Carbon Dioxide Levels Reach Record High in Earth's Atmosphere

Temperatures are on the rise (March was the fifth warmest ever recorded) and so is the level of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere. The concentration of carbon dioxide levels reached an all-time high in April, with a monthly average concentration of 410.31 parts per million, according to data from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.

The observatory has been used by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography since 1956 to continuously collect data on the atmosphere, and by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration since 1974. Data gathered from the observatory shows a sharp increase in the levels of carbon dioxide, which have increased more than 90 parts per million since then.

This chard shows the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as measured at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. Mauna Loa/NOAA/Scripps

Data gathered from ice cores containing ancient air bubbles reveal CO2 levels from the last 800,000 years. Those ice cores show that while carbon dioxide levels have always fluctuated, they were never higher than 300 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution, according to Scripps.

Levels of CO2 are important to monitor because, like all greenhouse gases, it traps heat in the Earth's atmosphere, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Human activity is a significant contributor to making CO2 the most abundant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

The burning of fossil fuels, waste and other products causes a release of CO2. That CO2 gets pulled out of the atmosphere when plants absorb it, but the depletion of plants on the Earth through deforestation and development means there are fewer plants to absorb the gas. All of these processes lead to the eventual heating of the planet.

The ocean also absorbs CO2, according to NASA's Earth Observatory. But the ocean will eventually reach a point at which it can no longer take any more of the greenhouse gas, and ocean circulation, a process that's important for distributing heat, might stop. This, in turn, would result in additional carbon dioxide left in the atmosphere and more warming.

Ralph Keeling, the program director of the Scripps CO2 Program, did not immediately respond to Newsweek's request for comment.