According to a recent news story by NPR, the earth’s atmosphere is entering into some ‘dangerous territory’. The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Association’s (NOAA) research station in Mauna Loa, Hawaii observed carbon dioxide (CO2) levels at 400 parts per million. This 0.04 percent of total air molecules may not seem like much, but it’s a record-high concentration. Ralph Keeling, director of the Scripps CO2 Program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, monitors carbon dioxide levels at Mauna Loa and told NPR that it has been two or three million years since we have had CO2 levels this high.
A graph published in the NPR article illustrates the steady increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the last fifty years. When compared with centuries of data, this increase translates to a much more dramatic, and alarming trend.
But what does this actually mean and what can be done about it?
The Environmental Protection Agency defines carbon dioxide (CO2) as being “the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activities” produced through electricity, transportation, and industry. When released into the air, the gas traps heat and contributes to global warming and climate change.
A demonstration project near Houston, Texas*(an area air notorious for air pollution) by the U.S. Department of Energy is hoping to respond to carbon concerns, working with a Valero oil refinery and the Pennsylvania-based company Air Products & Chemicals. The innovative system captures carbon emissions from the refinery, transports the gas via pipeline to a nearby oil field, where it is then pumped into underground reservoirs. The sequestered carbon actually helps boost oil extraction while also keeping the gas stored underground indefinitely according to Jennifer A. Dloughy’s article that appeared May 10th in the San Antonio Express-News.
* While a literal hot-spot for poor air quality and greenhouse gas pollution, Houston has made impressive strides in cleaning up its air. You can read and listen to that story here.
This project is certain to have its skeptics—those nervous about the long term effects of the underground pumping or worried that working with an oil company and bolstering their oil production isn’t the best approach to environmental challenges.
Still, thoughtful innovation and unique collaborative projects will be extremely critical in coming up with solutions to growing environmental concerns.
The intensifying consequences of global warming and climate change are occurring more frequently, and increased levels of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere are surely not going to reverse these phenomena. As the NPR story notes, “…now that we’ve reached 400 parts per million, we’re heading deeper into the unknown.”