and realize how thin the atmosphere really is.

  7. It would help a lot if there was a simple and clear “donate” link to click on (PayPal etc). All very well to state the problem, nice to have a push this button to solve. I would gladly drop in $100 if it was easy and obvious how and I am sure I am not alone.

    Would also strongly suggest an approach to Paul Allan, Mark Zuckerberg (to run a Facebook appeal), Elon Musk, Bill & Melinda Gates, Larry Page. It will get fixed all of a sudden.

    Or go and do a TED Talk and ask for the cash.

  8. As some others mentioned before, I believe your campaign would be more successful if it used different donation tools / platforms.

    Kickstarter was mentioned and I would like to point you to networks like Avaaz. Here is a link to another climate related donation campaign they are running: https://secure.avaaz.org/en/30_months_loc_donate/?fp

    What makes these platforms superior to the UCSanDiego giving page are these factors:
    – appeal can be read next to the donation button
    – you can see how much has been donated already, this creates a good feeling of not being the only one who participates
    – the payment process is very easy and Paypal is one payment option

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